I’ve been thinking a lot about Rachel Cusk, specifically her memoir, A Life’s Work, which turned 20 last year. The public reaction to this brilliant account of early motherhood was at the time swift and brutal – and the judgment it received came mostly from other women, writing in newspapers. Reading about it made me nervous to be straying into similar territory.
Having co-written a book in my 20s criticising women’s magazines, I have been bitten by the fangs of public “feminist” discourse before, most notably perhaps by Germaine Greer, whose assertion in her review that “the female breast does not express unless compressed” has also been on my mind, as I leak through yet another three layers of fabric and laugh.
But nevertheless, I persisted, convinced that the fields Cusk embarked on were by this stage well ploughed. To read A Life’s Work nowadays is to wonder what exactly was so controversial about it. Cusk’s baby cries all the time, and she is upfront about how challenging this is and the loss of identity that motherhood entails. Much of what she writes is very funny: “My grasp of the baby’s calorific intake, hours of sleep, motor development and patterns of crying is professorial, while the rest of my life resembles a deserted settlement, an abandoned building in which a rotten timber occasionally breaks and comes crashing to the floor, scattering mice.”
Perhaps largely because of Cusk, honesty about motherhood is not as taboo as it once was (though lines such as “pregnancy begins to seem to me more and more of a lie, a place populated by evangelicals and moralists and control freaks” still provoke a gasp of pleasure in their excoriating resonance). I have been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to my column so far. The letters and messages I have received have been deeply moving and have made me feel part of a community in these early days of my parenting journey.
Still, I keep wondering: what was it about A Life’s Work that made the backlash so furious? For one thing, projection. As Cusk has noted, people judged the book not as readers, but as mothers. In a 2008 essay, she wrote: “I was accused of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed, of irresponsibility, of pretentiousness, of selfishness, of doom-mongering and, most often, of being too intellectual.” Its erudition is clearly part of it. It does not do to be too intelligent about motherhood. It undermines a deeply held notion that it is the preserve of instinct, that mothers dwell in a place of ingrained nurturing, and that to critique it is unnatural.
Provocative, too, is Cusk’s refusal to caveat her sentences with statements such as “but of course I love my child”. I, similarly, have resisted this, and so have had a mild taste of a similar medicine from readers who have said that I should be “enjoying my baby”. It is true that I have not felt the need to wax lyrical about him – there is enough sentimental writing around motherhood as it is. Perhaps I need to state in print that, obviously, I love my baby to a degree that feels like a sort of madness, that I can bring myself to tears at the thought of anything happening to him. Yet it is not good writing; like much relating to motherhood, it has all been said before.
Older women are, in the main part, forgiving of a new mother’s tendency to exclaim “nobody told me!” but not all, as I discovered recently. The accusation that we do not listen to older women’s experience because of ageism is, I think, misplaced. As Cusk, who was shocked and unprepared for motherhood, writes, there is a “tone-deafness … with which a non-parent is afflicted when a parent speaks … which leads us to wonder in bemusement why we were never told … what parenthood was like”. Her own mother didn’t tell her, because she couldn’t remember (there is something to this – even friends whose babies are still young have struggled to recall much about the early weeks). Cusk says she dealt with the prospect of childbirth through “denial”, while noting that other women were rather quiet: “except one, who told me that at one point she begged the midwife to shoot her”.
Thankfully, there seems less of a (to my mind, and Cusk’s, dishonest) taboo against complaint than there was. These days, there are almost too many warts-and-all accounts, to the point that you find yourself craving positivity. And yet I am grateful for them, because I could not say I was not prepared. I embarked on motherhood fully cognisant of the sacrifices it would involve. I had been part of a community of mothers long before I became one, and I had done my reading.
And yet motherhood is not an exam that one sits. We should reserve the right to spend our pre-motherhood days thinking of it scarcely at all, a freedom the women of the past were never granted. Nor should we feel the need to constantly bow and scrape to those who have been there before: even discounting Covid, having a baby in 2022 is necessarily different to doing so in 2002, or 1992. We have the right to tell our own stories.
Besides, there’s a reason people say that nothing prepares you. To know something intellectually is not the same as knowing it bodily. While pregnant, I read Anne Enright saying, of breastfeeding – the pain of which is one of the few things that has surprised me so far – that it “fucking hurts”. Did I forget? Perhaps. But I think it is more likely that to feel such pain is so fundamentally different to reading about it.
In the best passage in A Life’s Work, Cusk describes the experience of reading books that she has loved again since becoming a mother, and finding them changed. Suddenly they contain “prophecies of what was to come, pictures of the very place in which I now stand”. “I wonder how I could have read so much and learned so little,” she writes, having previously refuted the notion that you have to experience to understand.
Perhaps that is the lesson we should take to writing about motherhood: that it will always be shocking, and that its central conflicts, though in some ways perennial, are also products of our unique places in history. Which is why those who have trod the path before should be generous to new mothers. I certainly plan to be. And I suspect that Cusk, who has suffered more judgment than perhaps any other writer of motherhood, will be too.
My everlasting thanks to those who wrote in recommending various purveyors of zip-up sleepsuits as a nighttime alternative to fiddly poppers: they have changed my life.
Singing The Wheels on the Bus causes a buried memory to resurface: I was taught – not by my mother – that “the mummies on the bus go yak, yak, yak”, while the daddies go “shhh, shhh, shhh”. Unhappy with these retrogressive lyrics, I’ve been substituting my own. My mummies are “reading Woolf”, “taking work calls”, and “going on a protest”.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist
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