Rachel Cusk

A Life’s Work

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A Life’s Work Summary

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A Life’s Work is a 2002 memoir by Canadian-born British writer Rachel Cusk. It narrates Cusk’s experience of motherhood, covering the first six months of her first-born daughter’s life. The book generated mild controversy for its “brutal honesty” (Publishers’ Weekly) about the reality of childcare: Cusk focuses on her struggle to maintain an independent sense of herself in the face of her child’s needs. Alongside her personal narrative, Cusk offers reflections on the experience of motherhood more broadly, drawing on literary depictions of parenthood. The memoir proved a breakthrough for Cusk, leading her toward the autobiographical fiction for which she is now best known. The most famous of her novels, 2014’s Outline, was shortlisted for the Folio, Goldsmiths, and Baileys Prizes.

In a brief introduction, Cusk notes that the memoir was written just six months after her first daughter’s birth and while Cusk was pregnant with her second daughter. Her husband enabled her to write by quitting his job to take care of both children while she finished the book.

Cusk is a young writer living in London with her male partner when she becomes pregnant for the first time. Although she has decided she wants to be a mother, she is apprehensive about the dramatic upheaval a child will bring. A lover of literature, she wants to turn to the classics for guidance, but she realizes that she has never paid much attention to literary descriptions of parenthood, instead skimming them, feeling that they were not relevant to her.

As soon as her daughter, Albertine, is born, Cusk finds herself plunged into an exhausting round-the-clock feeding schedule. “The baby” (as Cusk generally calls her in this memoir) “sucks well,” which means she feeds for hours at a time, sometimes with only a short break between feedings. Concerned, Cusk consults a series of healthcare professionals, who all simply congratulate her on her daughter’s healthy appetite. Cusk pokes fun at all these healthcare workers. One “health visitor came to see us in our embattled kitchen. She produced sheaves of leaflets and laid each one lovingly on the table for me to study while behind her the baby looted her handbag, undetected.”

Even when she is not breastfeeding, every moment of her life is accounted for: there are no “lubricant empty hours” in which she can reflect, regroup, and feel herself again. When the baby begins to sleep more and Cusk finds a few hours to be her “old self” again, she feels guilty, comparing herself to an adulterous spouse. At other times, finding she misses her daughter while she is sleeping, she lies down beside her cradle. She finds herself unable to reconcile her baby’s needs with the demands of her own selfhood: “To be a mother I must leave the telephone unanswered, work undone, arrangements unmet. To be myself I must let the baby cry, must forestall her hunger or leave her for evenings out, must forget her in order to think about other things. To succeed in being one means to fail at being the other…I never feel myself to have progressed beyond this division. I merely learn to legislate for two states, and to secure the border between them.”

As she interviews babysitters, Cusk finds herself giving unnecessarily detailed instructions and realizes that she is trying to explain “what it was like to be me.”

Compounding all this is sleeplessness. For month after month, Cusk cannot sleep through the night. Soon the “muddled nights began to attain an insomniac clarity. My insides grew gritty, my nerves sharp…I no longer slept in the intervals, but merely rested silently like some legendary figure, itinerant, doughty, and far from home. The reservoir of sleep I had accumulated through my life had run dry. I was living off air and adrenalin. Mercury ran through my veins.”

Cusk feels alienated by the advice of healthcare professionals, the official literature on childcare, and the perspectives of her peers at mother-and-baby groups. She is scathing about the official literature in particular, noting that its inadequacy only serves to make her feel more alone. Seeking guidance, Cusk turns to literature, finding that motherhood is an experience rarely written about: “As a sequel to youth, beauty, or independence, motherhood promises from its first page to be a longer and more difficult volume: the story of how Tolstoy’s Natasha turned from a trilling, beribboned heartbreaker into inscrutable matriarch, of how daughters become parents and heroines implacable opponents of the romantic plot. Tolstoy did not write this volume. Instead, he wrote Anna Karenina, excavating the woman extant in the mother and demonstrating her power to destroy, for motherhood is a career in conformity from which no amount of subterfuge can liberate the soul without violence.”

However, Cusk does find literary parents, in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Frost At Midnight.” This latter is particularly valuable to Cusk, showing her that, to Coleridge at least: “Parenthood is redemptive, transformative, creative. It is the means by which the self’s limits are broken open and entrance found to a greater landscape.”

Cusk and her family move from London to a university town. She encounters older parents and a more patriarchal culture. Her new acquaintances all ask her, “What does your husband do?” After a disastrous visit to a playgroup at which both Cusk and her baby find themselves bullied by their peers, Cusk rebels against the fact that “conscription to the world of orthodox parenthood demands all the self-abnegation, the surrender to conformity, the relish for the institutional, that the term implies…Here the restaurants had high chairs and changing facilities, the buses wide doors and recesses for prams.”

Although Cusk focuses on the shock, the anxiety, and the guilt of motherhood, the memoir is shot through with profound experiences of love and transformation made possible by her daughter: “One evening, sitting outside in the garden in the dusk, I realize that three months have passed and that summer has come. My daughter is lying on a rug looking at the leaves above her. She wriggles and kicks her legs and laughs at things that I can’t see. […] I see that she has become somebody. I realize, too, that the crying has stopped, that she has survived the first pain of existence and out of it wrought herself. And she has wrought me, too, because although I have not helped or understood, I have been there all along and this, I suddenly and certainly know, is motherhood; this mere sufficiency, this presence.”