In 2013 I had just given birth to my second child. My husband and I were living in a cramped 4th-floor walk up in Brooklyn with two children under two. Where once our lives were grafted together, now our paths diverged. When he went to work the children and I were alone together. This new situation propelled me to look for a narrative to help orient myself. That’s when I found Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work.
In May 2018, Doctor Alexandra Sacks gave a TED talk on what she calls “matrescence”. Matrescence sounds like adolescence because, similarly, it’s a developmental arc that follows a pattern and propels the person from one state to another. Although Sacks’ talk was given in 2018 and Cusk’s memoir was published in 2001, it reads like an allegory of matrescence.
The first issue Cusk addresses is the movement from a public life to a private one.
“In motherhood a woman exchanges her public significance for a range of private meanings, and like sounds outside a certain range they can be very difficult for other people to identify. If one listened with a different part of oneself, one would perhaps hear them.”
Connected to the issue of being thrust into domestic life is the issue of a mother’s life reorienting around a womanhood which was once a bit player in the background.
“This experience forcefully revealed to me something to which I had never given much thought: the fact that after a child is born the lives of its mother and father diverge, so that where before they were living in a state of some equality, now they exist in a sort of feudal relation to each other.”
Writing of her daughter’s birth Cusk describes how it felt to discover that in her new line of work as Mother her needs were eclipsed by the baby’s and that the primary instrument for this new labor was her own body.
“Do you want to try putting her to the breast? the midwife enquires as I am wheeled from the operating theatre. I look at her as if she has just asked me to make her a cup of tea, or tidy up the room a bit. I still inhabit that other world in which, after operations, people are pitied and looked after and left to recuperate.”
The changing constellation of her selfhood is another theme in Cusk’s memoir about early motherhood. The disruption which she feels is like a hall of mirrors. She can no longer find one single true image. There is no place in which she is unequivocally herself. Instead all her new selves are contingent upon a Sisyphean task of care.
“Birth is not merely that which divides women from me: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed. Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some myths snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.”
Seventeen years have passed since A Life’s Work was published. There’s now an incredible array of books on motherhood. For a list of some of the latest read the Paris Review article Why All The Books About Motherhood. Also read Sarah Menkedick, author of Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm, on art and motherhood at Vela, a woman’s literary magazine.