Book Review: A Life’s Work

Often I wonder what I would be like if I had a completely different worldview, or if I had been brought up with an entirely different set of values.

I got a glimpse into this other me when I read A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother, by Rachel Cusk.  I got it from Paperback Swap because I had heard (don’t remember where) that it was a dark and controversial look at motherhood.  Having had plenty of dark days weeks months in my own motherhood experience, I was intrigued.  This book made such an impression on me that I really feel the need to write about it.

Ms. Cusk’s descriptions of motherhood are just spot-on.   I kept thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like!  That’s exactly how I feel; I just never thought to put it that way.”

For example, on breastfeeding:

I think she’s hungry, other people say when she cries, handing her back to me.  I sit gloomy as a cow in the corners of rooms, on park benches, in restaurants or the back seats of cars, my shirt unbuttoned.  Nowhere, it seems, am I safe from the accusation of hunger.  Sometimes the baby cries even while she is feeding and I feel the triumphal urge to call a symposium.  There! I would say to everyone.  What do you say to THAT?

Yup.  Check.  Been there.

On getting out of the house without the baby:

It is not love that troubles me when I leave the baby, like a rope and harness paid out behind me wherever I go.  It is rather that when I leave her the world bears the taint of my leaving, so that abandonment must now be subtracted from the sum of whatever I choose to do. . . . My presence appears almost overnight to have accrued a material value, as if I had been fitted with a taxi meter . . . . When I am out I am distracted by its ticking.  My friends, whilst glad to see me, cannot necessarily afford me.  We meet at the uncrossable border between the free world and the closed regime of motherhood.

Tick, tick, tick.  Check.

On the effect of sleep deprivation on one’s marriage:

You and [your spouse] are like people in a war, people trying to pilot a tank through battle.  You give each other curt orders, your faces sideways.  Every now and again one of you loses control and shouts violently, and when this happens the other shows no reaction.  He or she has seen it all before.  Neither of you has had an unbroken night’s sleep in five years.

Well, only about three total, but it feels like five.  Check!

Finally:

Mothers are the countries we come from: sometimes when I hold my daughter I try to apprehend this belonging for her, to feel myself as solid and fixed, to capture my smell and shape and atmosphere.  I try to flesh out her native landscape.  I try to imagine what it would be like to have me as a mother.

Wow. Wow. Wow.

This one brought tears to my eyes.  I think of everything my mother meant to me when I was little—my primary source of knowledge, truth, love, and security.  And I think of everything she means to me now.  I think of how much mothers the world over are, in most instances, the biggest single influence in their children’s lives. Then to think that I, me, am all of that to my little girls.  Wow.

Ms Cusk refers to motherhood as “the sacking and slow rebuilding of every corner of my private world.”  In her introduction, she admits, “I am certain that my own reaction, three years ago, to the book I have now written would have been to wonder why the author had bothered to have children in the first place if she thought it was so awful.”

She never really answers that question.  It’s clear that she loves her child.  In fact, she seems puzzled by how much she loves her child despite how tedious she finds most of the experience of motherhood.  In motherhood, she finds herself thinking less of herself, giving of herself more than she wants to, and taking on attributes she never sought.  How, she seems to ask over and over again, can this be a good thing?  This ambivalence permeates her book. There seems to be no place for this experience in her worldview. (She reveals a bit more of her worldview in an article for The Guardian here, but that will have to be another post for another day.)

The answer, I think, lies in the Law of the Gift, a favorite theme of JPII: man finds himself only by making himself a sincere gift to others (Gaudium et Spes, no. 24).  Also, I think of Matthew 25:37-40:

“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? . . . When did we see you . . . naked and clothe you? [or] see you ill and visit you?”   And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Of course we usually think of Christ’s referring to the poor when he says “these least brothers of mine,” (another translation says “least of the followers of mine”).  But surely children—so pitiful and needy and defenseless by themselves—are also his “least brothers.”

If you don’t see giving of yourself as the highest form of self-realization, and if you don’t see Christ in the little person crying and pooping and spitting up and keeping you awake at night, seriously . . . what is the point?

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