No Words Wasted Sale

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, August 13th, 2002


Life's Work : on Becoming a Mother (01 Edition)

by Rachel Cusk

A review by Caitlin Flanagan

Anyone who has ever been cornered at a cocktail party by a zealous "at-home mother" understands why most books on motherhood are such stinkers: the experience is so common that almost all observations about it are banal. For this reason, the novelist Rachel Cusk's new book on the old topic is a wonder. Cusk has written something fine and beautiful; the precision of her language and the depth of her insights lend such homey, unremarkable subjects as breastfeeding and engaging a babysitter an almost shocking newness. Motherhood is frequently a target for the broadest kind of humor, but although Cusk's book is sometimes very funny, she doesn't play for yucks, and this restraint brings a dignity to the subject and the experience that most of the other books lack. Her critical reading of modern child-care manuals themselves an oft attempted and frequently botched form is peerless. "Most of these books begin," she writes, "with a sort of apocalyptic scenario in which the world we know has vanished, replaced by another in whose principles we must be educated." "[Spock is] a fund of information on most things, having appointed himself a sort of missionary to aid those inhabitants of swamps, mines and oil platforms who are mysteriously beyond the reach of the medical profession. His prose is full of danger and emergency." "[Penelope Leach] has a schoolteacher's plain grasp of Freud and Winnicott... Like Mary Poppins, like someone in a fairytale, she is on the side of children."

Rachel Cusk was troubled by new motherhood in a way that I was not I embraced it like a giddy ninny, whereas she is an intellectual. Very smart women have always had some difficulty with motherhood, which is an assault on many things but primarily on one's ability to think and to be utterly independent of others. Like many other intellectuals, Cusk seems to lack a measure of common sense, which leads to some antic and amusing episodes: for example, her hiring as a spectacularly unsuccessful nanny a dapper little Slovenian man who during the job interview drank wine, smoked a cigarette, and described his dissertation on transportation links to London's airports. But nothing can compare with the book's observations about the difficult weeks spent at home with a new baby ("The days pass slowly. Their accustomed structure, the architecture of the past, has gone") or the high emotional cost of taking some time away from one's child: "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. A visit to the cinema is no longer that: it is less, a tarnished thing, an alloyed pleasure." That A Life's Work seems not to be finding its audience is a pity; I can't imagine that anyone who is both a reader and a mother will be unmoved by it.

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