I’m taking a non-fiction elective this semester, and one of our required readings is “A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother.” I knew nothing about it before opening it, and as a person who’s already a little bit terrified at the idea of someday being responsible for the survival of another human being, this book hit me hard.
The prose is absolutely beautiful. Cusk’s words flow out naturally and accessibly even as she’s unpacking serious emotion, and I blew through this book in about two days. However, they were a depressing two days.
Cusk chronicles her journey from finding out she’s pregnant, through child-birth, and her daughter’s first year on the planet. Cusk is very open about the fact that she knew next to nothing about child-rearing aside from what she learned on the pamphlets handed to her at the OBGYN, and the typical social norms of ‘what mothers do.’
Her book is the missing voice of what I think are probably many women who come home with their first baby and think ‘what the hell am I doing?’
Cusk’s transition to mommy-hood looks nothing like the happy smiles, white-washed living rooms, and intimate play-time that are so prevalent in Huggies commercials. Cusk feels like she’s doing a jail sentence, lonely and isolated in semi-solitary confinement for most of her daughter’s first year. From three months of colic and around-the-clock feedings that cause Cusk to feel like she’s always sleeping on her feet, to realizing that she’ll never get her own independence or sense of self back, the window into her first year of motherhood is a startlingly dark and often depressing place.
Cusk loves her daughter unconditionally, but espouses, for maybe the first time, how much society forgets about the mother in parent-child scenarios. One scene that got me particularly is when she finally loses her cool on her infant daughter for incessantly screaming for over three hours after being put down for a nap. She shouts and it makes her daughter stop, but Cusk goes away with a horrible sense of guilt and remorse that leads her to call all her friends and family in tears that she’s shouted at her child. Their responses are all about how horrible it must have been for the baby, and bear absolutely no redemption for Cusk, and this devastates her.
Walking with Cusk through this book put me in a bad place while I read it. I was dark and gloomy the entire time, and I was so tempted to give this book 2 or 3 stars because I didn’t enjoy reading it. But a few days of perspective tells me this book really deserves 5 stars because I didn’t like it; because it made me think. I’ve had a ‘yes/no/maybe’ response to having children for most of my adult life, and this book put me in a gloomy place because it brought to light all of the things I’m terrified about. It really made me think about the true answer to the question: Do you want to have children? And I came out with a very definite “I don’t know, now.”
But really, that’s the whole point of this book. It’s not supposed to be enjoyable; it’s supposed to open a door to a conversation that no one wants to have, which is that motherhood is not (at least not for everyone) filled with daily wonder and joy and happy sacrifice. Motherhood is hard drudgery, grueling sacrifice, and it tears a woman apart in a way in which she can never put herself back to the way she was before.
And while Cusk doesn’t end the book continuing to hate her existence, she does find motherhood to get better as her daughter leaves infanthood behind, this book is an incredibly powerful testament to the unpopular experience that I’m sure, more often than not, is very real for a majority of new moms.