On reading ‘A Life’s Work, On Becoming a Mother’ by Rachel Cusk, I was moved by Cusk’s experience of pregnancy and her overbearing emotions in the lead up to the birth of her daughter. She deals with the worries of a first time mother, focusing on her own unique anxieties and distresses. She brings to light many of the issues that arise during pregnancy, including the mystery surrounding it.
Growing up, Rachel Cusk was fascinated and confused by the “illicit wonder and terror” of the female anatomy and physiology. She imagined the female body as a pinata, having to undergo a battering to expose the surprise within. Her first encounter with childbirth was a grainy video of a naked woman, standing up in an empty room, crying out in pain like a “lunatic or an animal in a cage”. After a series of grotesque images, the woman’s final yell of pain became a yodel of delight as the “thrashing body of a baby” emerged. This rather traumatising basis of reproductive education had an adverse effect on her beliefs about pregnancy.
When she becomes pregnant, all of her indwelling fears of pregnancy and motherhood surface. She feels as though she has boarded a train, gaining speed and moving steadily away “to a vista of unfamiliar hill, leaving everything vanishing behind it.” She has been thrown into the unknown, where she has only ever “wondered what goes on behind its high walls”, and has no understanding of how the baby is supposed to come out. She sees it as something that she has inadvertently wandered into and from which there is now no escape.
On her booking visit to the obstetrician, she is given her due-date, told to see the midwife, and close the door on her way out. This abrupt encounter has a negative effect on her mindset, and she spirals into a semi-state of denial.
She takes to the Pyrenees for a hiking trip where we see a parallel between her mountain experience and the course of pregnancy. After a treacherous fall she is rescued by a man, but instead of, “like a mother”, picking her up and taking her home, he teaches her to properly descend the ice field on her own. He tells her to “face the mountain”, which I think mirrors her realisation that she must face her pregnancy: her mother can’t pick her up and take her home. She realised that the pain of labour is just something “which every inmate must endure as the condition of their release” and that she must learn how to be practical and brave, and face the challenge that is her pregnancy.
Cusk’s idea of the effect of motherhood on a woman is largely based on Natasha, from Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, who in pre-motherhood was slim, lively and animated. On becoming a mother she became “calm, soft and serene… her soul was not visable at all”. To Cusk all Natasha is, is a “strong, handsome and fertile woman”. Cusk sees motherhood as a career: and pregnancy, its bootcamp. However, depsite her reservations about motherhood, it is clear that Cusk begins to feel its pull, when at one of her ultrasound scans, the probe pushes hard into her abdomen, and on the screen next to her she sees her baby wave its arms as if distressed. She feels a pang of protectiveness, as though she should be protecting it from torment such as this.
She shares with us her unimpressed view on the National Health Service’s leaflet, which tells the story of Emma, a fictional character, who describes her experience of pregnancy by way of a diary, When her baby, Jane, is delivered, Emma describes the event as not as bad as she expected. Here Cusk very much doubts this, having never heard anybody say that labour “wasn’t nearly as bad as they were expecting”. Cusk has no happier or more rational expectation of labour than she has of being murdered! She goes on to tell us about her friend who at one point during her labour begged the midwife to shoot her! She sees Emma’s diary as a type of propaganda, almost, which is anti-breast feeding and anti-pain relief during labour.
Her cutting remarks about pregnancy literature are quite amusing. She notes how she is instructed “in sinister detail”, with the help of illustrations, how to cook, how to get into bed, how to lie on it, how to get up again, how to make love, and how you should bring a book or some knitting with you to antenatal appointments, in case you have to wait. She’s told that if she eats pate, her baby will get liver damage. If she eats blue cheese, her baby will get listeria and be hideously deformed. If she strokes the cat, her baby will get toxoplasmosis and be similarly hideously deformed. “Dont’ smoke or drink, you murderer”!
Cusk was told that preparation is the key in defence against pain during labour. She was told that joining groups, attending antenatal classes and appointing a birth partner would be means of curing the terror. However, Cusk is quite adamant that even though a birth partner may be present, child birth is ultimately solitary in nature. She often ends up taking the form of pleading with the baby not to hurt her, and then realises that she has as much of a chance as getting in touch with the baby as a field has of getting in touch with a motorway being built through it!
When Cusk does try to book antenatal classes, a feeling of panic takes hold of her when she is told that all the classes are full: “You should have booked earlier… I wasn’t pregnant earlier”. She feels as though she has entered a world of ‘obsessive foresight’, where people at her stage of pregnancy are already enrolling their fetus in desirable schools. She finally manages to find a pregnancy yoga class where she can gather with her ‘own species’. She compares the class as being imprisioned behind their stomachs’, like people behind bars, like people who need help. She feels relief at the communality she has found among this group, and she wonders why she had ever ridiculed or resisted it. However this realisation is short-lived when she makes an excuse and leaves early after having felt awkward at the ‘touchy feeliness’ of it all.
Throughout the pregnancy Cusk fights surges of intense claustrophobia. She wakes up to observe the rising mountain of her stomach, feels marooned as far from herself as she ever has been and begins to feel a constant despair. She feels as though she has been tagged “as if electronically” by pregnancy and she feels vulnerable to other people’s eyes and assumptions. It is difficult for her to endure. “I have surrendered my solitude and become, for these nine months, a bridge, a link, a vehicle.” The manner in which she will be “broken open” on arrival at their destination, however, remains shrouded in mystery.
In a world where pain relief is so readily available in labour, it takes her some time to come around to the notion of natural childbirth, where the labouring woman is relied upon to follow her instincts. Cusk believes she has mislaid these instincts, if indeed she ever had them. Her only instinct is to avoid hospital. Secretly, she imagines that if she never goes to hospital she won’t have to have the baby at all, and she can retreat into delusion. Her fear is brought on by stories of episiotomies, failed anaesthetic, mutilation and tearing. She doesn’t know anymore whether she is more afraid of the pain of childbirth or the interventions it invites. She decides to have the baby at home and the midwife drops by to equip her house with the implements for the event.
At 8 months, she begins to bleed. Despite her protests she is taken to the hospital, where placenta praevia is diagnosed and she is recommended to be admitted for a caesarean section. She rebelliously discharges herself, before surrendering and returning. She becomes the typical ‘awkward patient’ and refuses the protocol investigations at first; but after being wooed by the consultant, she complies with the team.
She has reached acceptance. She compares the preparation for surgery to the last rites before a burial, and when she is under the anaesthetic she fears that she has been forgotten and is going to be left dismantled. Suddenly the world adjusts itself. The doctors hold the baby girl up so that Cusk can see her, before she is whisked away. “I fall deeper into shadow the further away she goes… Her life has begun.”