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A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother Paperback – 1 Mar 2003

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Product details

  • Paperback: 228 pages
  • Publisher: Saint Martin's Press Inc.; First edition (1 Mar. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312311303
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312311308
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.3 x 21.6 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,617,500 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 39 reviews
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Honest and Not For The Faint-of-Heart 4 Oct. 2005
By Marni Frankel - Published on
Format: Paperback
I spent a long time reading and re-reading Cusk's introduction. In fact, I spent a whole lot more time with the introduction than the rest of the book. [There was much in the book proper that didn't resonate, though through and through I admired her brave straightforwardness.] This said, the introduction spoke to me in no uncertain terms, and it was quite a relief to find someone who could so eloquently express some of the feelings and changes that I, and presumably others -- though perhaps not the majority -- experienced after the birth of my two children.

Unlike Cusk, never did I mull at length over the question of "having children" nor did I view it as anything other than something exciting - something that would enhance my life, my story so to speak. So what was it about this book, even over Lammott's "Operating Instructions", that I found validating? Just this: the fact that precisely because she had a child, her "appetite" for living - for wanting to live - was "insatiable". And even though in the same breath she also delves into her loss of freedom(s), I'm happy to set that aside for now.

In her marvelous introduction she states three truths that I find incontrovertible: 1) "A day spent at home caring for a child could not be more different from a day spent working in an office. Whatever their relative merits, they are days spent on opposite sides of the world." 2) "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." And, above all, 3) "My experience of reading, indeed of culture, was profoundly changed by having a child, in the sense that I found the concept of art and expression far more involving and necessary, far more human in its drive to bring forth and create, than I once did." It is, overwhelmingly, her third experience - that from having children the desire to do, to contribute, and to create -- in whatever form, increases dramatically, and not the reverse, not the mother-subverts-desires-and-needs-to-all-ruling child. The cost of this book was covered just by reading the first ten pages. It was a sanctuary.

Even if you dislike her perspective, it's worth a read precisely because Cusk makes you think and the prose simple and elegant. I think I'd advise others to try to get through it a) before the baby arrives (it's pretty dense at times, though other reviewers disagree) or b) if you have a colicky one and think you might lose your mind or have lost it. She more than ably captures the lesser discussed ways that the birth of a child can impact and change not just a mother, but a woman.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Finally, a book about motherhood that rings true 19 Mar. 2002
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I couldn't wait to read this book because 1) I really enjoy Rachel Cusk's novels and 2) I had just become a new mother.
I was not disappointed--Rachel tells it like it is. She talks about all the difficult and ambivalent feelings of becoming a mother that most of us have kept to ourselves.
The regret and the irrationality, the pride and protectiveness, the "out of body" experience that nobody can prepare you for--Rachel describes it all. With a great sense of humor and humanity, this book helped me make sense of my own experience of new motherhood.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
An insightful, sometimes hilarious account 26 Sept. 2003
By Debra Hamel - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work is an insightful, honest, and sometimes hilarious account of pregnancy and early motherhood. The author tells the story of her own metamorphosis from independent entity to "motherbaby" unit in rough chronological order: from the alarmist literature of pregnancy, which "bristles with threats and the promise of reprisal" for expectant mothers who violate dietary prescriptions; to the propaganda of natural childbirth advocates ("Some women find birth the most intensely pleasurable experience of their lives"), those souls who maintain that a procedure akin to, say, squeezing a cantaloupe out of one's anus can be rendered nearly pain-free, indeed "pleasurable", by the simple adoption of an embarrassing breathing technique; to a mother's shocking, sudden immersion into an alien world of sleeplessness and isolation. (The immediacy of the metamorphosis is brought home to the author soon after she delivers her daughter by caesarian: "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." )

Cusk's account is a quick read, her prose very often elegant. She hits a number of nails squarely on the head--in her descriptions of the constant demands made on breastfeeding mothers, for example, or the drama and tension inherent in bringing a baby out into the public, or one's cautious anticipation of freedom when it looks like the kid may finally sleep. She talks about the parents' eventual containment in a single, safe room once the baby changes "from rucksack to escaped zoo animal," an alteration in lifestyle that expectant parents, reading the standard parenting books, would not likely anticipate. Cusk describes, perfectly, the "mess and endemic domestic chaos" of a child-occupied house, "which no amount of work appears to eradicate." And she details for the non-parent, wont to lie in of a Saturday morning, what weekends are like for parents: "What the outside world refers to as 'the weekend' is a round trip to the ninth circle of hell for parents.... You are woken on a Saturday morning at six or seven o'clock by people getting into your bed. They cry or shout loudly in your ear. They kick you in the stomach, in the face."

Cusk is at her best when describing parenthood in scenes such as the above. Less successful are the more philosophical passages of the book (the female is "a world steeped in its own mild, voluntary oppression, a world at whose fringes one may find intersections to the real: to particular kinds of unhappiness, or discrimination, or fear, or to a whole realm of existence both past and present that grows more individuated and indeterminate and inarticulatable as time goes by") and the strange inclusion and discussion of parenthood-related literary passages culled, for example, from Jane Eyre and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.

A lot of people could benefit from reading Cusk's account. New mothers will find solace, perhaps, in its pages, validation of their own feelings of isolation and resentment. Working fathers ought to read it, so they can better understand the complaints of their shut-in wives, for whom "work is considered an easy, attractive option." And the childless friends of parents will find the book a highly readable explanation of what is happening in their friends' lives.

Reviewed by Debra Hamel, author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
A voice not heard 11 Sept. 2006
By Diana from Dallas - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was not familiar with Ms.Cusk's work prior to reading this book. I am a new mother and A Life's Work was recommended to me.

Her voice is one that is not heard in books about motherhood. My thougths echoed in her words.

Pregnancy and motherhood has been humbling, humiliating and exhausting. I love my daughter but I never could have anticipated the emotional journey I was embarking on.

Rachel Cusk does not put a pretty pink wash on everything. It is a clean true voice.

I recommend this book to any woman trying to find where she has gotten lost in her life.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
An Interesting View of the Frustrations of Motherhood 10 Oct. 2011
By Donna Hill - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Cusk is a good writer, and I know that many mothers have found her account of the downside of motherhood to be comforting--just as I did. However, I found her to be a bit too intellectual and too verbose at times.

A quote: "When I care for my daughter I revisit my own vulnerability, my primordial helplessness. I witness that which I cannot personally remember, my early existence in this white state, this world of milk and shadows and nothingness."

There was way too much of this type of language in my opinion. I'd like to compare this book to the Mother Knot by Jane Lazarre, another book which outlines the complexity of motherhood--both the light side and the dark side. Jane is an intellectual also, and she can write in a poetic fashion too. But most of the time she writes in plain, simple language, telling us of the sameness of her days with her young son and highlighting both the highs and the lows she experiences.

Cusk does write simply sometimes, and many of her descriptions of her frustrations will resonate with many mothers. There is one particular story which I'll always remember which I never thought that I'd see in a book--it matched my experience so perfectly. She'd put her daughter to bed, deciding to let her cry herself to sleep (something many of us decide to do after being pushed around by an infant tyrant for a while!). The crying stops and she goes to check on her, only to find the child in a sitting position with her hands on the bars of the crib, fast asleep, with her cry face frozen in place--as though her jailer had abandoned the child to her misery. This is exactly what happened to me once when my daughter was in the second half of her first year of life. And we both had the same reaction. "Omigosh, what kind of a mother am I; what am I doing to this poor child?" For me, just this one story made this book worth the price.

I just changed my rating from three stars to four stars. Any mother who can be so honest and tell such a personal story deserves four stars despite her overly lofty language at times!

And on third thoughts...I don't know how long ago I had this review published but I just decided to re-read the book. Although I still maintain that there are some universal experiences in it, I now feel that this is basically a book that is more intellectual and feminist than anything else. The language is incredibly overdone and there's a terribly negative ring to the whole book. Some reviewers have asked, "Where is the love? Where is the joy?" And I agree. It's as though the baby were invading her home. Sure, I had some incredibly negative feelings as a young mother, but I had positive feelings as well. I came across words such as "patriarchial"--spoken as a true feminist! And there's some quotes from Adrienne Rich, a feminist I'd never heard of until I took a "Women in Literature and Film" class. Rachel Cusk is a novelist and I'm sure she's accustomed to providing the endless descriptions which some readers love and others hate. There are ten sentences for every thought. You do want to say, "Enough already--we get it!" So I'm back to three stars because somehow I wonder whether young, busy mothers want to wade through the sea of words to get to the meat of the book--the love-hate relationship that can exist between a mother and her child.
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