Motherhood is Hell

“If everyone would read this book, the propagation of the human race would virtually cease…”

In last week’s Times Magazine (9/12/10) Lisa Belkin asks, “Is child-rearing the new self-actualization?” Her question stems from a recent article by the evolutionary psychologist David Kendrick that redefined Abraham Maslow’s original theory of self-actualization in terms of “attracting a mate and ultimately, parenting children.”

Rachel Cusk, the well known and much admired by this reader English writer, would surely object, and do so strongly, to this dubious claim. Cusk is the mother of two children and has recently written about her experience of motherhood in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother.

The book is a bold expression, a powerful one that angered many readers for its brutally honest account of motherhood. The nearly unanimous outcry after it was published confused Cusk for, as she commented, “I was only being honest.”

Cusk is not the first writer to write critically about the experience of motherhood. But she may be the first to describe its adversities with such vitality and intensity--a domestic struggle, confinement, sleeplessness, confusion, guilt mixed with love, servitude mixed with compassion, a prison, boot-camp, never ending torment.

‘Motherhood, for me, was a sort of compound fenced off from the rest of the world. I was forever plotting my escape from it, when I found myself pregnant again when Albertine was six months old, I greeted my old cell with the cheerless acceptance of a convict intercepted at large.”

In A Life’s Work, Cusk has tried to convey what she thought and felt about the experience of having a child. Although she might now regret publishing the book, she must have hoped that other people would identify with her account and know that they were not the only ones to react the way she did.

For Cusk caring for her child was “isolating, frequently boring, relentless, demanding and exhausting. It erodes your self-esteem and your membership in the adult world.”

Throughout the book she draws upon works of literary fiction to corroborate her experiences. She cites Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth and asks what a woman is if she is not a mother or a wife either.

“The baby is the symbol not just of Lily’s exclusion from the human life-cycle, nor of the vulnerability, the helplessness that marks her life and her life’s end: it is also the vision of her squandered femininity…”

And in a separate chapter on Madame Bovary, she reflects on how confusing it is for a mother to make sense of being “supremely powerful and powerless at the same time.”

Her relationship with her husband comes under pressure. “…after a child is born the lives of its mother and father diverge, so that where before they were living in a state of some equality, now they exist in a sort of feudal relation with each other.” Clearly news about the how closely fathers are now involved in child rearing had yet to arrive in the British Isles.

And yet they were in this “crime” together. “When evening comes, I prepare the bottle. Her father is to give it to her, for we are advised that this treachery is best committed not by the traitor herself but by a hired assassin.”

I have always found much to admire in the works of Rachel Cusk. And while I will never be a mother, I heard clearly what she was saying in this book. At one point she speaks of “…the death of freedom, its untimely murder by the state of parenthood…” Note: parenthood, not motherhood.

And later “…the hardship of parenthood is so unrelievedly shock….At its worst moments parenthood does indeed resemble hell, in the sense that its torments are never ending.”

OK, you get the picture. While very few parents are likely to admit they experience anything close to this degree of hardship in raising their children, I think there is enough truth in Cusk’s account will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a parent.


Gillian said...

Yes, her descriptions fit my experience. Once I had a baby, I realised that the process of mother-child bonding is exactly the same as brain washing -- based on sleep deprivation, unpredictable and irrational demands and constant abuse from the other party.

My education trained me for intellectual work, but mothering babies and children threw me back to my animal nature. It was a shockingly painful process for me to experience, but I seem to have emerged fairly sane and possibly more rounded as a whole human being.

Oh, and my kids have grown into sensible and clever people who seem to care for their mum. Not a bad outcome.

I salute her for being honest about her experience. She's not alone and she's not the first to write like this. I can't recall the names of others, but I do recall that they were heavily criticised too.

Richard Katzev said...


I appreciate your comments. Thank you. Sounds like you subscribe to the "No pain, no gain" school.

But now you can get back to your real life and are so very fortunate that your kids remain good friends. That is a treasure.


Gillian said...

Good lord! What a leap of interpretation.

No, definitely not 'no pain, no gain'. I fully understand that we pay for wisdom through experience. But my experience has also shown that we can be asked to bear more than we can carry, and we can be broken in the process. Of course, you can't make omlette without breaking eggs, so we must bear to be broken. With luck, we have good family and friends who can walk with us in the mending phase.

Let's not pretend that being broken is a pleasant experience. Let's not pretend that we knowingly run to embrace it. Let's acknowledge those who try to honestly describe the process of being broken in motherhood. And perhaps we can faithfully stand by as they emerge from the ashes and forge a new self.

Hmmm... I seem to be making a 'metaphor muddle'... it's a kind of campfire dish where all the ingredients are cooked in one pan. Not haute cuisine, but nourishing peasant food none the less.

I've just found your blog and had hoped to enjoy following your ruminations. Now the superiority of your 'get back to your real life' comment has set me aback.

Richard Katzev said...


I don't know why I said that. I think what I meant was that the experience of motherhood is over. Maybe that will explain my statement. I apologize if it offended you.


Gillian said...

Hi Richard,

Just now I am reminded of the deep, deep feeling behind the words of a friend of mine, a slow-talking tradesman, who said that he has come to be grateful for the obstacles in life because they make it real.

The poignant depths emerge in knowing that he and his wife are adapting to a life where they have the care of their young adult son whose dive into shallow water has made him quadraplegic.

So, 'real life' is in the challenges, not the respite. Do you know the book, "Life Is Real Only Then, When I Am"?

Can I give you a gentle nudge on 'experience of motherhood is over'? Maybe the experience of being the primary caregive is over for me, but not the experience of motherhood.

Lovely and sunny here today...

Richard Katzev said...

I welcome your nudge. I understand it too. I worried in writing the review that the experience of motherhood is and will always be unknown to me. But I went ahead anyway.

And thank you for the book suggestion. I will look for it shortly.

Lovely sunny and warm here too. But it always is. Can you guess where I am? I do think I know where you are.

Again, you know my e-mail address.


Gillian said...

I think I noted from one of your posts that you are in Hawaii, and I know a bit of your Oregon background (nice work on flexcar!).

As an aside, I wonder whether you have read 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy. The extemity of the situation is similar to the hopelessness of death camps, which allows the book to address similar issues of the meaning of human life (cf Mans Search for Meaning). I found it compelling, but simply too awful to finish.

What is your experience of the book, and the ideas in it?

A sudden thought... when my kids were pre-teen, I suddenly realised that I had been proceeding with motherhood as though it was an interregnum, and after a time I would be able to get back to being Gillian. A new insight told me that I would never be the same again -- the process of mothering had changed me forever. So, Rachel Cusk's subtitle 'On becoming a mother' resonates with that.

Richard Katzev said...

Correct. Honolulu it is.

I've not read "The Road." Another suggestion. My Cart is overflowing.

If you wish to chat, that is fine, but my preference would be to do it off-blog.

Stefanie said...

I have yet to read Cusk though I have one or two of her books waiting for the time. This sounds like an interesting book. As a woman who has chosen to not have children I can say that generally speaking, women who tell the truth behind the myth of motherhood are criticized as are women who purposely choose to opt out. Unfortunately we still live in a society that beleives the goal of a woman's life is to be a mother and I think one of the few ways that are left for convincing women of this is the perpetuation of the myth of how fulfilling being a mother is, as if a woman cannot be equally fulfilled doing other things.

Richard Katzev said...

Myths take forever to die. The myth of motherhood is no exception. But you are far from alone in rejecting it or in choosing equally fulfilling alternatives. And the numbers of those who feel as you do are growing and I suspect in time will become as large in our country as it is in many Europe nations.

Anonymous said...

entry into motherhood was like entering into my death. it has left my body, finances and faith in shambles. i think about my only escape which is death of myself - physical and mental.