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.