When the biscuity one was very small, during the long evenings in which sleep (hers/ours) seemed an impossibly elusive state, we rediscovered the pleasures of reading aloud. One of us would joggle, baby on shoulder; one of us would read, eyes straining against the gathering darkness. B finished his epic reading of Nicobobinus (started last year, but hampered by my habit of falling asleep mid-chapter). I read the The Means of Escape, drawing us into the strange yet complete worlds of Penelope Fitzgerald’s short stories. Both suitably surreal for the endless hours that had once separated night from day.
But there was one book so painful and so funny, so connected to us that it appeared to have been transferred directly from life to the page by a process of black magic. I first read Rachel Cusk’s searing account of motherhood in 2002, at a time when, though I knew that I wanted a child above all else, it was still a comfortably distant prospect. I can remember compulsively gulping whole chapters even then, peering into the mysteriously secret world of mother and child. When it was published the book itself was partly overshadowed by the criticism Cusk received for breaking a central taboo of motherhood — admitting to the ambivalence and panic that accompanies the love; admitting to the grief for the life lost that occurs alongside the joy and ecstasy of new parenthood. But, aside from its insidious insistence that only the edited version of our complex feelings surrounding parenthood should be admitted to (privately or publicly), this criticism seems to miss just how funny Cusk’s writing is. Here’s a taste from the chapter ‘Colic and other stories’
Her eyelids begin to droop. The sight of them reminds me of the possibility that she might go to sleep and stay that way for two or three hours. She has done this before. The prospect is exciting, for it is when the baby sleeps that I liaise, as if it were a lover, with my former life. These liaisons, though always thrilling, are often frantic. I dash about the house unable to decide what to do: to read, to work, to telephone my friends. Sometimes these pleasures elude me and I end up gloomily cleaning the house, or standing in front of the mirror striving to recognise myself. Sometimes I miss the baby and lie beside her cot while she sleeps. Sometimes I manage to read, or work, or talk, and am enjoying it when she wakes up unexpectedly and cries; and then the pain of moving from one life to the other is acute.
Different books connect to different parts or aspects of our lives, but I can’t remember ever reading something where the electric shock of recognition, the intensity of the relief that someone else has trodden the same path, has been greater. And during those dark nights, A Life’s Work: on becoming a mother saved my sanity. ‘Colic and other stories’ ends with Cusk watching her three-month old daughter lying on a rug in the garden
I see that she has become somebody. I realise, too, that the crying has stopped, that she has survived the first pain of existence and out of it wrought herself. And she has wrought me, too, because although I have not helped or understood, I have been there all along and this, I suddenly and certainly know, is motherhood; this mere sufficiency, this presence. With every cry she has tutored me, in what is plain and hard: that my affection, my silly entertainments, my doting hours, the particular self I tried to bring to my care of her, have been as superfluous as my fury and despair. All that is required is for me to be there; an ‘all’ that is of course everything, because being there involves not being anywhere else, being ready to drop everything.
Now, as though a switch has been thrown somewhere in her brain, the biscuity one falls asleep at around 10 only to wake with alarm-clock regularity at 5.30. She has absorbed what we so desperately wanted her to learn: the concept of night. There is no need to spend the evening reading to one another, but already I am nostalgic for the past of a few weeks ago and the strange comfort of words in the dark.