August 20, 2016

Page 131-138

There is in truth no utterance that could express the magnitude of the change from woman or man to mother or father, and in the absence of definitive statement the subject becomes peopled with delusions and ghosts, with misapprehensions nd exaggerations and underestimations, becomes separated from the general drift of human conversation, so that parenthood is not a transition but a defection, a political act. Beginning with the object of the baby, like an unexploded bomb in a Hitchcock film its mere, unalleviated presence draws the immediate drama to itself, causes, for the people who live with it, the world to slew in its direction. It is like a social experiment, something a scientist would do: leave a baby in a room with two adults, retreat a, and see what happens. The baby cries. The cry is loud and urgent, similar to the sound made by a fire alarm. The woman picks up the baby. The sound stops. When she tries to put it down again the baby cries. She holds it for a long time. The man grows bored and the woman tries to put the baby down but it cries. When the woman becomes tired she gives the baby to the man. The baby cries. The man walks around with it and it stops. The man grows tired. Both the man and the woman sit down and look at the baby anxiously. They are too tired to speak, but at least hey have stopped the baby crying. They feel as if they have achieved something. It starts crying again. It cries so much that they hate it. Whenever it stops crying the relief is so great that they love it. This happens over and over again, but the experiment dictates that each time it becomes harder to find a means of stopping the baby crying. Soon it is taking all their ingenuity and energy to work it out. They are given no breaks and no assistance from the outside world is permitted. The experiment runs day and night without pause. The couple must work out for themselves who sleeps when, and this is the greatest cause of argument between them. Each feels it is unfair if the other goes out, and even going to work is considered an easy, attractive option. The experiment can be broadened by introducing more babies, and by altering laboratory conditions with the use of all or any of the following factors: progress int he baby's development from crying to rolling off tables, crawling out of windows, choking, falling over and other dangerous, attention-seeking behavior which requires strenuous round-the-clock parental vigilance; the addition to the room of dirt, mess and endemic domestic chaos which no amount of work appears to eradicate; the occurrence, int eh working partner's conversation, of attractive, childless members of the opposite sex; and telephone calls, erratically spaced to promote anxiety, from members of the outside world, who discuss their social lives, offer to come round for half an hour before they go to a party which is apparently happening near your house, make comments you no longer understand such as 've been in bed for three days with a cold" and conspicuously do not say "why don't I take the baby so you can have some time off?"

No matter how much I try to retain my self, my shape, within the confines of this trail, it is like trying to resist the sleep an anesthetic forces upon a patient. I bleive that my will can keep me afloat, can save me from being submerged; but consciousness itself is unseated, undermined, by the process of reproduction. By having a baby I have created a rival consciousness, one towards which my bond of duty is such that it easily gains power over me and holds me in an enfeebling tithe. My daughter quickly comes to replace me as the primary object of my care. I become an undone task, a phone call I can't seem to make, a bill I don't get around to paying. My life has the seething atmosphere of an untended garden. Strangely this neglect troubles me most where it is most superficial; with the baby's birth a lifetime of vanity vanished into thin air. Like gestures of love that abruptly cease, I come to value my habit of self-adornment only with its disappearance: it was proof that I cared, and without I feel a private sense of sad resignation, as if some optimistic gloss has been stripped from my life. Sometimes I think back to that history of caring - as a self-conscious child, an anxious teenager, an attempted woman of fashion - amazed that it could have ended so precipitately, for it was in its modest way a civilization, a city built from the days of my life. The last chapter of this history - pregnancy - was as viid as any other: it contained no hint of an ending, no clue that things were about to change. It is as if some disaster has occurred which has wiped me out, an earthquake, a failing meteor. When I look at old photographs of myself they seem to resemble the casts of Pompeii, little deaths frozen in time. I haunt the ruin of my body, a mournful, restless spirit, and I feel exposed, open to the air, the weather, and to the scrutiny of others. I know that there must be some physical future for me, but it is bogged down in planning problems, in administrative backlog. I hold out no great hopes for it in any case. The bright little body of my daughter takes up all my time. It is like a new house, a new project. Ill be lucky if I ever find the time to make the long journey back to myself, to the old ruin, and hurl a coat of paint over it before the winter of middle age sets in.

My daughter's pure and pearly being requires considerable maintenance. At first my relation to it is that of a kidney. I process its waste. Every three hours I pour milk into her mouth. I goes around a series of tubes and then comes out again. I dispose of it. Every twenty-four hours I immerse her in water and clean her. I change her clothes. When she has been inside for a period of time I take her outside. When she has been outside for a period of time I bring her in. When she goes to sleep I put her down. When she awakes I pick her up. When she cries I walk around with her until she stops. I add and subtract clothes. I water her with love, worrying that I am giving her too much or too little. Caring for her is like being responsible for the weather, or for the grass growing: my privileged relationship with time has changed, and though these tasks are not yet arduous they already constitute a sort of serfdom, a slavery, in that I am not free to go. It is a humbling change. It represents, too, a reckoning of my former freedom, my distance from duty. The harness of motherhood chafes my skin, and yet occasionally I find a predictable integrity in it too, a freedom of a different sort: from complexity and choice and from the reams of unscripted time upon which I used to write my days, bearing the burden of their authorship. It does not escape me that in this last sentiment I am walking over the grave of my sex. The state of motherhood speaks to my native fear of achievement. It is a demotion, a displacement, an opportunity to give up. I have the sense of history watching, from its club chair, my response to this demotion with some amusement. Will I give in, graciously, gratefully, handing back my life as something I had on loan? Or will I put up a fight? Like moving back from the city to the small town where you were born, before exclaiming at its tedium you are advised to remember that other people live here, have always lived here. Men, when they visit, are constrained by no such considerations of tact. But it is not merely a taboo against complain that makes the hardship of motherhood inadmissible: like all loves this one has a conflicted core, a grain of torment that buffs the pearl of pleasure; unlike other loves, this conflict has no possibility of resolution.

The baby's physical presence in my life is not unlike a traveller's custody of a very large rucksack. On the subway people tut and sigh at our double bulk, the administrative headache of us, and stream away at stations leaving us struggling withs traps and overflowing detritus on the platform. We career into tables at restaurants, knock fragile things of f shelves in shops, are clodhopping and clumsy and yet curiously invisible. Because I am the baby's home there is nowhere I can leave her, and soon I begin to look at those who walk around light and free and unencumbered as if they were members of a different species. When occasionally I do go out without her I feel exposed, like something that has lost its shell. The litany of the baby's requirements continues regardless of hour, season or location, and because her proclivities are not those of the adult world, when we are at large routine acquires the distinctive flavor of anarchy. She shrieks uncontrollably in quiet places, grows hungry where it is impossible or me to feed her, excretes where it is pristine: it is as if I myself have been returned to some primitive, shameful condition, being sick in expensvie shops, crying on buses, while other people remain aloof and unpitying. My daughter emanates unprocessed human need where the world is at its most civilized; and while at first I am on the side of that world, which I have so recently left, and struggle to contain and suppress her, soon, like so many mothers, I come to see something inhuman in civilization, something vain and deathly. I hate its precious, fragile trinkets, its greed, its lack of charity. Compassion worms its way into me: but whether it is just sentiment, an annex of my love for my daughter, or a constitutional change I can't really say.

I become confined to one room, a development that represents a surrender, a battle lost. As my daughter becomes both more complex and more dangerous, my respect for her increases in proportion to others' disdain. The prospect of protecting her and the adult world from each other grows dark and unappealing. I can no longer face dragging her around after me. She is crawling now and has likes and dislikes. She has changed from rucksack to escaped zoo animal. Being in places that do not contain her requires me to be her tamer. Increasingly I remain at home with her, and as first stairs and then drawers and bookshelves and coffee tables acquire the potential for danger and riot, we become fenced in, cornered in the one safe space: the kitchen. My daughter zig-zags around it, maddened by confinement. It is winter and the garden is too wet and cold for her to crawl in. She beats on the door with her fists, desrpate to escape. The floor is flooded to ankle height with her toys. Unidentifiable matter describes paths, like the trail of a snail, over walls and surfaces. The room has acquire a skin, a crust of dried milk upon which old food sits like a sort of eczema. The kitchen is pollinated with every substance with which my daughter comes into contact: mess spreads like a force of nature, unstoppable. My clothes are limed with it; I find gobbets in my hair, on my shoes. I wash and rinse and scrub but a strong undertow of entropy appears to govern this overheated little space and chaos is forever imminent, encroaching. Time hangs heavy on us and I find that I am waiting, waiting for her days to pass, trying to mer thte bare qualification of life which is for her to have existed in time. In this lonely place I am indeed not free: the kitchen is a cell, a place of no possibility. I have given up my membership of the world I used to live in. Sometimes I listen to music or read, and it is like a ray of light coming in from outside, bright and painful, making me screw up my eyes. When we go for a walk I see young women in the street, beautiful and careless, and a pang of mourning for some oblique, lost self makes my heart clench. I look down at my daughter sleeping in her push chair, the dark fringe of her lashes forming arcs on her pale skin, and a contrary wind of love gusts over me; and for some time this is how I am, blown this way and that, careering around like a crazy, febrile gauge trying to find north.

- A Life's Work by Rachel Cusk

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