Maternity manuals? Avalanche & A Life’s Work

Avalanche, by Julia Leigh, and A Life’s Work, by Rachel Cusk, are perhaps not properly called maternity manuals.

Image from Amazon UK

Image from Amazon UK

Both discuss maternity though. Leigh describes her repeated attempts to fall pregnant, which coincided with the dissolution of her marriage; Cusk’s book is a jeremiad, and portrays the shock of motherhood–with its lost vanity and sleepless nights–in gripping detail. Neither is conventional.

Despite their differences there are many similarities between the books. Each, I think, digs into the wilder feelings a person can experience, situated on the fringes of mental health. It could be argued that Leigh and Cusk are victims of depression. And each resolutely refuses to conform to society’s expectations of them as women or authors.

The reception of Leigh’s memoir doesn’t appear to have suffered for this; perhaps it’s easier for critics and readers to feel empathy for a woman who has not gotten the motherhood she so profoundly desired. Cusk on the other hand has been lambasted, torn apart. A thread exists on Mumsnet with the heading, “If you loathe Rachel Cusk, you’ll love this.” Nice!

Complete with creepy baby photo. Image from Amazon UK

Complete with creepy baby photo.
Image from Amazon UK

From my reading of the comments on these sorts of threads, what women (and those who hate her are often female) dislike about Cusk’s work is not only her expression of her struggles with motherhood but also her tone, which one could ascribe to the literariness of her narrative. She’s a determinedly clever writer, and keeps it that way in this memoir. She also turns her lacerating pen on other women without scruple or pity.

In doing so, Cusk remains true to her experience, and that’s why I liked her book. As someone who will soon give birth (within the next two weeks!) I’ve felt the same nascent, pulsing sexism that Cusk so accurately conveys when she notes:

This experience forcefully revealed to me something to which I had never given much thought: the fact that 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 to each other. Whatever their relative merits, they are days spent on opposite sides of the world. From that irreconcilable beginning, it seemed to me that some kind of slide into deeper patriarchy was inevitable: that the father’s day would gradually gather to it the armour of the outside world, of money and authority and importance, while the mother’s remit would extend to cover the entire domestic sphere.

When I’ve attended a couple of “moms'” and “women’s” groups, I’ve come away stunned at the sudden segregation by gender and the assumptions of maternal self-sacrifice that are the norm at these events. After one, I couldn’t stop crying. I later realised it was because my self-conception felt under siege. So long, ambition or a wish to have a public identity, values that had governed my life since I was old enough to think. This is what Cusk is getting at, I think, the fact that a set of established behaviours and mores suddenly appear, ready and waiting for you. Her approach to the topic is necessarily complicated, provocative–and offensive to anyone who may have dedicated their life to more traditional ideals.

Leigh, of course, doesn’t get as far as motherhood, but her portrayal of her situation is all the more interesting for the fact that she’s not someone who longed to be a mother all her life. As a younger woman, she held “a deeply ambivalent view of motherhood,” she writes. “I scorned women who thought they could only feel fulfilled if they had a child.” Despite these mixed feelings, she articulates how ambivalence can transform into desperation when one’s wishes, however uncertain, prove difficult to fulfill.

What Leigh and Cusk share beyond their gorgeous precision and simplicity of style, is a willingness to expose themselves, or versions of themselves, in pursuit of an artistic ideal. Whether you agree or not with everything they say doesn’t matter. The fact that they say it opens the way for others to express complex, marginalised and subversive feelings about motherhood and parenthood, and that’s something that benefits us all.


Best policy? How much maternity leave is enough?

How much time should women take off after giving birth before returning to work? How much paid leave should they receive? It’s a fraught question but one on which the needle needs to move. In the US, notoriously one of the few wealthy countries globally not to legislate for paid parental leave, the law requires most organisations to give women 12 weeks’ leave–unpaid–, but the criteria are high: the company must employ at least 50 people for more than 20 workweeks per year, and the employee must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months.

In Europe, of course, the situation is different. Sweden offers 480 days of paid parental leave, with 90 of those days reserved for the dad (facts proudly publicised in English on the country’s homepage); in France women get 16 weeks’ paid maternity leave, and they’re not obliged to tell their employer about their pregnancy until they decide to take it. Belgian women in full-time employment are eligible for 15 weeks’ paid leave. Those, like me, who are self-employed, get a somewhat less generous 8 weeks’ paid leave.

It’s self-evident that some kind of paid leave is important. Few households living on two incomes can sacrifice one at a time when their expenditure is likely to increase. Also, with the WHO and UN urging breastfeeding as the healthiest option for babies, returning quickly to full-time work becomes even more complicated: it’s hard to see how a person in an office from 9am to 6pm could provide her baby with breast-milk, no matter how much “pumping” she was able to fit in.

So paid maternity leave is a necessity. But what we also need to add to this conversation is paid paternity leave, or parental leave with some set aside for men, as the Swedish system does (OK, I admit I’m joining a crew of cheerleaders of Sweden on this issue!). Legislation is key, but it’s not enough; we also need cultural change, and there are indications that when men participate in childcare from an early stage they’re more likely to share the burden equally later on as well. This is about men as much as it is about women: men should have time with their kids, changing nappies, playing with them and feeding them (yes, pumping comes in here) just as women do. Work needs to change too, to allow people of any gender to thrive and lead without spending years of 15 hour-days at the office.

Lastly, as someone who has until quite recently been both single and childless, the leave parents are granted ought also to be on offer to people without children, who should be able to take time out to refresh their thinking, study or learn a new skill.

This does start to sound utopian in an era of high unemployment and economic angst. But it should be a goal: we ought to agitate not for better maternity leave but, ultimately, for a paid personal leave, accessible to all.