The bare details of the marriage are as follows. When she met her husband he was a human rights lawyer and she was a successful writer. They had two daughters together but she didn't want to stay home, so he quit his job in order to raise the girls whilst pursuing work in a creative field (as a photographer specialising in social injustice).
She seemed to have everything that a feminist woman might want in a marriage. Her husband was clearly dedicated to liberal causes and he was also willing to put his career second to hers and to focus on the home as a "hands on dad". He made gourmet meals for her and he also kept up his own interests, holding numerous well-received photographic exhibitions.
What went wrong? It seems that the problem was not his discontent but hers. She seems to have been conflicted about the blurring of gender roles in the marriage, not wanting to do the traditional thing, but not liking the new one either.
Her unwillingness to take on a motherhood role she explains as follows:
Call yourself a feminist, my husband says. And perhaps one of these days I'll say to him, yes, you're right. I shouldn't call myself a feminist. I'm so terribly sorry. And in a way, I'll mean it. She wouldn't be found haunting the scene of the crime, as it were; loitering in the kitchen, in the maternity ward, at the school gate. She knows that her womanhood is a fraud, manufactured by others for their own convenience; she knows that women are not born but made. So she stays away from it, like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. So I suppose a feminist wouldn't get married. She wouldn't have a joint bank account or a house in joint names. She might not have children either, girl children whose surname is not their mother's but their father's, so that when she travels abroad with them they have to swear to the man at passport control that she is their mother.
What she's saying here is that she's an inconsistent feminist. Feminists say that womanhood is a social construct created by men to oppress women; therefore, a consistent feminist would have nothing to do with the traditionally female sphere. But she couldn't stay away altogether, she found herself "loitering" in it, by having children, getting married and even spending some time in the kitchen. She continues:
My father advanced male values to us, his daughters. And my mother did the same. What I lived as feminism were in fact the cross-dressing values of my father. So I am not a feminist. I am a self-hating transvestite.
She was brought up by both parents to follow male values. She is a transvestite in the sense that she is a woman dressed in these male values imparted by both her father and mother.
I find this sad, but it's probably not that unusual. I doubt that most women are conflicted to the same degree as Rachel Cusk but I get the sense that plenty of women can't easily accept a wholly feminine identity. It strengthens my determination to bring up my own daughter in a way that she knows how much I value what women bring to the world as women.
Rachel Cusk then writes,
I remember, when my own children were born feeling a great awareness of this new, foreign aspect of myself that was in me and yet did not seem to be of me. It was as though I had suddenly acquired the ability to speak Russian: I didn't know where my knowledge of it had come from.
To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values. I was aware, in those early days, that my behaviour was strange to the people who knew me well. It was as though I had been brainwashed by a cult religion. And yet this cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. It reflected nothing about me: its literature and practices, its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine.
So for a while I didn't belong anywhere. I seemed, as a woman, to be extraneous. And so I did two things: I reverted to my old male-inflected identity; and I conscripted my husband into care of the children. My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female. He gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children.
The birth of her children awoke a womanly aspect of herself which changed her, but it was alien to the sense of self she had cultivated up to that point. So when she tried to be a mother she felt she belonged nowhere: she couldn't embrace motherhood as it conflicted with the values she had been brought up with and she couldn't live according to the values she was brought up with whilst in the role of a mother. So she handed the motherhood job to her husband and reverted to her "old male-inflected identity".
So why didn't that then work? Rachel Cusk explains it this way:
I had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother's; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot.
Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence.
She didn't like the idea that her husband was dependent on her. Her own self-identity was that she was a "compartmentalised" human being, by which she seems to mean an "isolated unit" that stands by itself without the need of completion from anyone else. She saw this as the ideal, and so couldn't respect her husband as her equal for not attempting the same thing:
My notion of half was more like the earthworm's: you cut it in two, but each half remains an earthworm, wriggling and fending for itself. I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked, picked them up from school once they were older. And my husband helped. It was his phrase, and still is: he helped me. I was the compartmentalised modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn't want help: I wanted equality. In fact, this idea of help began to annoy me.
Why couldn't we be the same? Why couldn't he be compartmentalised too?
And so I felt, beneath the reconfigured surface of things, the tension of the old orthodoxies. We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. We were two transvestites, a transvestite couple – well, why not? Except that I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband – meaning well – only did one. Once, a female friend confessed to me that she admired our life but couldn't have lived it herself. She admitted the reason – that she would no longer respect her husband if he became a wife.
But is she really as "compartmentalised" as she makes out? If you read extracts from the book (here and here) there is still a yearning for a complete family life and for a male presence in her life. And she is not entirely immune from feeling the pull of maternal feeling for her children. In the aftermath of the divorce, when the children are upset, she writes:
When my children cry a sword is run through my heart. Yet it is I who am also the cause of their crying. And for a while I am undone by this contradiction, by the difficulty of connecting the person who acted out of self-interest with the heartbroken mother who has succeeded her.
Perhaps it is not such an easy thing to hold together a modernist view of identity and relationships.