Motherhood by Sheila Heti
A facile description of Sheila Heti’s brilliant latest book is that Motherhood is about a female writer in her late thirties who is trying to decide whether to have a child, and what becoming a mother (or declining to do so) would mean both for her art and her life.
But Motherhood isn’t so easily encapsulated—much like how motherhood itself can’t be distilled and crammed into a one-size-fits-all essence. It’s complicated, at once individual and collective, a beautiful mess. Reading this book is like living in the bright mind of a woman consumed with the tyranny of making this irreversible choice. The process of making that choice is a non-process, so it’s also a beautiful mess:
“Maybe if I could somehow figure out what not having a child is an experience of—make it into an active action, rather than the lack of an action—I might know what I was experiencing, and not feel so much like I was waiting to act. I might be able to choose my life, and hold in my hands what I have chosen, and show it to other people, and call it mine. “
Heightening this tension for the unnamed narrator is the fact that the choice is hers and hers alone. The option is neatly dumped into her lap by her boyfriend, Miles, who already has one child from a previous relationship (his daughter lives abroad, and they don’t see her often). He’ll do it if she really wants to, he tells her, “but you have to be sure.” One imagines a stern face of ambivalence with this patronizing remark, perhaps a dismissive shrug punctuating his ruthless declaration.
Later, the narrator lies next to him dusting off a dream about a baby. “Waking up, I said to Miles, It might be nice to have a child. He said, I’m sure it’s also nice to get a lobotomy.”
No wonder she has so much to wrestle, nor is it surprising that from the start, she doesn’t quite trust herself with the enormity of the decision. She pulls tarot cards with a psychic and uses the toss of three coins, oracles of the I Ching, to inquire about finer points within the larger one. The coins can only answer yes or no, and her questions climb ladders of abstraction to humorous and absurdist effect:
I have to ask, am I like those pale, brittle women writers who never leave the house, who don’t have kids, and who always kind of fascinated and horrified me?
Is there anything I can do to avoid being that way?
Is there real shame in being that way?
Is that way basically selfish?
And not as connected to the life force as other women, being so shut up in my thoughts and my head?
Is there a male equivalent to this, well, barrenness?
She also consults a more traditional source: her female friends who are about the same age. Most have children. One chooses to have a chid with a man she’d recently started dating and ends up marrying him; another has four kids and is one of those insistent advocates for motherhood who lives by the assumption that all women who think they don’t want kids will change their minds (and that those who chose not to will regret it). The friends try to toss out helpful answers, but they don’t quite fit. The voices of these well-intentioned friends add up to the crushing social pressure women feel, from both society at large and their closest allies, to succumb already and become a mother. Is the pressure a betrayal of their social contract, or did the narrator violate that contract by being the one who didn’t choose motherhood, like the rest? Or both?
Later, when hormones begin to dominate her moods, she begins to question her emotions, her body, and more than ever, her ability to make decisions. The effect of this, coupled with the confessional first-person, train-of-thought narrative stream of Motherhood, is what great literature does — sets the reader in someone else’s skin, deeply feeling their itches, their pain, their every existential discomfort. Whether you like this book might be an incredibly personal question. (One writer friend of mine who is a fan of Heti’s How Should a Person Be? mentioned to me that she wanted to read Motherhood, but at the moment, it’s a little too on the nose for her; perhaps later.) If you happen to be a woman, it will probably strike some nerves, raise hackles, and ignite indignation. If you happen to be a man, and it somehow doesn’t do any of these things, then you might ask yourself, why not?
Feel free to get defensive about that last sentence. Take it as political. But don’t take it as an indication that Motherhood is full of arguments about gender theory or current feminist thought. In fact, Heti’s execution is quite the opposite. In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Heti says she deliberately avoided “ready-made structure” such as feminism, because “I wanted the voice in the book to be more unmoored than that, because the state of not knowing whether or not you want a child — genuinely felt — is so deeply unmooring. I didn’t want the questioning to have a solid rock like feminism to sit on, or for the issue to be experienced through a shared filter. I wanted the book to be about wrestling alone, because I think we do wrestle alone, when it comes to whether or not to have a child.”
This also means that she doesn’t bring previous writers’ work on this topic into the book’s headspace. It could be a de-intellectualizing omission, yet it’s an enlightening tack, to free the narrator of all that academic and literary baggage, to let her think aloud outside of those constructs, instead turning over and over this greatest of thought experiments on her own terms. However, writers are always, first and foremost, readers. So it’s still a curious exclusion, one that’s philosophically pure, but perhaps an inauthentic demand on that purity.
This core internalization drives the novel relentlessly forward without a traditional plot. Heti, like Rachel Cusk, is pushing at the edges of a genre with the broadest of encapsulating folds: the novel. But the resolution of perhaps the greatest question a woman faces in her life provides more than adequate conflict around which to structure a novel. The enormity of the question is all Heti needed to create bold, innovative and desperately human art in Motherhood.