Motherhoodby Published 07 Jun 2018
From the author of How Should a Person Be? (“one of the most talked-about books of the year”—Time Magazine) and the New York Times Bestseller Women in Clothes comes a daring novel about whether to have children.
In Motherhood, Sheila Heti asks what is gained and what is lost when a woman becomes a mother, treating the most consequential decision of early adulthood with the candor, originality, and humor that have won Heti international acclaim and made How Should A Person Be? required reading for a generation.
In her late thirties, when her friends are asking when they will become mothers, the narrator of Heti’s intimate and urgent novel considers whether she will do so at all. In a narrative spanning several years, casting among the influence of her peers, partner, and her duties to her forbearers, she struggles to make a wise and moral choice. After seeking guidance from philosophy, her body, mysticism, and chance, she discovers her answer much closer to home.
Motherhood is a courageous, keenly felt, and starkly original novel that will surely spark lively conversations about womanhood, parenthood, and about how—and for whom—to live.
Whether I want a kid is a secret I keep from myself – it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.
Motherhood is billed as a novel but reads like a diary; recording all of the uncertainty and changes of heart of Sheila Heti's unnamed narrator (like Heti herself, a Toronto-based writer approaching forty) as she tries to figure out if she wants to give birth before her unwinding biological clock renders the decision-making process moot. Being of this certain age, the narrator is surrounded by friends who are already mothers or struggling with their own uncertainties about having children, and everywhere she goes, people can't help but ask when she's finally going to have a baby or offer up a range of opinions on what she should do with her life. Maybe it's because I am already a mother and older than Heti and her narrator, but nothing about this felt “daring” or “provocative” to me: if you want kids, try to have kids; if you don't, don't. I honestly don't feel like a childless couple (or more pointedly, a childless woman) has let the human team down, so nothing resonated with me. And reading a diary-like narrative of someone recording their uncertainty about such a low-impact (to me) decision, in which it all revolves around I feel, I want, I need, made the narrator seem self-obsessed and tedious. Still, there were bits I liked in this book, and I can certainly acknowledge that there are probably others out there for whom this narrative does resonate: not really for me, maybe for you. (Usual caveat: I read an ARC and quotes used may not be in their final forms.)
Sometimes I'm convinced that a child will add depth to all things – just bring a background of depth and meaning to whatever it is I do. I also think I might have brain cancer. There's something I can feel in my brain, like a finger pressing down.
There's some quirky not-quite-humour and ironic winkery in this book, and I especially liked a device that is introduced early: using three coins for I Ching-like divination, the narrator asks yes or no questions that somehow get to the roots of her deepest thinking. Although I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading a novel and not a memoir, a foreword assures the reader that “While not everything in books is true, in this book, all results from the flipping of coins is true” – and the effect is that every time the narrator gets a “no” from the coins to a question that she assumed would garner a “yes”, she would need to keep rephrasing and reshaping her questions, and these changes in thinking led to epiphanies. (And also led to some laughs – as in the pictures included that show the various places in her bedroom where she might keep a kitchen knife [as a personification of the demon she needs to ask for a blessing]; did Heti really do this, at the urging of her coins? I liked the unbalanced feeling of not knowing how real-to-life this book was.) I was less keen on meetings with actual fortune-tellers and the constant recounting of dreams, but appreciate how they try to tap into deeper-level thinking.
If Motherhood could be said to have a plot at all, it revolves around this nearing-forty-year-old woman, who has enjoyed success as a writer and who is in a longterm committed relationship with what seems like a decent and supportive man: he has a child from a former relationship (so our narrator is already a part-time stepmother) and he is willing to have a baby with her if she wants. She is healthy (a checkup confirms that she's fertile), she has enough money for her needs, and with a safe and stable life, there doesn't seem to be any reason not to have a baby – if that's what she wants. Even so, she seems to think that being a writer and being a mother is an either-or choice, and she can't decide whether the presumed benefits of motherhood would offset the sacrifice:
What is wrong with living your life for a mother, instead of a son or daughter? There can be nothing wrong in it. If my desire is to write, and for the writing to defend, and for the defence to really live – not just for one day, but for a thousand days, or ten thousand days – that is no less viable a human aspiration than having a child with your mind set on eternity. Art is eternity backwards. Art is written for one's ancestors, even if those ancestors are elected, like our literary mothers and fathers are. We write for them. Children are eternity forwards. My sense of eternity is backwards through time. The farther back in time I can go, the deeper into eternity I feel I can pierce.
An interesting pushback to this philosophy is that the narrator's grandmother survived the Holocaust, and although a nonpractising Jew herself, the narrator wonders if she should feel a duty towards repopulating in the name of those lost. And yet as an artist:
A book lives in every person who reads it. You can't just snuff it out. My grandmother got away from the camps so she could live. I want my grandmother to live in everybody, not just in one body from between my legs.
In this way, the narrator goes back and forth – seeing the joys of motherhood after one encounter with a friend, seeing nothing but sacrifice after another – and meanwhile, years pass and she's no closer to a decision; all while that biological clock ticks down. If the narrator was a person I knew in real life, and every time I met her she gave me her new philosophy on motherhood and her changing desires, I fear I'd find her tiresome and try to avoid her. A book that provides this same one-sided monologue doesn't work much better. (But again, another reader in the throes of this situation just might find this fascinating.)
First, the context that I am a big fan of “plotless fiction” as well as autobiographical fiction a la Ben Lerner – so this combined with my particular stage of life makes me the ideal reader for this book.
I could not stop reading it once I started. I feel like the conversation that Sheila is having with herself and the characters in this novel is a conversation that no one else is having and it's a book that many young women need, even though they may not even know it.
I almost wish this book was titled The Expectation of Motherhood (but not really because that is too clunky) because it really is about the expectation that all women want to be, will become or are immensely happy within being mothers – a fact that society makes it shameful or taboo to express oneself in opposition to.
There were a few moments I actually gasped with how perfectly she delves into ideas and issues for women around motherhood that I felt deep in my bones but have never been able to articulate. I think this will be a controversial book (in a good way). It is also about the struggle between being an artist (creating life through ideas) versus being a mother (creating life) and what it means to pursue one at the cost of the other. The book can be quite intellectual at times but it was the emotional journey that this character takes over the course of several years that is really the crux of this story. You get to feel the ins and outs of her hesitation, her hope and her pain – this character is an open and questioning soul who is honestly looking for answers to, really, unanswerable questions. Questions that many young women are afraid to ask themselves, let alone the people around them.
Love it or hate it, this book is going to create a lot of conversation – and that can only be good for the women whose lives are affected by the expectation of motherhood.
LOVED this one!
A hilarious, poignant and honest account of one woman's dithering over what might be the most important decision of her life—but hang on, why HER life and not HIS? Why important, even? And so on, encapsulating an encyclopaedic collection of questions and considerations on the theme of becoming a mother.
It's so funny because I'd assumed these were stupid questions, or questions that surely must be posited and answered in some body of philosophical literature—but is it really the case that people go ahead and become mothers without knowing their stances on the various issues this book raises?
I highlighted numerous passages that mirrored my own thoughts on being a parent. It made me feel so much better that I wasn't the only one thinking them! For example: people say that once you become a parent, it becomes the best thing you do in life. But I didn't want the things I currently hold as important to pale in importance, lose my ambition for other aspects of life. Of course, that wouldn't matter if something even better came along, but even so I wouldn't want it and may even resent those who don't share the same passion for my pursuits.
Heti bares herself like this on every page with bravery, incisiveness and wit. Not to be missed!
Though I really could have done without that part where the narrator rhapsodizes about how she wishes that she was gay, so that she could announce publicly to everyone who she is.
Made me want to announce to the narrator just how I wish I had a book deal, so I could announce just how I am.