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On Sheila Heti's Motherhood

A guy I know, mid-thirties, recently told me he’d never really considered having a kid until he listened to the audiobook of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which made the experience sound fun and rewarding. I marveled at this display of male simplicity. What might my life be like if I could make it to thirty-six without thinking about whether I wanted to have a child? To not be asked about it constantly, by family members, friends, acquaintances, strangers, media professionals, and medical professionals, only to be told when I answer that I am wrong, because one day my brain will be hijacked by hormones that turn me into a weepy baby coveter the likes of which I am incapable of imagining at my current sweet precious age, an age at which I will later regret not having children because of the difficulty and expense of doing so when I finally do weepily covet them? Probably not that different. Maybe it would be worse, because it would not be a life of true examination and analysis if I were not instructed to doubt myself at every opportunity. I’ve had to think about my relationship to existence, whether I would be a producer of it or merely a taker, since I learned where babies come from. This guy got an entire PhD in something German-related and he still needed Knausgaard to help him understand.

I’m suspicious of the notion, popular among late-to-the-party feminists, that anything a woman does under patriarchy is radical, but the claim that Heti has no political concerns is ridiculous.

Nevertheless, it’s annoying. “For how long am I expected to live as though there is a second me, hiding somewhere inside? When will it finally feel safe to prioritize the me I know?” the unnamed narrator of Sheila Heti’s ruminative new novel, Motherhood, asks, as she models the process of making a decision about whether to have a child to an extent that some reviewers have found tedious, and exasperating. A Canadian writer nearing forty, the narrator has a doting boyfriend, Miles, who thinks parenthood is a “scam” but will have a child with her if she’s “sure.” She wakes up at three in the morning, “wondering What if I’ve suppressed my desire for children so much that my desire is unrecognizable to me?” She analyzes her dreams and visits a $140 psychic, who tells her that her family is cursed and that she will stay with Miles forever and have two daughters; she talks to friends of all kinds of maternal persuasions, from those who tell her she should have a child to bring her boyfriend closer to those who express jealousy that she is writing books while they are taking care of babies. No single piece of advice seems to get her closer or further from settling on what is clear from the beginning, that she is not going to have a baby. Portions of the novel read like a lament for the second self who might have done so. “There is a kind of sadness at not wanting the things that give so many other people their life’s meaning,” she says, after considering “all those motherly feelings that the mothers speak about in such an enticing way.” Several times she suggests that she’s known since she was a little girl that she didn’t want children, yet she can’t accept this and move on. When she finally ages out of the question—she runs down the biological clock by writing this book about running down the biological clock—she is relieved, though that may be the result of the anti-depressants she’s started taking to deal with her miserable PMS.

As galleys have circulated over the last few months I’ve had several conversations about whether this is an appropriate way to describe this book, which is original and strange. At times Heti guides the novel’s variegated fragmentary structure using a technique inspired by the I Ching: she flips three coins to answer questions, two or three heads for yes, two or three tails for no. A note at the beginning advises: “In this book, all results from the flipping of coins result from the flipping of actual coins.” Like her visit to the psychic, the wisdom of the coins is open to interpretation, even if it seems cut-and-dry; it’s an organizing principle for the book just as having a child might be an organizing principle for life. For the privileged, those whose options are limited more by time than by money—that’s who Motherhood deals with—organizing life is about setting priorities. To have a child is to fill your top spot for a few years, and one of your top three for many more after that.

You could argue, as a couple of my friends have, that Motherhood is not really about the decision to have a child at all, and that the obsessive recursion, which the narrator acknowledges is “maddening!”, represents the novel’s real subject: time, and to a lesser extent, the writing process. Though the tendency to downplay Heti’s particularly female topics forewarns of sexism, I also think trying to come up with a succinct description of this book is foolish, even more so than it is with other novels. Like Heti’s previous novel, How Should a Person Be?, Motherhood is a work of autofiction, and in its attempt to represent the texture of life it exposes the elements of traditional fiction and manipulates them to become part of that representation (the texture of a writer’s life involving a lot of thinking about literary form, and thinking in general). Here, subject matter is examined and skewered, the multiplicity of possible abouts making one of the critic’s jobs, summarizing, difficult, if not absurd. “Motherhood is about everything one would expect: female identity, the durability of romantic love, the conflict and resemblances between making children and making art,” Maggie Doherty writes in The New Republic. “But it is also a book about fate, agency, and, ultimately, time—how it passes, and what happens while we wait.” The next section begins: “For a book about indecision and its attendant anxieties . . .” She’s even left out the anti-depressants, Heti’s ingenious subversion of conflict/resolution as well as her quick comment on the suspicious ease of drugged solutions to life’s problems. A better way to describe the novel might have been to quote Heti, who goes ahead and tells you what the book is about, both in a handy “summary” that appears at the beginning and in a series of coin-flipped questions:

This will be my stated purpose, my design or agenda, in writing this—to understand what it means, the soul of time, or to explain it to myself. Is that a good premise for this book?


Is it too narrow?


Can the soul of time be involved?


Am I allowed to betray you?


Then that’s definitely partly what this book will be about. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that I wanted to explain it to myself but rather explain it to other people. Is that better?


To embody it rather than explain it?


I have a headache. I’m so tired. I shouldn’t have taken that nap. But if I hadn’t taken that nap, I would be in an even worse mood than I am right now, right?


Later in her essay, Doherty claims the novel lacks humor. Heti doesn’t often get credit for being funny; I think it must be because she’s also very serious. It’s true that one thing Motherhood is not about is motherhood—having and raising a child. Does it have to be? It’s about so many other things. “It’s relaxing to have a title, whether or not it’s a good one,” she writes. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, in the general scope of things. Of course, it might matter a lot to me whether the title of this book is a good or bad one, because I am the one responsible. . . . But for the world, whether one book has a good title or bad one doesn’t much matter.”

Like many of Heti’s lines, this one draws an imperfect parallel between writing a book and having a kid; naming either doesn’t much matter, but a book won’t need to go to therapy if you call it something like MoonTreasure. Though the narrator occasionally tries to imagine what it would be like to have a child, she knows that becoming a mother is to be permanently changed, in a way a childless woman cannot understand. Rather than a statement of topic, Heti’s title is a question—she might have also called the novel How Should a Person Be: A Mother?—and to miss that is to succumb to expectations for fiction she challenges. If you’re not super concerned with the fictionalizing of non-essential details, Motherhood could be described as an essay, so Heti’s choice to frame it as a novel deserves attention. You could say it’s an evasive maneuver, a sneaky way to write about oneself without having to account for any repercussions or associations that creates in the non-fictional world. You could also call it liberating, particularly for a writer who feels “cornered by a looming force” whenever she hears one of her friends is having a baby. “I feel like when you read a memoir, you map what you read onto that person’s life and your life,” she told The Paris Review, “but when you read a novel, you map it also onto an imaginative world. A novel takes up more space.”

Not that many people believe she’s been writing novels. “[I]s it possible that freedom is overrated, in life as in art?” Alexandra Schwartz asks in her obtuse review of Motherhood in The New Yorker. No, but it does come with challenges, such as naysayers insisting you don’t know what you’re talking about. Or, in the case of Sheila Heti, whom. Of all her autofictional cohort Heti has dealt the most with the conflation of her narrator with herself, and along with this critical mistake come accusations of narcissism, the most notable being James Wood’s description of How Should a Person Be? as “hideously narcissistic.” Heti’s note about “the flipping of actual coins” sounds a little defensive; it’s meant to suggest that while the coin flipping really happened, other aspects of the book are fictional. It’s almost as if she anticipated Schwartz’s review, in which Schwartz refers to the narrator of Motherhood as “all but indistinguishable from Heti herself” before arguing that Heti herself is “like a child.” So much like a child that her cunning use of the coins as a literary device cannot be indicative of an authorial choice—Schwartz writes, with no evidence, that they arose because Miles, the boyfriend, wouldn’t “engage” with her on the question of motherhood. To Schwartz, it is the coins, and not the person who put them in her novel, who have a “lancing, irreverent personality.” By contrast, Heti exhibits a kind of MoonTreasure-y spirituality: She “obey[s]” the coins and so “doesn’t ask [them] whether she should have a child.” Except that she does, on page 129. They say yes.

In light of such predictable misreading I can’t help but see Heti’s decision to align herself with non-mothers, a group of people who are known, to borrow the title of a 2015 anthology of essays on not having children, as “selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed,” as impressive, particularly in a novel that additionally requires her to examine the desires considered to be hidden deep within the individual soul. If Heti had called Motherhood a memoir, affixed an explanatory subtitle like “Why I’m not having kids,” and written in a straightforward prose style, she would surely now be applauded, albeit by writers for different publications, for her heroic feminist challenge to the status quo, for standing up for what she wants, for representing through her personal story the experience of many women who do not want to have children. “It’s going to be so hard not thinking about myself, but rather thinking about the soul of time,” the narrator jokes in Motherhood. “I have so little practice thinking about the soul of time, and so much practice thinking about myself.”

This may be true of the novelist Sheila Heti—it’s fiction—but it’s definitely true of many other people. Yet paradoxically the fictional framework makes her seem more self-centered than if she had written Motherhood as nonfiction, the point of which is often its deceptively wide applicability. “For all its investment in ‘reality,’ How Should a Person Be? contained a novelistic scaffolding,” Christine Smallwood, a mother, writes in her review of the “audaciously titled” Motherhood in Harper’s. “There were scenes, rising and falling action. Although that book was also about not-doing—the character Sheila agonized over not writing a play—there was plenty of other stuff that Sheila did do, and there were characters who clearly lived outside of Sheila’s head. Motherhood is claustrophobic, like a diary, or a day with a newborn, and shapeless, even inchoate. It exists only to keep existing.” This argument supplements Smallwood’s earlier complaint that Heti “has no political concerns. There is nothing here about resource wars or the ethics of bringing life onto a violent or dying planet. . . . Her business is a solipsistic existentialism, straight up.” While this is unacceptable in a childless woman, Smallwood gives herself a pass because “new mothers are entitled to a temporary lack of curiosity about the outside world. They are in a state of primary maternal preoccupation, without which their babies would die.”

I’m suspicious of the notion, popular among late-to-the-party feminists, that anything a woman does under patriarchy is radical, but the claim that Heti has no political concerns is ridiculous. To Heti, demanding that a book follow a particular formula is not dissimilar to making the same demand of a person. Smallwood writes that “the mutual incomprehension of the childless and those with children is, as ever, depressing. There is envy on both sides, and fear, and projection,” and then she enacts this same relationship, beginning with a lengthy description of her thirty-seven-hour labor, during which the muscles of her abdomen separated. Perhaps the point she’s making is that the mutual incomprehension is impossible to conquer. Regardless, both she and Heti have exerted a decent amount of time and energy thinking about bourgeois motherhood, or the prospect of, when they could have been talking about resource wars.

It’s much easier to be sure of your decision when you’re on the mother side of what one of the narrator’s friends refers to as women’s “civil war.”

Few personal choices a woman can make are more political than deciding not to have a child; “the culture,” as Smallwood calls it, pushes women to become mothers so it can later confine them to and vilify them in the roles of caretaker and scapegoat. Although there are certainly hormones involved, the message is that we have little hope of overcoming them, and if we try we will be denying something in our souls. That’s not to say mothers lack agency, or that they don’t have it worse in the long run; it’s just that the long run is not what this novel is about. As with many feminist issues the politics of Motherhood are found in the choice, and Heti makes that point with her pacing, as well as with the ideas the novel contains. It’s much easier to be sure of your decision when you’re on the mother side of what one of the narrator’s friends refers to as women’s “civil war.” So many women do not have a choice because they live in places where contraception and abortion are inaccessible, or because they have been misled or misinformed about abortion, or because they’ve been pressured into motherhood by the people around them, including perhaps by their own mothers—they’ve been shown no other way to be. “Nobody looks at a childless gay couple and thinks their life must lack meaning or depth or substance because they didn’t have kids . . .” Miles tells the narrator in bed. “It’s only straight couples people have these feelings about—how empty their lives must be. No, actually, it’s not even the man—people look at him like he got away with something. It’s just the woman. . . . Like she has something to apologize for. Like she’s not entitled to pride.”

Early in Motherhood, the narrator asks the coins if art is a living thing, and then wonders, “[Can] a woman who makes books be let off the hook by the universe for not making the living thing called babies?” The answer is yes, and the novel we hold in our hands comes to represent a replacement for a baby, “a solid and concrete thing, utterly apart from me, indeed not me at all.” Of course, a more political act would have been for her to refuse to justify not having a child by writing a book as a replacement—to have instead done nothing at all with her time. But what Heti has always understood is that she, like all of us, is just one person, a novelist. It doesn’t really matter what she does, or why.