Many women know from a young age that they want children. But for those of us who have not felt the call, or have felt the call complicated by other needs, passions, and circumstances, Sheila Heti’s novel, Motherhood, is a long-awaited companion; a kind of What to Expect for those who are not sure they want to have children.
The structure of the book is unique—a fragmented first-person narration is interspersed by a specific form of internal dialogue. The narrator flips coins in the method of the I Ching as she contemplates the question of having a child, and the result is something catechistic—if catechism were an open exploration rather than a closed doctrine.
Near the beginning, for example, she asks the coins what should direct her decision, if not her feelings:
What’s a better thing to steer your life by? Your values?
Your plans for the future?
Your artistic goals?
…whatever seems to bring you happiness?
The narrator describes the process this way: “I’m projecting onto you, coins, the wisdom of the universe. But it’s useful, this, as a way of interrupting my habits of thought with a yes or a no. I feel like my brain is becoming more flexible as I use these coins. When I get an answer I didn’t expect I have to push myself to find another answer…My thoughts don’t end where they normally would.”
These coin-driven conversations would seem to leave the results to chance. Instead, the practice allows the narrator to open and explore her decision. In this way the narrator’s process mirrors the strange dichotomy of this particular choice, which could, for those who feel ambivalent, be left to fate. But pregnancy is not something that nature just magically bestows on one; today it is often a carefully managed choice, not chance, that brings a child into being. When the coins are flipped in Motherhood, there is no definite answer, but rather more questions that lead the reader into deeper engagement with what it means to choose to have (or not to have) a child.
The problem with ambivalence when it comes to this choice is that the test is timed. “The thing to do when you’re feeling ambivalent is to wait,” Heti’s narrator observes, but she is 37 and so must parse her uncertainty. “On the one hand, the joy of children,” she ponders. “On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them.”
And of course, there is the “relief at having procreated; success in the biological sense, which,” the narrator admits, “on some days seems like the only sense that matters,” and the fact that some women are rewarded socially for having children. But even when reasons stack up on one side, Heti’s narrator writes her way back to the other, attuned to her inner logic and sense of identity. “The feeling of not wanting children is the feeling of not wanting to be someone’s idea of me,” she writes.
Some have classified Motherhood as “autofiction”, placing Heti among a growing number of authors like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk, whose thinly-veiled lives lurk just below the pretense of a fictive narrative. While parts of this novel read like fiction, the intimacy established between the reader and the narrator’s thought process echoes the form of an essay, and the overwhelming experience of the book is one of memoir.
In the beginning, the narrator is facing the question of motherhood on an intellectual level. “I lived only in the greyish, insensate world of my mind,” she writes, “where I tried to reason everything out and came to no conclusions.” She realizes that “to transform the greyish and muddy landscape of my mind into a solid and concrete thing, utterly apart from me, indeed not me at all, was my only hope.” That “solid and concrete thing” could be referring to a child, or even—a book.
If we equate Heti with the narrator, we might use this passage to gain insight into her decision to fictionalize the struggle: perhaps the form of the novel felt to Heti more “utterly apart from me” than a memoir. Or perhaps she saw potential for a good novel in the central conflict, a tension inherent in the book’s premise: the reader is compelled through the pages by the desire to know whether or not the narrator will become a mother.
One element that gives this novel its autobiographical tone is the conversations the narrator records when discussing her decision with others, which have the ring of anecdotal truth. In much the same way the narrator of Rachel Cusk’s Outline is defined by the conversations of others, in Heti’s novel, these opinions help shape her narrator’s decision-making process.
“Being a woman, you can’t just say you don’t want a child. You have to have some big plan or idea of what you’re going to do instead,” one woman remarks, “And it better be something great.” A man explains: “People think they own your body; they think they can tell you what to do with your body. Men want to control women’s bodies by forbidding them abortions, while women try to control other women’s bodies by pressuring them to have kids.” “It’s like a civil war,” someone else says, “Which side are you on?”
In taking in these views, Heti’s narrator is not skirting the decision. She’s asking the hard questions too, in a relentless barrage of self-examining queries: “What if I’ve suppressed my desire for children so much that my desire is unrecognizable to me?” she wonders. And: “What is the main activity of a woman’s life, if not motherhood? How can I express the absence of this experience, without making central the lack?”
Through these questions Heti’s narrator intellectualizes her choice, but she can only reason so far; at one point she describes feeling something in her brain “like a finger pressing down.” She begins addressing the dilemma through more intuitive means: a tarot reading, a visit with a fortune teller, and of course, storytelling. She asks in one of her I Ching sessions:
Is the idea of being a mother a taboo for me personally?
Then must I synthesize this taboo with my life by telling a story about wrestling with it?
From there the trajectory moves from intellectual to physical as Heti’s novel becomes reminiscent of parts of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, with its passages on menstruation. As the book dissolves into the body—its sensations and emotions—sections appear labeled “PMS,” “Bleeding,” and even: “Follicular.”
“Does the lizard-brain trick the body into singing its ancient song?” Heti wonders as her narrator begins to feel she does want a child. Yet even when writing about the body, its explicable cycles and inexplicable emotions, Heti’s writing remains precise, her anecdotes feel lived, her questions acute and, in the answers, always more questions.
Then are there other places I should be spending time, besides in my thoughts?
In my body?
In my senses?
Should I try to sense more things?
Should I try to sense what I do sense, more consciously?
The narrator’s inclination to intellectualize is part of her family’s legacy. Her maternal grandmother cultivated an academic drive in her daughter, the narrator’s mother, who we see renting an apartment apart from her husband and children in order to focus on med school exams. This privileging of a career over motherhood, it seems, is something of an inherited trait, even if the narrator is pursuing something less practical than her mother’s medical career—the art of writing. “My mother told me, when I was a child, You know that in my family the women were always the brains,” she writes. “So I also wanted to be the brains: to be nothing but words on a page.”
But her emotional life, which includes bouts of depression and sadness, also has roots in the past. The fortune teller talks of a curse on three generations of her family. Both of her grandmothers were survivors of the Holocaust, and the narrator recalls memories of her own mother’s tears.
The text turns magical when Heti reverses the book’s tension as her narrator looks, instead of forward to the future with its question of a child, back into the past, exploring motherhood through her mother and grandmother. “What is wrong with living your life for a mother, instead of a son or daughter?” she asks. In this way the narrator turns toward art as an alternative to a child, preserving her family’s legacy through her writing. “Art is eternity backwards,” she explains. “Art is written for one’s ancestors…Children are eternity forwards.”
Heti draws a constant parallel between having children and authoring a book. “How assaulted I feel when I hear that a person has had three children, four, five, more…It feels greedy, overbearing and rude—an arrogant spread of those selves,” she writes, before realizing that she may not be so different, “spreading myself over so many pages, with my dream of those pages spreading over the world.” Maybe the only difference between herself, the author of six books, and her cousin, who has six children, is the parts of themselves that they each feel called to propagate.
Heti distinguishes between the act of bearing a child and bringing forth art by placing each in the context of time. “If my desire is to write, and for the writing to defend, and for the defense to really live—not for just one day, but 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.”
A book’s legacy, after all, could even outlive a family line. The narrator recounts how, in a concentration camp, her grandmother was almost chosen to go with a group of women who would be shot by German soldiers, endowing her with a sense of the fragility of life. A book on the other hand, can survive generations, taking on a new life within each person who reads it.
Perhaps the common comparison between mothering a child and authoring a book stems from the fact that those who choose not to have children feel the need to justify that choice by pointing at the things they have created and chosen, as an author might when justifying certain narrative decisions. “It’s easy to reward someone for having a child—the meaning of their life is so apparent in its solidness and worth,” Heti writes. “In a life in which there is no child, no one knows anything about your life’s meaning. They might suspect it doesn’t have one—no center it is built around.”
In the face of this, Heti offers a quiet but resounding affirmation of the value of a childless life: “How wonderful to tread an invisible path,” she writes, “where what matters most can hardly be seen.”
For many women without children there still exists the nagging question: is my life enough? “Perhaps my doubt that being an end-in-myself is enough comes from this deep lineage of women not being seen as ends,” Heti answers, “but as passageways through which a man might come.” Her narrator suspects a patriarchal conspiracy behind society’s desire to see women procreate, recalling the doctor who advised her at 21 not to get an abortion. “There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children,” she notes. “There is something at-loose-ends feeling about such a woman. What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?” Or, we might ask, “What sort of beauty will she make?”
In the end, Heti’s narrator must acknowledge that one cannot think one’s way into the decision not to have a child—that most likely it will always be a question until it is not, that is, until time passes and biology determines the no. Yet Heti’s book proves the thoughtful, considered struggle is itself fruitful and necessary, whether or not the end result is a child. What began as a thought experiment has become a work of art with the power to transform a life.
Is this book for every woman considering motherhood?
Might it be an invaluable gift to a few?
Is it worth reading for its literary merit alone, even if you aren’t considering the question?
It’s that good, huh?