The unnamed narrator of Sheila Heti’s new contemplative new novel Motherhood is ambivalent about having children. She never envisioned herself as a mother and still can’t quite see herself as one. But, now in her late 30s, the question of motherhood nags at her, demanding an answer. “Time is running short on making certain decisions,” the narrator says. “The thing to do when you’re feeling ambivalent is to wait.” “But for how long?” she asks. “Next week I’ll be thirty-seven.”
The decision isn’t simple yes or no for the narrator, but rather an internal wrestling match of sorts; one that she compares to the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling an angel. The unnamed narrator has a lot to wrestle with. On the surface, Motherhood’s narrator asks herself a seemingly simple question: Do I want to have a baby? But as the novel unfolds over the course of three years, the question expands beyond the scope of a single baby who, by the very nature of the question, is an abstract idea. Heti’s narrator wrestles with what the baby signifies: namely, the idea of motherhood itself, both its cultural myths and its responsibilities. Here, motherhood isn’t just a question of becoming a parent—the narrator rarely pauses to consider the often repetitive labor of motherhood—but rather a broader inquiry into the tensions between motherhood and creativity.
Heti’s narrator is left to answer these questions by herself. Her partner Miles is equally ambivalent about the possibility of parenthood. He already has a daughter from a previous relationship and regards parenting as “the biggest scam of all time.” Regardless of his own ambivalence about having a second child, he’s willing to compromise but, he tells the narrator, “you have to be sure.” At Miles’s suggestion, the narrator abandons a book she had been working on and instead begins to write about motherhood. For roughly 280 pages, the narrator debates whether or not she wants to be a mother or live what she describes as an “avant-garde life.”
Heti’s narrator bears a striking similarity to Heti herself. Like Heti, she is a Canadian writer in her late 30s and the daughter of immigrants. As with her previous novel, How Should a Person Be?, Motherhood is a work of autofiction and, as such, blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction, rendering both meaningless. Heti is clearly interested in how the very concept of the self is rendered through fictions, an idea that she deftly explored in How Should a Person Be? In many respects, Motherhood revisits that exploration, taking the very concept of reproduction—both the creative reproduction of a writer and biological reproduction of motherhood—as its point of departure. If autofiction is, as one critic suggested, a genre where the “self is considered a living thing composed of fictions,” then motherhood is simply another one of those living fictions. That is to say, I’m not entirely sure that Motherhood is actually about the big question the narrator poses, but instead about the organic-seeming tissues that bind women’s narratives. Motherhood is just one of those myths, made all the messier with its intersections between individuality, gender, class, and race.
The debate about motherhood and creativity, especially in the last few years, has taken a turn toward the polemical. In this narrative, rehearsed to near perfection with a kind of feigned naivety by Heti’s narrator, women (or, at least straight women with access to money and the support systems it can buy) can choose either motherhood or creativity. They can be writers or mothers or, if they’re both, they can be bad mothers. There are boundless examples of these essays—from The Cut to the Paris Review—that have always struck me as extreme. Motherhood is a strawman (or, as my colleague Kelly Faircloth suggested, a “strawmom”), cast as the enemy of avant-gardism which, by the nature of these essays, preserves the romance of the artist as a broody all-male enclave. Motherhood is still noble—still transformative—but the enemy of creativity, not to mention boring as hell. In this essay format, the fictions that construct lives remain intact since there is little to no room for ambivalence, either in motherhood or creative ambition. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, for the limited few to whom these narratives apply, both are shot through with ambivalence.
Heti’s narrator is full of ambivalence. Left alone to answer her questions, she devises a number of methods to ask about the subject. The narrator recounts conversations with friends, both those who have children those who don’t. She records conversations with women she met on a book tour and conversations with friends of friends. She records her dreams. She interprets messages in fortune cookies. She visits two psychics.
She consults three coins, based on I Ching, a Chinese divination text, asking them yes and no questions. The method results in the narrator asking a number of difficult questions, only to have them answered by an arbitrary fall of coins:
Then can a woman who makes books be let off the hook by the universe for not making the living thing we call babies?
Oh good! I feel so guilty about it sometimes, thinking it’s what I should do, because I always think that animals are happiest when they live our their instincts. Maybe not happiest, but feel most alive. Yet making art makes me feel alive, and taking care of others doesn’t make me feel as alive. Maybe I have to think about myself less as a woman with this woman’s special task, and more as an individual with her own special task—not put woman before my individuality. Is that right?
Is it that making babies is not a woman’s special task?
Yes, but the universe lets women who make art but don’t make babies, off the hook? Does the universe mind if women who don’t make art choose not to make babies?
Are these women punished?
The format is repeated throughout the novel. The narrator asks difficult questions and receives arbitrary and often conflicting answers. The result is the uneasy suggestion that there are only arbitrary and conflicting answers to the question of motherhood. The narrator’s approach to answering her questions makes her claim that motherhood is a “universal story” ring hollow, even if her feelings about the subject—what she describes as “let-down feeling when the great things that happen in the lives of others—you don’t actually want those things for yourself”—resonate.
Heti’s narrator is both irritating and smart. On the span of one page, she shifts from thoughtful to glib, ignorant to insightful, ironic and irritatingly earnest. Because of the nature of the subject matter and the novel’s internal approach, Motherhood can be frustrating and distant, even as it illuminates the subject. The narrator’s exploration of motherhood is by necessity personal. Here motherhood is white, heterosexual, in a relationship, and vaguely upper middle class. That isn’t a criticism so much as a neutral description. For all the pretense in quite a bit of non-fiction that motherhood and creativity are discrete, universal categories, they simply cannot and never will be; no narrative of motherhood can ever be universal, even if some of its acts are.
But if Heti is interested the question of motherhood, she is equally interested in what she calls the “soul of time,” the genetic relationships that span time itself. In the novel’s most touching subplot, the narrator considers her own mother, particularly her mother’s expectations of her. Her mother isn’t pressuring the narrator to become a mother herself (in fact, her mother is ambivalent), but reproduction is by nature the stuff of familial permanence; ancestry is made through genetics. That issue weighs heavily on Heti’s narrator who, like Heti, is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and the daughter of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants. The narrator wonders if this book will suffice; will it take the place of a baby; will it heal the generational pain, passed here through mothers. “I think this book is the most healed and loving form I can make,” she writes.
Ultimately, Heti’s narrator decides that motherhood is not for her. She has reached 40, her arbitrary age for when the window of motherhood ends, and has written a book instead. Her decision was no surprise; it’s clearly signaled throughout the novel. She notes that if she had known nothing about the world, “I would have invented sex, friendships, art. I would not have invented child-rearing.” But then, Motherhood is a novel less concerned about the real question of parenting—the real question of a baby—and more of an exploration of how reproduction creatives narrative, binding a woman to both her past and present. Just as the self is composed of fictions, so are the institutions that compose its foundations. Heti’s narrator imagines taking “this book to my mother’s house.” “I will knock on her door,” she writes, “and go up to her and say, It’s here. on the page. Your mother’s sadness, and your sadness and mine. Although not all of the reasons. I don’t know all of the reasons.”
Motherhood is a strange and shifting topic. The issue of having children is simultaneously public and private, personal and political. It binds a woman to history and time, cementing her to the institution of the family, pulling her into this messy vortex of narrative where the line between truth and fiction have completely collapsed. But then, as Motherhood suggests, we all reside there, regardless of whether or not one is a mother. The very need to reproduce, either through biology or other means, is perhaps the omnipresent desire, the stuff of the cultural romances that form the broader sense of self. Perhaps the distinction between having children and not having children is arbitrary. “I know a woman who refuses to mother, refuses to do the most important thing, and therefore becomes the least important woman,” Heti writes. “Yet the mothers aren’t important either. None of us are important.”