In Motherhood: A Novel, Sheila Heti’s narrator spends most of her pages agonizing over whether or not to have children: “I always came back to this formula: if no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented … sex, friendships, art … to fulfill real longings in me, but … [child-rearing] wouldn’t have occurred to me as something to do. In fact, it would have sounded like a task to very much avoid.” Her partner helps by adding “that it sort of blows your load, parenting, because it’s the perfect job—it’s very hard but only you can do it.” And yet, she seriously asks whether her problems “would be solved by stuffing my days with childcare, and my heart with my own child.” But if she had children, would it be just “to be admired as the admirable sort of woman who has children”? And if she didn’t, would it owe merely to a contrarian’s “feeling of not wanting to be someone’s idea of me”? It goes on and on.
Why would I, a mother of three, allot precious minutes to the story of a woman who ultimately decides that resisting the hormonal urge to have a child “feels as blissful and intimate as having a child” and that writing a novel and having a kid are basically the same thing? Because along the way Heti provides intellectual and emotional fuel, questions and answers sure to stoke the fire of anyone grappling with a big decision—or their own self-concept—and who among us isn’t doing those things?
This is certainly most true with respect to her primary topic. “The childless and the mothers,” Heti writes, have difficulty understanding “what the other has done—when it looks to me like she has been stolen, and when it looks to her like I have stalled. We both look so cowardly and so brave. The other one seems to have everything—and the other one seems to have nothing at all…. [T]here is an exact equivalence and an equality, equal in emptiness and equal in fullness, equal in experiences had and equal in experiences lost.” Even so, “[t]here is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give so many other people their life’s meaning.”
“I don’t want ‘not a mother’ to be part of who I am—for my identity to be the negative of someone else’s positive identity…. I want a word that is utterly independent of the task of child-rearing…. But how do you describe the absence of something? If I refuse to play soccer, is my not playing soccer an experience of playing soccer? My lack of the experience of motherhood is not an experience of motherhood. Or is it? Can I call it a motherhood, too?”
And then there’s my very favorite passage: “Sometimes I feel it would be so easy to have Miles’s baby—his flesh inside mine, his skin so nicely scented, so clean, so smooth; that brain, that heart, mixed with mine. When I described this to Erica, she said, You’re not describing wanting his child in you. You’re describing wanting his c*^k. I saw it was true: when I imagine being pregnant, it’s more like the feeling of something lodged inside me—so big, so deep, and feeling so good. I suppose it wouldn’t be like that. Then do I really want a child, or do I just want more of him?”
As you can see, Heti’s writing is as brilliant and piercing as it is brooding and labored. Hers is a literary endeavor, as evidenced by the coin-flipping mechanism she uses to break up her protagonist’s ruminations, as well as her equally incisive commentary on the subjects of depression (“a tall, thick wall between myself and the world, a wall that had prevented me from seeing, while giving me the impression that I was truly seeing”), the parent-child relationship (“That is the way I have always felt: helplessly wrong, and so desperate to live as a person beyond criticism, whatever that might mean; to prove that I was better than any of the ways she saw me, to do one thing she might admire”), decision-making (“I understand that fear beckons to a person as much as possibility does, and even more strongly”), patriarchy (“Only when a woman is no longer attractive to men, can she be left alone for enough moments to actually think”), and hormones (“Tears and more tears this morning. Not actually crying, but the feeling of wanting to cry.).
“Pain is not imaginary,” Heti’s narrator says: “Those who skip town do not escape it, and those who skip between lovers do not. Drinking is no escape; gratitude lists are not.” At first I thought I tolerated her characters’ more controversial remarks (e.g., “Of course raising children is a lot of hard work, but I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self-interest”), but upon reflection, I appreciated them.
A page-turner “Motherhood” is not, and yet, I found myself committed to turning over the probing thoughts on each of its pages, coming out clearer and lighter, despite its heaviness of subject matter, language, and tone. Heti’s words are an invitation for growth, and isn’t that what motherhood is really all about?