Motherhood by Sheila Heti: delves deep into the fundamentals of procreating
An intelligent, probing read
Canadian writer Sheila Heti.
In a recent interview in this paper, the author Louise O’Neill pointed out that men are given more freedom to fictionalise aspects of their experience than women. She noted that if Rob Doyle writes a story, as he has, about a writer called Rob living in Paris and says that it’s fiction, we believe him. If O’Neill writes about a girl from Cork who is raped at a house party, the subject of her second novel Asking For It, she faces endless questions about whether it happened to her.
In the main, O’Neill is right. Women receive less leeway to write, to live, in the fertile space between imagination and reality. A female author who transcends this must be excellent, and so it is with the Canadian writer Sheila Heti, whose seven books to date have crossed many genres from children’s literature to fashion to her critically acclaimed mash-up novel How Should a Person Be? Mixing memoir, literary fiction and a self-help manual, it centred on the experiences of a female playwright named Sheila who was struggling to finish a commission.
The unnamed narrator of Heti’s new novel Motherhood is struggling with a more abstract problem – the decision in her late 30s about whether to have a baby with her partner Miles. Already a father to an eight-year-old girl, Miles doesn’t want more children but understands that Heti needs to figure out the decision for herself. It is a clever narrative device that places the onus on the narrator, as she notes herself, without pressure from a partner to go one way or the other.
Motherhood is a fiercely intelligent and probing read that delves deep into the fundamentals of procreating, motherhood and what it means to be a woman in today’s world. The same quest for authenticity that sparked How Should a Person Be? is once more to the fore. The book is full of interesting, difficult questions posed by a woman who feels she has lived for too long in her imagination and needs to “pull myself out of the cloud”.
At times the narrator is wholly convincing on why she doesn’t want children, at times she is trying to convince herself. This tension drives the narrative, with her biological clock counting down as she tries to make a decision: “Do I want children because I want to be admired as the admirable sort of woman who has children? Because I want to be seen as a normal sort of woman, or because I want to be the best kind of woman, a woman with not only work, but the desire and ability to nurture?”
Heti looks beyond the personal to examine the social and political contexts of motherhood. She considers it from a feminist perspective, “this implication that a woman is not an end in herself”. Her Jewish background, the fact that her grandmother was a concentration camp survivor, adds another dimension: “If you don’t have children, the Nazis will have won.”
But while the wider backdrops add depth, the narrator’s relationship with her mother – a workaholic depressive whose tendency for melancholy has been handed down to her daughter – makes for the most compelling reading: “All through my childhood, I felt I had done something wrong. I searched my every gesture, my words, the way I sat upon a chair. What was I doing to make her cry?” Heti is excellent at capturing the voice of the lonely, confused child: “I never understood what she thought was so wrong about me, so I concluded that my whole entire being was wrong.”
Yet the adult narrator is also smart enough to know that although the decision is informed by her background, it is also within her power to rise above the past. This leads to a satisfying redemptive section towards the end where the narrator can acknowledge both the hardships and the recent positive changes in her mother: “Do you ever feel like you cannot grow beyond your mother? So it’s wonderful when your mother climbs one step higher on the ladder from where she had been standing before.”
Eloquent and eminently quotable, Motherhood is a mix of personal experience and sharp social commentary that recalls Anne Enright’s memoir Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. Certain essays in Meghan Daum’s mixed-bag anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids also come to mind, particularly the perceptive piece by Lionel Shriver on declining fertility rates in western Europe, her decision to choose writing over motherhood, and how she has “long ago wearied of being the Antimom”.
Heti explores the “loose-ends feeling” that society has about a woman who decides not to have children, concluding in a shrewd analogy that she is viewed the same way as men who are unemployed: “What kind of trouble will she make for herself and for others?” Elsewhere there’s a line on sentimentality, as the narrator looks to eradicate it from her reasoning: “Today, I defined sentimental to myself as a feeling about the idea of a feeling.”
The art of writing is central to the book, and to the narrator’s decision. Interesting sections discuss the purpose of art, its often conflicting relationship with motherhood, and the similarities between the two. Both offer “the perfect job – it’s very hard and only you can do it”.
For all the intelligent arguments and philosophical musings, there is a comforting tone to Heti’s writing that seeks to be inclusive. She bares the grisly details of her menstrual cycle, the crazy-making ways of it, the exhausting fights it causes with Miles even as her rational mind seeks to escape.
There is plenty of humour in the book to counter the agony of indecision and the traumas of childhood: “No child, through her own will, can pull a mother out of her suffering, and as an adult, I have been very busy.” A narrative device that uses the three coins of the I Ching as a way to answer unanswerable questions can be very funny, especially when the coins are wrong: “And is their [men’s] suffering as great as the suffering of these women at the hands of the universe?” The coins say yes, the narrator knows better.
Other lightness comes in the form of anecdotes of friends and colleagues, from unorthodox child-rearing situations to the pushy young mothers who’ve had children “as a hedge against future regret” and now want the narrator to join their club.
For most of the book, the narrator feels a sense of rootlessness because she’s not fulfilling her societal, perhaps her biological, role as a woman: “I saw I had not thought, but continued to let myself be whipped about in the waves of life, building nothing.” Condemning herself in early chapters for living “in the greyish, insensate world of my mind”, by the end of the book it this same, estimable mind and capacity to write down what’s inside it that allows her to come to a decision.
Motherhood then is not only an important novel about a fundamental question that women ask of themselves but a pass to live more in their minds, in their imaginations, in those fertile spaces from which great works grow.