Being on the verge of 30, the question of motherhood seems to be lurking everywhere, and I’m not the only one feeling its clammy hands on my uterus. I recently met up with Emilie, an old friend from university, who’s been working through this question in the best way she knows how, reading as many books about the subject as possible. As it turns out, there isn’t that much (good) literature out there that examines the thought process that precedes the decision whether or not to become a mother. There are a decent amount of books by female writers that put into words the experience of motherhood after the fact—which is great. But what about the rest of us who are still pondering whether it is a good idea to get knocked up in the first place? “You have to read Sheila Heti’s new book!” Emilie shouted at me across a smoke-filled bar serving fertility-weakening substances. “It’s about this exact topic! You’ll like it!”
Emilie and I are both in our late twenties and part of a pretty uncool generation of over-thinking, over-achieving social media addicts with a Lego approach to building an identity. The question “do I want a child?” might at first appear to be another character-defining brick to be dealt with alongside other more or less important ones (political views, career path, one’s take on the #metoo movement along with what to have for lunch and how to display it online). But there is something existentially haunting at stake, I think, for most women, when they have to decide on whether or not to have kids. Especially if you are a woman who’s doing creative work, the kind of work that, like a screaming toddler, needs your full attention at all times.
There’s not even a language for choosing to not have a kid. It is considered a lack, a negative.
Canadian writer Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood, which came out earlier this year, is a deeply personal investigation into the question of motherhood and all it entails. The narrator, who is in her late 30s, and who is almost indistinguishable from Sheila Heti herself (and for convenience, I will refer to her as Heti) is quite simply trying to decide whether or not she should have a child. Spoiler alert: she is leaning towards a no.
Motherhood is written like a diary with a little help from the beyond. More specifically, the ancient coin flipping technique of the I Ching, which Heti consults with yes/no questions that intertwine with her personal notes on the subject of motherhood and life in general. Life, for Heti, consists of writing, crying, book touring and conversing with her partner Miles as well as with her extended network of female friends, of which most have children or are expecting. As I was reading Motherhood, I realized that I had been waiting for a book like this. I felt at once relieved and recognized. Why is it that there is so little literature that grapples with the decision to not be a mother, let alone the questioning of motherhood? Why is the theme of voluntary childlessness still such a taboo and thus largely absent from our contemporary cultural discourse?
I meet up with Emilie in a more mommy friendly environment a couple of weeks later to discuss the book. “There’s not even a language for choosing to not have a kid. It is considered a lack, a negative”, Emilie says as soon as we sit down with our coffees, and refers to Heti’s ongoing reflection on this linguistic inadequacy. We talk about how the idea of motherhood is so persistent that even though it is possible to question its realization, one is always already posing the question within a context of normative ideas about motherhood being the essential female experience. Not wanting to be a mother is in itself a negation:
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. Then maybe instead of being ‘not a mother’ I could be not ‘not a mother’. I could be not not. […] Language doesn’t fit around this experience. It is therefore not an experience we can speak of. But I want a word that is utterly independent of the task of child-rearing, with which to think about this decision—a word about what is, and not what is not
If anything, for Heti that word would be “artist”. Motherhood seems to be clear about one thing and that is that being a mother and being an artist, especially a writer, is mutually exclusive. “This is a somewhat troubled premise”, Emilie says. “But it’s definitely true for her”. I agree. Heti’s greatest concern when it comes to having children is the enormous amount of time and space that she would have to defer from her writing, which is, essentially, the only thing she wants to do. Being an artist, Heti can fill up the gap she is talking about when choosing to be ‘not a mother’. She is mothering her books, instead of children and so in being an artist, Heti gets a sort of free card. When it comes down to it, perhaps it is only really in language and within conventional thinking that she is lacking:
A person who can’t understand why someone doesn’t want children only has to locate their feelings for children, and imagine that desire directed somewhere else – to a life that is just as filled with hope, purpose, futurity and care.
We start talking about Heti’s Jewish background, which seems to define the narrator’s sense of self in many ways. A survivor of Auschwitz, Heti’s grandmother Magda haunts the pages of Motherhood as well as Heti’s life. “This is not a Holocaust book”, Emilie (having done a lot of academic research in Holocaust literature) says. “But in a way it is. In Jewish communities, there tends to be a pressure on women to have children, because, now that we are the sole survivors of these atrocities, we must make the most of it, quite literally”. But Heti interprets this burden of history differently:
Could having children be a way of repaying the debt? For some it must be, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. I know how hard it is to have a child, but for me it would feel like an indulgence—an escape. I don’t feel I deserve those pleasures. Having a child does not relate to the duties that feel bound to my life.
By provocatively calling motherhood “an indulgence”, Heti takes this cultural consensus of Judaism one step further, maintaining the conviction that her life, which almost was not, must prolong itself into eternity:
My religious cousin, who is the same age as I am, she has six kids. And I have six books. Maybe there is no great difference between us, just the slightest difference in our faith—in what parts of ourselves we feel called to spread.
If having a child is an indulgence, femininity in itself is a threat to our freedom as human beings, according to Heti. She refers to it as a “fog of sleepiness” that might drown her if she doesn’t take precautions. “She is very concerned with the ways traditional femininity and our gendered convictions about ourselves betray us the moment we become aware of our reproductive bodies”, Emilie says. “Having a child used to be a non-choice and now it really is a choice, but we still treat it as if it isn’t. In fact, to not have children is still the most radical thing a woman can do”. We frown at each other. “The way I experience it” Emilie says, “Is that I have been denying the simple fact that there is a biological difference between being male and female. Now I have sort of hit this time in my life, the childbearing years and, all of a sudden, I get it. There’s a limitation and I can’t deny the facts any more”. Heti talks about how a woman’s life is defined by time in an entirely different way than it is for men. This is first and foremost because of the limited time of our reproductive window—roughly around 30 years—but also because heteronormative conventions dictate that a woman must do everything within these 30 years: find a husband, build a career, make babies. In addition, our bodies and to some degree our moods are governed by our menstrual cycle, a constant reminder that time is passing, Heti writes.
Despite the fact that women experience the limitations of time differently than men—which Motherhood subscribes to even in its structure; some of its chapters titled after the different parts of the menstrual cycle—according to Heti, women are often not able to make use of the time they have:
The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it. We squeeze ourselves into the moments we allow, or the moments that have been allowed us. We do not stretch out in time, languidly, but allot ourselves the smallest parcels of time in which to exist, miserly. We let everyone crowd us. We are miserly with ourselves when it comes to space and time. But doesn’t having children lead to the most miserly allotment of space and time? Having a child solves the impulse to give oneself nothing. It makes the impulse into a virtue.
Heti wants to conquer this impulse, which is why Motherhood can ultimately be read as an act of resistance. Perhaps most of all resisting her own body, resisting biology. When Heti is done writing the book, she is forty years old, and considers her current chances of getting pregnant slim. “It really feels like a miracle”, Heti says “like something I always set out to do, but had no faith that I would ever achieve”. There’s a wonderful irony in her choice of words. She demonstrates that she does not need another language to describe her experience; she will simply penetrate the language that is available to her and make it her own. And by the end of the book, it has proven to be a worthwhile exercise; I, for one, thought her avoidance of motherhood a miracle too.
Nothing harms the earth more than another person—and nothing harms a person more than being born.—Sheila Heti
Motherhood is a testament to the fact that deciding whether or not to become a parent begins and ends as an inward journey. But in a rare consideration of the world outside her own window, Heti bleakly reflects on the ethical aspects of bringing new life into the world:
There is no inherent good in being born. The child would not otherwise miss its life. Nothing harms the earth more than another person—and nothing harms a person more than being born. If I really wanted to have a baby, it would be better to adopt. Even better would be to give the money I would have spent on raising a child to those organizations that give women who can’t afford it condoms and birth control and education and abortions, and so save these women’s lives. That would be a more worthwhile contribution to this world than adding one more troubled person from my own troubled womb.
I pause after reading the quote out loud and Emilie and I look at each other without saying anything. The words seem to demand a moment of silence. “These more rational discussions of having children, I definitely thought about them too”, Emilie then says, “but ultimately they are not going to affect my own decision, because having kids is a primal instinct. Climate change, for an example, is so abstract, and being a parent is so close, such a personal experience”. I tell her that I wish I felt the same way. In other words, Emilie finds the attempt to rationalize one’s primal instincts away futile, whereas I find it equally difficult to deny the notion that the personal is political in this particularly harrowing moment of history that we are living in. “But the ethical is always a struggle” Emilie reminds me, “it exists in that space between our personal ideological outlook on the world and the reality we live in”. I agree with her, but find myself reluctant to draw any conclusions on the matter. For Heti, the ethical aspect of becoming a mother does not seem to be the most defining one. Having somehow already made the decision not to have children, providing an ethical perspective will only justify that decision, if you ask me. There is little rationale for having children today, which is yet another reason why we must alter the framework within which we think about motherhood. Not to say that none of us should have any more babies, but that the premise for making the decision—to be or not to be a mother—must be reconsidered, reinvented and retaught.
Emilie and I have talked for almost two hours. Our coffee cups are empty and outside the autumn light is dimming down. As I walk home, I think about how this book has enabled a conversation between us that I found difficult to initiate with anyone in such an honest way before. “For most women, having children is always lying out there like a great unknown space that they will inevitably enter” I recall Emilie saying with some irritation at one point, “it’s just expected to happen”. On the street, a woman is walking in front of me with a stroller, in which a little boy peeps out from his oversize coat. I look further ahead, towards the lakes and the trees in their bright autumn colors. The leaves will soon be gone. They are beautiful.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti was published by Harvill Secker in May 2018. It can be purchased at ark books.