Book Review: Motherhood by Sheila Heti
Whether or not to have children is a question of our time. Before the 1960s, oral contraception was not easily available in the USA or UK. Pregnancy was an all-too-likely outcome of sexual intimacy. In this incredible book, through her unnamed protagonist who is fast approaching the end of child-bearing age, Canadian novelist Sheila Heti ponders the moral, existential, and practical question of whether or not to have children in today’s age.
At least in Western, Anglo-Saxon countries, having children is proactively encouraged. Child tax credit is embedded in the United States Code (its codified federal law). Australia, New Zealand, and the UK have similar benefits. The social pressure to have children has long been written about. With the importance of having children being enmeshed into social, political and legal codes, it is a wonder anyone ever proceeds without them.
In Motherhood, Sheila Heti tackles the decision, through her protagonist, of whether or not to have children. The narrator’s partner, Miles, leaves the decision entirely up to her: “If [you] want a child, we can have one, he said, but you have to be sure.” Whether she wants children or not, she says, “is a secret I keep from myself”:
On the one hand, the joy of children. 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….
She asks herself what her reasons for wanting children might be. To be “admired as the sort of woman who has children?” To be seen as a “normal woman”? To be the best kind of woman, with the desire and ability to nurture? Not wanting children, the narrator speculates, is the “feeling of not wanting to be someone’s idea of me.”
The narrator has various amusing encounters with friends. The friends apply pressure on the narrator to have children, by saying she looks like a protective mother in a painting, for example, or by telling her she seems “very fertile”. Yet these meetings are countered by run-ins with women less enthused about the narrator’s ovular state. “Please, don’t have children”, one tells her.
What is beautiful about this book is the intertwined nature of various themes. First, the theme of writing as being a kind of birth in itself. Writing fulfills the narrator. Calling it the “central relationship of my life” she says you can never be lonely while writing, because “you’re in a relationship with some force that is more mysterious than yourself.” She talks about taking the time to write a book feeling “a million times more nurturing than rushing to finish” it.
In fact, time features quite heavily in this novel. The narrator critiques the womanly problem of “not giving oneself enough space or time, or being allowed it.” In her words:
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.
The narrator’s luxuriating in time through writing is her rebellion. A rebellion on a life seemingly confined by the ticking time-bomb of motherhood. By refusing to give in, the narrator ‘beats’ time, and seems all the better for it. A friend of hers even screams at her, exasperatedly “Stop making things! You keep making things!
The other hugely enjoyable aspect of his book is its wacky humour. In absurdist fashion, à la Leonora Carrington or American Housewife writer Helen Ellis, the narrator does not hide her own crazy. She has run-ins with a psychic lady – “spirital healer or fraud”, whom she gives $140 to do a psychic reading, and she consults I Ching – a divination system used in China involving flipping three coins to get a yes/no answer, to hilarious ends.
All in all, the novel is full of tidbits of wisdom. My own library copy had been underlined and annotated by the previous reader (who then furiously, but unsuccessfully, tried to scrub out the scrawlings). It’s also an easy read, written in a pleasant-to-follow narrative style, with constant humorous interjections from our narrator, who feels like a close friend by the end of the book. On a deeper level, the novel shows how the essentially moral decision of whether or not to have children often falls on women, who are judged according to societally mandated moral standards (though we can never quite pinpoint who promulgates these) on whether they have them or not.
Whether you like Heti’s conclusion or not, the journey itself in Motherhood is wondrous.
Star Rating: ★★★★