By Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng
I finished Sheila Heti’s Motherhood over Mother’s Day weekend. In this book, Heti asks herself if she should have a child. If she should be a mother. I hadn’t planned on reading Motherhood over Mother’s Day, but when I realized the coincidence, I found it appropriate. After all, I am also a woman who writes, a woman without children, a woman uncertain if her future holds either children or motherhood, and there I was, surrounded by celebrations of motherhood at every turn. At the beginning of the book, Heti declares, “Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself–it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.”
Later, she asks, “Why are we still having children?”
Heti’s book received mixed reviews. A number of the reviews were written by women who were also mothers, who had already chosen to have children. Whether this was coincidence, or by design, I do not know. In any case, Heti’s book struck a nerve with most readers. Even the most positive reviews contain an acid phrase or two. Alexandra Schwartz (who describes herself in the review as also a woman in her 30s without children) noted that “there is a lax, self-indulgent quality” to Heti’s writing. Lauren Oyler describes the book as characterized by “obsessive recursion,” while another reviewer dismissed Motherhood outright, “No amount of metafictional smoke and mirrors can make up for the absence of a compelling story.” Lynn Steger Strong opened her review with this anecdote: “A friend texted me a few months ago to tell me her period was late. We spent five minutes going back and forth on the specifics, but I was about to teach a class and she was getting on a train. Remember, I said, just before I put my phone away, the abstract idea of the thing is always scarier than the thing itself. This is a sentence I wanted to whisper to Sheila Heti’s main character throughout the reading of her book Motherhood. This is a thought exercise, I wanted to tell her, but it has very little relation to the actual thing.” The suggestion is that Heti is immature, dawdling on “what if” when she should just take action. Just complete the act. Or, as a certain ad slogan might put it: Just do it.
There will be good things on the other side. As Strong put it, “I love the man I married. I love our marriage. I love motherhood, but most of it is exactly like the rest of life: confusing and exhausting, messy, complicated, never like I planned. This is also, of course, the relief of all these major life decisions: there is just more—sometimes more crowded, more exhausting, sometimes more joyful—life on the other side.” But is this doing the result of one’s agency? Or something else? For Strong, the crux of Heti’s book–and more generally, of the condition of being female and thus endowed with the ability to bear children–is the interplay between consciousness and body, between our agency and lack of it.
Christine Smallwood’s review began with an account of her son’s birth, as an illustration of the power of motherhood, the way that motherhood pushes the mother to go beyond the self, to become a whole new–more open, more selfless–being. In contrast, Heti’s relentless questioning of her own lack of desire for motherhood displays “a solipsistic existentialism.” Smallwood’s response is perhaps the nastiest of the bunch. Her dismissal of Heti’s ambivalence is an extreme version of the usual response to women who meditate on this choice: women who ask “why” and not “when” to the question of children are narcissistic, immature, incapable of rising to the fullness of adulthood.
Smallwood argues, “Time works differently after you have a child. What was once a very steady beat suddenly moves at crazy, uneven speeds. Children fill up time that you didn’t know was empty. […] The experience is so utterly transformative that the person evaluating the decision is a different version of the person who made it. That is why it’s exciting. It remakes the world.” But Heti? To Smallwood, Heti clings to her world, willing it to be static. Heti seems to desire a different kind of power, one that Smallwood casts as unnatural: “The point is that she wants to extend the present version of herself into the future. What is that but a way of stopping time? Who wouldn’t want that power?”
I went to Catholic school. I am all too familiar with the sanctity and glory of motherhood, reinforced again and again with images of the Madonna and child. For most of human history, women had little agency over whether or not they wanted to become mothers. To have a womb was to bear a certain fate, unless one made certain unusual choices. One could become a nun. That would take you out of the motherhood game.
In the same paragraph where Heti asked the question why, she also wrote: “When I think of all the people who want to forbid abortions, it seems it can only mean one thing–not that they want this new person in the world, but that they want the woman to be doing the work of child-rearing more than they want her to be doing anything else. There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. There is something at-loose-ends feeling about such a woman. What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?”
I felt a small ping of pleasure when I discovered that a woman I respect, a woman who is a talented designer, a successful business owner, and a mother, had posted a photograph of this exact passage on her Instagram. The comments on her post are instructive. This book, and its questions, rile people up. Rile women up. The fact that Elle published a review of Motherhood is telling.
Several reviewers have pointed out that Heti’s book is part of a larger corpus of recent books (many belong to the genre of autofiction) on the intersection of creativity and motherhood. Here, an incomplete list: Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts; Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work; Jenny Offill, Department of Speculation; Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock. These are questions that interest contemporary readers. We want more than the usual song-and-dance about the sanctity of motherhood, more than the madonna/whore binary. We want new and different approaches to the question of how to be a person in this world, ones that don’t tie us to the same tired binary structures (mother/father, madonna/whore, male/female, etc.). There is a thread in these works, one not often picked up by reviewers–one that pushes against the limits of thinking, and seeing, motherhood and being female as one and the same. One might quip that this is a story as old as Adam and Eve, but then the touchstone of Heti’s story is not Adam and Eve at all, but Jacob wrestling the Angel. And angels are something else entirely — neither/nor — but something beyond.