14 November 2019

Motherhood by Sheila Heti


I always check out "best of the year" write ups when it comes to books, and then make a list of the ones I would be interested in reading myself. Sheila Heti's Motherhood happened to be on the New York Times Magazine list last year (published in May 2018) and I decided to buy it after working on our 10 Books About Motherhood list. Motherhood is something all women think about, myself included, and I was really drawn to a book whose central purpose is to weigh the pros and cons.

Heti's short work of fiction (304 pages) starts when the central character offhandedly tells her boyfriend she might like to have a baby. The boyfriend had a child with a previous partner and tells our protagonist he isn't interested in having another. He goes on to tell her he will concede but only if she is "sure." And it's this word that drives her insane because how can anyone ever really be sure?? I would say this is my own greatest source of anxiety and what had me keeping my own list of Heti's pros and cons.


Being a woman, you can't just say you don't want a child. You have to have some big plan or idea of what you're going to do instead. And it better be something great. And you had better be able to tell it convincingly - before it even happens - what the arc of your life will be."

This book is weird in many ways. Stylistically it is written more like a stream of consciousness. It also uses a form of this ancient Chinese divination system where the character flips three coins to help answer a series of yes-or-no questions. This question-and-answer system will pop up in between the stream of consciousness and will tackle stuff like "Is there a male equivalent to barenness?" or "Do we synthesize taboos by taking on a new name?"

The q-and-a is one of the more funny aspects of the book as you can see the protagonist trying to get the coins to give her the answer she wants - resulting in her asking the same question but in different words until the desired outcome lands.

Motherhood was a shortlisted finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Heti is a Canadian author based in Toronto and her book was initially considered autobiographical as the protagonist is also a writer living childless in Toronto. And again, stylistically this book really does seem like someone's notes jotted down on their computer.

There are only two people on the side of the accused - his mother and his lawyer."

While motherhood is definitely the main focus of this book, a lot of it is also devoted to the protagonist's indecision. And this is what I related to most. Heti opens up with the most basic pros and cons of having children: 

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." 

One of the driving points behind the protagonist is her age. She is turning 40 and feels her biological clock is running out. My favourite passage is when she talks about potentially freezing her eggs so she can extend her time to decide:


Getting my eggs frozen would have been like freezing my indecision. I couldn't reveal my weakness to myself in such a tangible way." 


Canadian author Sheila Heti
I hate the pressure women are under to have children, and especially the pressure we're under to have them young. I've felt deeply unsure about having children for as long as I can remember. The only thing I am sure of is that I have yet to feel like I NEED to be a mother one day.

Heti recognizes that even if you know deep down you don't want to be a mother and you are totally ok with this, people will still look at you with sadness ... like you were robbed of the experience.

The protagonist talks about how she feels so far behind everyone else in her life ... how she feels like they have better houses, better jobs, bigger families. The protagonist's friend responds with:


When a person has those feelings, they need to look more closely at what their actual values are. We have to live our values. Often people are streamed into the conventional life - the life there's so much pleasure to live. But how can there only be one path that's legitimate? She says this path is often not even right for many of the people who wind up living it."


I found this comforting given that I can get wrapped up in comparing myself to other people pretty quickly. Maybe I need to work on listing my values??? (lol)

I was hoping for a more balanced argument but you definitely walk away from Heti's book feeling it was more a reckoning with choosing not to have children. That being said, some of the arguments she made were really compelling. What I loved about this book was that it was more about reorganizing the way we think about not having children. In one passage Heti tries to change the language we use when talking about making the unconventional choice:


Maybe if I could somehow figure out what not having a child is an experience of - make it into an active action, rather than the lack of an action - I might know what I was experiencing, and not feel so much like I was waiting to act. I might be able to choose my life, and hold in my hands what I have chosen, and show it to other people, and call it mine."


The author lays it out even more simply, and I'd say this is what resonated with me the most: 

It's fair to say I'm missing out on something - but also that I might prefer to miss out." 

the haul I left Indigo with that day
There's also a little glimmer of the gloom-and-doom argument I love to invoke (to the horror of my sister). I've felt like this ever since I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt... we live in a literal cesspool ... global warming, overpopulation, death and loss... Heti makes a similar point near the end with:


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."


I know it's nihilistic but still .. sometimes thats all I can think about when contemplating bringing a new person into this world. 

Ok, I feel sufficiently embarrassed by this overly personal review. But that's why I enjoyed the book! Deciding whether to have a child or not is definitely a privileged choice, but it's one I get to make and so I need to do the research.

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