Motherhood and an end to women’s civil war

Maternal ambivalence has always been provocative: a review of Sheila Heti’s new book.

Niki Seth-Smith
8 July 2018

Doors, choices, decisions. Credit: Pixabay/qimono. CC0 Public Domain.

Sheila Heti’s ‘Motherhood’ came out in May, not a day too soon for me. Her book is something I urgently needed to read, a novel drawn from life and a kind of fictionalized diary that allows Heti to interrogate the question, ‘Should I become a mother?’

Her answer is ‘no,’ she will not. Or given that Heti inverts the question, seeing it as a positive choice: ‘yes,’ she will remain childfree. Although the book doesn’t use this term, freedom is an idea to which it keeps returning.

The narrator calls writing the book a “prophylactic” or a “raft” to get her to the other side of 40, an age Heti reached while finishing the manuscript. The reading experience is often maddening, like watching a mouse scurry around in a trap.

 “On the one hand, the joy of children,” she writes, “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…”

As in Heti’s breakthrough work ‘How Should a Person Be?’ much of ‘Motherhood’ consists of recounted conversations with friends and family as the narrator seeks direction from anyone and everyone in her life. In offbeat injections that brighten the prose she also consults ‘the coins’ (a flipping method adapted from the I-Ching), producing exchanges in which we are tempted to find meaning, at turns comic and profound.

“Are these women punished?


By not experiencing the mystery and joy?


In any other way?


By not passing on their genes?


But I don't care about passing on my genes! Can't one pass on one’s genes through art?


Do men who don't procreate receive punishment from the universe?

There’s a note at the beginning of the book explaining that the coin results are real. This is typical of Heti’s irreverent approach to philosophy, allowing her to both poke fun at and acknowledge the desire for a spiritual destiny or guide.

This constant self-seeking has led Heti to be accused of narcissism. A caustic review of ‘Motherhood’ in Harpers Magazine went even further, denouncing the book as “existential solipsism.” The reviewer, Christine Smallwood, doesn’t seem to acknowledge the echo of an accusation that’s levelled at all non-mothers—that  they are ‘selfish, shallow and self-absorbed,’ which turns out to be the title of a recent collection of essays from 16 writers on their decision not to have kids (three are childless men but there’s an acknowledgment that women come in for greater social punishment).

Maternal ambivalence has always been provocative. Rachel Cusk’s 2001 memoir ‘A Life’s Work’ led to a vicious backlash, including accusations similar to those levelled at Heti that she was a “self-obsessed bore” and overly-intellectual (Smallwood says Heti is “only interested in abstraction”). If doubting one’s own choice to be a mother is taboo, dwelling on the decision is verboten. At a recent London Review of Books event the host asked Heti how it felt to “write into the void.” Heti confessed that she’d struggled to find any books on which to build.

That’s why I’m grateful that ‘Motherhood’ exists. Yes, the book has tunnel vision: it never looks far beyond the particular perspective of a Canadian woman with Hungarian Jewish heritage who belongs to a charmed circle of writers, yet it never pretends to try. Rather, it’s a book of pillow fears, drenched in the night sweats of the moments when we’re terribly alone with ourselves.

While Heti is attempting to exit the long phase of life shadowed by the 'Big Decision', at the age of 32 I’m still at the threshold. The dismay and surprise I’ve already encountered from family, friends and even medical professionals has dismayed and surprised me. “But you’ll make a great mother!” “You don’t want to leave it too late and miss out.” My mother’s initial response was, “People shouldn’t think about it too much”.

Likewise, Heti’s narrator wonders if she should simply obey her impulses. “Does the lizard brain trick the body into singing its ancient song?” Yet she finally follows another urge, also located deep in the psyche, to remain without children. 

The number of childless women is rising. In 2016, 17 per cent of women in England and Wales over child-bearing age (defined as 45) didn’t have kids. That’s nearly twice as many as the last generation and is a trend that’s reflected across Europe. Yet the demand to justify one’s position, and the increasing media visibility of ‘childfree by choice’ or ‘voluntarily childless’ as a growing identity, means that we usually hear from women only after they have made the decision. ‘Why I don’t want kids’ YouTube videos are now practically a genre of their own—fierce , fun, feminist and 110 per cent sure. 

Young women like me are urged to choose a side in what one of the voices in ‘Motherhood’ calls a “civil war.” Even Heti, making up her mind, clearly feels that she is on the frontlines. Many of the book’s descriptions of mothering radiate admiring wonder yet often veil a violent rage, as in the narrator’s reaction to the constant news of her friends’ pregnancies. “There are craters, all around, and no home is safe enough not to be pummeled to dust by these blessings, by these bits of stardust, these thousand-pound babies aimed straight at the earth.”

The pressure to decide on a role, and then to play it convincingly, is also in the theme of ‘trying on’ lives, as the narrator does with her friend Nicola, who is described as a “respectable” mother with three kids, a marriage and a house. The narrator finally rejects this life. “I realized that my fantasies were misplaced—they wormed inside me like a disease.” “Look at her life like a beautiful ocean liner, a grand old steam liner passing by…”

This dismissal is horribly dehumanizing, as is the image of the worm. No mother’s life is a pleasure cruise. This is recognized as the poison of rivalry later in the book: “…one person’s life is not a political or general statement about how all lives should be,” the narrator admits. She shouldn’t feel superior or ashamed.

‘Motherhood’ could just as well have been titled, ‘How should a woman be?’ The drive to pose this question, and the struggle to resist it, is the primary tension in Heti’s work. No wonder it raises hackles. Only the privileged have the luxury to reach for the ‘best kind of life,’ just as the vast majority of women in the world have never had the choice not to bear children.

Yet this doesn’t make ‘Motherhood’ apolitical. It is precisely this oppressive edict—to embody the one true perfect woman—that  exposes womanhood itself as a fraught and impossible performance beset by contradictory pressures. Being childfree is a threat to this illusion by rejecting the drive for success. “What if I pursue being a bad woman and don’t breed…” the narrator considers. “Only in the pursuit of failure can a person really be free.”

Where ‘Motherhood’ disappoints is in failing to acknowledge the same psychic oppression that is at work on mothers themselves. If childless women are seen as failures, so too are women with kids. As various studies have shown, reaching for the modern holy grail of ‘perfect parenthood’ is a rigged game. The feminist socialist Angela McRobbie has described a "neoliberal intensification of mothering," particularly since the financial crash. As state support is stripped away, more responsibility is piled on women to be ideal mothers, workers and wives: they have already failed before they begin.

Jacqueline Rose takes this further in her latest work, ‘Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty.’ Drawing on diverse philosophical, literary and cultural sources including Ancient Greek medical lore, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels and post-natal depression in South Africa, the book argues that mothers have long been held accountable for the suffering of the world. “Motherhood is, in Western discourse, the place in our culture where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts, of what it means to be fully human,” she writes. In other words, mothers are the “ultimate scapegoats.”

As Rose goes to great lengths to show, mothers, just like childless women, are always perceived both as threats and failures. In this she builds on Adrienne Rich’s ‘Of Woman Born: ‘Motherhood’ as Experience and Institution’, a pioneering work of second-wave feminism which agued that “there is much to suggest that the male mind has always been haunted by the force of the idea of dependence on a woman for life itself.” Women have the ultimate power: to bring life into the world, or not. Therein lies the threat. The fight for control over women’s bodies will be lost for good if women decide not to breed.

So who bears the heaviest cross—the outcast witch or the always-inadequate mother? This, of course, is the wrong question. Both camps are under siege, and as so often under patriarchy, they are conveniently turned against each other. We don’t even possess a neutral language. Whether we use ‘childless’ (implying defectiveness) or ‘childfree’ (implying that mothers are ‘unfree’) is just one of the many battle-lines. By getting lost in the fray and exposing the bitterness and sorrow of division, Heti’s book can be read as an urgent missive to lay down arms.

There has never been a better moment to acknowledge that neither position is ‘natural,’ and to accept Simone De Beauvoir’s classic statement on the realities of self-construction: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” It’s not only the rising number of childless women; it’s also the growth of different kinds of mothering through the increased use of reproductive technologies like IVF that’s used by lesbian couples to share motherhood. There’s an ongoing struggle for the rights of queer bodies to use this tech, as well as a class and racial divide due to its expense. Yet the possibilities give new meaning to the question, ‘Will I make a good mother?’

I, for one, am undecided. ‘Motherhood’ is also a raft for me in entering these turbid waters. Heti doesn’t touch on some of my most vital concerns. For a book published in the Trump era, it doesn’t waste many words considering what kind of future might be bequeathed to the next generation. If I listen to my animal instincts, they are telling me to direct all my powers, such as they are, towards protecting the good that is already in the world. Practically, financially, and in deeper terms of emotional energy, I am not sure I can also have children.

There is much more to say, yet Heti is brave to have opened the door. ‘Motherhood’ is a gesture towards honesty, bringing much that was dark into light. The book makes it more possible to think the decision, but also to dream, embody and feel it. And that’s what I intend to do.

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