‘To Be or Not To Be: A Review of Sheila Heti’s “Motherhood”’, by Madelaine Lucas

Harvill Secker

Among the meditations on books and babies in Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, a list of names appears under the heading “Notes on some twentieth-century writers”:

Flannery O’Connor: No children.
Eudora Welty: no children. One children’s book.
Hilary Mantel, Janet Frame, Willa Cather, Jane Bowles, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt, Irish Murdoch, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Mavis Gallant, Simone de Beauvoir, Barbara Pym: No children.
Helen Gurley Brown, author of Having It All: no children.

Of the writer-mothers that appear, further down the list, most had a later start – presumably, after their children had grown, at what might be called, in somewhat archaic terms, the end of their childbearing years. Toni Morrison was forty-nine when her first book was published; Penelope Fitzgerald was sixty. The others, as Galchen notes, were hardly mothers at all beyond the biological sense: Murial Spark left her son in the care of local fruit-sellers when she escaped her marriage in Southern Rhodesia for London; Rebecca West tried to convince her lovechild with H.G. Wells that she was actually his aunt. Jean Rhys is not mentioned, but I read recently elsewhere of the way she was described by her daughter, at the age of six: “My mother tries to be an artist and she is always crying.” Galchen doesn’t need to elaborate on what her equations imply: that, for most of history, motherhood has been incompatible with having a productive creative career.

Closer to home, at a Melbourne art school in the 1980s, my mother was taught that a woman was ill-advised to pursue both. Her first-year painting professor was an influential figure in the emerging punk and feminist scene, celebrated for her works that combined images with confessional text to depict a particularly feminine interiority – a world of cats, horses, and lonely long-haired girls who were trapped in bell jars or had fallen down rabbit-holes. There was plenty of room for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in her vision of female experience, but not motherhood: a woman can’t be an artist and have children, this professor told her students, so you better decide now which one you want to be. My mother was seventeen, still seven years away from being anybody’s mother, but she has never taken very kindly to people telling her what to do.

Still, the suspicion persists that mothers can’t be good artists and artists don’t make good mothers. It’s a false dichotomy, as Galchen (herself a 21st-century mother-writer) and my mother know, but it continues to haunt. In Shelia Heti’s latest novel Motherhood, the narrator’s boyfriend puts it this way: “it sort of blows your load, parenting, because it’s the perfect job – it’s very hard but only you can do it. And isn’t making art like that?

Like Heti, the narrator of Motherhood is a Canadian writer living in Toronto. She is thirty-six when the novel begins and arrested with indecision over whether or not to have a baby before she turns forty – her own self-imposed deadline. Despite her achievements—the relationship she has with her boyfriend, Miles, the six books she’s published with enough acclaim to earn an independent income from writing—she sees these small victories pale in comparison to the lives of those around her, which are crowned by the more traditional markers of success: marriages, mortgages, babies.

Over the next few years, she finds herself adrift in adulthood, suffering bouts of loneliness and depression as her peers become increasingly preoccupied with raising children – an activity she frames as something like a party she has been invited to, but doesn’t really wish to attend: “It’s fair to say I’m missing out on something, but also that I might prefer to miss out.” Sometimes this looks like emptiness; but also, radical possibility:

To have a child is like being a city with a mountain in the middle. Everyone sees the mountain. Everyone in the city is proud of the mountain. The city is built around it. A mountain, like a child, displays something real about the value of that town. In a life in which there is no child, no one knows anything about your life’s meaning. They might suspect it doesn’t have one…How wonderful to tread an invisible path, where what matters most can hardly be seen.

The stakes are different for Miles, a criminal defense lawyer with a young child from a previous relationship (a character who remains curiously, if not conspicuously, on the periphery). In response to the narrator’s dilemma, he is indifferent, as she explains: “If I want a child, we can have one, he said, but you have to be sure,” and these words, cast in italics, seem to reverberate throughout the rest of the novel as she struggles to make a choice that feels ethical and true. It’s the equivalent of shrugging and saying I don’t mind – supposedly liberating, but also a way of opting out of the conversation. It doesn’t help that the narrator’s own impulses and desires are mysterious to her: “Whether or not I want kids is a secret I keep from myself – it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.”

She begins to seek answers elsewhere, employing logic, reasoning, mysticism, chance. She asks questions – of coins, of fortune tellers and East Village street psychics, friends, family, and most of all, herself. What kind of life for a woman is a life without children? And could this choice be as spiritually fulfilling, or equally valuable as motherhood? Does a productive life have to be biologically re-productive? Or, to use her words: “Can a woman who makes books be let off the hook by the universe for not making the living thing called babies?”

At the launch of Motherhood in New York, on the first day in May that truly felt like spring, I sat in the lower level of a Manhattan bookstore flushed with the sudden heat that had made white flowers bloom on the tree outside my window overnight, like a nature documentary time-lapse. I spoke eagerly with a woman I’d just met, another writer around my age, about our competing desires to have lives that produced both books and babies. For both of us, it felt important that the novels we were working on arrived first. I sort of feel like the book is the first baby, said my new friend, and then she paused, backtracked. Not that I have a partner, or anything. Our conversation seemed like an example of what Heti highlights in the novel – that women debate the idea of motherhood privately, internally, maddeningly (regardless of, prior to, or in the absence of any partnership) because the question of whether or not to have children is an existential one. To be or not to be a mother is ultimately a question of what makes a valuable, productive and meaningful life.

Later, at home, I Googled the term “competing desires”, which had become lodged in my brain, a recursive refrain, during my reading of Motherhood until the words began to lose all meaning. The recommended result was a Quora page titled “Cognitive Psychology: How are competing desires resolved?” The answer, according to the thread: “Competing desires are usually frustrating due to the sequential manner with which we usually do things. Even so, time is the ultimate master of conflict”.

Time also has mastery over the body, and to occupy a female body is to be made especially aware of your relationship to the corporeal clock. At twenty-eight, approaching twenty-nine, I feel sometimes like I’m constantly on a deadline. It’s like being an hourglass, or a lunar calendar: monthly, my body marks time, and I’m aware of it rushing through me. When I think of the men I know, one of the things I envy most is their unimpeded sense of time, the sense of all those years to stretch out into, ripe for chronological manspreading.

“The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or being allowed it”, states Heti’s narrator, and throughout Motherhood there are subtle references to the way time imposes structure on the lives of women – the narrator intends to work on a project that will explore her concept of “the soul of time”, and part of Motherhood is divided into sections according with the four stages of her menstrual cycle: PMS, Bleeding, Follicular, Ovulating.

But the questions of whether or not to have children, and if so, when, and how late is too late, and what else should happen first are not just biological, or existential – they’re literary, as Heti demonstrates, because they’re concerned with the order and arrangement of events in time. In other words, they’re the obsessions of plot.

If the life of a woman without children doesn’t fit the conventional biological arc, then to write and document it requires new structures. For this reason, it is easier to describe Motherhood in relation to what it is not: an essay or an argument, a memoir or a manifesto, or any kind of how-to. But as Heti’s narrator suggests, there’s something reductive about describing an experience in the negative, qualifying it by what it lacks:

Maybe if I can could somehow figure out what not having a child is an experience of—make it into action, rather than the lack of 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, hold in my hands what I have chosen, and show it to other people, and call it mine.

So, what is Motherhood, then?

Loosely speaking, Motherhood is a novel – one that stretches the possibilities of genre and form with the same energy, humor and invention as Heti’s breakthrough, How Should a Person Be?, a novel that included transcripts of real conversations with friends, parts of a play-in-progress, and chapters with headings which read like hilarious title-cards in a subversive silent movie (“Interlude For Fucking”). In Motherhood, Heti also relies on what I like to think of as a combination of fictional and extra-fictional devices to structure an inquiry into maternal ambivalence. The concern here is not how should a mother be, but whether to be one at all, and what is gained or lost in making this choice.

One of the challenges Heti faces with this novel is how to create narrative tension and momentum out of indecision, and one notable device is the use of a divination method inspired by the I-Ching that involves asking a yes/no question and flipping three coins. A ‘yes’ answer requires two or three heads, while two or three tails equals a ‘no’. (A note from the author at the start of the novel states: “While not everything in books is true, in this book, all results from the flipping of coins are true.”) These passages create a frame that pushes back against the narrator’s doubt, while also drawing attention to the limitations of the yes/no binary. There is a playful element to the way she insists on wriggling out of this trap by arguing back with the coins, and their cryptic counsel:

I have to ask, am I like those pale, brittle women writers who never leave the house, who don’t have kids, and who always kind of fascinated and horrified me?
Is there anything I can do to avoid being that way?
no Is there real shame in being that way?
Is that way basically selfish?
And not as connected to the life force as other women, being so shut up in my thoughts and my head?
Is there a male equivalent to this, well, barrenness?
Is there a romantic female figure that equals those male, romantic, artistic figures?
Women artists with children?
If I have children, will I be like those women?

There is truth, Heti knows, in uncertainty because every decision contains the shadow of what could have been, the what-if. Doubt and desire are not binary opposites, but simply two sides to the same coin: “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.”

These passages also inject the book with the spontaneous spirit of improvisation that has made Heti such a gifted collaborator – in Women in Clothes, an anthology produced with Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, as well as her many interviews for The Believer, and the sections of How Should A Person Be? that incorporate real conversations with friends. The coins, in a way, provide a method of collaborating with the self—or the universe—and introducing the creative challenge of the unexpected within the deliberate, solitary act of writing a novel.

Motherhood was originally envisioned as another interviews project, and at times I found myself imagining what this could have looked like: another tome, perhaps, like Women In Clothes, with pictures of baby shoes and illustrations mapping cesarean scars. A book that could have had the space and flexibility to voice a wider diversity of maternal experiences: of young mothers, older mothers, step-mothers, mothers-in-law, grandmothers and aunts, lesbian mothers and gay fathers, single mums, trans-parents, mothers who have adopted or given children up for adoption, mothers who have abandoned children and children who have been abandoned, surrogate mothers, incarcerated mothers, women who have had IVF, midwives, women who have had abortions, mothers of miscarried or stillborn babies, would-be mothers who wanted children but never had them, women who never wanted children at all.

If Motherhood is limited, it is because it contains one voice—the voice of the narrator—and in a sense she is the only character. Even when others do appear, their purpose seems to be to express different sides of the debate the narrator is having with herself, in a tradition that feels closer to philosophy than literature (although this technique is becoming more common in contemporary autofiction; Rachel Cusk’s recent novels Outline and Transit being a good example). Since these characters are similar to the narrator in terms of age, class and race, they might act as something like the controls in an experiment – a way of briefly glimpsing the paths her life could have taken. But since the novel takes place largely within “the greyish and muddy landscape” of the narrator’s mind, the reader is confined to her perspective. Dialogue is reported rather than transcribed – all interactions with friends, family, fortunetellers, are filtered through her consciousness. But this may have been a way of proving Heti’s original thesis: that when people give advice about motherhood, they are always speaking to themselves.

Some of the most insightful moments in the book come from Heti’s observation of how threatened we can feel by the decisions of others – especially when it comes to one as personal and irrevocable as having a baby. In one scene, a friend with a newborn asks the narrator if she plans to “do her time”, as if motherhood was something like a draft she was recruiting for, or a prison sentence. Then, leaving the apartment, the narrator runs into her former classics professor. “Please, don’t have children,” insists the professor, though she herself has a thirty-five-year-old daughter: “I knew she was trying to save me from a life of drudgery and pain”, explains the narrator. “I said, But wasn’t having a daughter the greatest experience of your life? She paused for a moment, then admitted it was”.

To decide to be a mother, or not to be – both involve letting go of one idea of yourself and embracing another. The only difference is the decision not-to is invisible. A baby, after all, is its own explanation. One day, it will even grow old enough to speak for itself.

When Heti was heralded, earlier this year, by The New York Times as part of a new vanguard of writers who are also women, the critic Dwight Garner praised her ability to deliver “prose that feels like actual, flickering, unmediated, sometimes humiliating thought.”

Part of Heti’s strength, and what makes her work so compelling, is her ability to translate a mind to the page in a way that feels unfiltered and confessional by embracing the honesty of contradictory feeling and finding beauty in ugliness and flaw. But this artistic feat is often missed by those who fail to recognize that all consciousness, in writing, is crafted, and insist on conflating Shelia Heti with her fictional persona. As Maggie Nelson once said, quoting Eileen Myles quoting the film director Carl Dryer: “in writing, you have to use artifice to strip artifice of artifice.” Yes, Heti is a master of something like that.

The aim of Motherhood is not necessarily to solve the narrator’s dilemma, but to evoke the anxiety of indecision and capture the texture of ambivalence on the page – the mind’s recursions, vacillations, obsessions, anxiety dreams, images, conversations, memories and competing desires. In many ways, the decision of whether or not to have a baby functions as a classic literary framework: create a character and give them desires, I was taught in graduate school. This is where story comes from. “I always believed there were several possible lives I could be living, and they were arranged in my head like dolls on a mantelpiece,” the narrator writes. “I would take them down, one by one, dust them off, and examine their contours and compare.” But what matters is not so much the choice that is made, but what that choice has the potential to reveal – especially in fiction like Heti’s, where authority, intimacy and drama is created primarily by voice and style.

Last time I had a difficult decision to make, my friend gave me some advice from her own mother: toss a coin, and then see how you feel about the answer. You’ll know what’s right from the way your heart will sink or lighten, but you’ll still be free to change your mind. Writing, in a way, is a trick like this – or a little like taking down one of those dolls from the shelf of the mind and imagining a life for it. As Milan Kundera once stated, about his own process:

The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities…Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own ‘I’ ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.

A novel then—especially one as flexible and formally unconventional as Motherhood—is a way, briefly, of springing out of the trap. The page is a space of possibility and play, where we can cross that border beyond the self we know and see what lies on the other side, and whether or not we might like it there, beyond the boundaries of our own life. “A life is just a proposition you ask by living it, Can a life be lived like this too?” states Heti’s narrator, but we could repurpose this: A novel is just a proposition you ask by writing it—or reading it—can a life be lived like this too?

Writing can be a way of exercising doubt, making peace with the what-if by whittling it into art. It can be a method of containing anxiety, “like combing your hair to get out knots,” as Heti suggested at her launch. Although we may be taught from a young age that stories are about things that happen, in Motherhood Heti proves that the things we didn’t do—the missed chances, whether or not we wanted to miss them, can also be rich, and yes, fertile—imaginative territory: “The problem is that life is long, and much happens by accident, and choices made in a single week can effect an entire life-time, and the decider within us is not always under our control,” writes Heti’s narrator. “So as much as I can’t see having a child, it’s strange to imagine I actually won’t. Yet the not-having seems just as amazing, unlikely and special as the having…To battle nature and to submit to nature, both feel very worthy. They both feel entirely valuable.”

Madelaine Lucas is an Australian writer and musician currently based in Brooklyn, New York. She is the senior editor of NOON literary annual and an MFA candidate at Columbia University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, Literary Hub, Catapult and The Lifted Brow.