Reviews — From the April 2018 issue

Never Done

The impossible work of motherhood

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My mother occasionally used to remark that having brought me into the world, she was on hand to usher me out of it. When I was little, I heard this as anger. Now I understand that it was simply a statement of power. Some great portion of misogyny, both male and female, springs from resentment of the all-powerful mother. Rose suggests that the conservative doctrine of self-reliance is a denial of past helplessness. She quotes Adrienne Rich: “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.

Bringing someone into the world, making a home for someone in the world — these are enormously powerful acts, maybe the most powerful acts. A person who has the power to do that has the power (if not the right) to do anything. A person who refuses to do that is just as powerful. As Rose writes, “By refusing to be mothers, women have the power to bring the world to its end.”

But what about women who might like to refuse to be mothers but aren’t sure yet? What power do they have? “Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself — it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.” So writes Sheila Heti in the audaciously titled Motherhood. The book is about Heti’s quest, as she nears forty, to determine once and for all whether she wants to have a child. Mothers is meant to rescue individual women from symbolic abstraction; Heti’s Motherhood is interested only in abstraction. For her, children are a possibility, and thus a projection, a fantasy, and an anxiety. She has no political concerns. There is nothing here about resource wars or the ethics of bringing life onto a violent or dying planet. She simply isn’t sure what she wants, or how to find it out. Her business is a solipsistic existentialism, straight up.

Heti lives in Toronto. In the early 2000s, she published a book of postmodern fairy tales called The Middle Stories and, in 2005, a novel called Ticknor, which was based on a nineteenth-century historian. She then turned her attention closer to home, abandoning made-up characters and invented plots. She collaborated with friends on art projects and, with Misha Glouberman, wrote a book of “conversational philosophy” called The Chairs Are Where the People Go. Her more recent novel, which was published in the United States in 2012, was called How Should a Person Be? James Wood called it “hideously narcissistic,” and the critic Joanna Biggs compared it — without judgment — to The Hills. It was part bildungsroman, part reality show, part pop philosophy, part self-help guide. The characters were based on Heti’s friends, and the book reproduced real conversations. It was part of the early resurgence of “autofiction” that included novels by Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, but it was about an ensemble, a social way of life, rather than a solitary thinker.

Motherhood also calls itself a novel. It’s written in the first person, in a circuitous, confessional style. Like How Should a Person Be?, it is by turns ugly, flip, earnest, and philosophical, but with even less pretense of fictionality. Whether or not everything in it is “real,” it is all personal. It takes up the challenge that the character Sheila laid out in the previous book:

Most people live their entire lives with their clothes on. Then there are those who cannot put them on. . . . They are destined to expose every part of themselves, so the rest of the world can know what it means to be a human.

Some of Motherhood is written according to a coin-flipping method adapted from the I Ching. Two or three heads is a yes; two or three tails, a no. The coins help Heti organize her thoughts and analyze her dreams. She asks them about the story of Jacob wrestling the archangel, which she finds resonant. (“And then I named this wrestling place Motherhood, for here is where I saw God face-to-face, and yet my life was spared.”) Many questions Heti poses to the coins involve her boyfriend, Miles. Miles has a daughter from a previous relationship and does not want another kid. He calls having children a “handicap.” He says that parenthood is “the biggest scam of all time.”

Should I have a child with Miles?

no

Should I have a child at all?

yes

So then I should leave Miles?

no

Should I have an affair with another man while I’m with Miles, and raise the child as Miles’s own, deceiving him about the provenance of that child?

yes

I don’t think that’s a good idea. Are you saying I shouldn’t have a child with Miles because it would be too stressful on the relationship, and on each of us, individually?

yes

It’s possible to imagine another writer — Dorthe Nors, for example — pursuing this business with the coins for a whole book, with great success. But that would be too much of a constraint on Heti, who prefers a baggier mélange of forms. The book is composed mostly of journally passages, divided into short chapters and stand-alone paragraphs, which vary considerably in sagacity and interest. There are also trips to literary festivals, a meeting with a fortune-teller, some family history, and summaries of conversations with friends, many of whom have betrayed the author by having children.

I had always thought my friends and I were moving into the same land together, a childless land where we would just do a million things together forever. I thought our minds and souls were all cast the same way, not that they were waiting for the right moment to jump ship, which is how it feels as they abandon me here.

There is something more here than sour grapes. Heti relies on her friends as material and as collaborators. As they disappear into the inside world of babies, the loss is artistic as well as social. “Living one way is not a criticism of every other way of living” is something she says but doesn’t really believe. Her friends pressure her in subtle or unsubtle ways to have children, sometimes by saying that they are happy, sometimes by saying that they are jealous of everything Heti is accomplishing. The mutual incomprehension of the childless and those with children is, as ever, depressing. There is envy on both sides, and fear, and projection. It is always easier to feel aggrieved and misunderstood than it is to be curious about what life is like for other people. “Libby said that I was a young soul, or must be, still discovering the world — she meant I was not an old enough soul to want to make a baby.” Libby, who must be in line for sainthood, says this on the occasion of introducing her two-month-old baby to Heti. If one of my friends, on meeting my baby, had turned the conversation to herself, I would not have reassured her about the youth of her soul. But I think — I would think this! — that new mothers are entitled to a temporary lack of curiosity about the outside world. They are in a state of primary maternal preoccupation, without which their babies would die.

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