Reviews — From the April 2018 issue

Never Done

The impossible work of motherhood

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Motherhood is also an inside world. For all its investment in “reality,” How Should a Person Be? contained a novelistic scaffolding. There were scenes, rising and falling action. Although that book was also about not-doing — the character Sheila agonized over not writing a play — there was plenty of other stuff that Sheila did do, and there were characters who clearly lived outside of Sheila’s head. Motherhood is claustrophobic, like a diary, or a day with a newborn, and shapeless, even inchoate. It exists only to keep existing. Resolution is deferred while the author examines the problem from every side and then one more. “Even if one comes to a definite resolution against having children,” she writes, “hanging over one’s head remains a spectre, the possibility, that a child will come.” But maybe . . . then again . . . It goes on and on, building to a desperate static. She says things like,

Sometimes I’m convinced that a child will add depth to all things — just bring a background of depth and meaning to whatever it is I do. I also think I might have brain cancer. There’s something I can feel in my brain, like a finger pressing down.

These do not seem to be the thoughts of someone who seriously intends to have a baby. Or perhaps they are the thoughts of someone whose desire is so thwarted that she has mounted elaborate intellectual and comic defenses against it. Or perhaps she truly believes that she has brain cancer. We are in uncomfortable waters, and the reviewer is forced to play therapist. If Heti does want a child, what is preventing her — Is it Miles, or her own adolescent notions of freedom? If she doesn’t want a child, why can’t she just get on with not having one? For a while I thought that the book was a pointed social critique, meant to demonstrate the difficulty of living outside convention even for a person who very much wants to. But Heti is not a social critic. Near the end of the book, she is prescribed an antidepressant to treat the debilitating PMS that leaves her “half the month crumpled in tears.”

The drugs seem to be working, that’s all I can say. The drugs really seem to be working. The fear in me, the anxiety, is quelling because of these drugs. . . . What kind of story is it when a person goes down, down, down and down — but instead of breaking through and seeing the truth and ascending, they go down, then they take drugs, and then they go up? I don’t know what kind of story it is.

If you have at all invested in the dilemma of Motherhood, this denouement is a disappointment. But it’s true to the times, and in that respect tells us something about what it means to be human. If you think social problems shouldn’t have pharmacological solutions, take it up with the twenty-first century.

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