Reviews — From the April 2018 issue

Never Done

The impossible work of motherhood

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In Little Labors, a book of brief essays written while her daughter (“the puma”) was a baby, Rivka Galchen made a list of twentieth-century women writers who had children and those who didn’t. The survey (which first appeared in this magazine) is more or less as you’d expect. Many (Flannery O’Connor, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt) did not have children. A few (Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Penelope Fitzgerald) did. A couple (Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing) had children and abandoned them. The ones who had children published later in life. Female writers who had children published fewer books than male writers who had children. I’m not sure what to make of it all. Does publishing early make you a better writer? Is writing more books better than writing fewer books? Could the experience of having children make it possible for some people to write, just as it makes it impossible for others? And what about the particulars? Was Arendt so cheery about the possibility of “natality” because she didn’t spend five hours a day walking and bouncing a colicky infant? Would we have Beloved if Morrison didn’t know maternal life from the inside?

My two favorite books about motherhood are Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. DeWitt is not a mother; Offill is. The Last Samurai begins in the voice of Sibylla, a thwarted scholar, and is eventually taken over by her son, a prodigy named Ludo who goes off in search of his father. It is dense and filled with information about Japanese film, learning Greek, linguistics, etc. Dept. of Speculation is written in fragments, like poetry. The narrator is an author whose second book stalls after she has a child, and then her husband has an affair. Writing this now, I see that both are about intellectual ambition, and men who are in some way absent or unsatisfactory, and children who are completely ravishing yet totally frustrating, everything and not enough. And both gamble that there is something pedagogical or intellectually stimulating about motherhood — that it is, if nothing else, the material of thought, and not opposed to it.

For Heti, it’s an either-or: books or babies. She’s right if you’re trying to do both at the same moment. Rachel Cusk articulated this in her memoir A Life’s Work, which she was able to write because her husband quit his job, telling friends that he was going to “look after the children while Rachel writes her book about looking after the children.” It’s common for female writers to joke that they would like a wife — someone to cook and clean and type up the manuscripts and massage the ego. (Véra Nabokov is often invoked.) Is this a way of saying that they would really like a mother? Heti would like a girlfriend. Having a boyfriend and a girlfriend would make “everything easier, sweeter, more truthful, and more right.”

She learned that work and motherhood were in competition from her own mother, a doctor who “put all of herself into her work and let our father raise my brother and me. . . . A friend once asked me if my mother was dead.” Lacan said that a symptom takes two generations to form. Heti’s maternal grandmother, Magda, survived Auschwitz, studied law, married a man who didn’t suit her, and was forced to help him sell sweaters in Hungary. She urged her daughter, Heti’s mother, to study hard and move to Canada. When Heti tells her mother that she loves her, her mother says, “I am surprised you love me, when I neglected you so much.”

I asked her if motherhood had been the most important part of her life, and she blushed and said, No — at the very same moment that I interrupted her and said, You don’t have to answer. I was there.

In Mothers, Rose quotes Melanie Klein: “Even the most loving mother cannot satisfy the infant’s most powerful emotional needs.” Or maybe the point is that Heti got what she needed after all. “I also am imitating what my mother has done,” Heti says of choosing Motherhood over motherhood. “I do as my mother did, and for the same reasons; we work to give our mother’s life meaning in ways we can’t understand.” The book ends, shamelessly, shockingly, with an email she receives from her mother, who has read the finished draft. “Subject line: It’s magical!” She has made her mother proud. What makes Heti’s mother happiest is that her own mother has been memorialized by her daughter: “You never knew her, and you are the one who will make her alive forever.” Heti and her mother are both daughters. This is what binds them. “Thank you, Sweetheart,” Heti’s mother writes. “I love you very much.”

Could anything be more embarrassing than this naked desire, into middle age, to win the approval of one’s mother, and the need to demonstrate in public that one did? Could anything be more female, more intimate, and less worthy of being made the subject of a novel — and conversely, could anything be more urgent? Heti has done here what Rose says mothers always do: bring shameful human debris into view. She has done it by writing for and about her mother. Her book contains hate but is an act of love. What readers think hardly matters, since the ideal reader has already registered her approval. The book puts itself beyond reproach, which makes it different from motherhood: in real life, mothers are always open to criticism.

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