To be or not to be... a mother? Raging against society’s expectations of women
At a book festival in Dublin, the childless narrator of Sheila Heti’s new novel encounters a fellow female childless writer, who says to her, confidingly: “With women our age, the first thing one always wants to know about another woman is whether she has children, and if she doesn’t, whether she is going to. It’s like a civil war: which side are you on?”
The fact that women are still pervasively defined by whether they have chosen to have a child or not is railed against with occasional brilliance in Motherhood.
The narrator, whom we are invited to assume is Heti herself, is a successful Canadian writer in her late thirties, tormented not only by the question of whether she wants to have a child (she mainly thinks she doesn’t) but by the general assumption from friends, strangers and society at large that she eventually will. The writing of this novel — which, in its intimate jumble of observations and feelings across several years, mostly resembles a memoir — is not only a chance for her to work through how she feels but also an act of resistance.
Near the end, Heti confesses the book has become a “prophylactic”. The work of producing it has been a thing to do while she waits for her child-bearing years to pass, a “raft that will carry me just so long and so far, that my questions can no longer be asked”.
Rachel Cusk wrote with palpable fury at the start of her 2002 memoir, A Life’s Work, that “childbirth and motherhood are the anvil upon which sexual inequality was forged”. Heti doesn’t have Cusk’s political focus but she is excellent at dismantling a certain cultural complacency about the achievements of feminism — the delusion that, just because a few skirmishes have been won, the battle for women’s right to lead their life in any way they choose is over.
For her part, the narrator worries it is selfish not to have a child and bucks in anguish against her own body and its treacherous monthly gearing-up for pregnancy that has such a catastrophic
impact on her moods. In perhaps the book’s most chilling moment, she recalls an encounter with a doctor who tried in vain to dissuade her from having an abortion.
“There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children... What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?’” she writes.
Heti, whose 2013 novel How Should a Person Be? was a critical hit, draws heavily here on the techniques of auto-fiction, in which the borders between fiction and autobiography, as in Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series, are deliberately blurred. This can prioritise the value of personal testimony pretty much over anything else, even literary style, and Heti pushes the technique to a point that severely tests the reader’s patience.
Her book is formless, rambling, repetitive, seemingly governed by the principle that any thought or emotion the narrator experiences deserves to be recorded, regardless of its quality or usefulness.
Her gaze is so relentlessly turned towards herself that her analysis can feel irritatingly selective.
The narrator conceives of herself as a writer, above and beyond being a woman, which is a fundamental reason of hers for not wanting a child, but she isn’t at all interested in the obvious truth that you can be a writer and a mother, and succeed at both.
She views friends who have children as having abandoned her, but the fact that she acknowledges this feeling doesn’t make it any less childish.
She becomes more stimulating when she strays beyond herself to her Jewish heritage, and the dark shadow of the Holocaust. The Jewish impulse, she writes, is to repopulate — otherwise “the Nazis will have won”. Yet in an astonishing, all-too-brief repudiation of this idea, she writes that she doesn’t care “if the human race dies out”.
Towards the end, she sinks into depression, and you wonder if her worry over her decision not to have a child is really the cause of what has evidently become a profound unhappiness. There seems to be some greater existential crisis lurking beneath the surface. But she finishes writing the book in a spirit of victory, and, not only out of relief that we too have come to the end, we can’t help cheering with her.
Auto-fiction: we are invited to assume the narrator is Heti herself
FICTION Motherhood Sheila Heti Harvill Secker, hardback, 282 pages, €25