Published in The Saturday Paper, May 26 2018
Even in the tsunami of fourth-wave feminism, we’re still asking whether women can “have it all”. Career remains family’s nemesis, the balancing act laden with moral judgement no matter where the scales fall. To procreate or not to procreate is posited as the question of women’s childbearing years, if not their lives. For the female artist, the tick-tock of the biological clock forms part of a larger din, clashing with cries that motherhood is anathema to creativity.
Lately The Handmaid’s Tale has been revived as a cautionary tale, and books such as Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum, which vindicated the deliberately childless as respectable citizens, remain culturally necessary.
It’s into this political climate that Sheila Heti’s second novel, Motherhood – her sixth book in a diverse oeuvre – propels itself. Narrated by an unnamed female writer living in Toronto, whose biography resembles Heti’s own, her womb’s “siren song” grows deafening as she approaches 40. Whenever she leaves the house, kindly strangers at bars, writers’ festivals and on the street proffer advice on utilising her uterus.
“If you can get that existential satisfaction from parenthood, would you feel as much desire to make art?” asks her partner Miles, who insists the decision is hers alone, yet continually stokes her trepidation. She recounts that, “He said that one can either be a great artist and a mediocre parent, or the reverse, but not great at both, because both art and parenthood take all of one’s time and attention.”
Like Heti’s 2012 novel How Should a Person Be?, Motherhood is an experiment in autofiction, the literary genre du jour where an authorial alter ego often works on the book in question. In the form’s finest examples, such as Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, autofiction asks questions about art and artifice, about who gets to speak and why. When these questions were asked by a young woman, however, Heti – like Kraus before her – came up against accusations of “self-involvement”, “aimlessness” and being “confessional”.
In this critical context, the “selfish, shallow and self-absorbed” protagonist of Motherhood seems a provocation. We follow Heti’s stand-in through indistinguishable days spent mooning about the couple’s flat. Each morning, Miles, a lawyer, strides out into the world, while she lies in bed writing to understand the contours of her woe – one of those “pale, brittle women writers” with whom she’s always been “fascinated and horrified”.
In agonising interior monologues, she reveals herself as oversensitive, petulant, mercurial: “Today I cried as Miles was leaving the house. When he asked why, I said it was because I had nothing to do.” Her ongoing indecision about motherhood, as well as obsessing over perceived romantic slights, is the infinite dilly-dallying of someone with no real problems to speak of.
Heti’s prose is deceptively pared back, but conversational rhythms and fragmentary chapters – in the second half, organised around phases of the menstrual cycle – don’t quite mask the artifice. For all the character’s excessive emotions, sentiment is more often declarative than felt: “I so wanted to be happy, sort of at the expense of everything else, but I did not know what happiness consisted of.”
Motherhood isn’t as funny as How Should a Person Be?, but Heti remains as wryly self-aware. The protagonist deploys the least scientific methods to probe her conundrum, seeking divination in tarot readers and two-bit psychics. While most writing guides insist dream sequences be deployed frugally, Heti allows them to mushroom, articulating anxieties about imagined offspring, cheating lovers, or ageing, with deliciously Freudian visions of the “soggy breasts of an old woman” transforming into “two flaccid penises”.
In a particularly tricksy turn, the protagonist uses an I Ching-inspired conceit of tossing coins to make writerly decisions. The novel itself is presented as an act of chance, rather than the urgent and essential creation of a Serious Writer:
Is the time for worrying about my particular being over?
Is this the time to begin thinking about the soul of time?
Is this conversation the beginning?
I have so little practice thinking about the soul of time, and so much practice thinking about myself.
The seemingly flippant literary device opens up a mode of self-inquiry stretching back to Socrates’ dialogues. Much as in Heti’s 2011 book The Chairs Are Where the People Go, written with her friend Misha Glouberman, we find a kind of “conversational philosophy” in action. Procreation becomes not only a personal question but a metaphysical one, where multiple motivations for having children are pondered deeply: as a salve for a struggling relationship, a prophylactic for loneliness, a safeguard against future regret. The protagonist’s grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, giving maternal questions the weight not only of culture but also of history.
Heti takes age-old questions of the good life out of the masculine realm of the intellect and grounds them in feminine realities of the body and emotion. Her self-reflexiveness doesn’t necessarily make the protagonist’s psychic to-ing and fro-ing any less painful to read, though. Heti seemingly aims for the kind of epic realism of Chantal Akerman’s film Jeanne Dielman, forcing her readers to experience the repetitive boredom of women’s domestic lives, but she doesn’t offer comparable transcendence.
Still, this endless self-questioning lifts some cultural veils. Heti writes, “Think[ing] about having kids … suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties – when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience – from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is preoccupied with the possibility.” Here it is not children, but the resounding question of whether to have them, that stifles art’s creation.