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by Sheila Heti.
Harvill Secker, 277 pp., £16.99, May 2018, 978 1 84655 837 5
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On​ a recent episode of an Irish talk show, a guest celebrated her 90th birthday accompanied by her 19 children. The children, now mostly in their fifties and sixties, occupied the whole front row of the audience. Other (male) guests on the show came forward to shake her hand; the Irish Mirror described her as ‘inspirational’. She seemed like a nice woman and a loving mother, but strangers don’t spring from their seats to congratulate loving mothers of one or two children. And it’s not as if having 19 babies constitutes a public good; on the contrary, if everyone did it we’d be in trouble. From a certain perspective, having a child is an extremely ordinary thing to do, in the sense that most women eventually do it. This person had just done something ordinary an extraordinary number of times.

How then to read the awe and adulation? Mothers don’t usually receive so much praise. In fact they’re always being accused of bad parenting, or exploiting maternity leave, or receiving too much in child benefit payments. But the woman who has given birth 19 times is not only a mother: she’s a model of womanhood, a pre-feminist ideal of a life lived (we imagine) purely in service of reproduction and child-rearing. When I think of the women in 20th-century Ireland who spent their fertile years perpetually pregnant or nursing, I don’t feel inspired; I feel terrified. Such women do deserve congratulations, for having survived. But having 19 children doesn’t strike me as a better or more important achievement than having one – or none.

Sheila Heti’s new book, Motherhood, confronts the philosophical questions raised by childbearing and womanhood in a narrative both fictional and non-fictional. ‘I know a woman who refuses to mother, refuses to do the most important thing,’ Heti writes, ‘and therefore becomes the least important woman. Yet the mothers aren’t important, either. None of us are important.’ Refusing to participate in motherhood shuts a woman out of the ‘universal story’, removes her from ‘the main activity of a woman’s life’. But raising a child turns a woman into a mother, whose defining activity, for the rest of her life, is mothering. This is the double bind Heti dissects: to be childless, and therefore less important than a mother; or to be a mother, and therefore less important than one’s children.

The book looks like a novel. It is arranged in short fragments, which incorporate dialogue, but it doesn’t tell a story as such. Its progress often feels more cyclical than linear. Many of the chapter headings refer to stages of the menstrual cycle – ‘PMS’, ‘Bleeding’, ‘Ovulating’ – in a repeating pattern, turning the story back on itself. At the opening of the book, our narrator (we never learn her name; she is an everywoman too, even if not a mother) is almost 37; each passing cycle represents one of a diminishing number of opportunities. ‘Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself,’ she writes. Her friends, meanwhile, aren’t really characters so much as representatives of various possibilities. Teresa, an older friend, warns the protagonist that people can be ‘streamed into the conventional life’ despite their own desires, and counsels her to follow her instincts; Mairon, who has recently become a mother, wants ‘all of her friends to be married off with babies’ like her. A book about an unconventional life needs an unconventional form.

The narrator’s partner, Miles, a lawyer, has a daughter from a previous relationship; he tells the narrator that they can have a baby if she wants one: ‘but you have to be sure.’ Despite his professed neutrality, it quickly becomes clear that Miles doesn’t want more children. ‘It might be nice to have a child,’ the narrator remarks to him. He replies: ‘I’m sure it’s also nice to get a lobotomy.’ The narrator’s relationship with Miles – they have frequent and distressing arguments – presents a further complication. How can she tell the difference between her own desires, and her desire to please him? ‘I don’t want to seem ordinary in Miles’s eyes,’ she writes. ‘I would rather not have a child than appear that way.’

To navigate her dilemma, the narrator conjures up some cosmic guidance in the form of three coins. She asks a yes-or-no question and then flips the coins; if two or three of them come up heads, the answer is yes, and if two or three are tails, it’s no. (A note at the start of the book assures the reader that ‘all results from the flipping of coins result from the flipping of actual coins,’ suggesting that Heti and her narrator inhabit, if not the same person, at least the same reality.) This process injects an element of chance into the narrative, which Heti corrals in service of the book’s philosophical inquiry. Telling the coins about her recurrent nightmares, the narrator asks: ‘Do these dreams visit me to balance out something in my conscious attitude?’ To which the coins respond: no. Undeterred, the narrator asks: ‘Am I just cursed by a demon, sort of randomly?’ The coins say yes. It’s a funny moment, but it opens out unexpectedly into an analysis of the biblical story of Jacob wrestling the Angel. Elsewhere, Heti draws on dream imagery, tarot cards, ancient Greek drama and the visions of a psychic – ‘a spiritual healer or fraud’ – to contextualise and reinterpret the central concerns of the book.

Motherhood is also about the experience of being parented. The narrator can’t answer the question of whether to be a mother without thinking about her own mother. Like Heti’s, the narrator’s mother married in her early twenties and migrated from Hungary to Canada, speaking almost no English. As well as the coins she tosses at her desk as she writes, other real events and circumstance inform Heti’s narrative – but Motherhood works, as novels should, by putting questions of literal truth to one side. The narrator’s mother, a pathologist, spent her adult life immersed in work, at times moving out of the family home for months on end to study, leaving her husband to care for the children. She was also profoundly unhappy, and cried openly and often during her daughter’s childhood. ‘What was I doing to make her cry?’ the protagonist wondered when she was young. ‘Why had I been born to cause her pain?’ The narrator carries through her early life a deep-rooted guilt: she feels as if she has been born at the expense of someone else’s happiness. By embarking on this novel, she hopes to solve a real problem: ‘This will be a book to prevent future tears – to prevent me and my mother from crying. It can be called a success if, after reading it, my mother stops crying for good.’

The narrator’s mother’s tears had to do, in large part, with the death of her own mother, Magda. As a young woman, Magda survived Auschwitz and went on to marry the son of a woman she met there. She lost her first daughter and then had another. Her own hopes for a professional life were destroyed and she insisted that her only living child pursue a career. Shortly after she saw her daughter married, and after encouraging her to emigrate, Magda died of cancer. Her life as a Jewish woman who survived the 20th century’s worst atrocities weighs heavily on Heti’s narrator as she considers the prospect of having children herself. ‘If you don’t have children, the Nazis will have won’ is one way of looking at it. On the other hand: ‘I don’t really care if the human race dies out.’ Simply to continue the maternal line doesn’t strike the narrator as an adequate way of honouring her mother and grandmother, or even an appropriate one. The calculation becomes darker still when we learn that Magda almost volunteered for a role in the camp kitchen at Auschwitz, but was prevented; those who did volunteer were raped and shot dead. The narrator grimly suggests that this was the natural endpoint of her family line, and that her own life resembles ‘those last few bloodied and hobbled steps after the bullet has pierced the body’. She finds herself longing to live in service of her ancestors, her grandmother and mother, rather than the next generation and the ones to come. Children represent ‘eternity forwards’; Heti’s narrator wants to find eternity ‘backwards through time’.

But will these discoveries serve to achieve the narrator’s aim – to put an end to her mother’s tears, and her own? The narrator’s profound, if episodic, unhappiness forms the emotional backdrop of the novel but, as often as not, she refuses to take it seriously. Early in the book she asks the coins: ‘Does it really matter how I’m feeling?’ When the coins say no, she replies: ‘No, no. I didn’t think so. So many feelings in a day. It’s clearly not the rudder – not the oracle – not the thing you should steer your life by, not the map.’ When, later, anti-depressants lift her mood, her scepticism towards the philosophical value of ‘feeling’ intensifies. How can feelings mean anything if they are dependent not on personal revelation but on pharmaceutical intervention?

Sheila Heti’s​ last novel, How Should a Person Be?, occasioned a great deal of critical commentary when it was published in 2010. Billed as a ‘novel from life’, it followed a recently divorced protagonist named Sheila and her friends on the Toronto cultural scene through their various conversations about art and living. In Motherhood, Heti continues the project of How Should a Person Be? in at least one way: by opening out seemingly individual experiences into a general inquiry about ways of being. Despite its cyclical form, Motherhood is not so much a document of uncertainty and indecision as of the narrator’s slow and halting decision to live without children. A surprising number of its reviews, however, begin with an account of the critic’s own experience of giving birth or parenting. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kate Wolf writes that she read Motherhood when her ‘five-month-old baby was waking often in the night’. Willa Paskin’s review for Slate opens: ‘When my daughter was born, the sleepless first weeks arrived with the force of surprise.’ In Harper’s, Christine Smallwood recalls the aftermath of a traumatic birth, which left her ‘starving, stitched, bleeding, unable to walk’. Having babies is no doubt very interesting, but part of the point Heti is making is that not having babies can be interesting too; that living eternity backwards through one’s ancestors could be just as fulfilling as living it forwards through one’s children. Why respond to a text about childlessness with a personal account of the trials of motherhood? Does the childless woman represent a threat to the mother? I don’t think so: the narrator, for her part, points out that ‘living one way is not a criticism of every other way of living.’ But Paskin suggests that the book might have been ‘a better one’ if the narrator had chosen to have children after all.

Heti’s narrator isn’t smug about her decision. She describes herself as ‘a draft dodger’ and ‘a coward’; she worries that ‘life without children has the quality of waiting on the doorstep.’ Only by the end of the book does she decide that a life with or without children would be ‘equal in emptiness and equal in fullness … neither path better and neither path worse’. ‘Can’t we be united in being sincere to ourselves?’ Heti asks in a recent interview with the Financial Times.

The moral conundrum involved in the decision to create a new life can’t be resolved in the space of a novel – but Motherhood gives it sustained and serious attention. ‘I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself,’ Miles says at one point. ‘It’s like someone who digs a big hole in the middle of a busy intersection, and then starts filling it up again, and proclaims: filling up this hole is the most important thing in the world I could be doing right now.’ I was reminded of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus: ‘To decide whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy.’ Camus meant that the only serious philosophical problem was that of suicide; it seems to me that the most serious philosophical problem could equally be that of parenthood: to decide whether or not life is worth bringing into existence.

Giving birth is not the only creative act of which women are capable. The prologue makes clear that this book is as concerned with art as it is with mothering. ‘To transform the greyish and muddy landscape of my mind into a solid and concrete thing, utterly apart from me, indeed not me at all, was my only hope.’ But is this ‘solid and concrete thing’ a child? Or another book? Miles tells the narrator that ‘one can either be a great artist and a mediocre parent, or the reverse, but not great at both.’ I resented him for trying to tip the scales with this nonsense, because the narrator certainly does want to be a great artist: ‘I can lay my hand on beauty,’ she says. The passages in which the narrator contemplates her writing life are some of the most quietly affecting in the novel:

I had such a nice time the next day, pacing in the sunlight before my 4.30 lecture, realising how much writing has given me, and feeling so lucky that this passion was mine – right there, in the centre of my life. And you are never lonely while writing, I thought, it’s impossible to be – categorically impossible – because writing is a relationship. You’re in a relationship with some force that is more mysterious than yourself. As for me, I suppose it has been the central relationship of my life.

In the end, Heti’s narrator wants to create – specifically, to create something that will honour the memory of her mother and grandmother. ‘I want to make a child that will not die,’ she writes, ‘a body that will speak and keep on speaking, which can’t be shot or burned up.’ Motherhood both documents that desire and fulfils it. When the coins tell the narrator that yes, her sadness is related to the demon in her dreams, she knows at once how to respond: ‘Then the thing to do is to keep wrestling.’

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