A Fundamentally Absurd Question: Talking with “Motherhood” Author Sheila Heti




I FIRST READ Sheila Heti’s new novel Motherhood during a period when my five-month-old baby was waking often in the night. In my state of rabid exhaustion, I found the skepticism Heti deploys toward childbearing in the book utterly contagious. A stream of questions that explore the topic of having a child and making art forms much of the basis of Motherhood’s narrative. In the style of consulting the I Ching, Heti’s unnamed narrator often poses these questions — comical and kaleidoscopic riffs that address the direction both her future and the book in process should take — to coin tosses. There are also extended scenes with a psychic and a Tarot reader. In the novel’s most powerful passages, the narrator confronts the possibility of maternity by herself, wondering if a life that does not include being a mother can be defined by means other than lack.

As opposed to the way motherhood is presented in a text like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), which injects the maternal with sex and critical theory, the figure of the mother in Heti’s book is more of the long-suffering variety. Other books, such as Adrienne Rich’s seminal Of Woman Born (1976) and Rachel Cusk’s beautifully written A Life’s Work (2001), have looked askance at the institution and duties of modern motherhood. But these are told from the point of view of women who already have children and feature details about the hardships of raising a family that may sound familiar to other mothers but are hardly enviable. 

With Heti’s book, however, I couldn’t help but envy the narrator. An accomplished writer, she travels the world on book tour, supports herself, and meets interesting people because of her ability to “lay [her] hand on beauty.” At home, she lives with a boyfriend with whom she is deeply in love. She produces books while others in her life produce babies, and though she pains herself deliberating on the possibility of doing both while questioning if she wants a child at all, her fulfillment seemed obvious to me — the debate a ruse, even. Whereas while reading, I started to doubt my own fulfillment, wondering if I, too, shouldn’t have heeded my ambivalence about motherhood more closely.

On a second read (and under improved sleep conditions), though, I realized that these kinds of comparisons are in part what Heti is trying to interrogate. More resigned to the ways my life had changed, and also hadn’t, with a child, I was able to enjoy Motherhood not as a polemic but as an inventively crafted novel about the complications of being a human being with competing or contradictory desires. (Heti’s narrator seems to prove writer Adam Phillips’s observation that knowing what you don’t want doesn’t mean knowing what you do want.) Even if the narrator’s satisfaction seemed clear to me, crucially, it does not immediately seem clear to her. And while some of this is cast as the shadow of society’s expectations of women, the book also deals in hard choices and irrevocability. Unable to get it out of my head, I was immensely excited to be able to ask Heti, the author of seven previous books, including the acclaimed novel How Should a Person Be?, some questions over email.

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KATE WOLF: The voice of Motherhood is so direct it’s tempting to address all my questions to you as if you and it were one and the same. Do you have a preference for the way you would like people to reference the narrator of the book? Does it feel silly to you to talk about “the character of the novel”? Or is that a necessary distance in speaking about this voice?

SHEILA HETI: No, it doesn’t at all seem silly to talk about “the character of the novel.” With my last book, How Should a Person Be?, I named the character Sheila, but in this book the character has no name. In the last book, the thoughts were not mine. The thoughts were those of a voice I was following, a voice that seemed to come to me from somewhere in my imagination. In this book, the thoughts are mine, but I am not calling her Sheila because I feel a distance between the voice I created and the voice I move through the world with. With the last book, it was easier to call her Sheila because it was so clear to me what the difference was between me and her. With this book, the difference is less clear, but I believe in that distance, in its reality, so I didn’t want to use my name.

Some people may characterize Motherhood as a book about the decision of whether or not to have a baby. But it seems more like a book about the difficulty of making decisions at all — about the difficulties of having and acting upon desires, as well as dealing with ambivalence. I didn’t feel the narrator wanted to become a mother so much as she was tormented by the slowly diminishing specter of possibility that she could become one. Is that how you envisioned it?

In part. I agree with you that it’s about the difficulty of making any decision at all. But I don’t think she’s “tormented by the slowly diminishing specter of the possibility” of motherhood, so much as that she’s tormented over being in the position of having to make this decision at all.

Until so recently in human history, babies just happened. Then through most of the 20th century, the social stigma of being a childless woman was forbiddingly high. As a result of these factors (and many more) there is no history showing how women have struggled with this decision that a contemporary person can consult. We don’t have a common language or a language that goes far back enough in time for how one is supposed to decide something of this nature. So I think my book is also about the absence of a language for thinking and how you think through something when that is the case.

Also, unlike many other choices, when it comes to deciding whether or not to have a child there’s an answer you’re supposed to arrive at: if you decide not to have a kid, there is still, in many circles, puzzlement and pity and condemnation, and a lot of fear-mongering about what life ends up like for women who don’t have children, so you can’t even entirely feel like you are making a free choice. Compounding this is the number of mothers who say they have become a different person since having their child, so you’re not even trying to make the best decision for the present self you are, but for some future self you don’t know yet, who may feel entirely differently about existence.

My friend Leanne Shapton — she did the covers for Motherhood — said that if men gave birth, the question of whether or not to have children would have been the central question of philosophy from the beginning of time. I think this is true, and I am disgusted with how the dilemma has been flattened and presented as a frivolous and vain “lifestyle choice.”

I didn’t mean to imply that the narrator is tormented by the dwindling possibility of becoming a mother biologically per se. More that, yes, she grapples with still having the option open. I think that’s why she cries in the funny scene where she learns, through fertility testing, that her ovaries are in good shape, “ripe as fresh figs.” How much easier perhaps if she had learned the opposite. And because of things like IVF, the window for this type of contemplation only seems to be growing!

I agree, though, that there isn’t much of a language for talking about the decision. At one point in the book, you pose the question bluntly: “Why are we still having children?” Your narrator also talks to various people about why or why not to have a child. I’m wondering if in the process of writing the book you came across any arguments for having children, beyond the generalization that it’s the greatest experience of life, that you found genuinely compelling.

When people try to convince you to have a child, it’s not from the place of having a good argument. It’s from the place of having a strong emotion, and they try to persuade you by conveying that emotion with great intensity. Intensity scares me, it doesn’t compel me. I can’t help but feel suspicious of what such strong emotion, certainty, zeal, masks.

I have been most drawn to the idea of having children after talking to people who are not trying to argue me into it and who talk about it like everything else in life: mixed up equally with the bad and the good.

One language that’s supposed to be useful to women in at least examining motherhood is the discourse of feminism. Yet there is no explicit reference to feminism or feminist debates about maternity in the book. Why?

I didn’t want to think inside a ready-made structure, like feminism or Marxism or anti-natalism. I wanted the voice in the book to be more unmoored than that, because the state of not knowing whether or not you want a child genuinely felt — is so deeply unmooring. I didn’t want the questioning to have a solid rock like feminism to sit on, or for the issue to be experienced through a shared filter. I wanted the book to be about wrestling alone, because I think we do wrestle alone, when it comes to whether or not to have a child.

I read a quote once — it was something like, “In what matters to you most in life, you are completely alone.” I feel this is true. When it comes to the biggest questions of what you are going to do in your life, other people’s opinions, and ready-made intellectual structures, can only get you so far.

It’s not as if feminism has had an easy time reckoning with motherhood either, but at least it’s overtly questioned if having children is something women should do. Besides a strain of all-out rejection, the pragmatic approach has been to push for a woman’s choice — including decriminalizing abortion — as well as social changes that allow mothers greater freedom, such as state-sponsored daycare and paid maternity and paternity leave. In your book, the question of whether or not to have a child is posed in more existential and poetic terms than prosaic ones, but still, do you think the decision would be easier if society was set up in a way that was more conducive to sharing the labor of child-rearing? Or if expectations of women who have children were somehow different?

Yes, of course. We can’t even see to the bottom of how much disregard and active opposition there is in our culture for what women need to live a healthy and fulfilled life — mothers in particular. This list includes but goes beyond childcare. It includes but goes beyond the expectations that every woman embody an ideal of femininity. I often thought, while writing this book, that I would like to have a child, but only if I could have it in a state of nature; that if I have to be a mother in this culture, it’s not worth it. If I could have a child out somewhere beyond culture, away from all the books and Instagram and schools and other parents and the internet and the products on the shelves, I would.

Or I might. But the urge would have to be very strong in me to want to mother in a world where mothers are so policed (even by other women), and where one hundred years of psychology has taught us that if there is any problem in your life, it is the fault of your mother, who loved you wrong. I’m amazed that people have the guts to step into it.

Writing can be an all-consuming process. For the narrator of the book, a successful writer, it seems that being a mother and being a writer might be at odds. But in an interview you did with Elena Ferrante, you express it a little differently by saying, “I worry (for I think I will probably not have children) that maybe I won’t be able to be a good enough writer if I don’t have this experience.” This is a fascinating anxiety. Is this still something you worry about? Would the same rule apply to male writers and fatherhood?

I don’t still worry about it. When I was younger, I was obsessed with the idea that I couldn’t live every life — it seemed so unfair to be born only to be forced to live one narrow life. It seemed like such a stupid waste of existence, to only exist as a single person. My fears about not experiencing motherhood — and therefore not being able to write from that position — were as much about feeling that I needed to experience a kaleidoscope of human realities to know what life is, and therefore to write about it.

But the older I get, the more I feel like it’s interesting and significant that we only get to be this one person. Life seems more tragic, and poignant, and sad, and exhilarating, and odd this way. I now feel like the limitation of life is the essence of a human life. It’s not a bug in the program that we’re stuck being ourselves.

Yes, and thankfully reading can also inform our sense of experience even if we haven’t gone through something directly. In the last few years, there has been a slate of smart and original memoirs published by writers such as Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, and Sarah Manguso about motherhood. What did you make of these books, if you read them?

I did read them. I read many other memoirs about motherhood, too — and nonfiction books, and novels, and articles, and the comments sections of articles, and anonymous chat groups where people spoke of regretting motherhood — I read so much on the topic. I still am drawn to reading this stuff, even though the book is done.

One thing that agitated me through most of my reading, however, was that the thinking that led to the child being made tended to be glossed over or ignored. As though of course there’s going to be a child — we all know why you’d have a child! I found the decision to slide past that decision alienating. So many books about motherhood are about the suffering of being a mother, yet why did they choose to be a mother — to risk the fact that they would suffer in the ways that a mother, in particular, suffers?

So as intelligent and well written as the books you mention are, on some level, I also found them hard to relate to, because what for me was a key question about their story — why did they become a mother? — was taken for granted in a way that made me feel like an alien and an outsider to them. The fact that I wanted this question answered made me feel like a bit of a freak in relation to these books.

Was there any writing that helped reinforce your position of skepticism, then, or that instructed you formally? Are there great novels centered on making a single decision that I’m just not thinking of?

I didn’t read any novels centered on making a single decision — I also can’t think of any right now — but I did have Kierkegaard’s Either/Or sitting on my desk through my writing of the book. In Either/Or (which is actually two books) Kierkegaard paints a picture of the ethical life, and the aesthetic life, and the question of these books is which of these two lives to lead. I suppose my book is also about which of two lives to lead: the life of the mother, or the life of the non-mother.

Actually, my first novel, Ticknor, is also “centered on making a single decision.” The decision in that book is whether or not to go to a party.

As you referenced in the beginning, your book has some overlay with memoir, but it is obviously a different animal from the ones we’ve mentioned so far. Did you ever consider writing it another way?

Yes. I originally thought I was going to write it as a book of interviews. But then my friends and I wrote Women in Clothes, which is essentially a book of interviews, and when I returned to Motherhood, I didn’t feel I wanted to do that all over again. I was ready to be alone with my thoughts. I wanted to follow the little voice in my head — that little voice you strain to hear when writing a novel that is like a radio signal cutting in and out. The quietness of it, the difficulty of tuning into it, the pleasure of suddenly hearing it clearly — I wanted to be back in that more mysterious place, not sitting in a room and talking to other people, where the voice you are following is as plain as sound.

Something I find powerful about your writing is the way you resist performing the kind of self-analysis we’ve come to expect in something like memoir, which seems to demand that a writer show they’ve digested their story in particular ways or idioms. Your book is set in the narrator’s thoughts for the most part and it looks closely at familial relationships — especially between the narrator and her mother — as well as intergenerational history, but there is surprisingly little psychology or talk of motive. Instead, we get fortune-tellers and dreams and coin tosses. Is this an aesthetic decision or is there another reason you avoid psychologizing?

I don’t really know what you mean by “psychologizing” or “talk of motive.” I’m really not sure what you aren’t seeing that would fall under these categories. Could you give me some examples?

I could imagine an analyst asking the narrator a question about this line that comes early in the book, for instance: “Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself — it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.” I feel like an analyst might ask, why is it useful for you not to know the answer to this question? And then: How historically in your family was it useful not to know things? Something like that.

I also felt there was probably a strong connection between the relationship the narrator has with her mother — who you describe as being somewhat distant and, like the narrator, more interested in working than caretaking — and the fact that she is ambivalent about having children. This is hinted at maybe, but never said outright. The narrator says she would rather remain a daughter than become a mother and solve the problem of her mother’s sadness. Again, I’m guessing that an analyst or therapist would jump on a thought like that and ask: Why? What will be disrupted if she is both a daughter and a mother? What I mean by psychologizing is connecting more of the dots of the story for the reader and not leaving things ambiguous.

It would never occur to me to ask those questions in my book. I wanted to show how difficult it is to decide whether or not to have a child, once you turn it into an intellectual issue and begin to look at it carefully. I wasn’t interested in why this particular character can’t answer the question, as though there is something messed up about her for not being able to answer a fundamentally absurd question.

I think one reason it might be difficult for a woman to know whether or not she wants a child is because she is trying to imagine a life she hasn’t lived yet, that she can’t yet know anything about, and which people seem to report on with as many lies as truths. It’s impossible to know if you want a child because you have been conditioned to think it’s your best and only natural fate — or because you have been told “you will regret it” if you don’t, as though anyone else can predict what you will regret.

I don’t think she keeps it a secret from herself (whether she wants to have a child) because of some family disturbance that makes it “useful not to know things” but because it’s a question you’re not supposed to evaluate intellectually, in light of the sort of person you want to be, your character, your abilities, what you like to do with your time, what you think you are capable of, et cetera.

If you even suggest that it might be hard to be both a mother and a [insert whatever else you might want to do with your time] you are told that you are somehow betraying women who manage to do both things, instead of being seen as a person who is being realistically cautious, because you’re aware of how the limitations of time and energy and finances might play out in your own life. You aren’t seen as being a “good mother” if you refuse to be a mother, knowing you might not be able to give your child all it would need. Every woman is supposed to figure out how to be a mother.

Not knowing whether one wants a child is not a pathology — I think it’s a normal and healthy dilemma — so that’s probably why it never occurred to me to approach it as you might approach a psychological block that is yours and yours alone, coming out of a troubled past, as opposed to a shared condition among many women.

Of course it’s not a pathology not to know if you want children or not! I only meant to say that I find it notable that the narrator doesn’t question outright, among so many other possible explanations, if part of her ambivalence about having a child might have to do with her own childhood or family experience. Because I think you’re right that knowing whether you want children isn’t something you come to intellectually (especially in light of climate change, it does seem like an absurd proposition), it’s something you come to unconsciously, often at an early age. Though whether that’s in large part a condition of a society that tells you it’s the right — or only — choice to make if you’re a woman, I can’t say. But I have met plenty of women who seem sure in the fact that they don’t want children. Or women who say they are open to it but are also realistic about what it would take because they’re single, or struggling financially, or drawn thin by work, and, regret be damned, aren’t willing to put the desire for a child above all else. Nor should they. The world is overpopulated and the earth is overtaxed by humanity. There isn’t a need for anyone to have children and the more people who decide not to have them the better. But that doesn’t solve the problem of possibly wanting one or not, does it?

No, I don’t think it does. We are built to destroy all life on earth, and ourselves. People aren’t going to stop having children for environmental reasons if they feel they want them.

Could you speak a little bit more about the relationship between the narrator and her mother? One of my favorite parts in the book is when the narrator visits her mother at her house and they have a frank conversation about the place that being a mother has had in her life. The narrator asks if it was the most important thing and the mother says no, just as the narrator realizes this answer. You portray this as a liberating moment for both women, and it seemed this way to me, too — and darkly funny, but also kind of heartbreaking.

Yes, it’s a moment of honesty, and a moment when the two recognize each other as people, and that they were in the same place — in the same world with each other, and it was fine. They share a knowledge in that moment, which is a knowledge they always had, but hadn’t admitted before then. It’s a moment of real love.

In the beginning of the text, you put a note about the veracity of the results of the coin tosses you include in the book, which are often so funny. What does that do for the reader that’s important to you? Or, rather, do you think the veracity of the note is important? Should a reader enter a book of fiction suspecting that even a disclaimer like this is possibly fictitious?

My hope is that people read it as a note outside the text, not a note within the universe of the text. I know that can only be a hope, though. A friend who read an early draft of the book suggested I put a note in to this effect. She hadn’t realized that the coin tosses were real, and that horrified me.

Why?

Because it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would think that the yeses and nos were made up! The book doesn’t work if you think they are. At least, I don’t think it works.

Something you capture well in Motherhood is the strange judgment and mistrust among women friends when one is a mother and one is not. I think I have felt this in some degree from both sides. You write of the narrator and her friend Libby, who has just had a baby:

Neither one of us had more than the other, neither one of us had less […] having a child reflexively or not having one doubtfully are equal lives, the number of her life and my life the same. That makes our hearts sink more than anything else, really, that the childless and mothers are equivalent, but it must be so …  

What do you think is so upsetting to us about this thought? And how might women recognize one another better if we believed it?

It’s hard to tell yourself that you have made the right choices in your life. A simple way of doing that is by comparison with other women: well, my life is better than hers. But if you take away comparison and try to look at your life and choices directly, without any other woman to compare your life with, that’s a more difficult task and an unstable feeling. I think it’s the right way to go about thinking through one’s choices, though. I think it’s the only way that respects individuality — our own and others’. We are not other people, we are different from them. We don’t all need to be the same — and we can’t be.

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Kate Wolf is an editor at large for the Los Angeles Review of Books as well as a host and producer of its podcast, The LARB Radio Hour.


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