How Not to Decide: Motherhood by Sheila Heti

Should one have children? No matter who’s asking the question or in what context, you’re going to get the whole gamut of replies, as proven by this recent Literary Hub survey of authors. Should I have children? Turn the question personal and, even if it’s actually rhetorical, you’ll still get an opinion from every quarter. As The Decision looms over her, the narrator of Sheila Heti’s new novel, a 37-year-old writer from Toronto, isn’t sure who to listen to. Her neurotic inner voice makes her second-guess her life. “The question of a child is a bug in the brain—it’s a bug that crawls across everything, every memory, and every sense of my own future.” Meanwhile, acquaintances and strangers alike all have their two cents to chip in. Everywhere she goes on her book tour, for instance, she hears other people’s stories and has to sift through them. She’s something like the protagonist of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, though with a stronger personality and internal commentary.

Having a child is an act of creation, and Heti’s narrator worries that she only has sufficient creative energy for one or the other: writing or breeding. Her identity as an artist is so precious to her that she is terrified of giving it up, or watering it down, to risk being a (not very good?) mother. Yet she has the sense that to remain childless she had better come up with a really good excuse. People will want to know what she is going to do with her life instead, and they’re unlikely to be satisfied by the notion that her books are like her babies.

The novel is in short, aphoristic paragraphs and is dominated by cogitation rather than scenes, though there are some concrete events and secondary characters, such as the narrator’s mother; her friend Libby, a new mother; and her partner, Miles, who has a 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. The sections are given headings like “PMS,” “Bleeding,” “Follicular,” and “Ovulating,” which suggest the cyclical nature of life: whether she likes it or not, this character is part of a physical process geared towards reproduction.

The cyclical workings of the female body mirror the circularity of her thoughts: she keeps revolving around the same questions, never seeming to get any closer to a decision – though by the end she does decide. The temptation is always to offload the choice onto an external, fate-like force. The narrator wants the oracular voice of the universe to answer everything for her via coin tosses. (Heti writes in a prefatory note that these were based on actual coin tosses.) She asks series of yes/no questions and reports what the coins have to say. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility for her own decision, and produces some truly hilarious passages. Oh, the absurdity of having a dialogue with an impersonal force!

Our heroine does ultimately realize how random and meaningless the coins’ yes/no answers are, but she continues to look outside herself for wisdom: to a fortune teller, psychics, dreams, and even a crazy woman in New York City who hits her up for money. Anything to bypass the wringer of her own mind. She also latches onto the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and contrasts this with the symbol of a kitchen knife, which represents a demon that robs her of hope.

Every woman is a daughter as well as a potential mother, and a particularly moving strand of Motherhood is the narrator’s relationship with her female ancestors. Her Hungarian grandmother, Magda, survived Auschwitz only to die of cancer at 53; her mother, a doctor, devoted herself to her career and left the traditional household and childrearing tasks to her husband. This dual legacy of suffering and professional pride helps explain the narrator’s feelings. Deep down, she believes her family line was meant to end in a concentration camp; how dare she continue it now? She also emulates her mother’s commitment to a cerebral vocation – “So I also wanted to be the brains: to be nothing but words on a page.”

Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. I marked out dozens of quotes that could have been downloaded directly from my head or copied from my e-mails and journal pages. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children. I suspect it will mean the most to people who are still unsure or have already decided against children; parents may interpret Heti’s arguments as personal barbs, even though the narrator insists her own decision is not an inherent comment on anyone else’s. It’s a book I could have written, but now don’t have to; Heti has captured brilliantly what it’s like to be in this situation in this moment in time.

Here are a few of my favorite passages. They should give you an idea of whether this book might resonate with you, or at least interest you academically:

“On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them—but what is there to lose?”

“for a woman of curiosity, no decision will ever feel like the right one. In both, too much is missing. What can I say, except: I forgive myself for every time I neglected to take a risk, for all the narrowings and winnowings of my life. I understand that fear beckons to a person as much as possibility does, and even more strongly.”

“I don’t have to live every possible life, or to experience that particular love. I know I cannot hide from life; that life will give me experiences no matter what I choose. Not having a child is no escape from life, for life will always put me in situations, and show me new things, and take me to darknesses I wouldn’t choose to see, and all sorts of treasures of knowledge I cannot comprehend.”

My rating:

 


Motherhood was published in the UK by Harvill Secker on May 24th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review. It came out in North America on May 1st (Knopf Canada / Henry Holt and Co.).

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24 thoughts on “How Not to Decide: Motherhood by Sheila Heti

  1. I can see how meaningful this book might be for a younger woman deciding whether to try to ‘go for it’or not. Many years after my decision was made (and one I’m happy with), I don’t think I want to revisit all that angst again. I wonder how many older readers it will secure?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While I thought this was brilliant, and it came at just the right time for me, I do fear it will have limited appeal. Someone who already has children won’t see the point of reading such a novel, and won’t want their decision challenged. Fair enough. Someone who’s already decided against might also wonder what the point of reading it would be, unless they want smug confirmation. So it’s for people like me, basically, the undecided and leaning towards no. However, I do think it’s a strong contender for the Women’s Prize shortlist next year: It’s a perspective that has to be considered.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You have a point about the limited appeal, but I will say that “limited audience” seems to be growing more every day. As someone in her early thirties, more and more of my friends (and women that I know in their early 40s) are deciding not to have children. I have three children, but I still find the book’s concept interesting (and I’d probably read it if i could find the time haha).

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  2. I’ve heard a lot about this book and am very keen to read it (despite not getting on at all with How Should A Person Be?). Heti’s idea that she needs ‘a really good excuse’ to remain childless certainly resonates with me – the incredible pressure of feeling that, if you don’t have children, you have to become outstanding otherwise everything is wasted. Obviously women shouldn’t have to feel like this, but it’s not surprising that they do!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d not read any of Heti’s work before. Usually I don’t get on with plotless autobiographical fiction (Sight by Jessie Greengrass; anything by Rachel Cusk), but this is so well written and funny, and cut so close to home.

      I have a long list of excuses … yet the indecision lingers.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I loved Sight and get on OK with Cusk, but something about How Should A Person Be? felt extra self indulgent to me. I can’t imagine you’d like it if you don’t like the other two.

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  3. WOW, Beck! Yes, you could have written it. It’s your story, too. I empathize with the awful dilemma. Great review.

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    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think I’d find this interesting on an academic level. I always wanted children – it was never a question for me, it was something I just ‘knew’ – and now I have four. But over the years I’ve experienced all sorts of situations with friends, who have chosen not to have kids; who chose to have one, two, three kids; who didn’t want kids but ended up with them; and who desperately wanted them but it never happened. Ask them all the question, “If you had your time again…” and I bet they’d have an immediate answer (mine would be to start my family earlier – I had my first at age 30 and the fourth at 35 – too old in retrospect!).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad you’re interested! I do hope that people with children won’t dismiss it out of hand as a book that would irk them or undermine their own lives, and that people who didn’t have a choice in the matter (whether an unplanned pregnancy or infertility) won’t expect it to be hurtful.

      Wow, four kids within five years — that must have been a challenge! When my husband and I met at age 19, we just assumed we would be the standard family with two kids, but somewhere along the way that vision got lost and we can’t imagine our lives with children now. If I had wanted to go for it, I should have done so in my mid-twenties before we got stuck in our ways.

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  5. This sounds like a fascinating read, one which posits the question ‘what are we for?’ and to which there is no answer because of course, woman or man, we are not ‘for’ anything. We just are. The social pressure on women to conform to a social ideal (daughter, wife, mother) whether or not that ideal fits is a subject which needs to be explored in more depth, particularly when it comes to single, childless, older women about which there still remains a whiff of (unmerited) stigma. I am also past that decision making process (I always wanted kids, largely because I like them, but I don’t believe that my kids make my life ‘worthy’. It was a self-centred decision) but I find it pretty rubbish that women are kind of expected to make such a decision, rather than just experience their lives and see what happens. I’m not acquiring new books at the moment, but if I was I’d definitely give this a read.
    Thought-provoking review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Yes, I’d agree it is a book about the purpose of existence, particularly for a creative woman, and I hope many people will read it for that reason, whether it lines up with their own choices or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds fantastic! Even for a person with children. I’m still fascinated by that indecision – and feel for anyone who can’t decide. It’s a HUGE decision to make and a definite life-changer. One of my sisters, who is entering her late 30s is trying to make this decision now. I feel for her!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I feel burned out on Heti writing books about a “character” who is exactly like her. Is she trying to seem less narcissistic by pretending it’s someone else? Does she create a “character” because her memoir wouldn’t focus on drugs, anxiety, sex work, etc. that dominates memoirs today? I enjoyed her very first book, but since then I’ve been off the Heti train. Her books about her and her friends Misha and Margaux just reek of shallowness. I do love this, from a reviewer on Goodreads in regard to Heti’s book How Should a Person Be: “If your protagonist comes to a major life realization while sticking her nose in a guy’s hairy ass, I’m probably not your target audience.”

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    1. I’d not read any of Heti’s work before. I presume much of this is autobiographical, but I resisted looking up details (her birth date, her partner’s name, her family history, etc.) to confirm that. The one thing I disliked about the book was the sexual explicitness (as in the last sentence of your comment), but those scenes were few and far between so didn’t dampen my enjoyment.

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