Her body, her choice. It’s the line men at marches chant to empower women, and with that empowerment comes responsibility. “Miles has said that the decision is mine,” the narrator of Sheila Heti’s new novel Motherhood says a few pages in. “If I want a child, we can have one, he said, but you have to be sure.” She continues: “The thing to do when you’re feeling ambivalent is to wait. But for how long? Next week I’ll be thirty-seven. Time is running short on making certain decisions.”
Two years before I turned 35 in October, I thought, as I have since my 20s, that I would decide in two years—and this time I really believed it. Thirty-five feels like a true deadline, the most heavily symbolic birthday I’ve had since 16. When I told my mother-in-law how old I would be, she responded—with no other prompting, seemingly unconscious of the connection she was making—that her 32-year-old daughter had just decided to wait a little while longer before conceiving. There was no rush. But then why had “35” brought babies so reliably to mind? Her son, my 37-year-old husband, has a take similar to Miles’s. He doesn’t go so far as to demand certainty; it’s clear, though, if never quite stated so plainly until now, that it will be me who makes the call. But how?
Much of the most widely praised literature of the past few years has taken motherhood as a major theme. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, published in English between 2012 and 2015, drew a lot of attention for their treatment of female friendship, but they depict just as powerfully the mother-child relationship—in particular the tug of war between ambition and desire, on the one hand, and love and obligation on the other. Ferrante, whose novels Days of Abandonment (2005) and The Lost Daughter (2008) are even more tightly focused on the complexities of motherhood, explained her approach to the topic in 2015:
If we keep talking about it in an idyllic way, as in many handbooks on motherhood, we will continue to feel alone and guilty when we come up against the frustrating aspects of being a mother. The task of a woman writer today is not to stop at the pleasures of the pregnant body, of birth, of bringing up children, but to delve truthfully into the darkest depth.
As though anticipating her mandate, many women had recently taken up this task. Writing in Bookforum a few months before Ferrante’s interview appeared, Parul Sehgal heralded “a swarm” of recent books that were “freshly interrogating the family,” usually from the perspective of a mother: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, and several others. “In each,” Sehgal observed, “the arrival (or the imminent arrival) of a child prompts a constellation of questions about selfhood and artmaking and the ethics of care.” Inspired by the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott and memoirs like Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (1976) and Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work (2001), Sehgal pointed out, these newer books were pointedly ambivalent, exploring the tedium, isolation, and anxiety of early motherhood, not only its beauties and pleasures.1. If representations of motherhood from the perspective of mothers are overwhelmingly scant in the history of Western literature, lately they have been plentiful.
The landscape is saturated, then, not with the idealizations Ferrante has condemned, but with the kind of well-shaded image she might condone: one swirling with rich, if often painful, feelings, thoughts, and experiences. As Maggie Doherty wrote in a 2016 review of Rivka Galchen’s motherhood memoir, Little Labors, books like Galchen’s “offer a glimpse into an unknown future, a chance for women still unsure about children to see how their lives and minds might change. You may grow bored or invisible, they tell us, but you may also become quiet and humble.” Perhaps taking for granted that my curiosity has been satisfied so amply, and with books that I have found so enriching, I feel mildly frustrated. If literature—as Ferrante and Doherty suggest—might serve as a better guide than any handbook, it has not so far led me on any path toward, or away from, motherhood. And yet I can’t stop reading—as though if I can just learn enough about mothering I’ll know whether or not to do it.
A couple of new books stood out like beacons that I hoped, however foolishly, would lead me through my 36th year and out of this impasse: Sheila Heti’s Motherhood—a novel that revolves around the narrator’s decision not to have a child—and Meaghan O’Connells And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, a memoir that stems from her decision to go through with an accidental pregnancy.
On September 9, 2014, O’Connell emailed her birth story to her TinyLetter subscribers in four installments. The timed-release delivery combined with the intimate second-person address helped build an almost painful suspense. Had she had the baby? All of us reading the emails knew, by virtue of their existence, that she had. But the messages, which arrived at seemingly random intervals, mimicked the effect of irregular and incomplete updates about a family member’s ongoing life event. I must have started reading the first email in the train on the way to work. I finished the final one in my office, my eyes filling and my forehead puckering with so much velocity that I had to rush to shut the door.
Nothing had gone to plan. O’Connell’s decision to have a natural childbirth had collapsed under the weight of nearly forty hours of labor. Once administered, a first epidural and then a second had failed to fully block the pain. And still the baby wouldn’t come. “Someone held my thighs open … while I thrashed,” she writes. “I screamed in the hospital bed, writhing as much as my numb-meat body would writhe. … ‘I want to die!’ I yelled to them repeatedly, but no one did anything.” Finally, she decided to have a C-section. And then:
I heard a cry.
This isn’t possible, it’s an incorrect feeling if feelings can be described as incorrect, but what I felt above all at that moment was recognition. Hearing his cry was like seeing a familiar face in the crowd. I was lying on my back staring at the ceiling, shaking, tears streaming down my cheeks. … Before that moment, all baby cries had sounded the same to me, but his cry was a voice. A self.
These emails stoked the embers of my desire to have a baby, inflaming it more than anything else I’d ever read. They had this effect not despite the physical horror they describe, but because of it—like a war story that provokes a naïve desire to go to the front. O’Connell suggests that her pain was not only a necessary precursor to her son’s existence; the struggle also lends depth to his life, and to her motherhood. “The horror of it felt appropriate,” read the end of the fourth email. “All of it felt right, actually; to become a mother like this.”
“A Birth Story,” the third chapter in O’Connell’s book, does not contain these final sentences but otherwise has been only lightly adapted from her TinyLetter. And Now We Have Everything contains, in addition, eight essays that fill in the months just before and after the climax of birth—including reflections on the first, sleep-deprived nights of motherhood, the difficulties of breastfeeding, and the pain of sex after childbirth. Whereas the memoirs of, say, Manguso and Nelson can read like diaries left out for people to find, O’Connell’s account is insistently conversational. “If only I had the sort of spiritual stamina to stay in profundity longer, to not find it oppressive after ten minutes,” she says. She turns this tendency into an advantage, packing breezy asides with layers of perception like an acquaintance whose seemingly offhand comments you find yourself thinking about months later. “The strippers’ breasts, full of silicone, looked like mine felt,” is one line I’m not sure I’ll be able to unfeel.
It’s refreshing to read a writer who has a habit of addressing readers as though we were sitting in the same room with her. That habit, though, sometimes leads to fairly specific assumptions about the values and social position of the imagined room’s inhabitants. “A baby is never a particularly good idea, practically speaking, and a baby was an especially bad idea for us,” she writes. The implication is that she and her partner were too young, their lives too unstable. But O’Connell, 29 when she had her baby, was an adult with enough resources to both support a child and pursue her ambitions, not to mention a committed, supportive partner who, like her, wanted to have kids. They do not appear to have been exceptionally ill-suited for children. Her statement only makes sense in a context where a certain amount of social or actual capital is tacitly understood to be at stake. As bell hooks observed in her 1984 essay “Revolutionary Parenting,” black and other working-class women have not tended to share the view of many college-educated white women that “motherhood was a serious obstacle to women’s liberation.”
In any case, a commitment to making art can complicate the choice to have children. O’Connell once asked a friend (making a request you can no longer reasonably make in your mid- to late thirties), “Promise me you won’t let me have a baby before I write a book.” Fate, or God, or the haphazard collision of cells had other plans for her. “Part of me loved this feeling, of being steamrolled by life, of being totally fucked,” O’Connell writes, describing her mood as she shopped for a pregnancy test at Duane Reade. Like pain, this sense that contingency is destiny lends meaning to her situation. As she and her partner discuss whether to keep the baby—a choice that is ultimately hers to make—he argues for waiting and having “the same baby” a couple of years later. “That’s literally what it won’t be, this particular baby,” she says. “Isn’t that kind of dumb? To be like, Well, we want you but not yet. Sorry, the timing is off. I mean, isn’t this bigger than that?”
Like O’Connell, the narrator of Heti’s new novel needed an accidental pregnancy to uncover her desire. “When I was younger, I told myself that if I was ever going to have a child, it would only happen if I accidentally became pregnant,” she writes. “Well, I did accidentally become pregnant, and I decided not to keep it.” She continues: “There was no gap between finding out and knowing what I wanted to do.” In this sense, Motherhood is something like O’Connell’s counterfactual future. But unlike the decision to have a specific child, the decision not to have a specific child does not settle the question of whether you will have children. This is the question Heti’s narrator spends the book trying to answer. “Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself—it is the greatest secret I keep from myself,” she writes.
Heti’s novel differs from many recent motherhood books in the basic fact that her narrator is not a mother, even as it outwardly mirrors the form many of them have taken (a series of brief, essayistic, unconventionally organized chapters). It is in this sense a counterweight to these other accounts, an embodiment of the idea Heti’s narrator has while newly struggling to relate to her friend Libby, who now has a baby: “the number of her life and of my life are the same … there is an exact equivalence and an equality … neither path better and neither path worse, neither more frightening or less riddled with fear.”
The conversations the narrator has with Libby and many others call to mind Heti’s previous novel, How Should a Person Be?, which also features a narrator who seeks her friends’ help with a question too big for one person to answer on her own. In Motherhood, perhaps because so many of her friends have already gone to the other side, the narrator also seeks help elsewhere. As a structuring device, Heti uses a technique inspired by the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination system that involves flipping three coins:
I was explaining to Erica about the soul of time, about how either we as individuals have no souls, but experience a sort of collective soul that either belongs to time or is time, or that our lives—we—are time’s soul. … Is that a good premise for this book?
Is it too narrow?
Can the soul of time be involved?
Am I allowed to betray you?
Then that’s definitely partly what this book will be about.
Motherhood contains dozens of pages of such consultations, as well as other divinations that range from tarot reading to fortune cookies. All of these, like accidentally getting pregnant, create meaning by provoking reaction. They give the narrator an edge to collide with, against which to define herself: “My thoughts are humbled by the random throw of the coins, and my understanding is dependent on their verdict.”
These games make explicit the dynamics of chance inherent to both biology and history. Heti divides a large part of the novel into sections named after phases of a menstrual cycle (follicular, ovulating, bleeding, PMS), and the narrator wonders at the way they structure her moods, and therefore the story she tells herself about her life. Her ancestors, too, influence this story, in ways that seem both important and incidental. For example, when her Hungarian Jewish grandmother was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 21, she befriended an older woman who had also been deported from back home. The older woman died in the camp, but the narrator’s grandmother ended up marrying her son. For Heti, the world-historical and the personal overlap in ways that appear random, but which our understanding, and our lives, depend on. Motherhood is perhaps the ultimate example of these overlapping scales—necessary (at least for now) to the fate of the species but dependent on individual decisions that can feel inscrutable or even meaningless.
At several points, Heti’s narrator broadens the scope of her questioning to look at motherhood on the huge scale of “our mutual dependence on whatever we are all part of, which is so much bigger than us.” In contrast to many other recent literary writers on the topic, she does this not to demand support for social reproduction or validation of maternal ambivalence, but instead to think seriously about the harm that mothers may cause others out of love or fear for their children. When other writers respond to Ferrante’s mandate, even when they gesture toward a bigger picture, they tend to frame the “darkest depth” as something psychological and personal, the attendant harm a danger to themselves or their children. Heti plumbs a depth that is darker and more difficult, wondering whether “in order to breed and raise children, morality has not to matter? The only thing that matters is the life of the child, while all other values are relative?”
Yet Motherhood is not a polemic. It is, rather, a “defense,” as the narrator calls it. Of what? Not non-motherhood, exactly. Fulfillment, perhaps, of our wildly divergent but ultimately commensurate fates. The sign that the narrator’s has been fulfilled is that, as she nears forty, she feels “an immense relief … a sort of bliss.” Writers on motherhood often express a similar sensation. “One of the great solaces of my life,” Manguso writes in Ongoingness, “is that I no longer need to wonder whether I’ll have children.” I now see that for these writers, having children is not a question of reaching a decision, but of adhering to fate. “There cannot be happiness when you are fulfilling a destiny,” Heti writes. “Happiness is the opposite. Happiness will have to wait.”
But what is destiny if not a retrospective adaptation? For a long time, on the rare occasions when people asked me whether I wanted kids, I trotted out the Lydia Davis story “Double Negative”: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” I used to assume—perhaps reading too much into Davis’s biography—that this predicament would result in a baby. But as the decision looms closer, I find that I lack desire more days than not, even as my desire, when it does spike, spikes more intensely.
I still don’t know what I will do, but I have begun to see that what feels like a studied reflection is perhaps only a stalling tactic. Or, at least, it will feel that way when I consider it from the distance of a few years, wondering how I could not have known I’d be holding my child in my arms, or how I could not have known that I never would.