A friend texted me a few months ago to tell me her period was late. We spent five minutes going back and forth on the specifics, but I was about to teach a class and she was getting on a train. Remember, I said, just before I put my phone away, the abstract idea of the thing is always scarier than the thing itself. This is a sentence I wanted to whisper to Sheila Heti’s main character throughout the reading of her book Motherhood. This is a thought exercise, I wanted to tell her, but it has very little relation to the actual thing.
Of course, Sheila Heti knows this. Her character—who, like her similarly Sheila Heti-like character in her previous novel, How Should a Person Be? is to be understood as both a stand-in for Heti and sufficiently Heti-adjacent that scenes might, in moments, have been altered for effect—acknowledges and plays with motherhood as abstract idea throughout the book. Heti’s character knows the abstraction’s relation to the thing itself is limited, but it is perhaps her knowledge of this that is one of the forces keeping her decidedly unwilling to become a mom.
She likes ideas of things. She revels in abstractions. She seems less sure of what to do with actual life.
But just as that autopsied body revealed a startling lack of something to my mother’s eyes, so in the moment of marrying I felt deceived: marriage was nothing more than a simple human act that I would never be up to fulfilling…so I fear will be the first moments in the delivery room, after having the baby laid on my chest, when it will hit me in a similar way as to how those moments dawned: there’s nothing magical here either, just plain old life as I know it and fear it to be.
I recognize this feeling so completely. I felt it when I got married. When we had kids. The feeling that this Big Life Event was so shockingly like the rest of life, the fact that magic maybe only ever existed in my head. Or maybe that magic only existed fleetingly. I love the man I married. I love our marriage. I love motherhood, but most of it is exactly like the rest of life: confusing and exhausting, messy, complicated, never like I planned. This is also, of course, the relief of all these major life decisions: there is just more—sometimes more crowded, more exhausting, sometimes more joyful—life on the other side.
When I told a friend I was about to start reading Sheila Heti’s book she looked at me and smiled. We’d spent part of the lunch we’d just had together ogling a baby at a nearby table. We’d spent some of the rest of lunch watching a video of my three- and five-year-old on my phone. I liked it, she said. It was 150 pages too long, but I liked it. My friend doesn’t have children, but she’s thinking of it. She’s at the beginning of her 30s, still with a broad enough swathe of time in front of her, that she can be thinking about it, for a while still, without the stakes feeling too high. It was like 450 pages, my friend said. It should have been 300 pages, but I liked it. When I got the galley in the mail a week later, the first thing I did was check the page count: 278.
I bring this up because I also felt like the book was too long, but on purpose, as if Heti is performing for us what it felt like for this woman, thinking the same thing over and over again, having the same types of dreams, the same types of fights with her partner, the same kind of conciliatory sex. This feels like part of her project. If this is a book about (not) motherhood, it is also, a book about the female body and its limits and its strength. It is also an intense, sometimes maddening, performance of female ambivalence.
Heti uses a recurring act of her main character asking an i ching coin yes or no questions throughout the book as a sort of exercise in external surety. The character acknowledges that it’s random; we watch as she asks enough yes or no questions so as to make them further her larger project.
The form breaks a few times and she’s smart and charming enough to call herself on it, to acknowledge this is just a way to force herself outside her own brain, “its useful, this, as a way of interrupting my habits of thought with a yes, or a no.” Of course, the coin only interrupts her briefly and she can easily outwit it. She asks enough questions, gets enough yeses, and her habits are quickly reestablished.
Once, when I was hugely pregnant the first time and walking around a small town where my husband had work and where I had come along, I walked into a bookstore off a crowded street and the woman behind the counter looked at me and said, that huge thing is never coming out of tiny little you. I had big babies and am not a big person. With both our girls, people pointed at me on the street in my final months. But it has to come out, I said to her, horrified. It has to come out, I said a second time; she looked at me and laughed. I walked another hour after that, shaken and crying. What if it was still possible to take it back? I had been so grateful to have decided. I had been so happy, for the first time maybe, to be so surely interrupted, to just let my body act.
This is the trick of the physical bodily world to which we must all succumb in some way. Heti’s character can outwit nearly every yes or no that’s offered to her, but the no she gets or lets herself believe when she turns 40 is the only thing that can actually, and finally, interrupt her habits. She will not have a baby, so it seems, all of a sudden, after years of back and forth, because her body says so. She doesn’t have to think in circles any more.
Heti’s character less decides not to have a child as decides to wait out her body’s ability to procreate. This is, of course, its own sort of decision. She’s a fiercely intelligent woman. She knows what time passing means. There is a scene in the book where she goes to see about freezing her eggs to prolong this timeline, but she opts against it. There is talk of money there, but it also seems that she needs this experience of deciding not to to be more wholly contained. It is a type of deciding that feels less like deciding than the vasectomy enacted by a man she meets at a party, less deciding than the IUD she gets then has removed. But still, it is the same decision insofar as there is no baby at the end of the book. It has the same physical consequences, contains the same absence in the end.
Containers were what I thought about the whole time I read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. I thought about what words contain and how that is determined for us early, what books contain, and what bodies contain. I thought about the ways in which we are at the mercy of each of these containers, how our ability to acknowledge their limits and their capaciousness can determine so much of how we choose to live.
In a class I taught a few months ago, we read a handful of what I thought of as revolutionary female writers: Clarice Lispector, Jean Rhys, Rachel Cusk, Samantha Hunt. All of these women I think of as fierce consciousnesses, not beholden to the traditional expectations of the novel, not beholden to traditional expectations of the Female. In each of the books we read by these women there are pregnancies; there is an acute awareness of the female womb. One of these pregnancies ends in an abortion, one in a dead baby, but the womb as character, as part and parcel to the character’s status as Female, is present in each.
In the Lispector, Passion According to GH, the book is largely about language. She is interested in absencing words, as we understand them, from their expected meaning; and she does this even with her “pregnancy.” The main character in the novel is “pregnant,” but she knows immediately that she will abort the baby, so then, “pregnant” as in filled with something that will one day turn into a baby, is not that, but something else. Of course, women have for centuries been pregnant and it has not resulted in a baby, but Lispector lets us see this clearly, that even the most seemingly certain word, an empirically provable fact of the body, does not have to be.
Each of these women forces the words around the female body to become something other in their telling. Hunt, in her short story “A Love Story,” whose character is a mother, is asking her status as “mother” to also hold within it the word “sex,” to also contain words like want and need. Each of these books succumbs to the fact of the female as a specific type of body that is also a container, a vessel maybe for the womb and for procreation, each of these books seeks to explore what else “Female,” “Mother,” “Pregnant” might be.
Heti’s character seems both to want to explore this and also to be fighting against the fact of the limits of it, both in what her body might hold, but also in the words as they were delivered to her up until then. Close to the end of the book we spend some time with Heti’s character’s mother at her house close to the sea where she lives alone. We know already this is Heti’s character’s dream of old age as well. It is also one of the reasons she gives for not wanting to procreate. She wants to be old by herself and without obligations. It seems her mother has achieved this, though, of course, her mother also has her. Her mother is perhaps the most compelling character in the whole book. For obvious reasons, I guess, but, most of all because she seems to have managed to largely not mother, even as a mother herself.
When this woman describes going to visit her mother in medical school when she was a child, she says, “there seemed to be nothing so glamorous or romantic in the world as a mother who lived alone in an apartment with her colored pens and books.” Later, she explains that she had a friend ask her once (though she doesn’t say at what point in her life) if her mother was dead. Close to the end of the book, while staying with her (still living) mother in her house by the sea, there is the following scene,
Right before my mother left the room, she spoke, with some confusion, about women who say that raising kids is the most important thing in their life. I asked her if motherhood had been the most important thing in their life, and she blushed and said, No—at the very same moment that I interrupted her and said, You don’t have to answer. I was there.
Her mother, it seems, was able to be both Mother and Not Mother at the same time; a sort of extraordinary feat of female ambivalence; a resounding accomplishment of the abstract outpacing the physical fact. And, of course, this also isn’t true. She is a mother. She birthed this woman and her brother. She is just Mother in a different size and shape and with different preoccupations and interests than we might expect.
Both my mother and my sister are lawyers. They both have four kids. They’re both married to lawyers. My sister is a partner at my mother’s law firm and the only major difference between her life and the life my mom lived is that she works fewer hours, because she is a partner at the firm my parents built when we were kids. If you ask my sister what it is that bothers her about our mother she will tell you that it is the fact that, if someone at a party tells my mother that she looks familiar, she will mention she’s a lawyer, and not that she’s a mom. She’s a very successful lawyer. Her kids, my sister argues, are also a success. The fact that her first response is to trumpet her accomplishments infuriates my sister. It is one of the things about my mom I like the most.
My mother and I don’t speak much. On the surface, my life could not be less like hers. I run though, and she runs. I look like her. I love my kids fiercely, if not in the way of other mothers. I am obsessed with work. I am both a corrective to everything I see as how she wronged me, and more mother just like her than I might ever say out loud.
All of this to say, part of Heti’s project seems to be to push the limits of the Female, to upend the necessity of Mother, to suggest whole worlds that might exist beyond the making of other smaller versions of ourselves. But what her book also does is remind us of the limits, both of our bodies and our thoughts. For all her abstract acrobatics, this feels like a book about the complicated way Heti’s character both does and does not love her mother; it feels like an exploration of the ways our bodies hem us in.
Heti’s character doesn’t actually decide one day not to be a mother, the same way, when I found myself accidentally pregnant at 28, I more just decided to not get rid of it for a few months; she lets time run out and then watches as her body decides for her. We watch as her body, month after month, controls her thoughts and moods and feelings, even as she continues to be brilliant on the page. We’re reminded again and again that we are contained not just by our bodies, not just by time and the roles long since established by biology and culture, but by the way we’re taught to think about the words that are meant to define our bodies, contained by the specific, intransigent ways those words might mean in our own lives.