"I’m not the kind of writer who notices trees or buildings, and then writes a lot about what they look like,” Sheila Heti says. “I’m just completely not interested, but I’m really interested in what other people say.”
Heti’s previous books bear this out: The Chairs Are Where the People Go (FSG, 2011), a collaboration between her and Misha Glouberman, was described as “conversational philosophy” by the New Yorker; How Should a Person Be (Holt, 2012) relies on transcriptions of Heti’s real-life conversations; and Women in Clothes (Blue Rider, 2014) is described by the publisher as a “conversation among hundreds of women of all nationalities.”
Heti says her new novel, Motherhood (Holt, May), was conceived as a nonfiction book eight years ago, but “nonfiction to me feels like an argument, whereas a novel is like a series of questions.” She started out by flipping coins, inspired by the I Ching, as a way to continue “the process of being in dialogue while being alone and not with anybody else.” Heti wanted to give serious consideration to the pivotal question most women ask themselves: “Do I want a child?” And although she did have a lot of conversations with women about motherhood, this book is very interior. She says she wanted to hear her own voice instead of relying on “a chorus of voices.”
The unnamed narrator in Motherhood is in her late 30s, divorced, and thinking about whether to have children but struggling with the emphasis that society places on motherhood. She’s in a relationship with a man who already has a daughter, and she’s a writer who can see the perks of being a mom. “Yet the not-having seems just as amazing, unlikely, and special as the having,” Heti writes. “Both feel like a kind of miracle. Both seem like a great feat.”
As Heti sees it, both paths open women up to constant critique; women are judged, no matter what they decide to do with their bodies. “Of course, a woman will always be made to feel like a criminal, whatever choice she makes, however hard she tries,” Heti writes. “Mothers feel like criminals. Nonmothers do, too.”
The narrator looks to conversations with friends as a way to process her feelings about motherhood, and she writes about her own mother, a doctor “who valued achievement and work” while her father “valued wonder and play” and was the more nurturing parent. The narrator’s maternal grandmother was a Holocaust survivor who enrolled in law school but wasn’t allowed to graduate because of a crime her husband committed. She encouraged her daughter to be successful, since she couldn’t follow her own professional dreams.
Toward the end of the book, the narrator imagines giving the book to her mother: “Do you think with our lives we validated your mother?” Her mother responds, “You never knew her, and you are the one who will make her alive forever.”
Motherhood is structured around the menstrual cycle, a female-centered narrative rather than a more traditional patriarchal story line in which the tension rises until the climax. “The thing that I feel most in terms of story is more connected to the menstrual cycle than to sex and ejaculation, which is that things get really bright and wonderful and then they get really bad, and then they get really bright and wonderful and then they get really bad,” Heti says. “There is this kind of spiraling, Nietzschean eternal reoccurrence of the same.”
Heti, who turned 41 in December, is not a mother. At one point in the book, she compares not having a desire to procreate to coming out of the closet. “Alluding to sexual orientation is a way of saying, ‘Look, it’s deep,’ ” she says. “It’s perhaps inborn in some people and it’s not a choice in the way you think about where to live. It’s something very magnetic in your soul that attaches to something else other than procreation.”
Motherhood goes deeper than simple yes or no answers. Heti wants to give women permission to take this question seriously. “It’s broader than just saying, ‘Do I want to have a child?’ ” she says. “It relates to your own experience of being a child and your own experience of what you want to do in the world and what relationship you are in.”
Heti says she turned to her bookshelves for inspiration from other writers who didn’t have kids, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Dorothy Parker, and Virginia Woolf. “They were not sad, lonely spinsters,” she adds. “They were people who were actively engaged in culture and spirituality and creation.”
Heti spent years as the interviews editor for the Believer, and she remembers an interview the magazine published with Maurice Sendak—his last interview before he died. He talked about a young male artist he mentored who decided to have a baby. “And [Sendak] was so angry that this artist friend of his had a child and was going to have less time to work,” Heti says. “This is Maurice Sendak, who wrote books for children. He’s not somebody who didn’t have a relation to children. And yet he had this line, ‘We don’t need that baby.’ So somehow you can devote yourself to the idea of children as he did, without actually needing to bring a child into the world. That really stuck with me, how upset he was. I was like, oh, maybe Maurice Sendak would be really upset if I had a child. There was something about how much more he valued what that person could make artwise than what that person could make humanwise that really lodged inside me.”
One of the most powerful parts of Motherhood is that it doesn’t pit women against each other; instead, it creates an ongoing dialogue. “Women without children can help mothers, and we can just be all in this together,” Heti says. She adds that mothers who have read the book have found themselves in the pages, too, and responded positively to it.
“One poet mother said to me that she had children quite young, and that the description of wanting a child in order to give yourself no free time—that really rang true for her in this awful way,” Heti says. “She realized in some sense that she did have children so she wouldn’t have to deal with her own existential freedom, to curtail it.”
But during the conversation for this article, Heti and I agreed that some of the most prolific, hardworking people we know are writers who are also mothers. “I don’t think I’m the person who would do better with a baby,” she says. “But I admire people whose lives become so much more structured, and they get so much more done and are extra productive.”
Even women who don’t have children can’t escape the idea of motherhood. “You are constantly considered in relation to the fact that you don’t have children,” Heti says. “There’s not a total freedom from the child figure or the mother figure. People understand you as somebody without children; that is part of your identity to other people. You have to think about it even if you don’t care about it.”
Heti doesn’t see herself as adamantly for or against having children. She’s not the type of person, she says, who will ever feel that she is completely sure of her decision. But Motherhood is her invigorating (and successful) attempt to really consider her mixed feelings.
“I didn’t wander into motherhood or nonmotherhood unconsciously, recklessly,” Heti says. “I gave it due consideration.”
Michele Filgate is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and a contributing editor at Literary Hub.