Don’t judge women who can’t decide if they want children

Sheila Heti’s latest novel tackles an emerging issue: ‘I’m endlessly fascinated by other people’s experiences with parenthood, or deciding against it’

Sheila Heti’s latest novel, Motherhood, follows up on the question posed by her previous one by asking not how, but whether, a person should be one. At 37, Heti’s unnamed narrator—a Toronto author who bears striking parallels to Heti—finds herself grappling with the suddenly pressing issue of whether to have a child, despite the fact that doing so would run against both her instincts and desire for a life centred around art: “If no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented boyfriends, I’d have invented sex, friendships, art. I would not have invented child-rearing.” Throwing herself ever deeper into her quandary via games of chance, visits to psychics, family history and arguments with her partner, Heti’s narrator ultimately finds herself deconstructing the notion of motherhood itself.

Q: Your narrator undertakes a long, often painful inner debate about whether to have a child. Presuming some overlap between your thoughts and opinions and those of your character, why did fiction feel like the right form for this subject?

A: The book I proposed to the publisher was originally a book of non-fiction. It was going to be a book of interviews and monologues looking at other people’s experiences of parenthood, and the paths that led them there. I did start collecting material for this “choral work” as I called it, but at some point I realized that really everyone has their own individual experience, and that I wanted to look at just one: to go deep into one voice, one train of thought. Also, I had just come off putting together Women in Clothes, which is a book that is composed of interviews with 639 women (about why they wear what they wear), and I couldn’t go through that process again, I just felt tired of it. I needed to be in a private and very internal place. When I realized the book was going to be a novel, I felt happy. Fiction for me is a way of playing with symbols and voice and time. I hadn’t read a book that treated this subject of the desire or lack of desire to have children in a way I felt it deserved to be treated: philosophically, as opposed to as a lifestyle choice. I mean, most books about motherhood or family life don’t even consider having children as a question: there’s just suddenly a child there, but I always wonder, how did that child get there? What did that couple go through before the child appeared?

Q: Your character has a Hamlet-ish quality, her indecision having put her in a kind of agonizing limbo. Did you know what conclusion she would eventually arrive at when you started the book? Put another way, did you feel like a guide or a witness to her philosophizing? 

A: I didn’t know where the book would end up, no. I wouldn’t say I felt like a guide or a witness. I was writing down thoughts, reading, researching, observing people. I didn’t feel like I was inventing a character so much as inventing a train of thought.

Q: How did the process of writing it compare to that of your other novels? 

A: It’s so hard to say. It was similar in some ways, and different in other ways. It’s always hard to write a book, but it’s always differently hard. I can’t usually remember what sparks a book, but there were a few sparks for this book: one was a conversation with a poet friend of mine, Sarah Manguso. She said that once she had her child, it was almost easier than the time before she had him, when she was still trying to decide. The deciding period seemed to her nauseating, in retrospect. When she said that, I thought, I should write about that nauseating period that no one likes to be in.

Q: Can you explain what your character means when she says that childbearing feels like “a once necessary, now-sentimental gesture”?

A: This book is written from the point of view of someone who doesn’t feel any biological or emotional urge to have children. In various places in the novel, she is trying to understand why other people do it, at this point in history; with birth control and abortion and so on, it is more possible to avoid it. She wonders, “Do some people have children mainly because their parents did, and their grandparents did, and their great-grandparents did? And they imagine their ancestors wanted to have children, rather than had children simply because it’s biologically what happened to them?”

Q: But “sentimental” suggests a kind of cheap nostalgia. Do you think of the prevailing idea of motherhood as inherently old-fashioned or idealized?

A: I think in a culture that wants women to have babies—which is arguably every culture that survives—the public images of motherhood are going to be somewhat idealized. Of course, many more books are being published now which explore the author’s personal experiences of motherhood, or are sociological studies, and it seems to me that these books are attempts to reform the figure of the mother into something more complex than the old-fashioned, mythical ideal. One of my favourites is Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, from 1997, which she wrote shortly after becoming a mother, and it was really controversial. Much of the ambivalence and discomfort she expressed—certainly 20 years ago, you weren’t supposed to say those things. It’s changing a bit now.

Q: Yes, and there are an increasing number of accounts out there—including in this magazine—by people who regret having had kids, a stance once considered taboo, if it isn’t still. Did you read any when you were writing the book?

A: I read a lot in that area, yes, including private message boards where mothers expressed their regrets about having children, and Orna Donath’s excellent Regretting Motherhood (which Anne Kingston’s article in this magazine refers to), and articles in newspapers to which women signed their names, saying they regretting having children. And I read all the comments those articles received—many very vicious.

Q: Did that reading change or confirm your thinking in any particular way? 

A: Their regrets scared me. It is easy to be lulled into thinking that motherhood will be right for you, or that you will adjust to it, simply because you are a woman. But that is a fantasy. Women are not all the same.

Q: Many of these women who “regret” motherhood aren’t saying they resent or regret their own children, merely that they can imagine having lived another, different life. Given the research you did, why do you think people find that notion so offensive, or even threatening?

A: I think even your question is a bit of an expression of how people find the notion of maternal regret threatening, because your phrasing is an attempt to soften “regret” into “merely that they can imagine having lived a different life.” Those two things are so different. I’m going to quote Orna Donath, because she’s more of an expert in this area than I am—she studied and interviewed women who regret their choice. She writes, “Regret is a common emotional reaction to the consequences of decisions we have made and can be found within a variety of relationships we have with others.” Many of the women she interviewed say they love their children but don’t like being a mother. They are good mothers, but they wish they hadn’t had children. She says our reluctance to accept this “sheds light on our inability to treat motherhood as one among many human relationships, rather than as a sacred role.” That makes sense to me.

My book is largely about weighing whether or not to have children, and there must even be something offensive or threatening about that weighing, since I have seen so few rigorous representations of it in books or other forms of culture. But to return to your question, I think people often lie to themselves in order to survive in the life they have built up or chosen for themselves—lie to themselves saying they’re happy when they’re not, or have made good choices when they secretly know they have not—so it’s threatening to hear people tell the truth, when this truth echoes a truth they would also tell, if they didn’t choose to mask it. They want to shut those people up in order not to have to confront those feelings and truths in themselves.

I also lie to myself about things, and understand the use of lies. I just wish that more of us would tell truth about our lives, so we didn’t all feel so lonely. One thing about writing fiction, for me, is it’s a way of uncovering my own lies.

Q: One of the things your character struggles with is the seeming irreconcilability of a life devoted to children and a life devoted to art. That will sound unmodern, or unfair to some; do you think it’s a real dichotomy for female artists today?

A: I think every woman artist has to answer that for herself. Some women have no problem with it. And it can be a renaissance for some. Jenny Holzer’s art after she had children became even more ferocious. But being a good parent takes time away from other things, including writing, and if you are of the opinion that writing needs a lot of time, then the prospect of having children can be nervous-making.

Q: Your book is sure to precipitate a lot of tale-sharing. Are you prepared for the onslaught?

A: Yes, I’m endlessly fascinated by other people’s experiences with parenthood, or deciding against it. I tried to write the book in a way that would leave spaces for people to think about their own lives, their own questions and struggles with this. Learning about other people’s lives is the part I’m most looking forward to about publishing the book.

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