Book Notes: Motherhood: A Novel

The question of whether to have kids or not is a difficult one for some people, including me. I find the opinions of those who were utterly certain when making their decision (be they parents or settled non-parents) to be relatively uninteresting. I like people who wrestled with the pros and cons. That said, while the new novel Motherhood by Sheila Heti portrays a protagonist who’s relatively set on not having kids, it still intrigued and stimulated me and kept me reading to the end. For those thinking about the kids decision, it’s a solid supplement to non-fiction like Meghan Daum’s collection.

The plot of this book is non-existent other than one character ruminating over and over again: Do I want to have kids? I don’t, right? Here’s why I don’t. Well, maybe I do. No, surely I don’t, and here’s why. Good nuggets throughout on this singular question. But if the question isn’t of interest to you, this book isn’t for you…

Highlights below.


Parents have something greater than I’ll ever have, but I don’t want it, even if it’s so great, even if in a sense they’ve won the prize, or grabbed the golden ring, which is genetic relief—relief at having procreated; success in the biological sense, which on some days seems like the only sense that matters. And they have social success, too.

There is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give so many other people their life’s meaning. There can be sadness at not living out a more universal story—the supposed life cycle—how out of one life cycle another cycle is supposed to come.

I brought up my worries over paths not taken, and she said everyone had those, but often when you looked back on your life, you saw that the choices you made and the paths you went down were the right ones. She said it wasn’t a matter of choosing one life over another, but being sensitive to the life that wants to be lived through you. You need tension in order to create something—the sand in the pearl.

A lot of time is wasted in thinking about whether to have a child, when the thinking is such a small part of it, and when there is little enough time to think about things that actually bring meaning. Which are what? Nobody completely expected it to go the way it went—their life. Nobody is completely happy with the way things turned out for them. But most people manage to find some pleasure in it anyway.

What I need is so small: to eradicate any sentimentality from my feelings and to look at what is. Today, I defined sentimental to myself as a feeling about the idea of a feeling. And it seemed to me that my inclinations towards motherhood had a lot to with the idea of a feeling about motherhoodIt’s like the story my religious cousin told me when we were at her home for Shabbat dinner—of the girl who made chicken the way her mother did, which was the way her mother did: always tying the chicken legs together before putting it in the pot. When the girl asked her mother why she tied the legs together, her mother said, That’s the way my mother did it. When the girl asked her grandmother why she did it that way, her grandmother said, That’s how my mother did it. When she asked her great-grandmother why it was important to tie the chicken legs together, the woman replied, That’s the only way it would fit in my pot. I think that is how childbearing feels to me: a once-necessary, now sentimental gesture.

Will you one day feel about the mothering instinct the same way you now feel about the sex instinct, which also suddenly turned on? Like that other passage, you’ll resist it, but in retrospect, it took you.

Are the fantasies that visit us, of living other lives—like living with children if we don’t have them, or living without if we do—taboos? yes Are we supposed to build a conscious relationship with these taboos, so we might feel more at home in the world, on a macrocosmic level? yes How are we to do that? By challenging these taboos with our behavior? no By challenging them conceptually, in thought alone? no Instead of challenging them, should we be trying to bind the taboos with our lives, and so create a synthesis in our living? yes

Living one way is not a criticism of every other way of living. Is that the threat of the woman without kids? Yet the woman without kids is not saying that no woman should have kids, or that you—woman with a stroller—have made the wrong choice. Her decision about her life is no statement about yours. One person’s life is not a political or general statement about how all lives should be. Other lives should be able to exist alongside our own without any threat or judgment at all.

Some people try to imagine what it’s like not to have children—and they imagine themselves without children, instead of picturing a person they might never be. They project their own potential sadness over not having this experience on those who don’t want it at all. A person who can’t understand why someone doesn’t want children only has to locate their feelings for children, and imagine that desire directed somewhere else—to a life that is just as filled with hope, purpose, futurity and care.

Of course raising children is a lot of hard work, but I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self-interest. It’s like someone who digs a big hole in the middle of a busy intersection, and then starts filling it up again, and proclaims: Filling up this hole is the most important thing in the world I could be doing right now.

All the times I’ve listened to myself, has it ever been a mistake? Often, yes. But wasn’t the freedom to make those mistakes greater than all the advice in the world?

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.

Nobody looks at a childless gay couple and thinks their life must lack meaning or depth or substance because they didn’t have kids. No one looks at a couple of guys who have been together forever, love each other, are happy in their work, have chosen not to have kids, are probably still fucking, and pities them; or thinks that down deep inside they must know they’re living a trivial and callow life because they’re not fathers. Nobody thinks that! The idea of it is ridiculous!..  It’s only straight couples people have these feelings about—how empty their lives must be. No, actually, it’s not even the man—people look at him like he got away with something. It’s just the woman—the woman who doesn’t have a child is looked at with the same aversion and reproach as a grown man who doesn’t have a job. Like she has something to apologize for. Like she’s not entitled to pride.

I had always thought my friends and I were moving into the same land together, a childless land where we would just do a million things together forever. I thought our minds and souls were all cast the same way, not that they were waiting for the right moment to jump ship, which is how it feels as they abandon me here. I should not think of it as an abandoning, but it would be wrong to say it’s not a loss, or that I’m not startled at being so alone. How had I taken all of us as the same? Is that why I started wondering about having kids—because, one by one, the ice floe on which we were all standing was broken and made smaller, leaving me alone on just the tiniest piece of ice, which I had thought would remain vast, like a very large continent on which we’d all stay? It never occurred to me that I’d be the only one left here. I know I’m not the only one left, yet how can I trust the few who remain, when I’d been so mistaken about the rest?

One Response to Book Notes: Motherhood: A Novel

  1. Erik says:

    Have you read her other book, How a Person Should Be? link to amazon.com

    It’s a rather bizarre book, but pretty interesting. It hit me on a visceral level, even though it didn’t quite make sense at times.

    Loved the Daum collection – I’ll check this one out too.

    Reply

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