Family

Art or Babies?

In extolling the limitlessness of a life without children, Sheila Heti ends up making the case for writerly limits.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock and Josh Post on Unsplash.  Woman imagining two versions of herself, one with a baby and one without.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock and Josh Post on Unsplash.

When my daughter was born, the sleepless first weeks arrived with the force of surprise. Infants don’t let you sleep. This is their most widely known attribute, other than the dirty diapers. And I knew they didn’t let you sleep, or had heard it anyway. But when the predicted, the foretold, the inevitable sleeplessness of my infant arrived in all its gnarly muscularity, I felt as though there had been some serious communication failure: No one had told me, like really told me, how exhausting the early days would be—even though, of course, they had.

As with so much about motherhood, what feels singular and personal in the moment often proves to be universal. I’m not talking about the exhaustion. I’m talking about the not listening. In her 1997 book A Life’s Work, which has become a towering text in the rapidly expanding bookshelf of literary writing on motherhood, Rachel Cusk wrote of this sensation—that somehow no one had really told you about motherhood at all. “In motherhood,” she wrote, “a woman exchanges her public significance for a range of private meanings, and like sounds outside a certain range they can be very difficult for other people to identify.”

Motherhood, as Cusk says, is often an internal and domestic transformation, but that doesn’t fully explain the “tone-deafness” she describes. There is, after all, another deeply private, non–public-facing transformation that is life-altering and all-encompassing despite being fundamentally quotidian: falling in love. I know, I know that romantic love involves sex and adventure, while parental love involves less sex and harrowing treks to the local pediatrician. But it still seems to me disproportionate that one of these personal upheavals should be the most popular subject of all time and the other should be, well, parenting—interesting only to other parents. That this is the case is a knock-on effect of millennia of disinterest in the—until recently—exclusively female experience of carrying, birthing, and raising children. It’s sexism, so widespread and ingrained that even mothers, as feverishly obsessed with our progeny as we may be, have it too: the self-deprecation, the apology, the “Sorry, I know this is so boring.”

All this seems like an answer to a question I saw posed on Twitter recently: Why, when there are scores of new books about mothers and mothering and motherhood, does it continue to feel like there aren’t any? There have long been parenting books—advice manuals and how-tos desperately purchased at 2 a.m. on Amazon—but the trickle of books that treat parenting, and motherhood in particular, as a properly literary topic has only relatively recently become a deluge. There’s the work of Jenny Offill, Maggie Nelson, Rivka Galchen, and Eula Biss, to name a few. And with Mother’s Day fast approaching, dozens more such books arrived and arriving. Parul Seghal recently noted in the Times that books about motherhood have become downright trendy, and it’s not just books. Diablo Cody’s Tully, about an overextended new mother and her youthful night nurse, arrives this weekend. On TV, there’s Showtime’s single-mother comedy Smilf, a new Netflix show imported from Australia called The Letdown, and Motherland, from Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan.

Amongst and yet distinct from this group is Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which takes mothering as a properly literary topic even while it is actually the long, meandering story of a woman’s decision not to become one. Heti is the Canadian author of the strangely hard-to-categorize memoir-slash-novel How Should a Person Be?which took a bare-souled, first-person approach to the inner life of a young writer trying to find a place for herself in the world. Here, in about 300 pages of this so-called novel, she chronicles her circuitous and discursive vacillations about motherhood: Does she want a child? Or does she want her partner, a beautiful man named Miles who doesn’t want another child? Or does she want her work? Or does she want to please her mother? Would a child destroy her work? Would it make it better? Who is a woman without a child? Is a woman with a child even herself anymore?

Heti thinks that women who didn’t have children until their late 20s or 30s believe they know what life is like for women without children—and judge that life. In brief vignettes, she outlines women with children pitying women who have none, imagining sadness and emptiness where there is none, and pressuring other women—pressuring her!—just to do it, to have a baby. The flip side to this condescension, which Heti captures, not so much in others, but in herself, is the strange suspicion with which people who don’t have children view those who do. When we give birth, we give birth to a child but also to a new version of ourselves, a parent. How can a parent be objective on the matter of children, specifically their own?

This is the conundrum at the heart of Motherhood: You can’t know what it’s like to have a baby until you have a baby, but once you have a baby, what you think about that baby is biased and besmirched (unless you hate the baby: thus the strange authority of the regretful parent). If nearly everyone who has children tells you having children is worth it, is that convincing or is that brainwashing? Is that knowledge or false consciousness? On one side of motherhood is the woman who imagines she has the incisive eye, the hard questions, and the time to ponder them—on one side there is Heti. And on the other is the woman with all the experience—the woman Heti could become. Can these women hear one another?

I do not mean to suggest that this, or anything, is laid out quite so plainly in Motherhood. Heti works herself into contortions trying to solve the mystery of the child who is not there. Motherhood, the book, is a “prophylactic,” a writing project that the author embarks upon, at 36, to figure out whether she wants a child, but that carries her through to 39 without one, literally pushing off the possibility of conception until her age obviates the issue. The book, in other words, is self-consciously a way of killing time, and after the first 60 pages, it reads like one. It idles, it digresses, it repeats, it makes no progress. It’s a spacey version of Groundhog Day, starring a protagonist almost comically obsessed with asking strangers what she should do about having kids. It concludes with a lexapro-ex-machina, antidepressants that provide immediate clarification.

Since she was a child, Heti writes, “I wanted to be free.” She laments the writer who denies herself the freedom to write, the whole day to work—“I really need an infinity amount of time to work; to access infinity”—and the woman who does so too. “The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it,” she writes. “Having a child solves the impulse to give oneself nothing. It makes that impulse into a virtue.” I underlined this quote in the book and wrote next to it, “True.” And yet I began to wish for some limitations—the squalling baby of her imagination—that might have made the book sharper. Motherhood is an exhibition of Heti’s freedom, of all the time and space she has made for herself, but as she perseverates, providing us with tarot readings, backslidings, and repetitions, the book drifts, languorous and limp.

Heti, if you’ll excuse me, already writes like a mother. Her work fits comfortably into a category of books I think of, with love, as mom lit, but that have been more respectfully described as the “literature of domestic ambivalence.” Books like Dept. of Speculation, The Argonauts, The Folded Clock, and Little Labors are thematically concerned with parenting while structurally reflecting it. These books are discursive and epigrammatic. They don’t have chapters but short sections, bursts of paragraphs. They’re moody, evocative, and addictive, an elegant solution to the problem of the constantly interrupting small child. There are many writers who partake in the style who are not mothers, and many mothers who write in a more sustained form—Cusk, for one—but this is writing that can be picked up and polished in short, awkward bits of time.

Heti’s work fits comfortably into this category, but it does not gleam. Mixed in with the insights (motherhood “suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their 30s, when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience, from doing anything useful with them at all”) and the overstated parenting burns (“the egoism of childbearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country, both carry the wish of imprinting yourself on the world, and making it over with your values, and in your image”) are sections that, perhaps, someone not performing all the endless time she has might have cut: “I showered again this morning with the little, hand-held shower, crouching in the tub. At first I found it frustrating, it seemed impossible to get truly clean, but after only three mornings of washing this way, it already feels sensual.”

Writing, like most art, is better for having limits, problems an author has to think her way through and around to come to a better solution. Heti knows this. She has given herself, in Motherhood, exactly such an artificial limit: Throughout the book, she includes long exchanges in which she stages conversations between herself and a mystical power. This involves tossing three coins to divine a “Yes” or “No” answer based on the pattern of heads or tails. For example:

The universe lets women who make art but don’t make babies, off the hook?

Yes

Does the universe mind if women who don’t make art choose not to make babies

Yes.

Heti writes of this practice, “It’s useful, this, as a way of interrupting my habits of thought with a yes or a no. I feel my brain is becoming more flexible as I use these coins. It’s an interruption to my complacency—or at least that’s what it feels like, to have to dig a little deeper, to be thrown off.” In other words—and I know three coins are never going to burst into the room where she is writing with a skinned knee—it’s a kind of baby, an irrational authority that demands she mentally accommodate it.

Hovering over Motherhood is the “art monster,” first described in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him.” The art monster has taken on a life of its own, not as a villain, but as an aspiration. Women, too, should get to be art monsters. But the lesson of the Dept. of Speculation—and scores of literary works about motherhood written by mothers—is that you can make your art without being an art monster: You can do it as a—please excuse me again—an art mother.

Heti writes in passing about what being a mother might do for her work, the themes and ideas it might impart. It’s hard to imagine a subject better suited to Heti’s autofiction than parenting, in which one is not just bored but incandescently bored. But she keeps returning to books and children as a zero-sum game. Her cousin has six children, but Heti has six books. Isn’t that the same? Isn’t that better? “I want to make a child that will not die,” she writes. “A book is more powerful than any murderer. A book lives in every person who reads it.” But at this moment in time, for a woman of Heti’s status and class, this is a false choice: She shouldn’t have children if she doesn’t want to, but not because doing so would keep her from writing another book—maybe even a better one.