‘Motherhood’ by Sheila Heti

Motherhood UK cover

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 284 pages; 2018.

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which has been shortlisted for the 2018 Giller Prize, won’t be for everyone. I’d argue that it has a quite specific audience. It seems to be the kind of book that is aimed primarily at women of child-bearing age who haven’t quite made up their minds as to whether they want to have children or not.

It’s fictional, but because it’s written in the first person and doesn’t really have a plot (indeed, it doesn’t really have any characters aside from the narrator and her boyfriend), it feels like non-fiction. As I read through it I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t reportage; it was an extended piece of creative writing exploring a simple idea: how do you know when it’s the right time to reproduce, and what do you do if you decide that’s not for you?

Motherhood — the Canadian edition

Canadian edition

Written in direct first-person text, almost as if the author is trying to talk herself into — or perhaps out of — making a decision, it’s occasionally humorous and often illuminating, but mostly — and I hate to say this — it’s downright self-indulgent. (Navel-gazing is another term that springs to mind.)

As you’d expect for a book with a philosophical bent, it explores lots of interesting ideas about what it is to be a mother (doing what you, as a woman, were supposedly put on earth to do, for example) as well as what it is to be woman of child-bearing age who chooses not to bear children (helping the planet by not adding to the world’s population, is just one theory posited).

There’s some thought-provoking analysis on what it is to lead a creative life — in this case, as a writer — and whether having children lessens that ability or enriches it. Does raising children take away the energy and stimulus that is required for the imagination to function properly?

But the book’s structure is odd. It over-relies on the device of flipping coins to answer certain questions (inspired by the ancient Chinese “art” of I Ching), which is novel to begin with but soon wears thin.

Should I have a child with Miles?
no
Should I have a child at all?
yes
So then I should leave Miles?
no
Should I have an affair with another man while I’m with Miles, and raise the child as Miles’s own, deceiving him about the provenance of that child?
yes

There’s also a lot of over-reliance on dreams (this is a pet hate of mine in novels) and what I would call “hocus-pocus” (whether in the form of religion, fortune-telling or destiny), but these do serve an important function: to help the narrator determine whether making the decision to have a child is something over which she can take control, or whether it’s up to the gods to decide.

It’s certainly an interesting premise for a novel, but it’s weighed down by too much middle-class angst for my liking.

As a woman who chose not to have children, I’m afraid there was nothing new in this book for me. I suspect if I had read Motherhood 10 or 15 years ago it would have resonated and perhaps shown me that there is no right answer: your life isn’t better or poorer for having children, it’s just different if you choose not to become a mother.

This is my 2nd book for 2018 Shadow Giller Prize.

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15 thoughts on “‘Motherhood’ by Sheila Heti

  1. Pingback: The 2018 Giller Prize shortlist – Reading Matters

  2. I pretty much agree with your view of this book. I think some readers will like it, while others won’t. I also had to keep reminding myself it was fiction – I felt like I was reading someone’s journal. And I agree that there was too much coin tossing, which for me became more irritating than the self-indulgence. One could argue that the self-indulgence makes sense if it’s supposed to be read like a journal. (Although, it can still be irritating.)

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  3. I had a long and difficult road to Motherhood so this may have worked for me about 10 years ago but maybe not so much now that those tough decisions are behind me. It does sound a little self indulgent though.

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    • It *is* self indulgent. There’s no denying it’s an important decision to make but surely it shouldn’t be as all-consuming (and narcissistic) as this?

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  4. As an aside, i really dislike dreams in fiction, a very lazy device IMO. Still, this sounds like an interesting, innovative even, way to look at what is a difficult decision. I had one early marriage without wanting children, but in the next was happy to have children straight away. Last christmas we had four generations of women together, the first three had children at 18, 20 and 21 (the fourth was 14, now 15. I hope she waits!). In general I love children and despair of overpopulation. What to do!

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    • I hate dreams in novels… it’s such a lazy device.

      Interestingly, I don’t think it’s a difficult decision if you have a strong maternal instinct, but there are some women out there (me included) who lack this immediate drive, so the head kicks in (rather than the heart) which makes the decision a fraught one because you over analyse everything to the point of paralysis. Am envious that men don’t have the stress of a biological clock, which adds to the pressure.

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  5. Well, I suppose any topic explored so exhaustively, when it is so personal, can’t help but seem self-indulgent, but there aren’t a lot of books that I can think of which actually dare to explore this question in any kind of detail. Certainly when I was debating this question, more than a couple of decades ago, I didn’t see any acknowledgement that there WAS another choice to make because it seemed like everyone around me was following the path laid out so clearly for girls in home economics classes from grade school onwards. Isn’t it important to bring this into the realm of discussion even if only as an alternative to Knausgard’s saga of a modern man’s experience? Agreed, completely, however on the dreams question: Carol Shields is one of the writers who has consistently warned against that device for writer’s of fiction and I nod along!

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    • You are right… there’s not enough of these books around which look at this issue carefully and considerately. I think discussion of this issue in the media ends up painting women who choose not to have children as selfish ogres (or at least that’s what people in the comment seem to think) and we just end up back where we started: not very far advanced in promoting the idea that it’s OK to NOT have children, that women should have to the choice to do what they feel is right for them.

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  6. Pingback: Three From the Shortlist #2 | KevinfromCanada

  7. Pingback: Shadow Giller: Motherhood by Sheila Heti – Consumed by Ink

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