...[an] earthy and philosophical and essential new novel ... [Motherhood] floats somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. It reads like an inspired monologue, delivered over a kitchen table, or the one Spalding Gray sat behind in Swimming to Cambodia. Not a lot happens, yet everything does ... This book is endlessly quotable, and a perfect review would be nothing but quotations. She makes a banquet of her objections to parenthood. If you are an underliner, as I am, your pen may go dry.
There is something embarrassing and oddly compelling about a celebrated writer sincerely going back and forth over whether to have a child for 304 pages of first-person stream of consciousness. In chapters titled after her menstrual cycle, the narrator, whose name is Sheila, talks with mothers, and women who are pregnant, and struggles to determine if they are reliable narrators of their experience ... Sheila is funny, and idiosyncratic enough to rub contra to 2018, a time when the litmus test for a woman’s success is the extent to which her daily planner is a subject of marvel. How does she have time? ... The problem with the novel is also why it’s secretly a joy to read: It wasn’t written for us. I was amused to flip back and read the first line of Motherhood. 'Is this book a good idea?' Well, no ... But then what was How Should a Person Be? but a woman’s 288-page quest to justify her decision to be an artist before she made any art worth admiring? James Wood rightly called it 'a kind of 'ugly novel'.' If her last novel was like a woman whose cover-up always looks a little orange because she reapplies it in ill-lit bars, Motherhood is like a woman looking in the halogen-lit mirror at a doctor’s office ... All the art monster can do in the face of an indifferent world is value her art; whether or not it’s a bad idea is beside the point.
Heti is at her best — her sharpest and funniest — when she writes about why having a child doesn’t appeal to her, cutting against saccharine commonplaces about the importance of child-rearing ... At the end of the novel, in a witty reversal of the expected cliché, she describes having managed to get to the end of her childbearing years without a baby as 'a miracle' ... Are miracle and faith being slyly travestied, or is this just another example of the going secular self-help usage? It’s hard to tell ... Though our narrator moves in the artistic and academic circles of Toronto, she writes as though she seems unaware of any cultural debates, current or historical, about the ethics of procreation and child-rearing. Given that she spends a lot of time reading, on the one hand, and musing about reproduction, on the other, her lack of engagement with other minds on this much-discussed subject makes her deliberations feel airless and mulishly self-involved ... As one reads on in Motherhood, it becomes increasingly conspicuous that in the world of this novel, there is only one example of a writer — the narrator herself.
How can I be sure that I want to have a child Motherhood—a tortured, honest novel—is the Canadian writer Sheila Heti’s attemp to answer this impossible question ... The result is a book that is eclectic and compelling, a rare account of how a woman might sidestep what is, for many, a defining life event: the birth of a child ... If the project of [How Should a Person Be?] was to learn how to be, then the project of Motherhood is to learn how to live. Motherhood is a more mature work, its subject matter more serious and its tone more vexed. At times, the novel can feel heavy and unrelenting in its anxious self-inquiry. But what it lacks in humor, it makes up for in precision ... Heti tells a different story, about waiting, and watching yourself as you do so. It is the stuttering, recursive story of what happened—the arc of a life that goes on.
Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is less a novel than the denouement of a biblical story its narrator habitually returns to: Jacob wrestling with God ... Because the question of motherhood is slippery, the philosophical musing of Motherhood is anxious but gentle, as full of doubt and tenderness as the protagonist herself. It’s sensuous and velvety when she trusts her own babyless gut; then nervously meandering when she becomes dubious. The solipsism is frustrating (for the protagonist, and also for me—it’s the nature of ipseity to search for yourself within it), but luckily it’s cyclical, continually spiraling back to self-contained joy when she finds herself unabashedly grateful ... It’s a relief to watch matriarchal healing that doesn’t proceed forward with new generations but backward, when the living grow up, when women trust the quiet thing inside them, as alive as a baby.
You could argue, as a couple of my friends have, that Motherhood is not really about the decision to have a child at all, and that the obsessive recursion, which the narrator acknowledges is 'maddening!', represents the novel’s real subject: time, and to a lesser extent, the writing process. Though the tendency to downplay Heti’s particularly female topics forewarns of sexism ... Rather than a statement of topic, Heti’s title is a question—she might have also called the novel How Should a Person Be: A Mother?—and to miss that is to succumb to expectations for fiction she challenges. If you’re not super concerned with the fictionalizing of non-essential details, Motherhood could be described as an essay, so Heti’s choice to frame it as a novel deserves attention. You could say it’s an evasive maneuver, a sneaky way to write about oneself without having to account for any repercussions or associations that creates in the non-fictional world. You could also call it liberating, particularly for a writer who feels 'cornered by a looming force' whenever she hears one of her friends is having a baby ... Few personal choices a woman can make are more political than deciding not to have a child ... what Heti has always understood is that she, like all of us, is just one person, a novelist. It doesn’t really matter what she does, or why.
Probing, psychologically unafraid, witty and often agonised ... In a novel seemingly without a distinct structure, Heti’s strength — and most profound connection with the reader — is that of her narrator’s dialogue with herself. As an interlocutor she is steely and ruthless. She undermines but also, conversely, emphasises her rationality by consulting fortune tellers and Tarot readers ... With its mix of autofiction and philosophy, Motherhood is no manifesto but an essential — and often exasperating — exploration of uncertainty and of the art that can be created from it.
Heti’s (How Should a Person Be?, 2010) novel of a woman pondering what’s perhaps life’s most essential—and most endlessly debatable—decision is a provocative, creative, and triumphant work of philosophical feminist fiction ... As her character seeks and ultimately chooses, as she must, the aspects of life and art she’ll lay claim to, Heti writes with courage, curiosity, and uncommon truth: 'To go along with what nature demands and to resist it—both are really beautiful—impressive and difficult in their own ways.'
Heti’s Motherhood is interested only in abstraction ... Her business is a solipsistic existentialism, straight up ... The book is composed mostly of journally passages, divided into short chapters and stand-alone paragraphs, which vary considerably in sagacity and interest. There are also trips to literary festivals, a meeting with a fortune-teller, some family history, and summaries of conversations with friends, many of whom have betrayed the author by having children ... Motherhood is claustrophobic, like a diary, or a day with a newborn, and shapeless, even inchoate. It exists only to keep existing. Resolution is deferred while the author examines the problem from every side and then one more ... For a while I thought that the book was a pointed social critique, meant to demonstrate the difficulty of living outside convention even for a person who very much wants to. But Heti is not a social critic. Near the end of the book, she is prescribed an antidepressant to treat the debilitating PMS that leaves her 'half the month crumpled in tears' ... If you have at all invested in the dilemma of Motherhood, this denouement is a disappointment. But it’s true to the times, and in that respect tells us something about what it means to be human. If you think social problems shouldn’t have pharmacological solutions, take it up with the twenty-first century.
Motherhood is a novel, or so its publisher claims, though even that loose and accommodating category doesn’t convey the weird originality of this sometimes exasperating, sometimes illuminating work ... Heti isn’t an orphan in any literal sense—both her parents are still alive—and there is something bratty about publicly stamping her foot and declaring her need for attention. But she feels like a neglected baby, and so she acts like one. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that her mother friends, stuck at home, overextended and underslept, may feel neglected by her, too.
Motherhood is a starkly intimate recital of waiting and questioning, while the world indifferently passes by. As psychological inquiry, it’s undeniably effective. But the book, consumed as it is by hypotheticals, takes a circular shape, tracing over itself with increasingly sharp insights and blunt language ... But it’d be too easy, too limiting, to say that Heti’s literary effort is unsuccessful. To the contrary: Frustration and ambiguity are rooted in the book’s very argument. However redundant Motherhood is, that’s where the book’s sneaky power lies, in a layered question which lacks an answer: How should a mother be?
Heti’s wavering balance has led many critics to hate on this book, saying its lyric passages, interspersed conversations with friends and family, divination experiments, and wonderings are haphazard, too long, in desperate need of an editor. Which I can understand — there certainly are areas in this book I struggled to follow ... But as I adjusted to her form, I began to think: isn’t that the point? It’s a book of deliberation, and the way many of our minds work ... I am not here specifically to defend Heti’s section breaks, jumping points, or digressions, though I may in parts do just that. What I am here to do is consider how the criticism of this book plays right into a larger story Heti is telling ... Wandering into this territory of non-normative time, I think primarily of 'queer time' ... This analysis is what I feel is missing from the discussion of Heti’s book — and, to some extent from the book itself ... for all the plumbing of depths that Heti is willing to do, she does not fully go there. Queerness and queer time hide in plain sight ... I’ve only whispered to friends that I liked this book. I say it hesitantly, with caveats ... But here I am, relating to the book and wanting to extend the conversation it’s begun.
I also felt like the book was too long, but on purpose, as if Heti is performing for us what it felt like for this woman, thinking the same thing over and over again, having the same types of dreams, the same types of fights with her partner, the same kind of conciliatory sex. This feels like part of her project. If this is a book about (not) motherhood, it is also, a book about the female body and its limits and its strength. It is also an intense, sometimes maddening, performance of female ambivalence ... part of Heti’s project seems to be to push the limits of the Female, to upend the necessity of Mother, to suggest whole worlds that might exist beyond the making of other smaller versions of ourselves. But what her book also does is remind us of the limits, both of our bodies and our thoughts. For all her abstract acrobatics, this feels like a book about the complicated way Heti’s character both does and does not love her mother; it feels like an exploration of the ways our bodies hem us in.
This original, insightful, sometimes irritating work of autofiction is less about motherhood than about how mothering (or not) defines the female self ... But Heti’s thinking about motherhood, which starts out open and generative, turns recalcitrant and repetitive as she sinks into indecision. Though Motherhood can be terrifically funny and engaging, the narrator’s vacillation threatens to make the novel a static exercise in self-pity, like Henry James without the verbal camouflage ... It’s true that mothering is a social construct and an existential dilemma, but it’s also an intensely personal set of acts and experiences ... In the end it’s this personal inheritance of sorrow that stands between the narrator and a child. With this realization, the book regains its footing and the narrator finds her story at last.
I first read Sheila Heti’s new novel Motherhood during a period when my five-month-old baby was waking often in the night. In my state of rabid exhaustion, I found the skepticism Heti deploys toward childbearing in the book utterly contagious. A stream of questions that explore the topic of having a child and making art forms much of the basis of Motherhood’s narrative ... On a second read (and under improved sleep conditions), though, I realized that these kinds of comparisons are in part what Heti is trying to interrogate. More resigned to the ways my life had changed, and also hadn’t, with a child, I was able to enjoy Motherhood not as a polemic but as an inventively crafted novel about the complications of being a human being with competing or contradictory desires.
The book looks like a novel. It is arranged in short fragments, which incorporate dialogue, but it doesn’t tell a story as such. Its progress often feels more cyclical than linear ... Heti and her narrator inhabit, if not the same person, at least the same reality. This process injects an element of chance into the narrative, which Heti corrals in service of the book’s philosophical inquiry ... In Motherhood, Heti continues the project of How Should a Person Be? in at least one way: by opening out seemingly individual experiences into a general inquiry about ways of being. Despite its cyclical form, Motherhood is not so much a document of uncertainty and indecision as of the narrator’s slow and halting decision to live without children ... part of the point Heti is making is that not having babies can be interesting too; that living eternity backwards through one’s ancestors could be just as fulfilling as living it forwards through one’s children ... The moral conundrum involved in the decision to create a new life can’t be resolved in the space of a novel – but Motherhood gives it sustained and serious attention.
And this deeply thoughtful and candid narrative reveals that choice to be not a negative at all, but an affirmation of Heti’s freedom as an individual, a romantic partner, an artist and a woman ... The book is both meditative and playful (weighty questions are asked and answered via an 'I Ching'-inspired coin toss), layered with both social commentary and accounts of intimate, quotidian moments ... Motherhood treats the question of whether to become a mother and what it means to take on that responsibility with the seriousness and complexity it deserves. This feels more revelatory than it should be. All too often, in life and in literature, wanting children is taken as a given for a woman, and giving birth to a child — within a heterosexual marriage — represented as the joyous culmination of feminine fulfillment ... Heti’s important book is a positive assertion that motherhood is not an obligatory sacrifice, a glorified institution, the cornerstone of a woman’s being. Motherhood is — or should be — a choice, with each woman accorded the freedom to decide what it means.
But now Sheila Heti’s book seems likely to become the defining literary work on the subject, perhaps most of all because as a novel, replete with ambiguity and contradiction, it refuses to define anything, and certainly not the childlessness that provides its subject or the motherhood that provides its title ... This sounds hard-hitting, and it is, but it’s also deeply ambivalent, woven as one strand among many in a book that does, after all, claim to be a novel. Perhaps it’s most novelistic in its dextrous use of the present tense (there is a sense of a life unfolding, rather than being recorded) and in the sense, gradually built up, that the book knows more than the narrator does, in her fear and rage and naivety ... She is asking what her book can count for, and the answer is a lot. It’s hard to do justice to its complexity. This is less a book than a tapestry – a finely wrought work of delicate art.
Some readers may find this unfiltered self-absorption helpful. Others will remember the question posed at the book's beginning and conclude that the I Ching is not the best arbiter of literary merit. 'What kind of story is created when a person goes down, down, down and down—but instead of breaking through and seeing the truth and ascending, they go down, then they take drugs, and then they go up?' If you have to ask.... It's one thing to have the reader's sympathy and another to hold the reader's interest.
A book of sex (the real, unsensational kind), mood swings, and deep feminist thought, this volume is essentially a chronicle of vacillating ruminations on this big question. Although readers shouldn’t go in expecting clean-cut epiphanies, this lively, exhilaratingly smart, and deliberately, appropriately frustrating affair asks difficult questions about women’s responsibilities and desires, and society’s expectations.