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On Not Becoming a Mother

In her new novel “Motherhood,” Sheila Heti reflects on fate, agency, and time.

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An unnamed woman, a Canadian writer approaching forty, has finally settled down with a wonderful man—her “soulmate,” as she sometimes calls him. Miles is beautiful. He supports her work. He makes her dinner. He buys her lilacs and waters them when they start to wilt. They have filthy, excellent sex. Miles also has a pre-adolescent daughter, a child from a previous relationship, and has come to believe that parenting is “the biggest scam of all time.” “You never know what you’re going to get,” he explains. He doesn’t want another child, but he will compromise, he claims, if a child is what the narrator truly wants. “But,” he tells her, “you have to be sure.”

Henry Holt and Co., 263pp., $27.00

How can I be sure that I want to have a child? Motherhood—a tortured, honest novel—is the Canadian writer Sheila Heti’s attempt to answer this impossible question. On one level, the narrator knows that she can’t determine in advance how she will feel about motherhood, that such an inquiry into the future is futile. Parenthood is transformative; it makes you into a different person, someone whose likes and dislikes, wants and needs, you cannot in your present state predict. But on another level, the narrator admits that she has some degree of control (she is after all still fertile), and that she cannot simply wait for certainty to arrive. “The thing to do when you’re feeling ambivalent is to wait,” she reflects. “But for how long? Next week I’ll be thirty-seven. Time is running short on making certain decisions.”

And so, at Miles’s urging, she puts aside her other projects (so much for that book about Simone Weil) and begins to write about motherhood. Her creative process doubles as an attempt to work out her own feelings on the subject. The narrator records her conversations with friends, both those who have children and those who don’t. She writes down her dreams. Inspired by the I Ching, a Chinese divination text, she begins flipping three coins and notes the “yes or no” answers they offer. (A note at the book’s beginning informs us that while some parts of the book are pure fiction, “all results from the flipping of coins are true.”) She thinks about her own mother, who is at best ambivalent about the twinned institutions of motherhood and marriage, and their relationship, which represents the book’s poignant subplot, its most fully realized narrative arc.    

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. Motherhood is about everything one would expect: female identity, the durability of romantic love, the conflict and resemblances between making children and making art. But it is also a book about fate, agency, and, ultimately, time—how it passes, and what happens while we wait.

For a book about indecision and its attendant anxieties, Motherhood opens on a remarkably calm and reflective note. “I often beheld the world at a great distance, or I didn’t behold it at all,” the novel begins.

At every moment, birds passed by the overhead that I did not see, clouds and bees, the rustling of breezes, the sun on my flesh. I lived only in the greyish, insensate world of my mind, where I tried to reason everything out and came to no conclusions. I wished to have the time to put together a world view, but there was never enough time, and also, those who had it, seemed to have had it from a very young age, they didn’t begin at forty.

The narrator, a cerebral, sensitive woman, feels that she has fallen behind her friends, many of whom are now married mothers. She was married once, too, but she left that man, and that house, and the life path that would have made her old at forty, instead of uncomfortably young. Now, she spends her days writing in bed and worrying that she has so repressed her desire to have a child—a desire she once felt acutely—that she won’t ever be able to recover it. Miles suggests that this is a good thing, that “one can either be a great artist and a mediocre parent, or the reverse.” Instead of parenting, they should try to live what he calls an “avant-garde life.”  

At once self-conscious and naïve, Motherhood’s narrative voice sounds familiar: It’s the voice of Sheila in Heti’s 2012 How Should a Person Be?, a “novel from life.” In that book, Sheila, a writer in her thirties who lives among artists in Toronto, tries to figure herself out by observing the personalities of others. She studies celebrities (Paris Hilton), famous writers (Oscar Wilde), and her friends (the painter Margaux Williamson). Unsurprisingly, Sheila learns that she cannot fashion a self by imitation alone. “How can you say, I’d rather be responsible like Misha than irresponsible like Margaux. Responsibility looks so good on Misha, and irresponsibility looks so good on Margaux.” But she does borrow from Margaux a certain kind of insouciance, the ability to say, “who cares?” in the face of disaster. Sheila may end up living an ugly life, but if she gets “to have a couple of true friendships along the way,” then it won’t have been so bad.

If the project of that last book 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 gathers here all the fascinating, shameful, contradictory thoughts women have about actual and potential children. “So much as I can’t see having a child, it’s strange to imagine I actually won’t,” the narrator admits. “Yet the not-having seems just as amazing, unlikely and special as the having. Both feel like a kind of miracle.”

Diaristic and circuitous, the narrative unfolds over the course of roughly three years, the waning years of the narrator’s fertility. Brief sojourns away from Toronto provide the book with some structure, as do coin-flipping interludes and phases of the menstrual cycle (sections have titles like “PMS” and “follicular”). This structure, or lack thereof, illustrates how life without children can feel repetitive and empty, like a life that hasn’t yet begun. “Out of one life cycle,” she observes, “another cycle is supposed to come. But when out of your life, no new cycle comes, what does that feel like? It feels like nothing.”  

There are not many stories about nothing, or about the particular pointlessness that childless women sometimes feel. (“Life without children has the quality of waiting on the doorstep of life,” the narrator says.) More common are stories about mothering—either neat, linear narratives that culminate in pregnancy or birth, or, from the last decade, fraught, often fragmentary narratives about the relationship between mothering and writing. Motherhood resembles some of these more recent works in tone and form—it too is self-reflective, probing, and disjointed—but it is preoccupied with a different set of questions: not how to adjust to motherhood, but how to live an unchanged or unchanging life.    

A woman’s reproductive life is, in fact, often nonlinear and non-teleological. Think of the woman who is infertile, or the one who doesn’t carry a pregnancy to term, or the one who finally meets the person with whom she most wants to have children, only to realize that, for whatever reason, this person is unable to have children with her. In these cases, time stops, or turns in on itself; the story is interrupted prior to its predetermined conclusion. As the narrator explains, “there is a feeling I have of life standing by, twiddling its thumbs, waiting for me to have a child.” 

She, too, is waiting: for internal clarity, or, short of that, for a prophecy to be fulfilled. Over the course of the novel, she sees a psychic, a “spiritual healer or a fraud,” who, for $140, predicts the births of two daughters. Later, she goes to a tarot reader. She continues flipping coins. She also takes some practical steps to intervene in her fate: She gets an IUD, which she quickly removes, then visits a fertility clinic, where she weeps upon learning that her eggs are viable, like “fresh figs.” By this point in the novel, she had hoped that the question of her fertility was a closed one.

Mostly, though, she talks to people: mentors, acquaintances, friends, her mother. On the question of children, there is no consensus or consistency. Marion, a new mother, suggests that the narrator should have a child, then admits that she wants “all of her friends to be married off with babies, like she was.” A classics professor begs the narrator not to have children, then confesses that having a daughter was “the greatest experience” of her life. A white-haired woman at a book reading relates how her 35-year-old daughter, once ambivalent herself, is now “a wonderful mother.” A male friend, a “sort of Marxist intellectual who was committed to not having children,” alludes to Walter Benjamin in order to justify his decision. 

Heti has an ear for conversation, especially conversation among and between women. A group of gossipy friends in Stockholm express unconvincing pity for their one childless friend; “they need someone who they feel their lives are better than,” the narrator observes. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator and her mother talk about the relative importance of children in a woman’s life in an exchange that is bittersweet and lovely. Some of the more didactic or philosophical sections, on the other hand, can sound forced. “Just because you are alive, does not mean you have to give life,” the narrator muses. And, elsewhere, “There’s something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. … What sort of trouble will she make?”

These statements are useful as feminist ripostes to the demands of the patriarchy, but they’re less interesting than the words of her peers or the narrator’s reflections on them. “These women are the voice of my conscience,” she writes at one point. On the whole, they are more perceptive than the spiritual healers—and the prophecies they offer come free.

When the narrator ages out of reproductive possibility, she is relieved. It feels “like a storm passing over my soul.” Her mood lifts. She stops fighting with Miles. She walks home, happy, unburdened by the gazes of men. Though she knows that “for a woman of curiosity, no decision will ever feel like the right one,” she tells herself that this one—the decision not to have a child—is right. She should have known that this is how the story would end. 

It’s an odd kind of resolution, retroactive and thus a bit hard to believe. But perhaps this is as it should be. We affirm our lives in retrospect, tracing routes from one event to the next as if to show a necessary relationship between them. But lives are right and good, if they are right and good, simply because they are what happened—not because other outcomes were impossible, or wrong. As the narrator’s wise friend Robin explains, “It wasn’t a matter of choosing one life over another, but being sensitive to the life that wants to be lived through you”—which, of course, is whatever life you end up living.

Instead of fate, there is contingency reconstructed as narrative. Recognizing this, and refusing to plot out one’s life in advance, is one way to resist the cultural pressures placed on women. “You can’t just say that you don’t want a child,” explains the quiet girlfriend of the Benjamin-quoting Marxist. “You have to have some big plan or idea of what you’re going to do instead. And it better be something great. And you had better be able to tell it convincingly—before it even happens—what the arc of your life will be.” Telling such a story is as impossible as knowing a future self. 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.