August 2018

Arts & Letters

To have or not to have: Sheila Heti’s ‘Motherhood’ and Jacqueline Rose’s ‘Mothers’

By Stephanie Bishop
Heti’s novel asks if a woman should have a child; Rose’s nonfiction considers how society treats her if she does

Sheila Heti’s new novel, Motherhood (Harvill Secker; $35), opens with the unnamed narrator in a state of limbo: should she or should she not have a child? She is in her late 30s, and “time is running short on making certain decisions”; she is a writer and reluctant to compromise her art in the service of motherhood. Heti’s self-described “philosophical novel” doggedly pursues the question of whether or not to become a mother, and unfolds as a prolonged inquisition into the experience of ambivalence.

The narrator is obsessed by her own uncertainty: “The question of a child is a bug in the brain – it’s a bug that crawls across everything, every memory, and every sense of my own future. How to dislodge that bug?” While her interrogation of this uncertainty is by no means a rational inquiry, Heti’s narrator is clear in stating that this cross-examination must “eradicate any sentimentality from my feelings” and “look at what is”. Determined not to succumb to what she fears is simply a base biological urge, she spends her days in the “greyish, insensate world of [her] mind”, where she tries “to reason everything out”.

Motherhood sometimes resembles a diary, at others an essay. It follows the narrator over roughly three years until she hits 40, and is divided into several sections that provide a loose indication of her journey (“New York”, “Book Tour”, “Home”) and include the phases of her menstrual cycle (“PMS”, “Bleeding”, “Follicular”). The narrative is highly circuitous, returning to key concerns again and again as the narrator expands and revises her views in the hope that she might finally reach a decision. In this process of deliberation, the aim is less to make a choice and move on than to undermine her own confused desire by using up time – digressing and stalling, until her fertile years are over.

Whether or not to have a child is perhaps one of the most significant questions a woman will ask herself, and one of the most far-reaching decisions she is likely to make. In many quarters Motherhood has been heralded as a welcome feminist airing of a question rarely acknowledged or discussed in any meaningful public way, other than to damn and socially exclude those women who opt against having a child. (The figures on this vary. Between 7 and 14 per cent of American women, and more than 7 per cent of Western women worldwide, chose to remain childfree.) While voluntary childlessness among women is increasing, the reasons are many. At times illuminating, while at others exasperatingly self-involved, Motherhood is a novel that boldly interrogates this decision-making process.

Heti is an acclaimed Canadian writer whose work also includes plays, nonfiction and philosophy. Her breakthrough novel, How Should a Person Be? (2010), was autofictional and highly experimental, framed as a series of conversations with her artist friends as they struggled to live and make art under late capitalism. Motherhood is also a work of autofiction, and while the conversational tone remains, it is often directed internally as a dialogue with self.

In the book, the decision about having children is arrived at late. What is certain from the outset is that Heti’s narrator wants to live for her art, and doesn’t know if she could be both mother and artist. She would prefer to not have to think about the question. But as a woman she is keenly aware of the obligation to do so, in particular the need to justify her decision if choosing against it. “Maybe,” she wonders, “I have to think about myself less as a woman with this woman’s special task, and more as an individual with her own special task – not put woman before my individuality.”

The narrator is aware that were she a male artist she could simply be that, and not feel obliged to consider the question of whether or not to have a child. In debating this predicament, Motherhood slips sideways into the expanding genre of what the writer Kim Brooks has dubbed “the literature of domestic ambivalence”. Brooks’s probing essay on the relationship between creativity and domestic work, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom”, canvasses the significance of this genre – one initially brought to attention through Laura Miller’s essay “Ladies of Leisure: The Resurgence of the Housewife Novel”. Heti’s narrator fears becoming the kind of protagonist identified by Miller: “[s]he is a wife and mother, roles that seem to have taken over her identity. Yet she looks down on women like that … She used to dream of art or writing or some other creative endeavor. Now, she takes pills.” While Heti’s narrator does not have a child, she remains obsessed with the possibility of one, and is consumed by the art/child conundrum Miller describes. Heti’s narrator also looks down on mothering, takes pills to deal with her sadness, and is preoccupied by alternate versions of her life.

It is Heti’s critique of the societal pressures that are placed on women to become mothers that is one of the triumphs of this book. After a night out with some friends, for example, the narrator recounts a conversation between “a sort of Marxist intellectual who was committed to not having children” and his girlfriend. The man references Walter Benjamin in justifying his decision to not have kids. His girlfriend replies:

Being a woman, you can’t just say you don’t want a child. 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.

One innovative feature of the novel is the insertion of a series of dialogues, based on what can only be described as a divinatory game in which the narrator asks a question and flips three coins on a desk. “Two or three heads – yes. Two or three tails – no.” The debate concerning her feelings of gendered obligation continues in this form:

Is it that making babies is not a woman’s special task?


I should not be asking questions in the negative. Is it her special task?


Yes, but the universe lets women who make art that don’t make babies, off the hook? Does the universe mind if women who don’t make art choose not to make babies?


Are these women punished?


By not experiencing the mystery and joy?


In any other way?


By not passing on their genes?



Do men who don’t procreate receive punishment from the universe?


The voice of the coins is something akin to a higher but deviant conscience, an impersonal interlocutor. Heti’s often flippant narrator (forgive the pun) adapts her position depending on the answers given. The social critique that results – one concerning the broader expectation that a woman will choose in favour of motherhood, “or at least try” – segues, however, into a secondary conundrum. If a woman is choosing against motherhood, how, asks the narrator, does she define herself in a way that avoids the negative? “I don’t want ‘not a mother’ to be part of who I am – for my identity to be the negative of someone else’s positive identity.” Heti’s narrator finds herself in an unsolvable riddle, echoing Lydia Davis’s powerful microfiction A Double Negative: “At a certain point in her life, she realises it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.”

Quite justly, Motherhood argues that there are other causes in which one can invest similar care: “There are lives and duties everywhere just crying out for a mother. That mother could be you.” It is a sentiment that recalls Rebecca Solnit’s observation, in her essay “The Mother of All Questions”, that “there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world”. It is perhaps in Solnit that Heti’s inquiry finds its closest ally.

Strong feelings against having a child come to the fore, with the prospect of motherhood described as “a garden of thorns that would prick me to death”. What troubles here, however, is that the narrator’s fears of motherhood – and her concern that one cannot be both mother and artist – are premised on an idealisation of maternity that she is afraid she could not live up to. The problem at the heart of the book is that the narrator fails to adequately interrogate this idealisation, while basing her decision upon it.

Instead, the narrator watches her friends go about their business with their children, and imagines them to be perfectly happy – completely satiated by domestic tasks, willingly ensconced in the home, content with their withdrawal from public and cultural life. The narrator feels abandoned and starts to whine: “I resent the spectacle of all this breeding, which I see as a turning away from the living – and insufficient love for the rest of us.” In this vein of bewildering narcissism she demotes the role of mothering in order to aggrandise her own position: “The egoism of childbearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country”, “To not be a mother is the most difficult thing of all”, “It would be easier to have a child than to do what I want” (that is, to remain a childfree artist).

The version of motherhood that Heti conjures, and which her narrator, for good reason, finds repellent, is one in which the woman sacrifices her own ambitions in order to selflessly devote herself to her child. There is no attempt here to consider what a different kind of motherhood might look like, and how one’s maternal life might be otherwise organised or shared so that the decision to be an artist and mother need not be an either/or.

This vision of maternal devotion is potent ammunition for the narrator’s partner, Miles. He is a criminal lawyer, with a pre-adolescent daughter from an earlier relationship. This child lives abroad and visits on holidays. The arrangement suits him and he is clear that he doesn’t want another child. He largely refuses to engage in a meaningful conversation about the narrator’s desire, leaving her to flip coins in search of an answer.

Although the book has been lauded in some circles as a feminist celebration of a woman’s choice to remain childfree, such a view seems to shirk the role of paternal authority here. It’s clear that should she have a child the burden of caring for it would fall on her shoulders. This is no Clarke Gayford with the sleeves of his “daggy dad” cardie rolled up, ready for domestic action. Heti’s couple don’t discuss fatherhood or parenthood – only motherhood, and what it might cost the narrator as a female artist. Can one even imagine a book called Fatherhood that explores these questions in a similar fashion?

As a result, one starts to read Motherhood as a game of smoke and mirrors in which there occurs a gradual deferral to Miles’s authority. Over time his views are incorporated into the narrator’s rationalisations. Ambivalence is never eradicated, but sidelined by his arguments that aim to preserve their shared life – in which they have plenty of time together, lots of great sex, and he can sing as he leisurely gets ready for work. He warns her that “we do not have the money, we’d have to move, change everything”. By the time the novel ends, the narrator is relieved to feel her biological clock expiring; she does not actually have to make a decision because her body has done it for her.

The anxiety of Heti’s narrator cuts to the heart of Jacqueline Rose’s critique in her new book, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty (Faber; $24.99). Heti’s portrayal of the contemporary mother as either a selfish coloniser who refuses to come to the aid of others or someone who sacrifices her art in the pursuit of domestic perfection (without help from her partner or others) highlights the relevance of Rose’s argument, in which she reframes an ongoing feminist concern. Namely, that mothers are unfairly idealised in contemporary culture – expected to protect, purify and purge – while simultaneously treated as scapegoats for all our failings.

What, Rose asks, are “we turning our backs on” when we regard mothers in this way? True to form, Rose homes in on the issue of avoidance and repression: what are we not thinking about, what are we not prepared to look at, and how does this refusal contribute to the prevailing view of mothers and mothering? More particularly, how does this attitude inform societal structures that result in systems that penalise and exclude mothers, placing them on the margin of the polis in a position where they are expected to act as purifying filters?

Rose is internationally acclaimed for her many works on feminism, literature and psychoanalysis. It was in her 2014 book Women in Dark Times that Rose most clearly articulated her vision for a strand of contemporary feminism furthered in the more discursive work of Mothers. We must claim, she argued, “a new language for feminism”, that “burrows beneath [the] surface to confront the subterranean aspects of history and the human mind … which our dominant political vocabulary most often cannot bear to face”.

Mothers provides a pointed consideration of Rose’s broader contention that “women are often so hated … because of their ability to force to the surface of the everyday part of the inner life … which in the normal course of our exchanges we like to think we have subdued”. Mothers argues that our contemporary culture has a Janus-faced relationship to the maternal. Mothers are alternately idealised and ridiculed, caught up in a cycle of veneration and blame. As a culture we repress the dark complexity that underscores maternal life. This, Rose posits, is “the secret knowledge” of mothers, for which they are duly punished – becoming the objects of “socially licensed aggression”.

The book opens with the front-page headline used by The Sun newspaper on October 12, 2016: “Here for Maternity”. Rose describes the report in which 900 pregnant “health tourists” are a cause for alarm: “The hospital – read the nation – was being ‘deluged’, an ‘easy target’ for ‘fixers in Nigeria’ who were charging women to use the NHS.” Accompanying this article was a photograph of a Nigerian woman who delivered quintuplets by caesarean section at a UK hospital. In an age of increasing fortification, “with walls, concrete and imaginary, being erected across national boundaries”, writes Rose, the image of the “alien, invading mother” is used to manipulate and incite public fear of civic disintegration. The image of the mother represents borders and their dissolution (think pregnancy, birth and lactation). The association between the two is compounded by women’s traditional roles, especially pronounced in the postwar period, as defenders and keepers of the home.

In making her argument, Rose presents us with a sweeping range of contemporary instances of “licensed cruelty” directed at mothers, and treats these as symptomatic evidence of a deeper dislike and distrust of the maternal. From discriminatory judicial practices in which, during custody battles, subjects of domestic violence can be interrogated by abusive ex-partners, to the sexist new junior doctors contract introduced in the UK in 2016, to the extraordinarily high level of negative treatment, discrimination and job loss faced by pregnant women and new mothers at work (77 per cent, up from 45 per cent 10 years ago), to the alarming rates of under-treated postnatal depression, the picture Rose draws is a damning one. “The figures,” she argues, “speak for themselves … The visceral fact of motherhood … is an affront to normal – meaning, free of mothers and babies – life.”

Rose’s depiction of a culture outwardly hostile towards mothers is detailed in its coverage of biased workplace practices, but reaches beyond this to critique the prejudices faced by single and migrant mothers, the rising threat to reproductive freedom, and the status of maternal mental health. Why, Rose asks, is maternal experience not regarded as pivotal to our understanding of civic life, why is it not counted, why are mothers so easily relegated to the margins of public existence and debate, and has it always been thus?

As a culture we have not come nearly as far as an earlier generation of feminist thinkers hoped. If anything, women’s fertile bodies are increasingly subject to “male colonisation” – note Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the “Global Gag” rule that denies foreign aid to abortion-related organisations, his defunding of Planned Parenthood, and the possibility of Roe v Wade being overturned in light of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the US Supreme Court. It is sobering to remember that in asserting her right to choose against motherhood Heti’s narrator is regarded with suspicion. What’s more, the right to opt for an abortion (as Heti’s narrator did in her 20s) is under threat across the US, remains a clear impossibility for many women where the procedure is restricted, and is a very new freedom for women in Ireland.

The policing of the maternal body and Trump’s rising political insistence on motherhood can be read as attempts to prevent the proliferation of alternative narratives: what else might a woman do with her body and her life? Or, as Heti asks, what kind of trouble might a childless woman make? For those who become mothers, this attitude of conservative hyper-vigilance results in what Angela McRobbie has described as a disturbing “neo-liberal intensification” of contemporary mothering practices. In Western culture, Rose argues, one of two dominant options presents itself: the “air brushed and sanitised image of mothering” that urges women back into the home under the guise of the New Domesticity, or the alarming imperative to “lean in”, “as if being the props of neo-liberalism were the most that mothers can aspire to”. The ideal promulgated is, as Rose notes, “a predominantly white, middle-class domestic ideal … one which fewer and fewer families can possibly live up to. But that has not prevented it from spreading down the class spectrum and across all ethnic groups.”

The “diktat” to be perfect is an expectation, however, that too readily backfires, suffocating both mother and child. In our own times the dominant version of motherhood is one so sanitised and limited as “to silence the inner life of the mother by laying on [her the] heaviest weight of its own impossible and most punishing ideals”, with the term “mother[s]” so often serving as “a trigger for a willed self perfection that crushes women”. One loses track of how many advertisements for cleaning products feature white women in white clothes, tending cherubic children while wiping down the kitchen bench with disinfectant and shooting antibacterial spray into the air: angels of the house indeed – and the stuff of Heti’s nightmare.

Meanwhile, this myth of maternal virtue is a defence against a darker reality. Rose wants to uncover this, and her major arsenal is the psychoanalytic theory of Melanie Klein, Wilfred Bion, and especially the 1949 essay by the British psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott, “Hate in the Counter-Transference”. Winnicott’s essay refers to the hatred a mother can feel for her child while continuing to love them. She does not act on this hatred, but must acknowledge it lest the hatred turn inwards and manifest as masochism. To discredit this emotional terrain is to undermine the complexity of maternal life in which intense love and hate coincide. Rose goes in search of representations of motherhood that give voice to this ambivalence and in the process asks how we can better “listen to the tales that mothers choose to tell”.

Rose draws on a multitude of writers and philosophers, from Edith Wharton to Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison and Rachel Cusk, to name just a few. The lengthiest examination of the maternal figure in literature is reserved for a late chapter on the work of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante and her central motif of maternal disintegration, frantumaglia, or “loss of self”.

This consideration leads Rose to close with the moving story of adopting her baby daughter from China. The joy Rose feels is overwhelming, and she describes this as part of the larger experience of maternal self-dispossession – an elated erasure of boundaries. Resting while her child sleeps, Rose describes feeling herself undergoing

an inverse pregnancy, moving backwards in time, letting her in, or rather, it felt, her claiming her place as she crawled inside my body and into my bloodstream … I was being turned inside out. This, I suggest, is the chief property of joy, certainly of maternal joy, which shatters the carapace of selfhood.

Mothers does not propose to fully answer the many questions it raises, but the book opens an urgent conversation, in which Rose queries what might happen if instead of punishing mothers “we listen to what they have to say”. What greater question could we ask, Rose suggests, given that in their relationship to motherhood, and their ability to refuse it, “women have the power to bring the world to its end”.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Her latest novel is The Anniversary.

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