Motherhood is one of those books that lends itself easily to contradictions. It’s technically fiction, but I’d hesitate to call it a novel—which is not my way of saying it’s autofiction; it is, of course, but my unwillingness to categorize it as a novel is rooted more in its experimental form than in the assumption that the narrator is the author’s proxy. I’d also hesitate to call it a “story”—events technically occur, but conceptualizing those events as “plot” feels inaccurate. My favorite description of Heti’s work thus far comes from Dwight Garner, who called it an “inspired monologue.” I’m not sure I agree with “inspired,” but I absolutely agree that Motherhood is a monologue—and I wouldn’t hesitate to tack on “inventive” as an adjective.
I am certain after reading Motherhood that Heti’s mind is a singular space. It’s cliché to say, but nonetheless true: no one else could have written this book. It is profoundly eccentric. It’s also intelligent. Ruminative. Tortured. At times, it’s a bit frustrating. The subject matter is in complete alignment with my interests—I am nothing if not ALL IN for a monologue exploring the societal pressure to procreate, particularly if that monologue concludes with a decision against parenthood. That said, even I lost patience with Heti about three-fourths of the way in. Three hundred pages is a long time to ask the same question over and over again. On the other hand, I also agree with Lynn Steger Strong’s assessment:
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.
At the end of the day, the question is: Does it work? Is Heti’s project successful? It was for me. But I imagine it wouldn’t be for most readers. I also imagine that Heti couldn’t care less what “works” for her readers. Heti writes for herself.
I know I have more than most mothers, but I also have less. In a way, I have nothing at all. But I like that and think I do not want a child.
Parents have something greater than I’ll ever have, but I don’t want it, even if it’s so great, even if in a sense they’ve won the prize, or grabbed the golden ring, which is genetic relief—relief at having procreated; success in the biological sense, which on some days seems like the only sense that matters. And they have social success, too. There is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give so many other people their life’s meaning. There can be sadness at not living out a more universal story ….
I know we make art because we’re humans and that’s what humans do, for the sake of God. But will God ever see it?
Is that because art is God?
Is it because art exists in the House of God but God doesn’t pay attention to what’s in God’s home?
Is art at home in the world?
Is art a living thing—while one is making it, that is—as living as anything else we call living?
Is it as living when it is bound in a book or hung on a wall?
Then can a woman who makes books be let off the hook by the universe for not making the living thing we call babies?
If no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented boyfriends. I would have invented sex, friendships, art. I would not have invented child-rearing. I would have had to invent all those other things to fulfill real longing in me, but if no one had ever told me that a person could create a person and raise them into a citizen, it wouldn’t have occurred to me as something to do. In fact, it would have sounded like a task to very much avoid.
What do we need to know about a person in order to like them? Before she wrapped her leftover buttered toast inside a paper napkin, I didn’t know whether I liked her or not. Then, when she wrapped up her toast in the napkin, I suddenly loved her. Before she wrapped up her toast, she’d been making an effort to show herself to be sophisticated and an impressive young editor from a respected magazine. Then, when she did that, the performance dropped. Not only was she underpaid, the gesture said, but she really liked toast. She liked toast even more than she liked being admired.
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 better be able to tell it convincingly—before it even happens—what the arc of your life will be.
Only in our failures are we absolutely alone. Only in the pursuit of failure can a person really be free. Losers may be the avant-garde of the modern age.
The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it. We squeeze ourselves into the moments we allow, or the moments that have been allowed us. We do not stretch out in time languidly, but allow ourselves the smallest parcels of time in which to exist, miserly. We let everyone crowd us. We are miserly with ourselves when it comes to space and time. But doesn’t having children lead to the most miserly allotment of space and time? Having a child solves the impulse to give oneself nothing. It makes that impulse into a virtue, to feed oneself last in self-abnegation, to fit oneself into the smallest spaces in the hopes of being loved—that is entirely womanly. To be virtuously miserly towards oneself in exchange for being loved—having children gets you there fast.
I want to take up as much space as I can in time, stretch out and stroll with nowhere to go, and give myself the largest parcels of time in which to do nothing—to let my obligations slip to the ground, reply to no one, please no one, leave everyone hanging, impolitely, and try to win no one’s favor… Having children is nice. What a great victory to be not-nice. The nicest thing to give the world is a child. Do I ever want to be that nice?
If something can be debated endlessly and without resolution, it cannot matter. The things that cannot be debated are the things that matter most. For some, it cannot be debated whether they will have a child, but for those for whom it can be debated, it’s probably a fine life either way.
Of course raising children is a lot of hard work, but I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self-interest. It’s like someone who digs a big hole in the middle of a busy intersection, and then starts filling it up again, and proclaims: Filling up this hole is the most important thing in the world I could be doing right now!
I forgive myself for every time I neglected to take a risk, for all the narrowings and winnowings of my life. I understand that fear beckons to a person as much as possibility does, and even more strongly.