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Motherhood by Sheila Heti

Are you a Mother? Or Not Not a Mother?

May 14, 2019 Comments Off on Are you a Mother? Or Not Not a Mother?

By Sheila Heti
Illustrated. 284 pages. 

Should she become a mother, or shouldn’t she? Her body is capable, yet time is running out. Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood doubles as a philosophical text impacted by the physiological that attempts to answer this question. Spoiler alert: I think it’s brilliant!

At the Agency of Women event held on the ninth floor of the Guthrie Theater at Loft Literary Center’s inaugural Wordplay on May 11th, Heti explained that she wanted to write how a woman’s philosophy, her thinking, could be impacted by her monthly cycle. That’s why sections of the book alternate between the titles: PMS, Bleeding, Follicular, or Ovulating.

Heti acknowledged receiving some pushback of the you’re-going-to-make-them-think-we’re-crazy! variety about her choice to shift the narrator’s thinking based on what time of the month it was. Heti pointed out that, that crazy accusation is misogynistic in itself. “You’re not always standing in the same place.”

Guthrie Theater 9th Floor View

The view from the 9th floor of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

The Unnamed

Motherhood’s narrator is unnamed. Much has been made of this in interviews, reviews, and discussions. If the narrator is unnamed is Sheila Heti the narrator? Why didn’t she just write a memoir?

“You would never ask a poet if [their poem]’s fiction, or autobiographical,” Heti said while onstage and in conversation with Miriam Toews and Curtis Sittenfeld at Agency of Women.

The unnamed narrator brings up a different question for me.

In Motherhood the narrator tells the story of Baal Shem Tov’s daughter. She asks her father who she will marry and if she will be a mother. At the end of the story the daughter has two boys and one girl. The names of the boys and their vocations are given. The girl’s name and what she does with her life is not.

Of it, the narrator says, “It seemed to me like all my worrying about not being a mother came down to this history — this implication that a woman is not an end in herself. She is a means to a man, who will grow up to be an end in himself, and do something in the world. While a woman is a passageway through which a man might come…If you refuse to be a passageway, there is something wrong. You must at least try.”

My question: Is the narrator unnamed because she has given birth to a book? Was she simply a means? Her friends are named, her live-in lawyer boyfriend Miles is named, and so on.

I’m probably reaching.

A few favorite quotes and only a few.

In a New York Times review, Dwight Garner calls Motherhood, “endlessy quotable…a perfect review would be nothing but quotations.” I agree. While I read the book on the elliptical at the gym, trying to mark each important quote, I ran out of sticky notes.
My Favorite 5 Quotes from Motherhood:

  • The world is less perceptive than you give it credit for. The world is fairly stupid, and it’s stupid about you, too.
  • I’ll have to remove my feminine self-doubt, which exists out of politeness; remove my second-guessing, that utter waste of time; work harder; think harder– all the violence I will have to do to my own softness, which has always been a comfort!
  • When you stop making a project of trying to escape your pain, it will still be there, but also a realization: that the pain is only as much as you can handle — like a glass of water filled to the brim, the water hovering at the meniscus, not running over.
  • 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.
  • And 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. Then maybe instead of being ‘not a mother’ I could be not ‘not a mother.’

In Motherhood, the narrator answers the question of whether or not to become a mother for herself. Not for everyone. Her answer may not be for you. Yet, the question provides a thought-provoking must-read.

Do you want to read Motherhood by Sheila Heti?

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