“Motherhood” by Sheila Heti

I wish this review could consist of me quoting the entire book to you by screaming it at the top of my lungs. Alas, that would be a bit dificult (not to mention mildly frightening) so we’re stuck to pen on paper – or… bytes on screen, I guess?

“Why are we still having children? Why was it important for that doctor that I did? A woman must have children because she must be occupied. When I think of all the people who want to forbid abortions, it seams it can only mean one thing – not that they want this new person in the world, but that they want that woman to be doing the work of child-rearing more that they want her to be doing anything else. There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. There is something at-loose-ends feeling about such a woman. What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?”

This review has been a long time coming, but whenever I sat down to write it, I failed to find a way to satisfyingly describe this book, and to do it justice. And this book was such an important read for me, a read that hit so close to home, that it’s sort of become my mission to have everyone I know read it. (This hasn’t happen since I watched Nanette and then wrote to every single active WhatsApp chat “Have you watched Nanette? It’s on Netflix, you should watch it.”)

But what’s so ineffable (can you tell I’ve been watching Good Omes?) about Motherhood? To start with it’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction – the dust cover of my edition says it straddles fiction and essay, and I think that’s a good description; however, in my opinion it doesn’t fully capture the experimental and ingenious narrative style in which Motherhood is written. At least partially biographical I believe, the book is the account of an artist’s decade-long struggle (she herself calls it a battle) with motherhood.

This is written almost as if it was a diary, or an internal monologue the narrator has with herself, battling herself and her own beliefs page after page. It’s incredibly honest: Heti dares to speak what I feel a lot of women think but fail to admit, even to themselves. Reading it, I had the eye-opening experience of discovering something within yourself you didn’t know there were words for, that feeling of: Oh so that’s what it is. Oh, so I’m not the only one. Oh, so it’s there, on paper, it’s real.

“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 to us. We do not stretch out in time, languidly, but allot ourselves the smallest parcels of time in which to exist, miserly. We let everyone crowd us. We are miserly with our selves when it comes to space and time. But doesn’t having children lead to the most miserly allotment of space? 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 love – having children gets you there fast.”

This actually brings us to the second reason why I think this book is so difficult to do justice to. Despite its very telling title, it would be wrong and limiting to say Motherhood is simply a book about motherhood. Because motherhood is such an all-encompassing experience, Heti is led by her internal battle to consider every single aspect of the human experience: work life, personal relationships, social dynamics and peer pressure, her conception of the self, her relationship with art and what it means to be an artist, and ultimately how she conceives life in general, how she reconciles her feelings with her fear of missing out. And I’m sure I’m forgetting something. As I said, she deals with every aspect in a very open and honest way, and I was dumbstuck by how many of her arguments resonated with me.

The only bit I didn’t particularly like was when she brought in other forms of oppression. As long as she was talking about her personal experience, I kept nodding along, but when she compared that to how other people (especially gay men, they seemingly have it so good!) are less oppressed, that’s when I couldn’t help but cringe. Those passages, albeit few and far between, reek of that mouldy brand of white feminism that just wants to be oppressed at all costs, evef in that means trivialising other minorities’ (often very painful) experiences. As I said, this is luckily just a minor element of the book, and could be ascribed to Heti’s crude honesty (after all, we all sometimes think mean things or like feeling sorry for ourselves), but they still represent a red mark in an otherwise fantastic piece of writing.

Having said that, I would recommend this book to literally anyone, and no, not just women! It’s so true to life and relevant I feel everyone should read it. So, have you read Motherhood? You can find it at the library*, you should read it.

Nota: per chi di voi legge in italiano o comunque ha accesso a libri in italiano, potete leggere Motherhood nella traduzione di Martina Testa, pubblicata con il titolo Maternità da Sellerio.

This is M signing out for now! ✨

(*) If they don’t have it at your local library already, you can ask them to buy it for you! Libraries are cool like that.

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