A book by Sheila Heti

Reviewed by Elaine Margolin

Wanting to tell yourself the truth and actually doing it are two different things. Sheila Heti desperately wants to be honest with us in her new and utterly compelling book, “Motherhood,” but I am not sure she is able to do so, despite her best intentions. Her book chronicles her beleaguered attempt to decide whether or not she wants to become a mother.

Heti enjoys a wonderful circle of artistic friends in her native Toronto. She wrote about many of them in her recent work, “How Should a Person Be,” which won her great acclaim from critics and readers alike. The book is a mesmerizing postmodern blend of fact and fantasy that includes emails and transcripts of recorded conversations with her friends, along with her own autobiographically based reflections. There are candid revelations about sex, making art, and the complications of female friendship. There are deeper inquiries too—meditations about morality, social obligation, and finding the support system required to nourish one’s own personal desires and goals.

In her new work, “Motherhood,” she attempts to excavate the ghosts that have haunted her and come to terms with a decision regarding parenthood. But the book too quickly travels into troubled waters, revealing both more and less than Heti seems to intend. Her journey is marred by her insecurities and ambivalence, particularly in regard to those closest to her. So instead of the promised chronicle of self-discovery, we witness Heti’s troubled history and ongoing dysfunction. Heti wants her journey inward to be fearless and authentic, but she is often unable to shut out the voices that surround her. Ironically, it is precisely this anxiety that holds the reader in thrall because we recognize in Heti’s tentativeness so much of our own. She shows us how we often lie and deceive ourselves. How frequently we retreat. How regularly we retell ourselves false “truths” in a vain attempt at finding comfort. We can’t always see the forces that thwart us no matter how much we want to. So we pretend, or make do, or become increasingly sad. This wired tension pulses on every page.

Click here to read long excerpts from “Motherhood” at Google Books.

Heti’s mother, a physician, was emotionally absent. Her father was her sole nurturer:

“My mother put all of herself into her work and let our father raise my brother and me. It was wonderful to have such a loving father, and strange to have a mother who was hardly there. I resented how the world spoke of mothers; what they assumed of mothers and what they assumed of fathers. My father was like the other kids’ mothers. He came with us on class trips. He knew the names of all my friends and every one of my teachers. He took me to birthday parties and the ballet. He taught me about the stars in the sky. He arrived home from work long before my mother did, and never worked on weekends. I remember racing down the hall when he would come in through the front door after work, setting his briefcase down, and I—wild and dizzy with love—would run into his arms.

A friend once asked me if my mother was dead.”

She often reflects on how her parents’ marriage was doomed from the start. They were both Jews from Budapest; her father came to Canada at the age of 11 and her mother in her 20s. They married, but her mother was always at the hospital working as a pathologist, where she would tell Heti she found joy looking at “how beautiful cells look under a microscope—swirling patterns of purple and pink.” But Heti sees that, despite her professional accomplishments, her mother was always an incredibly unhappy woman. 

Heti’s maternal grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor who passed the trauma of her experiences onto her own daughter—Heti’s mother who spent her entire life trying to please and appease her. She became a physician because her mother wanted her to. Sheila Heti swallowed whole her own mother’s grief, and never confronted her about her emotional absence. Instead, she justified it and even idealized it. She admits to feeling tainted somehow by her family’s legacy, but never delves further into the impact of her mother’s cruel and critical manner with her in the brief periods of time she gave her as a young child. 

She repeats this pattern with her partner Miles, an ambitious man who intimidates her. When he is dismissive of her emotional chaos, she blames herself and tries to regain his affection, swallowing whole her unspoken anger. She often seems unaware she is being treated shabbily and blames herself for irritating him. 

This book was written during Heti’s mid-30s when her biological clock was screaming at her, forcing a reckoning we sense she wishes could be interminably delayed. She struggles with maternal urges so strong they permeate her dream life:

“Last night, I had a vivid dream, a wild dream of being with my son, who was five or so. I spent so much of the dream staring into his face. I knew it was him—that this was happening; that I was encountering the face of my future son. It was clearly my son with Miles. That boy had slightly darker skin than Miles or me, and an intelligent sensitive face. At one point, I was crying and tears were running down my face from sorrow; the boy was sitting on a windowsill in the kitchen, watching me, and I could tell he was overwhelmed by my adult feelings. I saw that I should not be putting so much of my emotional life on him; that it was too big a burden to bear. He seemed really delicate and lovely. I loved him, but I also felt the love was not as I imagined it would be; it was not as deep to the core as I thought it would feel. I don’t know why. I felt a little distant from him, a little bit alienated. But I loved looking at his face and into his eyes. I said to myself, I can’t believe I’m seeing the face of my future son! I would love to have a child like that. He was caring and good.”

Upon waking, the feelings grow stronger:

“I think I do want a child with Miles. My heart kind of leaps at the thought in a happy way, and it makes me feel light to think about it. I always want it most strongly as I lie in bed besides him. Then perhaps I should talk to him about it. But what would I say?…” 

Her worst fears are realized when she does summon the courage to speak:

“Waking up, I said to Miles, It might be nice to have a child. He said, I’m sure it’s also nice to get a lobotomy. All the work he’s done these years to build himself up into the sort of person he can respect—talking about throwing all that out the window; how the hardest thing in life is to really make something of yourself. He said, Two people who can help hundreds of people—that they should put their energies into one half-person, each? This is a human life we’re talking about here! Why do people—as soon as things are good—suddenly want to change everything?

Heti retreats; again she is silenced. She allows the thought that Miles is not treating her properly to briefly enter her consciousness but quickly erases it. She almost immediately plans to apologize to him later that evening. She tries to cheer herself by reminding herself how thoughtful Miles is; how he always remembers to refill the water in the vase that holds the lilacs he bought for her a few days earlier. But other fights erupt, over money, trust, and their long-term viability. She withdraws again.

Heti’s own mother often comments thoughtlessly on how envious she is of her daughter’s “freedom” as a childless woman to live a life of her own choosing. Heti begins taking anti-depressants for her stress. We listen to her struggle for realizations that grow darker and more muddled.

At 62, I am almost twice Sheila Heti’s age. I found myself wanting to talk to her as I read her book. I admired the tenacity and strain she was willing to undergo to find resolution. Like her, I was ambivalent about becoming a mother. Like her, I felt terrified and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the decision. Like her, I felt tainted by my own family’s toxic history: a mother who loved me to the point of suffocation and a father who was present but emotionally invisible. Like her, I had watched my parents’ marriage crumble. And like her, I worried much more about what others thought of me than what I thought about myself.  

When my son, my only child, was born, I found out I had two hearts: one for him and another for everyone else. The heart for him grew stronger than I ever imagined it could, filled with terror and joy in equal measure. There are things I wish I could redo, things I am still working on. But I get an incredulous feeling whenever I look into his face that is different, scary, and invigorating in a way that nothing else ever was. 

I want to tell Heti that becoming a parent is a crazy and wild leap of faith. I think she wants to jump. I want her to jump. I want her to experience a love so overwhelming that it will allow her to grow a second heart—one still broken but capable of repair. One that will bring her unimaginable pleasure and pain; the kind she can’t yet even envision. Then I want her to write about it.



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