In the Blog
Review: Motherhood by Sheila Heti
Image: Motherhood, Sheila Heti
Early in the novel Motherhood (published this May by Knopf Canada), Sheila Heti’s narrator provides a summary of the Biblical story of Jacob wresting the angel. In this story, a creature appears to Jacob, proceeds to wrestle with him overnight, and, come morning, spares Jacob and renames him “Israel.” Jacob calls the wrestling place “Peniel,” and refers to it as the spot where he came face to face with God, and made it out alive.
Heti’s novel ends with the story of Jacob and the angel as well, except now it is a reference to the book the narrator has just finished writing. The narrator—a woman close to 40 years of age, living in Toronto, a fairly successful writer—comes to see her book as the wrestling ring where she faced God and made it out alive. She names this place Motherhood.
Written in the form of a diary, Motherhood is primarily the story of a woman who struggles with questions. The creatures she must face, and fight, are questions that are asked of women but not of men. They are questions, in particular, that every woman of child-bearing age is asked, especially as she nears the end of that biological timespan. Will you have a child? When will you have a child? Why would you not want to have a child? Time’s running out!
The askers—the people who want to know—are everyone and not anyone in particular. In the novel, we are not introduced to a single tactless friend or annoying parent who asks the above. And this is precisely the nature of the struggle—that these questions, and their inherent demand for an answer, are so pressed upon women that women hear them and feel the need to answer them, even when they are alone. Especially when they are alone.
Biblical stories are for the most part understood to be allegorical, and though Jacob might have been wrestling with a creature standing in for God, he might also have been simply struggling with an inner demon. This is the case for Motherhood’s narrator—the real horror of her struggle is that it is internal. What society compulsively asks women has turned into what a woman compulsively asks herself. Even for women, like Heti’s narrator, who have known that they have not wanted a child since a young age, the doubt—the questions—will arrive, as the angel-creature arrives in Jacob’s tent, and proceeds to give him a beating.
At the end of Motherhood, Heti’s narrator accepts that being an artist, and writing Motherhood, is a desirable alternative to bearing children and is the path she wants to pursue. She feels that she is choosing freedom, that being childless is like giving yourself the time to be a child all over again. The closure in the story is the narrator’s coming to peace with her choice, when she realizes she has been spared after her Jacob-like battle with God.
Yet the wrestling match does not end in a clear, hands-over-head kind of a victory. Jacob and Motherhood’s narrator are only spared—they do not win. And the answers that the narrator finally arrives at are certainly not those of a gloating victor. Speaking of a friend who fearlessly embraced baby-making and motherhood and comparing her to Motherhood’s narrator, Heti writes that there is an equivalence between the women—between the one who had a child “reflexively” and one who “doubtfully” chose not to. Both will suffer losses, both will miss out on certain experiences because of their actions—and these losses and gains balance out.
It is easy to think that a novel about a female artist’s choice to remain childless and make art instead will be anti-child. But Motherhood doesn’t leave the impression that its narrator or its author are pushing for one position or the other. The novel is, instead, adamant in its focus on how difficult the decision can be, of what a particularly intense and unique battle women might find themselves suddenly forced to take part in. And that its end will most likely not be a win for either side but simply a hard-fought draw.