Moth­er­hood: A Novel

Sheila Heti

  • Review
By – September 9, 2018

If you’re expect­ing a book enti­tled Moth­er­hood to be warm and fuzzy, you’re like­ly to be dis­ap­point­ed. In her new nov­el, Heti’s nar­ra­tor (also named Sheila and also a writer) is not out to extoll the expe­ri­ence of being a moth­er but to ques­tion it, exam­in­ing it from every angle in order to decide whether or not she should have a child.

The book fol­lows the narrator’s inter­nal dia­logue as she attempts to deter­mine her life’s path while also exam­in­ing the past. She reflects on the sto­ries she heard as a child about her ances­tors who were killed in the Holo­caust. She con­se­quent­ly under­stood that some­times there is no future for a fam­i­ly. Per­haps her own fam­i­ly would live through her books, rather than a child, in the next generation.

A read­er assumes many of the details are auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, so the line between fic­tion and non­fic­tion is porous. Heti’s par­ents, like her narrator’s, are immi­grant Hun­gar­i­an Jews, now divorced; her moth­er is a pathol­o­gist, her father an engi­neer. Heti, like her nar­ra­tor, mar­ried young and lat­er divorced. She now lives with her part­ner, a lawyer, in Toronto.

The sto­ry opens when Sheila is almost thir­ty-sev­en, and ends when she is almost forty. At the begin­ning, she tells us she is some­one who lives in her mind, not in her rela­tion­ships — which, giv­en the dai­ly real­i­ty of child-rear­ing, doesn’t seem like a rec­om­men­da­tion for­moth­er­hood. She also has the per­son­al exam­ple of her own moth­er, who put all her ener­gy into her work, not her family.

Sheila ago­nizes over the life-chang­ing deci­sion of hav­ing a child, which, for her, may not be all that oth­ers say it is. So she turns the ques­tion over and over — some­times lit­er­al­ly flip­ping coins. Her part­ner already has a child and doesn’t espe­cial­ly want anoth­er, although he’ll agree to it if she real­ly wants one. But does she? On the one hand, on the oth­er hand. What if this, what if that. Why should she, why shouldn’t she.

One might want to respond to all the back-and-forth with, Sheila, you’re over­think­ing it! Yet, how can one over­think a deci­sion that, once made and enact­ed, will last for­ev­er? At the same time, Sheila won­ders, How much has my delib­er­a­tion won me in terms of the path of my life?”

Moth­er­hood is a book for Heti’s gen­er­a­tion and younger, not yet sure where they fit (or don’t fit) in today’s soci­ety, and how far out­side soci­etal expec­ta­tions they can go. It’s writ­ten at a moment when per­son­al choice has become a supreme val­ue, and the indi­vid­ual is at the cen­ter of all decision-making.

In her strug­gle, Sheila has been Jacob wrestling with God, and in the end, I named this wrestling Moth­er­hood, for here is where I saw God face-to-face, and yet my life was spared.”

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

Discussion Questions