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“What kind of responsibility is it to sentence somebody to life?” Sheila Heti on Motherhood.

Heti’s new novel explores the choice to have children.

Sheila Heti at the lit.Cologne in Berlin in 2014.
Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images

“Throughout most of history, it was enough for men that women existed to give birth to men and raise them,” a late-30-something narrator muses in Sheila Heti’s new novel, Motherhood. “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.”

This central theme — how fundamental having a child is to a woman’s identity — is at the core of Heti’s exploration of motherhood in the book. Heti’s narrator is somewhat skeptical of the reasons women choose to become mothers and engages in a vigorous internal debate over what decision she should make. At the end of the novel, after meditating on the idea over hundreds of pages, the narrator not only comes to peace with not having a child but celebrates the choice as important in its own right, a simple yet bold declaration that is certain to elicit mixed reactions.

The author of seven books and former interviews editor at the Believer, Heti is known for defying the boundaries of traditional genres. Her 2010 breakout novel, How Should a Person Be?, about a woman in her 20s busily exploring sex, art, and female friendship, earned wide praise for its originality, its meandering framework and failure to adhere to a traditional plot line, resulting in what a New York Times critic called a “form unlike any novel I can think of.”

Motherhood, while sticking to one perspective, continues in Heti’s tradition of ruminating on ideas, engaging in philosophy, and revealing new angles to a seemingly familiar subject.

I spoke to Heti about the relationship between motherhood and art, and whether society allows women to admit regretting having had a child, among other subjects. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Hope Reese

In an interview for the Paris Review, you said you hated the term “motherhood.” Why is that?

Sheila Heti

Maybe hate’s too strong a word. I feel like the way “motherhood” sounds in my head is just about activities and getting things done and hustling and a certain kind of love, and it doesn’t reflect the scope of what I feel the word “motherhood” could encompass, which is an existential relationship to life, to yourself, to other people. Or a relationship to one’s own mother, one’s own grandmother. Ideas about nurturing and bringing things into being more generally.

When I was writing this book and I was considering the title [Motherhood], my friend said, “That’s a title like War and Peace.” What I understood from that is the word “motherhood” could be that big and that grand. It didn’t just have to be a word that referred to the daily activities of people who are mothers.

Hope Reese

You talk about motherhood as more of an existential concept than a lifestyle choice. Why do people sometimes frame it as the latter?

Sheila Heti

I think for people who do seriously consider whether they want to go into parenting, the kinds of things that come up are more than just “can I make it work on a practical level?” The questions that come up are, What kind of relationship do I want to have to other humans? And what kind of responsibility is it to sentence somebody to life? Or what is it if one insists on being a person who doesn’t do that, who, therefore, has to have a different series of purposes and reasons for living than the one that is supposedly our real genetic reason for living, which is to pass on our DNA and fill a biological imperative?

If you say that, actually, having children is not going to be part of your life, then you have to in some way make up your own meaning. That’s definitely a unique existential position to be put in. And it’s very tough to do that too, but I think in a lot of cases, a large part of the meaning of a parent’s life is made for them because you have this very practical task of keeping a person alive, letting them thrive.

Hope Reese

The narrator, a woman in her late 30s, says at one point that she would like the “deadline” of motherhood to pass so that she would no longer have to make a decision. But today women can have children later in life than used to be the case, or adopt. Is there ever a “deadline,” or a point where the decision-making is over?

Sheila Heti

In the book, the character wants a deadline so there can be a definite end to thinking about it. But if you don’t have a child, there’s always the possibility that a child will come, as you say, by adoption, or if you get together with someone who has a child, or if you get pregnant after 40, which happens to a lot of people. So there’s this kind of exhaustion in the book of just, “why do I have to think about this forever,” or at least longer than seems bearable.

Hope Reese

Do you think the decision to be a mother is different today than it used to be? Obviously, women used to have children for different reasons, more practical reasons.

Sheila Heti

In the context of human history, it wasn’t until practically yesterday that there was birth control. Before then, there was so much social pressure on women to have children, which still exists, but the pressure’s not as intense as it used to be.

I think for a lot of women who have the privilege of that choice, having kids becomes another desire. People don’t have children because they need them for any practical reason. People have them because they want to love a child or they want to parent a child or many other reasons. I certainly don’t think people have them because they think it will make their lives easier.

The struggle is to try and make a choice that is appropriate for you — and not doing what other people think is appropriate for you simply because you’re a woman.

Hope Reese

As someone without a child, I hear female friends with children talk about how difficult it is. But I’ve never heard anyone say that it’s not the best thing they ever did, let alone that they regret it. Can a mother regret having a child?

Sheila Heti

People regret everything in life. I don’t believe that there aren’t people who don’t regret having kids. And I have heard people say that they regret it [in private], but it’s just too much of a taboo thing to say. I understand why. If you do regret it, how do you explain that you still love your child but you also wish you hadn’t become a mother? It’s just this paradox.

Even if there are women who regret it, which there are, it’s hard to say that and have the complexity of that feeling understood, and I think it’s impossible to say that as a woman and not be considered a bad woman. So there’s a lot of reasons not to say it.

Hope Reese

Your book reads a bit like a memoir, but you frame it as a novel. How close is the book to your own experiences?

Sheila Heti

A lot of the thoughts and the feelings are mine, but the structure, the other players in it, are not so close to life. I am a novelist. That’s how I understand how to form a book, with invention and imagination. But there also is a relationship that a novel has to life. So I guess there’s both.

Also, it seems to me I’ve never wanted to write a memoir. I don’t really understand the motivation behind writing a memoir the way I understand the motivation behind writing a novel. I just felt that I was always telling a story, not that I was telling a story about myself, even though I am a woman that has had this question on her mind. I don’t care if anyone knows about me or not.

Hope Reese

A fundamental question your narrator grapples with is what might happen to her creativity, her art, if she has a child. How have you, in your own life, struggled with that question?

Sheila Heti

I don’t see art as taking the place of a child. I think they have different places in life. I think it’s easy to say, “Well, I’d rather do my art than have a child, because art takes up so much time.” But I feel like they are different drives. And a person can have one of those drives, or both of those drives, or neither of those drives. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.

Hope Reese

One idea floated in the novel is that not having children is a bit like having a certain sexual orientation. Do you think that not wanting children could be considered an innate quality?

Sheila Heti

I’m not a researcher, but it does seem to me like it would make sense that this thing that is so connected to sex — whether or not a person ends up with a baby — should be a component of one’s sexuality. So one component of your sexuality might be how much you want to have sex or whom you want to have sex with. Whether or not you want to have a child could be another ingredient in that. And like these other components of one’s sexuality, there could be something innate in it.

I think it makes sense for nature to create humans that don’t want children. A portion of the population is childless. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with upbringing and cultural conditioning, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if a part of it had to do with just the way our bodies are made, the way our hormones course through our system. Our hormones tell us what we want. So much of who we are is determined by our bodies.

Hope Reese

How was the process of writing this book different from writing your last novel, How Should a Person Be?

Sheila Heti

It was different in every way. How Should a Person Be? was created in a much less solitary fashion. [It’s about] a woman in her 20s figuring out what she wants from life and if she can be an artist. She’s very engaged in friendship, much more so than a romantic relationship. She’s very lost. It’s a book about traveling around, traveling through conversations and through people. Sort of a self in search of a self.

The voice of [How Should a Person Be?] is so different from the voice of this book. This book is about this person sitting in one place, going nowhere, this stasis. And the struggle or the journey is taking place all in one room. It’s just a different stage in life.

So, yeah, it was completely different. It was just a very solitary exercise, whereas How Should a Person Be? was a very playful, collaborative process.

Hope Reese

Another idea in your book is that the whole world needs to be mothered.

Sheila Heti

The world’s in such bad shape. Humans are so lonely and miserable. Everything’s falling apart. We’re doing such a bad job of it all — of keeping our species, the environment, and other species alive and in health. Who’s taking care of all this? Why is it such a mess?

Hope Reese

The topic of motherhood is often the subject of intense debate. How do you expect the book to be received?

Sheila Heti

It’s bound to be somewhat controversial because people have a lot of strong feelings about the subject. And I think a lot of people would actually rather not even think about the subject. And I think a lot of what happens — on the internet, anyway — is that people have opinions of things that they haven’t even encountered firsthand, only second, third, or fourth-hand. So that’s a drag.

But for people who read the book, it doesn’t matter to me if somebody likes it or doesn’t like it. It’s just about reading it and then having these thoughts interact with your thoughts. I don’t think books have to be liked or disliked; they’re part of our mental landscape. And either you want a book to be part of your mental landscape or you don’t.

Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.