I first encountered Sheila Heti on the Sleepover Podcast, where host Sook-Yin Lee brings three strangers together in a hotel room to work out personal problems. Heti brought artist’s doubt and white guilt to the table. The more she read online about privilege and racism, the more insecurity she felt about writing. Should she just stop, to make space for oppressed voices? Motherhood was published two years after that podcast, and it’s also about looping self-doubt and indecision.
Motherhood is about a woman trying to decide whether or not she wants children. Technically it’s a novel, but it reads like personal essay. I haven’t read enough Philosophy 101 to say for sure, but Motherhood feels like philosophy to me. Not answers, but guided questions. And scenarios to ponder, like Plato’s cave or the trolley problem. The book travels over a year or two in the narrator’s life and it mostly stays in her head, meditating on motherhood. She doesn’t want kids, but she agonizes over whether she’ll regret it later.
At least a third of the book is structured in yes-or-no questions, answered by the flip of three coins. The technique is inspired by I Ching, a very complicated, very ancient form of Chinese divination which Heti emphasizes is far more advanced than what she’s doing. Interacting with another culture’s practices in an uninformed way feels uncomfortable to me, especially after listening to Heti’s white guilt concerns on the Sleepover podcast. But I don’t know if there’s a way around it. She acknowledges her inspiration, explains the true technique takes decades to understand, and clarifies that she’s oversimplifying. It still feels weird.
On the other hand the yes/no dialogue with the coins is lively, engaging, and fun to read. And Heti says all of the answers are based on real coin tosses.
“I’m projecting onto you, coins, the wisdom of the universe. But it’s useful, this, as a way of interrupting my habits of thought with a yes or a no.“
I think (and overthink) in a very similar way to Heti (or her narrator, who is inspired by Heti but just more free and maleable). You might think reading a book by someone very similar to me would make me feel understood. But since I mostly consider my overthinking a fault, reading Motherhood was a little exhausting. Sometimes people tell me I’m exhausting! They also tell me I’m a creative thinker, and I think Heti is breaking new ground here, too.
“I had wanted to think about the world, but my anxieties forced me to think about myself — as if pressing into my face an injunction: first you must solve this problem — the problem of your self. But a rotating parade of non-problems is what it was — for example, when I would arrange to see someone for lunch in three days.”
In book form, everything works towards a climax. Unlike my own questions which go on and on, Motherhood by Sheila Heti has to end — even if Heti’s own questions about motherhood don’t end. I loved wondering about how she was going to pull it all together. She’s going to end up pregnant — that’s the only way this can end. Non-pregnancy is a non-ending. But that would be so lame, because then she’d be falling into the same pattern as all the other art! Guessing the conclusion forced me to invest, and forced me to confront my own biases.
Now I’m going to spoil the ending.
Did she have a baby? No, she had depression! She had depression all along! Motherhood is one of those books with an unreliable narrator, in the tradition of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Once she’s receiving proper medical health care she can look back on the book’s big questions with confidence and clarity. There’s less hand-wringing and more self-acceptance. Is she still worried about being 40 without a kid? Yeah. Might she still have a kid? Yeah. But the conclusion is satisfying enough to let out a breath, and take a break from the questions for a while.