Why Motherhood author Sheila Heti is still asking life's biggest questions
Sheila Heti’s semi-autobiographical 2012 novel How Should a Person Be? made waves for its candid look at sexuality, female friendship, and making art as a 20-something woman in the modern world. The novel was recently named one of New York Magazine’s “New Classics.” Lena Dunham has famously cited Heti as one of her favorite writers, and the 2012 novel drew comparisons to Girls early on.
Motherhood, Heti’s new book, published earlier this year, and though not directly related to How Should a Person Be? seems to chart the next phase of the characters in the previous novel’s lives, once the 20-somethings have grown up and are deciding whether or not to start a family. The women, who once had all the time in the world to deliberate what kind of person they’d be, are now in their late 30s and faced with the finite boundary of their own fertility. The novel doesn’t actually follow the narrator pregnant or raising children, but rather charts the narrator endlessly ruminating on whether or not she should have children.
With Motherhood, Heti continues to craft the introspection of her female protagonists in a unique literary style. Through questions, she emphasizes the importance of the decision women need to make at this stage of their lives, and challenges the idea that motherhood is a compulsory rite of passage for a woman.
Heti has exclusively shared the stunning Motherhood paperback cover (out May 2019), designed by Na Kim, which you can see below. EW also caught up with the author on How Should a Person Be?‘s continued relevance, how people take more time deciding on Amazon purchases than deciding to have children, and how the comments on a controversial Daily Mail article inspired Motherhood. Read on below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your previous book, How Should a Person Be? was recently named one of New York Magazine’s “12 New Classics” and I feel like I see the book’s influence everywhere in pop culture. Is there any legacy or influence you want Motherhood to have on the pop culture landscape?
SHEILA HETI: I don’t really think about things like that. I just try to write the best book I can and then hope that it finds the right readers. I feel more with Motherhood than with other books I want people to read it. I felt like I was writing it more for other people. But with How Should a Person Be? I really felt like I was writing it more for myself and Margaux [the protagonist’s best friend in the book], whereas [with Motherhood] I felt more oriented outwards towards the world when I was writing it.
Why do you think Motherhood was more written for other people?
Because I thought that there was actually a problem that I, in some ways, wanted to write into with this book. The problem of a woman making this choice and situating herself in time to her ancestors or her possible descendants. I just feel like there’s very few stories that a woman can tell about herself if she doesn’t have children. There’s very few good stories. There’s even very few good stories a woman can tell about herself if she does, the life narratives available to us are so banal and limited and kind of unspiritual. I felt like I was trying to solve some of those problems when I was writing it.
Showcasing introspection is a classic use of literature, but it seems like what makes your books so unique is that they’re a candid look at a woman’s thought process. Do you feel that the way that people perceive that aspect of your work is gendered?
I can’t even imagine how my books would be received if I was a man. Obviously they would be different books. Yeah, I think people read men and women differently and evaluate them on different scales. There’s so much more credit given to men for their conscious artistry and hard work and for women when an artwork is great it’s because she has some like innate gift that doesn’t require her intelligence or her will or her craftsmanship. It just sort of comes out of her like blood. I could get very frustrated if I start to think about it but I’ve had so many positive responses, I try not to get all wrapped up.
It is such a big decision to decide whether or not to have a child and I don’t know if I’d ever read anything so dedicated to that thought-process, rather than the act of starting a family. What made you choose to focus on the decision?
Like you, I hadn’t seen it dealt with in literature, this choice. And I thought that was kind of crazy because it is for so many people an experience that they have to work their way through. It was astonishing to me that I couldn’t find any novels, or any books of philosophy, or any nonfiction books that really went into this in this particular way. Also, I think the book is in some ways even more about not wanting a child and about the difficulty of accepting that choice, and believing yourself and trusting yourself on that. And then trying to understand what your life is if it doesn’t involve what’s supposed to be the central experience of a human life, giving life to the next generation. Can you be justified in not doing that? How do you justify it? Why do we have to justify it?
I’m glad you said that because for me it felt pretty obvious to me that the protagonist doesn’t want a child.
She doesn’t and it’s very hard to just say, “I don’t want a child,” and then just go on with your life. It’s actually something to be able to contend with. You have to explain it to yourself and explain it to other people and ask yourself whether you’re certain and everyone has to make you doubt that. With other choices, you might say, “I want to be a writer.” And everyone says, “Okay, that’s great.” If you say you don’t want a child people say, “Are you sure?” Or, “You’re gonna regret it, you don’t know what you’re missing.” You have to build your own intellectual edifice against all that in a way that you don’t about other choices, because the world tries to talk you out of it or say you don’t know what you’re talking about.
When you were writing this, were you reading or watching anything that influenced you?
There was this one article that really stuck out for me as being important. There was this woman who was writing, for The Daily Mail or some British paper, about regretting having had her children. And her children were grown up. There [were] like [thousands of] comments on this article. And I just remember reading every single one of those comments. And I feel like the comments sections of articles like this really were important in writing the book, just to sort of take in what people think of women who defy the norms of family childbearing. I feel like that was important for me, to write my book while having all those voice in my head which were so upsetting and so harsh.
That’s interesting because I feel like Motherhood does a good job of showing that it’s kind of a tragedy to have a child you don’t want, worse than not having a child at all.
Of course. It’s bad for the child, it’s bad for the parents. It’s bad for society, it’s bad for everyone. In this case of this article, it wasn’t like she just got pregnant and couldn’t have an abortion, after she had the children she realized that being a mother was not for her. It was more like she realized that she shouldn’t have done it. And she did it with all the hopes and desires of anyone and she was just writing saying she didn’t enjoy being a mother and if she could live her life over again she wouldn’t have done it. I’ve spoken to a lot of women who say that to me, actually. They say, “It wasn’t for me and I love my children and I’m a good mother, but if I had to do it over again I wouldn’t.” It’s amazing how many people have said that to me since I put out this book. Because that’s so different from the dominant narrative, which is that like everyone loves a child, and just like couldn’t be happier with that choice and it’s a choice you can’t regret. Even if you love your children you can still regret it because maybe that’s not what you wanted to do with your time, now that you know what child-rearing entails.
When reading that article, considering the book is so much about the introspection of the choice, did you feel like maybe this person just didn’t have enough introspection about deciding to have children?
Yeah, I think a lot of people just do it kind of reflexively. Like they’ll think so much about what kind of couch to buy, they’ll spend more time about which gadget to buy on Amazon doing all this research, and then just have a child without a thought. Probably this woman, she’s probably in her 60s now, so her generation you didn’t really think about it, it was just more or less what you did unless you really had the conviction and the strength to know it’s not for you. The norms are changing slightly now, but I still think a lot of people do it without much thought.
Would you like to see more nuanced narratives about being a mother in the future? Or do you hope that your book can help move things in that direction?
I would like it to help in that direction. I consider it like a work of art, like it’s literature it’s not meant to be a self-help book, but I think that nevertheless, literature can help us live our lives in the sense of just showing other unlived lives. I don’t know what I hope. I don’t have those hopes, that’s not what I go around hoping. But if my book gives people permission to ask this question, or to even say that this is a question, then that’s one positive thing. Because I’ve never taken it for granted, that you don’t have to have a child.