Motherhood by Sheila Heti
London, Harvill Secker 2018
£ 14.99 (paperback)
‘I’m protecting onto you, coins, the wisdom of the universe’
A meditation on womanhood and motherhood in search for authenticity makes the new book of Sheila Heti a valuable development of her previous successful works. The protagonist’s quest rests on luck: through the Chinese I Ching method of flipping coins she hopes to resolve the intricacies of her doubts and fluctuations.
Since the beginning, the narrator trusts her life choices to the small metal coins: ‘two or three heads – yes, two or three tails – no’. These recurrent phases of pressing, existential questioning indirectly reveal her anxieties about daily life and relational problems with her partner Miles. The coins become her medium of communication with herself, the outer world, and us readers.
But because of the apparent random nature of the I Ching, what she is looking for is an alternative form of completeness, what she calls ‘mush’. Just like the more familiar Taichi symbol of Yin and Yang, this reality is made of inharmonious contrary forces, yet complementary and interdependent. It offers the opportunity of a more dynamic and authentic self-acceptance, an embracing of one’s own contradictions, momentary failures, frailties and, above all, personal values. It also provides a refreshing reversal of the socially expected well-ordered, pre-determined life one should aim for. This new goal erases ‘the boundaries between spiritual and physical’.
This is reflected in the book’s extended metaphor: the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel. The shapeshifting Angel represents this spiritual conflicting entity to be fought and overcome. But the wished-for wholeness of opposites is eventually attained in Jacob’s final humble request of a blessing that puts the winner and the loser, the natural and supernatural, the physical and the spiritual at the same level.
The protagonist’s hesitations and questions all come down to her main preoccupation in a time of change: motherhood. But just as completeness is a complex notion in Heti’s novel, the concept of motherhood hides its own layers of meaning in its seemingly perfect, round belly. The narrator indeed explores the conditions and consequences of childbearing in – and through – giving birth to her new book.
What Heti and her protagonist do not forget is that motherhood is not only about babies. It is first and equally about mothers. The narrator’s new book thus presents itself as a self-reflective thinking on her role as a thirty-seven woman, the perfect age to become a mother according to social expectations. The (pro)creation of her book allows her to research various aspects of motherhood, in particular those illustrated by her ancestors, those women who went through the worst of what humanity can offer.
But discussing childbearing is also about how a woman relates to her contemporary counterparts. It engages the core of her being and needs to be treated in a practical, modern way, lest it become anachronistic and self-harming, just like the sentimental yet superfluous habit of tying up the chicken’s legs to make it fit in a pot when you have large enough ones, ‘a once necessary, now a sentimental gesture’. Consistent with her wish for spiritual and physical conflicting wholeness, she resists the stereotypical women attitudes of self-denial, self-punishment and compliance with the expectations of society. She does not want to imitate those women who ‘always make life harder for themselves than it needs to be’. Motherhood is about changing her ‘sadness into gold’. It is not simply about filling her emptiness with a child, but about finding her value and greatness as a woman in more authentic and deeply felt emotions.
Yet again, in the novel’s own search for complex wholeness, Heti gives a voice to the other side. She shows how, in a sort of reciprocal surveillance, ‘women try to control other women’s bodies by pressuring them to have kids’, because a woman ‘at loose ends’ may cause troubles. They assimilate and reiterate the social pressure of making things, like a child or a book.
In her isolation, her book gradually becomes her one true child. Reflecting on her own process of writing – which she considers a cocoon that protects and heals her – the book itself represents a ‘life raft’ that leads her to her final resolution. It is ‘a child whose reality is language’. On the contrary, she sees childbearing as egoism, like ‘colonizing a country, […] imprinting yourself on the world’. In a clever metaphorical game, writing becomes a way to test oneself, to investigate one’s abilities to actually give birth, an alternative to the actual experience of childbearing.
Motherhood thus develops its key concept by going beyond our prejudices and reductive understanding of the word. Motherhood is as much about having babies as about having an abortion, contraception, sexual intercourse, periods… This is so true for narrator and writer that the different phases of periods gave their name to some sections of the book, emphasising once more that the process of writing encompasses not only childbearing, but everything else that makes motherhood what it really is. Thus it re-connects her questioning with her body, the story with her anxieties, the physical with the spiritual.
In this tale about an unexpected reconciliation between the physical and the spiritual, between a potential mother and childbearing, Heti unveils a whole new conception of a life directed by luck and of motherhood as a multifaceted concept. She wittingly illustrates the protective and healing power of writing, leaving her protagonist with her multiple strands of personality finally unified against stereotypes and social pressure.
Eventually the spiral is completed. She wrestled till the end, ‘saw God face-to-face, and yet [her] life was spared’.