Motherhood. Sheila Heti.

Heti, Sheila. Motherhood. Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2018. F; 5/22.

If you want more of what is already going on, have a baby. If you want things to change, don’t.

– Old Anonymous Doctor

In this ambitious brave dive into a terrible personal question: whether to have a baby or not? it feels like Heti isn’t just struggling with the issue but also pitting it against her writing career and fighting to keep her lively writing muse firmly under wraps while she decides on Motherhood. She fights her way through the meaning of life (or coming to live or being alive), identity, one’s parents, a hard-ass feminism that she doesn’t wear comfortably, randomness and luck and more. And then – how can this be? – the thing ends as an elaborate commercial for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: antidepressants! Pfizer and Ely Lilly must love her.

Narrator is married to a lovely guy. They have great sex. He is supportive and encouraging as she battles against the biological clock and the specter of a hideously depressed absent and negative professional working mother. It seems through much of it like she’s afraid if she had a child she’d resemble, be, her mother who

… put all of herself into her work and let our father raise my brother and me. It was wonderful to have such a loving father, and strange to have a mother who was hardly there.

Through the first part of the story (there’s not much objective narrative. It’s a psychological journey) she’s preoccupied with and uses an ancient Chinese strategy apparently contained in the I Ching: complex tossing of coins to generate Yes or No answers to questions:

Will the child be a girl?


An attractive child?


A plain child?


A drop-dead gorgeous child?


Is any of the above true?


Is there any use in any of this, if none of it is true?


I brought a bias to all of this and wrote in a note “Tossing coins on serious topics is silly no matter how ironically or searchingly it’s done. Just throw Russel’s paradox at it and watch it disappear up its own asshole.” What I think I meant was there’s no solution-oriented wisdom in a card that says “the other side is a lie” on one side and “the other side is the truth” on the other. And Heti gets that and quits trying to answer her binary question through a mechanism that looks like compulsive gambling. Maybe next time I’ll get what I’m looking for…

She paints a pretty bleak picture of humanity. “There is no inherent good in being born. The child would not otherwise miss its life. Nothing harms the earth more than another person—and nothing harms a person more than being born.” Dark pessimistic unhappiness. She blames her husband. She tries on the hard feminist mantle of giving men a dose of their own objectifying medicine:

Imagine having a very small dick—how vast and unknowable the universe must be to the small-dicked man!

And then apparently never having considered it before and maybe having got some random advice she starts an antidepressant, and

I was in the grocery store when it began. I felt suddenly unafraid. I had never before realized that I had always been so afraid. The people around me doing their shopping seemed less menacing than before, when I would try to avoid them and avert my eyes. Now I could encounter them without worry, and I continued up and down the aisles, piling things into my arms.

and reconciles with her equally tormented mother:

she admitted that she had taken them on and off these last few years. It suddenly made sense: I felt I could identify any memory of my mother as either being on the drugs, or off them. On them, she is more cheerful, warm and delightful. Off them, she is sad and withdrawn, but more poignant in some ways—a towering figure with tremendous power.

Is this dénouement a bracing realism or a horribly banal bad joke? Huge and relentless psychological toil and trouble. And all you had to do was pop a pill for three weeks!

At one point while excoriating herself over whether to have a child suddenly there are two paragraphs of lyrical transparent description. Car noises outside, water running in the walls, sunlight on the carpet (unfortunately I can’t find the quote so you’ll have to trust me). Is it just stream-of-consciousness realism suddenly blessed by naked perception? Or is this lady a natural born writer and at least once in this difficult book it pops out. Either way it seems she can’t let herself be that writer until she gets past fear of committing the once-and-for-all suicide of abandoning forever as the clock runs out what so many women want and go ahead and have.

I used to give young people the advice of the “Old Doctor” (I forget exactly who said it) when I was in general general practice. I decided it just means a child is better off born into a comfortable stable world than a troubled teetery one. I started quite a few sad young women (and men) on Prozac or Celexa. I hope it helped some of them.

I could see trying something else of Heti’s having been quite charmed by the short story Just a Little Fever in a recent New Yorker. Anyway for this one 7.4/8.9

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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