In May, Irish novelist Sally Rooney interviewed Canadian writer Sheila Heti at a packed London Review of Books event. For the rest of the summer, discussions of Heti’s 2018 novel Motherhood could be routinely overheard in the halls of the British Library, on university campuses in North America, and among women writers, academics, and professionals online. Texts, bookstores, and libraries have long served as sites of feminist activism and intellectual exchange, and Motherhood is perhaps just the most recent in a long line of Anglophone texts to leave its mark on a particular group of women.
The flood of interest and emotion unleashed by Heti’s book emerges from a seemingly quotidian question: should one choose to become a mother? Heti’s novel is part of a growing literature on motherhood that centres on the existential question of what it means to have a child. The ability of women to choose the circumstances under which they have children has long been central to feminist writing. But the abstract, and no less acute, question of whether to fit motherhood into a life at all, has until recently figured less prominently.
Motherhood is foremost an interior account of one woman’s decision. It is relatively clear from the outset of the book that the narrator does not want a child and is trying to make peace with that knowledge. Yet, Motherhood has spoken to the preoccupations of a group of educated, middle class women of childbearing age, women who – whether or not they want a child – feel the burden of new economic and cultural constraints on motherhood.
Young “Gen Xers” and millennials, who entered adulthood during or shortly after the 2008 recession, live in an era of unprecedented reproductive choice. What was once a near-inevitable result of having sex with men – pregnancy and children – is, for the moment, a choice. At the same time, young adults are earning less than their parents did at the same age and anticipate worse financial prospects in the long term. The possibility of delaying, or altogether opting out of motherhood coexists with growing financial insecurity for the middle class.
It also coexists with what cultural theorist Angela McRobbie has called “the perfect” – a new “horizon of expectations” on young women and their bodies which dramatizes the costs of not living up to the Instagrammable version of femininity, sexual attractiveness, and motherhood. We live at a unique juncture of perceived choice and risk where economy and culture alike impinge on a sense of possibility for increasing numbers of women. In this context, the decision to have children might seem not merely a costly one, as it undoubtedly always has, but a threat to tenuous financial stability and the ideal of successful gendered middle class identity.
While there were deep intellectual divides within second wave feminism, as well as tensions between mothers and non-mothers, there was, on balance, great hopefulness about the possibilities of improving the realities of motherhood for women across many of these schisms. There was also significant optimism that balancing a rich intellectual or professional life with motherhood was a matter of collective will and imagination. The feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves, published by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in 1971, gave just three pages to the question of “Deciding Whether to Have Children.” These pages briefly acknowledged that some women may choose not to become mothers, but devoted their real focus to collective solutions to make motherhood easier on women, from communal living and child rearing, to social services like universal day care, paternity leave, and flexible work hours. Feminism has long understood motherhood as – in writer Rachel Cusk’s words – “the anvil upon which sexual inequality was forged,” and feminists of the second wave certainly did not believe that all women must become mothers. They also placed great emphasis, however, on finding solutions to alleviate this source of oppression, so that women would feel able to become mothers and more supported once they’d done so.
Of course such hope, that collective solutions were possible and that better lives lay ahead, relied on a sense of economic expansion and the accompanying generous social programs that characterized the post-war years in the West. It was precisely as these conditions gave way to austerity measures that the second wave fragmented. For the Gen Xers and millennial women coming of age in the wake of the recent recession, a sense of instability and heightened pressure to plan our lives and get things right have perhaps made collective possibilities seem all the more constrained. In a recent interview, Sheila Heti told journalist Kate Wolf: “I often thought while writing this book that I would like to have a child, but only if I could have it in a state of nature; that if I have to be a mother in this culture, it’s not worth it.” Reproductive life – which was briefly imagined within the second wave as a common problem with the potential for collective solutions – has been reduced to a question of individual risk tolerance.
While Motherhood no doubt emerges from this dark context, it also offers the possibility of new feminist solidarities. As the narrator grapples with the question of whether or not to have a child, she contemplates her professional ambitions, family history, and her body and its contradictions. Early on we learn that the narrator’s boyfriend, Miles, has informed her that if she wants a child, he’s game, “but you have to be sure.” What he intends as an act of generosity only adds to the narrator’s burden: the decision is hers to make – and hers alone.
Unlike many second wave writers, Heti does not entertain the possibility that a woman could be both a professional writer – an occupation she shares with her narrator – and a mother. The idea emerges only at the very end of the book, when the narrator reflects: “I realized that when I was a little girl I had made up a story: that a woman who works or cares deeply about her work can’t also be a loving and attentive mother, that it was not possible to be both.” This is a truth the narrator gleaned from watching her own mother, a successful and driven pathologist, for whom motherhood was, at best, a distraction from the work that gave her life meaning.
Yet for all of the agonizing that Heti allows her narrator, she casts doubt on the ultimate importance of her choice, since “life occurs to each of us, equally, with all its forces of randomness and care.” Distinctions between mothers and non-mothers strike her as arbitrary: “It’s like a civil war: Which side are you on?” Yet she sees the division as damaging to the potential for female solidarity. Reflecting on a new sense of distance from a friend who recently had a child, the narrator wonders if each woman is trained to see the other’s choice as a criticism of her own, and therefore as a threat to the intrinsic value of the life she leads. In order to bridge the gap, the narrator imagines being “not not a mother” – a phrase that could describe mothers and non-mothers alike. Feminists since the second wave have sought the unifying power of “a term we can share” such as this one. But “not not a mother” also emphasizes unity in the face of the contradiction women face: that despite their reproductive rights, the choice of whether or not to have children is constrained in ways that make it seem not fully their own.
Motherhood speaks to a subset of young women who watched their mothers try to “have it all,” and who equally saw the costs: the emergence of “stress” as a buzzword of the 1990s, sky high divorce rates, and the strains on women of working a double shift in an era of intensified capitalism. This group of women has had to navigate the promise of reproductive choice in a world fraught with cultural and economic risk. In this context, Motherhood’s suggestion that whatever choice you make will involve loss offers a kind of solace – a feeling of being liberated from a previous generation’s liberation.
Of course, Motherhood hasn’t spoken to all women. Most critically, reviewers have noted that the book neglects the experience of motherhood itself in an era when mothers need ever more acknowledgement and support. Nonetheless, for some women, reading Motherhood was a collective sigh of relief – one that cast light on the present, and inspired new feminist collaborations.
This essay is the result of one such nascent feminist collaboration.
Sarah Stoller is a PhD candidate in history at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about feminism, labor, gender, and the politics of working parenthood in the late 20th century. She tweets as @sstohla.
Peggy O’Donnell is a Lecturer at the University of Chicago, where she teaches historical writing and methods. She writes about human rights and the politics and possibilities of care. She tweets as @peggyohdonnell.