Growing up, the people in my communities never talked about motherhood as though it were a choice. It was always a matter of figuring out the when women should have children rather than if we should have them at all. A life without reproduction just isn’t part of the dominant narratives about women’s lives. The idea that such a life could be fulfilling - and for some even preferable to a life involving motherhood - is even less so.
Which is why Sheila Heti’s auto-fictional book Motherhood is such essential reading for young women. In this work, Heti deeply examines our society’s construct of motherhood through the main character’s personal consideration of whether or not to have a child before her fertility declines.
Photo of a postcard of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s artwork Biological Clock 2, 1995.
The biological clock is a highly criticised concept that over the last several decades has come to reframe the way many women relate with their fertility. This widespread understanding that a person’s chances of having a child do decline with age does, however, lend an urgency to the central narrator’s questions and reflections.
“A woman must have children because she must be occupied. When I think of all the people who want to forbid abortions, it seems it can only mean one thing - not that they want this new person in the world, but that they want that woman to be doing the work of child-rearing more than they want her to be doing anything else. There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. There is something at-loose-ends feeling about such a woman. What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?”
The above passage is one of my favourite of several fascinating contemplations the main character has about the pressures influencing women to have children. However, it is by no means indicative of the overall stance of the book on motherhood. The central character explores motherhood in a balanced manner, commenting on the rewarding and transformative aspects of parenthood as well as the hardships and sacrifices.
Five photos of ‘A Conflict of Interest’ by Lauren McLaughlin
It is the questions that probe, challenge, refute, and dismantle the way our society has come to view and discuss motherhood that are so radical and important. Radical because they enable the reader to be part of a process of seeing their own selves differently. Important because at the heart of this work lies the question of what gives meaning to our lives.
Because a social construct - as powerful as it can be in terms of influencing human behaviour - is a dynamic thing that is possible to change. Through sharing ideas and shifting and/or broadening our perspectives, we can mould this construct so that motherhood truly becomes a choice rather than ideology. Heti’s brilliant, experimental work is a great place to start.Support Villainesse