Shadow Giller: Motherhood by Sheila Heti

I can see why Motherhood is getting mixed reactions from readers. For one thing, the entire book takes place inside the narrator’s head – so we get to hear her every thought.

Hearing someone’s thoughts for pages at a time can start to feel claustrophobic – a whole book that dwells almost entirely on the narrator’s issues, insecurities, questions, anxieties. None of which lend themselves to easy answers. It can feel overwhelming (not to mention self-indulgent). At one point I was questioning my own decision to have kids!

On the other hand, I think a lot of people have these same questions and anxieties, and the thinking in this book is probably something many can relate to.

Another reason this book might not be for everyone is that the main focus is centered around the narrator’s indecision about having children. Not everyone will be interested in reading about this, but I do think there is a wider audience than one might think. I have children, but still found some of her ideas on the subject thought-provoking.

The egoism of childbearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country – both carry the wish of imprinting yourself on the world, and making it over with your values, and in your image. How assaulted I feel when I hear that a person has had three children, four, five, more… It feels greedy, overbearing and rude – an arrogant spreading of those selves.

This one from Miles (the narrator’s partner), I found amusing…

Of course raising children is a lot of work, but I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self-interest. It’s like someone who digs a big hole in the middle of a busy intersection, and then starts filling it up again, and proclaims: Filling up this hole is the most important thing in the world I could be doing right now.

I like to know how other people think. Maybe they have something to say I hadn’t thought of before. I might not agree with everything said, but many times I felt I could relate to her ideas and her indecision. Indecision is awful, no matter what you’re undecided about. (Although I don’t recommend making major life decisions based on coin tossing.)

I crave a finish line, just to stop thinking about this.

Heti doesn’t write solely about the question of motherhood. She has thoughts about relationships, writing, and anxiety/depression.

I thought the worst thing in the world would be to be unhappy, but not to know it. As I grew older, I compulsively checked myself for signs that I was unhappy. Then I grew unhappy, too.

One thing I thought particularly clever was how she explored the stigma of taking medication for anxiety/depression by having her character opposed to the idea. And then describing the wonder of life once the fear had been taken away. Once you’re free from dwelling on your own fears, life opens up. How would the book have been different if she had been on medication from the beginning?

This is me returning. This is me coming back from an interior I did not know was so intense. I didn’t realize I had been so separate from the world.

At first, the title “Motherhood” doesn’t seem to quite fit the book. But once I got to the end, I realized it made more sense than I thought. The narrator may not be a mother herself, but she spends a lot of time contemplating it, examining it, and thinking about her relationship with her own mother (and her mother’s with her grandmother).

The whole world needs to be mothered.

The subject matter or the structure of the novel may be up for debate, depending on your tastes and interests, but I think there is value in the author’s examination of society’s view of childless women (or women in general). The pressure on women to have children is still alive and well. We should not still be in this place – where a woman’s greatest value is her reproductive potential.

It seemed to me like all my worrying about not being a mother came down to this history – this implication that a woman is not an end in herself. She is a means to a man, who will grow up to be an end in himself, and do something in the world. While a woman is a passageway through which a man might come.

So, I find that I’m in the “like it” camp. At times, I felt I needed a break from being inside the narrator’s head, but finishing the book paid off. Once I got to the end, I realized how clever it is.

In the end, it all boils down to this…

Living one way is not a criticism of every other way to live.


Further Reading:

Kim at Reading Matters: “There’s some thought-provoking analysis on what it is to lead a creative life — in this case, as a writer — and whether having children lessens that ability or enriches it.”

Marcie at Buried in Print: “Her reflection on whether to have a child with her partner is less about a decision and more about the ideas and possibilities which swirl around the question itself: ideas about inheritance and creativity, acceptance and yearning, belonging and loneliness, and seemingly endless questions about all this and more.”

Other blogger reviews: Bookish Beck (who gave it 5 stars), Laura Tisdall and Karissa Reads Books. You can also listen to an interview with Shelia Heti at Between the Covers.

The New Yorker: ““Motherhood” is a novel, or so its publisher claims, though even that loose and accommodating category doesn’t convey the weird originality of this sometimes exasperating, sometimes illuminating work. Heti’s narrator, who seems all but indistinguishable from Heti herself, calls it, at various points, “a book to prevent future tears,” “a prophylactic,” “a written defence,” and “a wrestling place.”

The Guardian: “She is asking what her book can count for, and the answer is a lot. It’s hard to do justice to its complexity. This is less a book than a tapestry – a finely wrought work of delicate art. Is it worth as much as a child? Is it worth less? Or more? “The childless and the mothers are equivalent,” the narrator learns. “A person who can’t understand why someone doesn’t want children only has to locate their feelings for children, and imagine that desire directed somewhere else – to a life that is just as filled with hope, purpose, futurity and care.”

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39 thoughts on “Shadow Giller: Motherhood by Sheila Heti

  1. Alexandra says:

    From reading these quotes I think the author (or character) has their head up their own … well, let’s just say it’s not the sort of book I’m interested in reading and leave it at that.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    Such an interesting review, Naomi. This one was already on my list – such wildly differing views on it, and as a voluntarily childless woman who took quite some time to make that decison some of it may seem familiar. We’ll see!

  3. madamebibilophile says:

    I wasn’t sure this was for me but the last quote you pulled really resonated “Living one way is not a criticism of every other way to live.” I’m always so surprised how many people take my childless state as a judgement on them – it was a decision for me, no judgement on anyone else. So you’ve convinced me to give this a try 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I know a woman who moved here from the city, and she has three kids. She was part of the arts community there (as she is here), and she couldn’t believe the criticism she got from others in the community for being a “breeder”. Like she was betraying them. I had never heard that version of the (same old) story before.

  4. Elle says:

    Love the quote about people who have three or more children. I wish I didn’t react that way, but I absolutely do: baffled irritation at best.

    • Naomi says:

      Haha! I get why people have lots of kids (I only have 3, but could have been persuaded to have more), but I also found that quote worth thinking about. I wondered if my motivation was to spread my genes… I don’t think so. I think I just love them. They’re fascinating, they can teach us a lot, and I wanted to do my best to raise some good ones.
      But I also totally get why someone would be baffled by it. Sometimes I am myself – when things are rough, I wonder what I did to myself! 🙂

  5. Rebecca Foster says:

    I applaud you for approaching the book with an open mind and liking it more than your background would say you ‘should’ have. It’s definitely been a divisive book style-wise, even for readers who sympathize with the decision to not have children. I found the book ridiculously quotable, and it really hit home for me because I’m still in that paralyzed indecision mode. So I was perhaps the perfect target audience.

    • Naomi says:

      I think you were! And now I wonder if reading the book helped you with your own indecision? Or maybe just helped you not to feel like you’re the only one?

      Even though it’s not quite the same, I totally get that indecision – for several years after baby #3, I waffled about a fourth. I went back and forth and felt very annoyed about the whole thing. And I wanted that finish line, so I could stop thinking about it! So, I can imagine how hard it would be for people deciding whether or not to have any at all. Really, really, hard.

  6. Karissa says:

    Great to hear your perspective and I’m glad you enjoyed it. This one definitely wasn’t for me but it’s been interesting to see how others react to it.

  7. Grab the Lapels says:

    I’m interested but hesitant. Heti often writes “fiction”–basically her and her friends and their mundane lives, flaunting their privilege. It reminds me of everything I’ve heard about Lena Dunham.

    • Naomi says:

      I do think she used a lot from her own life in this book. I think I read or heard her talking about how she’d been writing it for years, but didn’t know what to do with it until someone suggested she turn it into fiction. Then she felt free to do with it what she wanted.

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I find myself gritting my teeth over that sort of thing. There was a trend for a while and small presses for authors to basically write the story of their own life and then call it fiction. and to be honest, most of their lives were quite mundane, but somehow the community props itself up and then we’re stuck with these mundane and books that everyone calls genius.

      • Naomi says:

        I do find it frustrating when I know a book’s “story” is a large part autobiographical but I don’t know what’s true and what isn’t. I’d almost rather not know – choose one or the other please!

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I know Lidia Yuknavitch is well known for writing “messy” memoir that is a blend of fiction. I know that in writing workshops we talk about how truth is very much stranger than fiction, and it’s not an excuse a person can use when the story doesn’t feel real. I remember classmates saying, “this scene doesn’t feel real” and the writer saying, “it really happened!” In the world of fiction, readers don’t care if it really happened unless it’s nonfiction. We lose trust. I know Lidia Yuknavitch would have lots to say about that, though.

  8. annelogan17 says:

    I can’t wait for my book club discussion on this in a few weeks. I’m actually expecting myself to be ‘meh’ on it, but strangely, some of her more offensive points (i.e. women complaining about something this is largely their own making) I actually agree with, in a vague sense. But of course, what about the women who don’t choose motherhood, and end up with it anyway? That’s a whole other discussion! I haven’t read it yet (obviously) but I will do that next week right before our discussion so its fresh in my mind!

    • Naomi says:

      I can understand that, for sure. I had to take small breaks from it, and thought she took the coin flipping a bit too far. But I also thought there was a lot to admire!

  9. Brona says:

    I love the debate this book has created.
    As a childless step-mother I have LOTS of comments about this state of affairs. I don’t presume to comment of people who do have children, so I’ve never understood why (men, it’s usually men) suggest I have wasted my body by not having children of my own!

    • Naomi says:

      Wasted your body?! Yikes!
      When I was at home with my kids every day, it was also usually men who couldn’t understand what I did all day. “Aren’t you bored?” *rolls eyes*
      I think we need these discussions!

  10. buriedinprint says:

    Reading the comments here is awesome (and I’m really behind obviously)! My copy was from the library so I can’t doublecheck, but I thought the passage about the egoism of having a family which exceeds the size of the original parenting pair was followed by a passage about her, herself, wondering if she was really any different, because she had three books and they were like her children and out there “colonizing” the world with their ideas too.

    We’ve already had some discussion about this, surrounding our Shadow Giller reading, so I won’t go into all that, other than to say that Heti’s book certainly brought out reconsideration of our own decision-making in ways that none of the other books did, which made the reading worthwhile even just for that.

    Like you, I’m eager to see how Anne’s group discussion goes. How different might some of our relationships be if women read this book the way that women used to read Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer and if we discussed these subjects like they mattered. (Which, they do, but you wouldn’t necessarily guess that by looking at the bestseller list, with so few books raising questions like these.)

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I think you’re right about that quote. I liked how she compared having children with writing books – another interesting idea in her book.
      And I absolutely agree that the book was worth reading for all the discussion it provoked, here and behind the scenes!

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