The Art of Parenthood

New books by Sheila Heti and Michael Chabon explore the claims of family-making, and of writing.

Sheila Heti and Michael Chabon
Leah Walker / Sarah Lee / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

“I’m going to give you some advice,” a famous writer once told the young Michael Chabon. “Don’t have children. That’s it. Do not.” Chabon recalls this episode in his new book, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, a slim collection of essays whose title reveals that he was not swayed by the somber warning. He went on to have four children and write 14 books. “Should there be 18?” he asks, thinking of a saying attributed to the novelist Richard Yates: “You lose a book for every child.” Even for a writer who has combined parenthood with creative success, the notion lingers that there is something deeply incompatible about the two roles. After all, a parent is morally obligated to put his or her children first, to do anything for their sake, while an artist is supposed to give the same kind of dedication to his or her work.

Pops suggests a way out of the dilemma: Writing a book about his children means that they add to Chabon’s tally, rather than subtracting from it. But the truth is that, even in these accessible pieces, Chabon is in a certain way inhibited by his subject. His children function in the book less as subjects in themselves than as occasions for musing on general themes: the importance of teaching boys to respect women, in “Against Dickitude”; the overregulated, overprotected nature of modern childhood, in “The Old Ball Game.” None of these are exactly new themes, though Chabon handles them with appealing sincerity and self-deprecating wit.

Above all, the lesson Chabon wants to impart to his children, and to the reader, is the importance of integrity—of being yourself even when that self is weird and excessive. Living in Northern California, Chabon observes, makes it much easier to raise children who are nonconformists: “I felt like telling my daughter that she ought to be grateful she was getting to grow up in Berkeley, where, if you are 14 and feel like wearing a crazy Jayne Mansfield hat and rubber boots down the street in broad daylight, that is okay with your fellow citizens.” He finds a shining example of such quirky integrity in his youngest son, Abe, a 13-year-old devotee of haute couture who finds his tribe among the dandies of Paris Fashion Week.

Yet Chabon avoids turning his authorial imagination directly on his children, knowing that there is something aggressive about a writer’s gaze. His other three children, for instance, are never named in the book; we come to know little about them, and only slightly more about Chabon himself. These are determinedly entertaining and uplifting essays, with little room for the more unpleasant byproducts of family life, such as ambivalence, resentment, hostility, or shame. Chabon has written deeper and more challenging books about family in the guise of fiction—such as his most recent novel, Moonglow, a fantastical faux-memoir about his maternal grandparents.

Indeed, to write really seriously—which means, ruthlessly and comprehensively—about parenthood, it may be necessary not to be a parent at all. That is one lesson that can be drawn from Sheila Heti’s deeply impressive new book, Motherhood, which is primarily about the decision not to become a mother. For Heti, weighing the claims of writing against the claims of parenthood raises much deeper and more painful questions than it appears to for Chabon. Unlike him, she cannot envision a life that contains both children and writing; it seems to be a question not of trading a book for a child, but of opting for one identity or another, either mother or writer. And to pick art over parenthood seems hard for Heti to justify. “What is a woman—who is not a mother—doing that is more important than mothering?” she asks herself. “Is it possible to even say such a thing—that there is anything more important for a woman to do than mother?”

Whether Motherhood is technically a novel is a matter for debate—the word doesn’t appear on the cover, though it has been referred to that way in reviews. But it certainly does not make the same kind of appeal that fiction tends to make. There is no real plot, and almost no characters other than the narrator—who, as in Heti’s previous book, How Should a Person Be?, seems to be more or less identical with the author. Motherhood reads much more like a journal, in which mundane events—a conversation, an outing, an argument—mingle with essayistic explorations. The book’s focus is not doing, but thinking, and the great pleasure it offers is that of a mind reflecting, obsessively and unpredictably, on a subject so central that it leads in every direction. For in writing about motherhood, Heti is also writing about femininity and vocation, embodiment and mortality, history and freedom.

Her thinking is stimulated by a wonderful formal device: She frequently asks herself questions that she answers by means of a roll of the dice, in a technique borrowed from the I Ching. The point is not to get actual life advice from the oracle; rather, Heti uses the dice the way a poet uses rhyme, as a way of forcing herself to think in new ways about old questions. “Can’t one pass on one’s genes through art? Yes. Do men who don’t procreate receive punishment from the universe? No,” runs one exchange, the dice’s reply sounding comically curt next to Heti’s earnest questions.

As the book opens, Heti is in her late 30s and involved, for what seems like the first time, in a settled, happy relationship, with a lawyer called Miles. “Sometimes I feel it would be so easy to have Miles’s baby—his flesh inside mine, his skin so nicely scented, so clean, so smooth; that brain, that heart, mixed with mine,” Heti muses. The only thing left to decide is whether she actually wants to be a mother: “Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself—it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.”

But from early on in Motherhood, and increasingly as the book progresses and deepens, it is clear that Heti is not so much trying to decide as she is justifying a decision that she has already taken, on a deeper level than conscious deliberation. “I know the longer I work on this book, the less likely it is I will have a child,” she writes. “This book is a prophylactic. This book is a boundary I’m erecting between myself and the reality of a child.” Heti, in other words, has taken the advice that Chabon received and turned it on its head. Rather than lose a book in order to have a child, she is writing a book in order not to have one.

That Heti chooses childlessness, while Chabon chose without undue struggle to become a parent, seems, at least in part, to reflect a difference in personality that is also visible in their prose. Life and the world seem more absorbing to Chabon than they do to Heti, who has a philosophical and self-doubting cast of mind. Of course, gender may play a role here as well: A man who wants to become a writer can look back at a long list of geniuses who were also fathers (though not always good fathers). But before, say, 1960, the greatest women writers were childless: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson. Clearly enough, the burden of parenthood, material and spiritual, almost always falls more heavily on mothers than on fathers. In Motherhood, the case against women artists having children is put most succinctly by Miles: “He said that one can either be a great artist and a mediocre parent, or the reverse, but not great at both … These are the sort of thoughts I always try to push from my mind,” Heti writes.

At its core, however, Heti’s struggle against motherhood is less about art than it is about authenticity—the challenge of being what one truly is. For Heti, her true self is simply not a mother. As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that this feeling has deep historical roots. Writing what seems to be straight autobiography, Heti explains that her grandparents were Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust; her mother’s mother was in Auschwitz. The legacy of this trauma, Heti suggests, passed down to her own mother and then to her, in manifold ways. She writes that she suffers from nightmares, depression, and discomfort around other people. She is also, like her mother, extremely devoted to her work (medicine in her mother’s case, literature in Heti’s), as though she had to earn something or make up for something by conspicuous effort. When the past makes such demands, perhaps there is not enough attention left for a new generation: “Family is scarce in our family,” Heti writes in a sad epigram.

Yet when so many human beings embrace the destiny of becoming parents, whether happily or unhappily, what right does any one person have to refuse it? This sense that refusing motherhood means swimming against the tide is what makes the refusal so difficult, and also, for Heti, so energizing. “The feeling of not wanting children is the feeling of not wanting to be someone’s idea of me,” Heti writes; and while she is Canadian, this feels like a classically American kind of individualism. Indeed, Emerson would have understood and approved of the stubborn inwardness of Heti’s book—her conviction that one’s own soul’s problems, however ordinary they may seem, are worthy of the most radical kind of attention.