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.