Sheila Heti is, clearly, a feminist writer. And yet it’s not clear what her relationship to feminism is. Her subject matter and her methods are pure women’s liberation, but she seems remarkably disengaged from the movement. With How Should a Person Be? in 2010, Heti took on the raw stuff of autofiction, drawing intimately on her own life and her close creative friendship with the painter Margaux Williamson. It was often shocking, frequently hilarious and ultimately revelatory, a perfect illustration of something the feminist Adrienne Rich wrote about in her 1976 book on motherhood, Of Woman Born: ‘only the willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world which will be truly ours.’
Of Woman Born is notable here because Heti’s new novel is called Motherhood and covers terrain similar to Rich’s book from an intensely personal perspective. The narrator – who seems to be roughly continuous with the narrator of How Should a Person Be? (and also roughly, but not exactly, continuous with Heti herself) – is a woman and a writer in her thirties, asking and reasking herself whether she wants to be a mother. ‘How can we know how it will go for us, us ambivalent women of thirty-seven? On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them – but what is there to lose?’
What is there to lose? The narrator’s answer to this question varies, fluctuating according to her menstrual cycle, with sections of the book headed ‘PMS’, ‘bleeding’, ‘follicular’ and ‘ovulating’.