Sheila Heti opens a rickety apartment door, hides a piece of peanut butter toast and sits at a plain wooden table. She’s in a cardigan and trousers, having just celebrated the publication of her latest book with an afternoon nap (the perfect celebration).
Motherhood has just come out in the UK. Sheila’s seventh book, it has already received effusively positive reviews – not least, for starting a global conversation about the possibility that some women might not want to reproduce. It’s a revolutionary thought and a bafflingly stubborn taboo, this idea that some women might choose to be childless, and Sheila is really the first one to confront it head-on. This is an autobiographical novel: an inner monologue from a nameless woman in her 30s, deliberating whether or not to have a child. The nameless woman is, most of the time and certainly in her essence, Sheila Heti.
The question of childbirth has preoccupied Sheila for most of her life; to such distraction that she decided to spend seven years writing a groundbreaking book about it. The result is astonishing – a novel that uses her real family history, a set of fictional friends and a real partner with imagined scenes to interrogate the very idea of motherhood and the courage it takes to decide against it. Perhaps paradoxically, Sheila smudges her life with fiction to find its truest motivation. She uses a set of fictional women, in particular, to explore the pressures and expectations society places on women, particularly their bodies.
"Things are distorted for fiction, the sake of making a point," she says, when I ask just how much of herself is in this book. "It’s not a literal transcription of my life. The people around me in real life are not as oppressive, or pushy, as the ones in the book. But I needed them to be like that to show what so many women go through."
Smatterings of make-believe aside, the thoughts in this book belong very much to Sheila. She confronts the idea of motherhood with such ferocious wisdom, it is difficult to relay without quoting her directly. She writes things like, "There is no inherent good in being born. A child would not otherwise miss its life." Like, "Whether I want to have kids is a secret I keep from myself – it is the greatest secret I keep from myself." Like, "There is a feeling I have of life standing by, twiddling its thumbs, waiting for me to have a child." She is disarmingly candid about her own humanity, fallibility and ambiguity.
The book resonated with me – a 30-year-old woman who is sometimes deafened by the sound of her own biological clock – profoundly. There is simply nothing else quite like it, no other conversation so candid on the topic of motherhood, no other woman so bold as to suggest rejecting it. There is an anecdote about the preparation of roast chicken over four generations of women that stuck with me for days, that I will potentially think about for the next decade of my life, as I work out whether I, too, want to be a mother. This is the secret to this book’s poignancy: the thoughts belong squarely to Sheila, but she has given us permission to claim them as our own. She has articulated fears, hopes and confusions that every woman of a certain age feels taunting her. It is both a comfort and a fright to read them on paper.
Now that the book is done, Sheila doesn’t feel closure, exactly, and perhaps not even clarity. What she feels is closer to pride, or relief.
"It feels good to me to have written it because I feel like I contended with this issue consciously," she tells me. "I wanted to take this thing that was at the back of my mind and bring it into the centre of my consciousness. I looked at the question of motherhood with everything I had: with my understanding of my own history, my understanding of culture, my understanding of my own fears, hopes, everything. I realised that whatever I would do in life, whether it was to have a child or not, whether it was to repair my relationship with my mother or not, I wanted to be able to look back on this time in my life at a later age and feel like I hadn’t been rash or superficial about it. This book is insurance for a future self, for a future happiness, for a future contentment."
At 40 years old, Sheila could still have a child, if she wanted. So really, after 284 pages of wrestling with the ultimate female dilemma, she hasn’t conclusively resolved it for herself. She knows that. And, having spoken to friends and strangers who are mothers, she knows now that they haven’t either.
"I’ve come to terms with the fact that you can never close off the decision of motherhood. I had this idea that if you had a child, the question of whether you want to be a mother ends, but it doesn’t, not even then," she says. "Then it becomes are you going to have another child, should you have had that first child and if you’re a woman who is aware of her own agency, the question never ends. But I feel more a part of a community of women for whom that question never ends now, rather than alone in my feeling that this will never end. I feel more resolved that this is just what life is like; there are some questions that can’t be answered."
To be a mother, or not to be a mother. This is the question we must all ask ourselves, at a certain age. For many decades, it wasn’t even a question. It was a compulsory female experience. Now, with Sheila’s book, we can ask ourselves more loudly and more honestly than ever.