Thursday 15 November 2018

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

When I was in my twenties and thirties, my friends and I spent a lot of time discussing and dissecting each others dreams (#lifebeforesocialmedia)! We read books, kept dream journals and wondered about the significance of what happened in our heads in the middle of the night. We were searching for meaning and trying to make sense of our emerging lives. We were confused and bemused by adulting (not a term back then) and looking for answers anywhere and everywhere. Mostly we simply found more questions and more angst. It's a weird time that feels like forever; thankfully it's not.

As the years have gone by, those levels of turmoil, doubt and self-reflection have eased up (#hallelujah)! At some point most of us discover a place of relative calm and peace. Our search for meaning and purpose finds something to latch onto and we've worked out what's important and what's not. Everyone gets there at different times, in different ways, but I do believe that we all have the ability to get there eventually. 

Reading Shelia Heti's Motherhood brought all those days and nights of angst and yearning rushing back. I finished it last night and for the first time in a very long time, I had a dream that felt significant and that I still remembered upon waking. 

It was a tsunami dream. A double tsunami. It felt like I'd had this dream before and was replaying an old tape. 

I was standing on an isthmus with a lots of others. We could see the waves coming, getting more intense and more overwhelming with each surge. Everyone knew what was happening, yet so many people chose to stay low on the beach as I raced up to the pinnacle of the isthmus. Others were playing a russian roulette, trying to see, get the best photos, before racing up just in time. People were being swept away in front of my eyes because they had stayed on the beach too long. I looked behind me which is when I realised I was on an isthmus, with more water behind me, but no tsunami.

The dream suddenly reset, I relived the race up the beach to the top of the hill and looked behind me to see a second wave of tsunamis coming up the beach behind me as well. Water began to swirl around my feet. Flotsam and jetsam floated by; it felt dangerous and scary, but I was on high ground and could go no further and trusted it would have to be enough. 

Suddenly (as often happens in dreams) we were rebuilding part of the house that had been destroyed by the tsunamis. The owners, a young couple, proudly showed me the work done on the new en suite - I admired the new toilet, shower and hand basin and congratulated them on getting it back to normal so quickly. In the living room, a miniature cow was being held by one of the couple, they passed it to me. It had been washed up by the tsunami. It was soft and shivery from fear. I cuddled it gently to my chest, cradling its udder in my left hand, and felt myself calm down and re-centre as it nuzzled me.

As my friends used to say, my dreams were about as subtle as a sledgehammer! Water represents emotions and tsunami's are obviously an overwhelming amount of emotions. Houses are our minds and the rooms represent the various sections of our minds. Bathrooms represent cleansing and expressing emotions. Cows are a feminine symbol of fertility, motherhood (see the link here), creativity, beauty and wisdom. The left side is also feminine representing creativity and nurturing.

Given that I've been feeling overwhelmed by emotions this year, have just come to the end of my 'official school step-mothering duties' with B18 finishing his final exams last week and feeling frustrated for quite some time at the disappearing of my creative space, this dream is a pretty clear message.

If I'd read Motherhood in my twenties and thirties, I'm sure this book would have felt so personal and so pertinent, it would have been painful. As it was, I remembered some of those feelings and thoughts, but they felt like a dream. A little unreal and far away and intangible. There was also a huge sense of relief to see how far I had moved on from that time of angst. I'm not surprised I had a powerful dream experience at the end of it.

Motherhood is billed as a novel but reads like a private journal. Heti's protagonist is probably as petulant, self indulgent and tormented as I was at times at that age. She dabbles in coins, tarot, dreams and psychics to find meaning and symbolism in her life. 

As someone who chose, deliberately and consciously, at a young age not to bring children of my own into this world, many of her to-ing's and fro-ing's were familiar, although, I'm fairly sure that I didn't torture myself over it quite as much as Heti's protagonist did. I always said that if my 50 or 60 year old self regretted the decision that my 20, 30 and 40 year old self made, then that 50 or 60 year old self would just have to put up with it. So far, no regrets.

Perhaps 18 years of early childhood teaching and a decade of step-mothering was enough of a foray into the world of nurturing?

There were lots of provocations within Heti's story worth discussing, including various feminist assumptions and ideals, societal and cultural expectations, creativity, choice, non-choice and freedom. But one of the comments that really landed for me was around the protagonists experience with depression and the change she felt when the drugs finally kicked in. 
Yet I fear I don't have the right to speak anymore, given the drugs. I can't pretend I have come to any answer, or any great wisdom. I think the drugs are the reason I am feeling less bad, not something I realised....Am I disappointed? A little bit, yes. I wanted my own magic to get rid of the pain....What kind of story is it when a person goes down, down, down and down - but instead of breaking through and seeing the truth and ascending, they go down, then take the drugs, and then they go up?

As someone who didn't go down the road of drugs for the very reasons that Heti hinted at, I sometimes wonder if I extended my pain unnecessarily for longer than I needed to. Yet at the same time, I feel a weird sense of achievement and a fierce independence and strength from having worked out how to go up and stay up all by myself.

There is no right or wrong way to get through this life; there is only your way.

This has ended up being a very personal post; Motherhood is that kind of book. It will elicit strong feelings and personal responses. We all make choices and non-choices; we all make decisions and non-decisions and occasionally we have our ability to choose taken away from us. Yet there are choices and decisions to be made even within that space.

Motherhood would be a courageous book club choice leading to a robust, revealing and emotional discussion.

Canadian Giller Prize shortlist 2018


  1. What a beautiful post, Brona! I was just saying to a friend that I think this is exactly what this book is good for - good discussions! Probably personal ones, too - it's almost unavoidable.

    1. Thank you Naomi, I rarely write such personal posts, but this book invited one. I had also only commented to Mr Books the other day that I miss my journal writing days. Even though it felt risky to put so much about myself on-line, I really enjoyed the journal writing experience that this post and this book encouraged.

  2. Very personal post...and it is hard to respond to it.
    I made the same decision as you did in my 20's (no children) and still no regrets.
    Perhaps that is the reason I'm hesitant to read this book. I don't think the book would interest me.
    In life we are all actors in a Greek play: sometimes we miss the mark, make an error of judgement and must deal with the consequences. But only time can tell if one made the right decision. Thanks for sharing your feelings....

    1. It's always risky putting so much of oneself 'out there', but I really enjoyed writing a more personal post. Cathartic even.
      So thank you for your kind response.

  3. This was a pleasure to read, because I, too, had the experience of a surprisingly personal conversation which started as a discussion about this book but required explanations and information that just hadn't come up in other chats. What a great bookgroup choice this would make, in a gathering of trusted friends who could discuss without judging. I'm also so intrigued by your revelation that you chose to not have children of your own but eventually ended up step-mothering because that's my personal situation as well. It leaves one in a permanent state of middle-ness, doesn't it?! (My two step-daughters are turning 16 and 19 on their next birthdays.) What a powerful reading experience for you, too, for it to have led you back to journalling and into reflections and contemplations.


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