Mothers of ContentionFor Female Authors, Parenthood and Legitimacy Are Still Linked

header image of article title and illustration of brown woman holding her baby and walking in the desert between two cacti

Illustration by Amelia Giller

This article was published in Broke Issue #82 | Spring 2019
Midway through Sheila Heti’s 2018 novel Motherhood, the narrator asks herself:
What is a woman—who is not a mother—doing that is more important than mothering? Is it possible to even say such a thing—that there is anything more important for a woman to do than mother? I know a woman who refuses to mother, refuses to do the most important thing, and therefore becomes the least important woman. Yet the mothers aren’t important, either. None of us are important.

Heti’s book is a kaleidoscopic, existential, autofictional, and often very funny exploration of how mothering and not-mothering matter and how they don’t. Motherhood isn’t so much about whether or not to have a child—it’s clear from the start that this narrator doesn’t want to, and probably won’t—but about what it means to have a child. It’s about what our culture imagines children to do and be for; about how we define (and glorify) progress and change; about sadness and writing and art; about the crazy-making experience of reckoning with stigmatized desire; about daughterhood and something Heti calls “the soul of time.” It’s about what it means to be “important,” and to whom, and in what way.

“These do not seem to be the thoughts of someone who seriously intends to have a baby,” wrote Christine Smallwood in a 2018 Harper’s essay that reviewed Motherhood alongside Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty. But to fault Heti’s novel for failing to “seriously” consider childbearing is like complaining that Their Eyes Were Watching God doesn’t properly consider flood-safety protocol, or that Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems aren’t really about lunch. Heti’s narrator may not seriously intend to have a baby, but she does intend to investigate why that’s such a problem to begin with.

“None of us are important” is a conclusion that differs sharply from those reached in other recent writings on motherhood, including many reviews of Motherhood. In the same essay in which she posits that Heti’s book is “a waste of time,” Smallwood celebrates Rose’s Mothers for its notion that “To be a mother…is to welcome a foreigner,” an idea that suggests to Smallwood that “motherhood can be a model for a broad and inclusive politics.” In a 2015 Harper’s essay The Grand Shattering,” Sarah Manguso writes of her former self, “It seems obvious to me that my refusal to have a child was a way to avoid the challenges of extreme love.” Now a mother, Manguso recalls that, years after she stopped nursing her son, she saw a picture of a newborn and her breasts began to fill. “If there were an earthquake, a bombing,” she concludes, “I could nurse the orphans.” And in 2017’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, poet Camille Dungy describes her premotherhood self as “petty, judgmental, self-involved, shortsighted, and cruel,” whereas motherhood has made her “more prepared to be accepting of the humanity in all of us.”

I’ve asked myself if I feel condescended to or left out by such thinking, as Manguso says that she did before she became a mother. But my chief reaction is that—to adopt Smallwood’s phrasing—these do not seem to be the thoughts of people who seriously intend to take in refugees or nurse orphans. To share one’s bodily, economic, and emotional resources with those genetically and/or legally related to us may be many things, but it is not politically transgressive. So what compels us to claim that having children renders us open to strangers and delivers us from pettiness and cruelty? There are 85 million mothers in the United States alone: If motherhood did spur this kind of radicalization, surely our political landscape would look vastly different. It is not the responsibility of mothers to change or nurse the world, nor is it their distinctive power.

These recent writings, consciously or not, invoke efforts leveraged throughout U.S. history to divide women into mothers and nonmothers, and to abet white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. Take the 19th-century movement to out-law abortion, a push fueled by white men’s fears that white women weren’t reproducing fast enough to outnumber Black people, brown people, and many immigrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe. “Shall [the West and South] be filled by our own children or by those of aliens?” asked Horatio Storer, a prominent gynecologist and antiabortion crusader. “This is a question our women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.” Men such as Storer defined white mothers as courageous, patriotic, and progressive, whereas white women who did not mother were selfish, mentally ill, and stalled in life. These ideas surface like ghostly echoes in Motherhood when Heti’s white, well-educated narrator describes feeling like “a draft dodger from the army in which so many of my friends are serving.”

The flip side is that, as Dorothy Roberts describes in her 1998 book, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, U.S. lawmakers and social reformers continue to imagine Black women’s reproductive capacities not as a service to the nation, but as a contaminating threat. The desire to variously control and invalidate Black motherhood has gone hand in hand with the glorification of white motherhood. Cultural observers over centuries have frequently combined praise for white, middle-class mothers with critiques of the irresponsible reproductive practices of poor, nonwhite, and non-protestant people. “These people breed like animals,” remarked Henry James of Manhattan’s Jews early in the 20th century. It’s difficult to imagine that people like James believe those who “breed” really count as mothers at all.

Why is it important to count as a mother? According to the Apostle Paul, the issue is one of salvation; it is Paul who promises, in 1 Timothy 2:15, that “woman will be saved through childbearing.” This claim may seem at home in biblical verse, yet this same coding of childbearing in messianic terms also appears in the work of contemporary writers and poets in whose work Christianity does not play a central thematic role. Camille Dungy wrote, “The biggest difference between the smiting God of the Old Testament and the forgiving God of the New, I’d argue, is that the New Testament God went and had a baby.”

James’s and Dungy’s remarks, separated by nearly a century, are just two examples of the deeply rooted equation of foreign or non-Christian “others” and deviant reproductive practices. Nineteenth-century accounts of abortion, for example, often described providers as alien, dirty, and big-nosed—stereotypical shorthand for the Jews of the smiting Old Testament God. And antiabortion politics in the United States were foundationally shaped by the fact that the Christian God is regularly celebrated as a newborn. Never mind that the New Testament God hardly “had” (or raised) a baby; Dungy’s peculiar assertion is complexly antisemitic, pronatalist, and firmly rooted in the pantheon of cultural imagery associating goodness and care with Christian reproduction.

Although it’s unlikely that contemporary writers I mention intend to link childlessness with cruelty, their efforts to affirm motherhood frequently portray the enemy not as misogyny itself, but as a childless woman. Smallwood describes a childless friend who “recently complained that her seatmate on a long international flight had changed a diaper on the tray table”; Dungy flagellates her premotherhood self for disdaining a crying child seated next to her on a plane, writing, “What I deserve for my lack of mercy is a merciless seatmate on every flight I take with my lap child.” And in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, there’s a juxtaposition between two women scholars, one “droopy-eyed and louche in a way that I liked,” and the other with a “sharp face, classy in a silk scarf [….] Feline, groomed, her thick dark hair in a bob.” (Guess which one is the mother, and which one is the childless shrew.)

The childless woman in these contemporary narratives adapts to contradict whatever characteristics motherhood lays claim to. Where the mother is fruitfully cluttered (“polluted” in Manguso’s view and “contaminating” in Nelson’s), the childless woman is hygiene-obsessed and killingly linear; where the mother moves forward into adulthood, social responsibility, and progress, the childless woman moves in confused circles. Although Nelson commends her “pudgy” scholar-mother for bringing “unresolved, self-involved thinking” into academic spaces and Smallwood enjoys that “mothers bring mess with them everywhere they go,” reviewers find these same characteristics obnoxious in Heti’s book. What one New Yorker review describes as Motherhood’s “lax, self-indulgent quality” somehow doesn’t qualify as louche in the way we might like.

I share with these writer-mothers an affection for whatever brings messiness and unresolved thinking into literature. “I want to read books that were written in desperation,” writes Manguso, “by people who are disturbed and overtaxed, who balance on the extreme edge of experience.” In a conversation between Manguso and Heti on the literary podcast Commonplace, host and poet Rachel Zucker posits “a poetics of motherhood” defined by interruptedness and inclusivity, and marvels that Motherhood, written by the childless Heti, exemplifies what she has in mind. “I can’t imagine coming to those [forms] in any other way,” Zucker says.

But I can. As someone who has bled out an early pregnancy at home, I have come to those forms. I have come to those forms writing poetry with people who are paralyzed, organizing abortion storytelling groups in rural Appalachia, and running around with kids after school making art out of trash. I do not have children, and yet my life—and so my writing—is interrupted in countless, overtaxing ways. I do not know how so many contemporary writers enjoyed something akin to uninterruptedness before they became mothers. I suspect that for those of us who have been shielded from the world’s fiercest violence, motherhood—or, in my case, abortion—may well be one of the first experiences in our lives that blaze with trauma and extremity. But experiences other than motherhood also bring us into contact with that which is harried and inclusive, that which competes with solitude and tests our capacity for extreme love.

“Those who have not passed through the gauntlet of motherhood cannot be equal in experience to those who have,” writes Manguso. But I wonder on which side of this gauntlet fall foster and adoptive mothers, biomothers, women who give birth in prison, women whose infants are taken away. Do people who give birth but do not parent, or who mother without giving birth, experience “the shattering” Manguso describes? Does it matter if they do? There’s a distinction between asking someone to understand that your experience is different from hers and asking her to accept that your experience is better. But it’s unclear to me which of these requests Manguso makes. The former seems obvious, and the latter sad. Sad because the effort to prove that either mother’s lives or childless women’s lives are better than the other implies that there’s not enough love or affirmation of women to go around—that only some of us can be valuable and fulfilled. That only some of us can be important.

Inasmuch as motherhood is imagined as the crystallization of womanhood, anyone who derides motherhood has accepted the patriarchal belief that women and femininity are trivial.

By the end of Motherhood, Heti’s narrator doesn’t want to go on measuring and tallying. Even as she grows to affirm her own desires—describing childlessness in mystical, hermetic terms as becoming “that shining thing, enveloped by a darkness, completely untouched”—Motherhood’s closing gestures are ones of profound reconciliation: “[T]he not-having seems just as amazing, unlikely and special as the having. Both feel like a kind of miracle…impressive and difficult in their own ways.” Smallwood, reviewing Motherhood, sighs, “The mutual incomprehension of the childless and those with children is, as ever, depressing.” Certainly it is depressing that a reader would reach such a conclusion after reading Heti’s book.

Heti’s narrator, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, contemplates her desire not to bear children as a wish to deal gently with the soul passed down to her: “This is the first time in generations it can rest,” she writes, “So why not treat it with real tenderness?” She never exhibits the kind of clear-cut contempt toward motherhood and child-rearing that many contemporary writers attribute to their preparent selves, and I am wary of the suggestion that there exists what Manguso calls “a gulf that cannot be bridged.” Such a notion suggests that one must become a mother in order to appreciate the complexities of motherhood, or to be at all curious about the lives of mothers—and if this is the case, what hope is there for the coexistence of community and diversity? Mothers have a view of a landscape I will never see, but so do prisoners, and tightrope walkers, and saints. Our job as writers is not to erect “No Trespassing” signs around our experiences, but to clear paths.

Manguso writes that “women who deride motherhood as merely an animal condition have accepted the patriarchal belief that motherhood is trivial.” I see it differently: Inasmuch as motherhood is imagined as the crystallization of womanhood, anyone who derides motherhood has accepted the patriarchal belief that women and femininity are trivial. Because of this, I understand that my own fortunes are linked with those of all mothers, all pregnable people, and all those courageous enough to honor femininity in its many forms. The only gulf we cannot love, speak, and bridge is the one between those who scorn femaleness and femininity, and those who do not.