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On Not Having Children: Motherhood by Sheila Heti

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Who wants to have children? The number of people who answer yes to this question continues to fall and being child-free is even celebrated as an identity on TikTok.

Reasons for not wanting to procreate are many. Some cite political principles: the world is overpopulated, and there are already countless unwanted children who need homes. If caretaking is your thing, wouldn’t adoption or fostering be more ethical? Others worry about the suffering that could be caused by bringing a child into this problematic world. Anti-natalists argue that life is so painful that humans shouldn’t reproduce. Then there’s the dislike of the heteronormative nuclear family. How is it that, despite four waves of feminism, it’s still the woman who ends up doing most of the childcare in heterosexual couples? Alternative solutions are discussed, but rarely implemented.

Working in France as an au pair when I was 19 was definitely a factor in my decision to be child-free. The main feeling I had as I wheeled prams, changed nappies and sang lullabies was not joy, but boredom. Yes, the job had given me the opportunity to live abroad rent-free, but as I made up stories and comforted crying toddlers, I thought of much more constructive things I could be doing with my time. Another argument for remaining child-free relates to contributing to the world. As a writer or artist or musician, it’s likely you’ll enhance more people’s lives than you would as a parent. Of course, you can do both, but investing time in creative work rather than childcare will probably contribute more to humanity.

Other fears of mine were about the dread of what my potential child might become. What if they rebelled against my taste and politics and turned out to be a heavy-metal-loving tory? What if they wanted to read the Telegraph? What if they were antifeminist, a climate-change denier, a white supremacist? If I gave birth to someone who turned out like that, I could be forced to live with them in an existentialist nightmare that might prove Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people’ to be right.

Sheila Heti’s brilliant book ‘Motherhood’ follows her narrator’s journey as she tries to decide whether to have children. The structure of the book is thought-provoking. While most of it involves analytical thinking on the question of procreation, it is interspersed with coin-flipping, a technique used in the I-Ching to help make decisions. Other interesting interludes involve intimate details of sex with the narrator’s partner. There is something refreshing about this intimacy and interaction with chance. It seems to reveal the narrator’s vulnerability and show how difficult it can be to make decisions when you’re being affected by so many opposing forces. As one of her characters says, ‘People think they own your body; they think they can tell you what to do with your body. Men want to control women’s bodies by forbidding them from abortions, while women want to control other women’s bodies by pressurising them to have kids.’

Heti's narrator says she'd never dreamed of being a mother, even from an early age: ‘I wanted to have boyfriends and make art and have interesting conversations and friends … I wanted to be free.’ She also writes about finding ‘value and greatness’ in some place apart from being a mother, in the same way that men can find their worth ‘away from violence and domination.’ The child-free are often referred to as ‘selfish’ by those who have bred, but Heti's narrator argues that childbearing is as egotistic as colonising a country in that both ‘carry the wish of imprinting yourself upon the world and making it over with your values and in your image.’ I've often battled with feelings of shame at the discomfort I feel at the sight of a pregnant woman. Society tells me it’s not normal to feel like this and that most people would feel happy at such a joyful sight, therefore there must be something wrong with me. Heti's character goes further and says she ‘feels assaulted’ when she hears that a person has had three or more children. ‘It feels greedy, overbearing and rude, an arrogant overspreading of these selves.’ Although, then she suggests that writing is not all that different, ‘spreading myself over pages…’.

As I’ve got older, and more and more friends have succumbed to parenthood, I’ve started to feel abandoned. Who am I going to talk to about films and art and the meaning of life if everyone is too busy drowning in nappies? Heti’s narrator feels a similar abandonment, she thought her friends and her were moving into the same land: ‘A childless land where we could just do a million things together forever.’ She tries not to think of it as an abandoning, but ‘it would be wrong to say it’s not a loss, or that I’m not startled at being so alone.’

The spectacle of all this breeding, she says, is a ‘turning away from the living – an insufficient love for the rest of us.’ According to UNICEF, there are 153 million orphans worldwide, yet people continue to have children for their own happiness, rather than, as Heti's narrator says, ‘tending to the already living.’ The fact that this book has been referred to as radical, seems to say more about our lack of questioning of the modus operandi of heteronormative society than it does about the book, which at one point is referred to as a ‘prophylactic’.

Maybe the reasons some of us want to be child-free is because of the relationships we had with our own parents. Heti’s narrator's mother was always crying during her childhood which gave her the constant feeling that she had done something wrong. My mother was also very unhappy while struggling with a mental illness. These experiences no doubt influenced us.

Not long after I was born, my mother found out that she couldn’t cope with having a baby, had a breakdown and ended up in hospital. As a creative person, she would probably have been more suited to a child-free life, but in those days she didn’t have the choice. Sheila Heti’s book shows that the decision to be child-free is still not an easy one and can involve both external and personal battles. There’s still a long way to go before we can shake off the stigma associated with choosing not to have children, but it’s a relief that in this important work, the complexity of the choice is now being discussed.


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