Differing views of modern motherhood

  • Non-fiction: An Excellent Choice: Panic and Joy on My Solo Path to Motherhood, Emma Brockes, Faber €19.99
  • Motherhood, Sheila Heti, Harvill, €23.79
  • Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Jacqueline Rose, Faber €14.79

Author Emma Brockes
Author Emma Brockes
Jacqueline Rose
Sheila Heti

What is a mother and how do you become one? The answer might seem simple but in the 21st Century it seems inordinately complex. This is indicated in the different approaches three recent books take to the subject, addressing questions like how to have a child without a man in your life (Brockes); whether a 39-year-old woman is morally obliged to grasp her last chance to procreate (Heti); and why we blame mothers for all the ills of society and simultaneously expect them to fix the world (Rose). Together they give a snapshot of contemporary motherhood as a role that is changing swiftly.

Brockes’s title gives the game away. A journalist and memoirist whose last book delineated her own mother’s mysterious past, in An Excellent Choice: Panic And Joy on My Solo Path to Motherhood, Brockes tracks her experience with the fertility industry and beyond. Her situation is unusual, though not entirely unique. Pushing 40, she realises she wants to have a child, but is in the early stages of a new relationship, with a woman, L. That relationship remains blurry throughout the book. Brockes and her partner are very different and although L doesn’t want to feature in the book, Brockes tells us all about her reticence making her a principal character in doing so. They live separately, argue often, and agree not to share responsibility for each other’s children when they arrive. This ambivalence forms the backdrop to the challenge Brockes faces on the journey towards motherhood – a challenge that expands exponentially when it becomes clear she’s having twins.

An accomplished writer, Brockes doesn’t feel at all obliged to be likeable. She’s competitive in work and even with her romantic partner. Having twins, Brockes writes, would “mean I had ‘won’. This is very, very bad but every time I think of having more than one baby my horror is mitigated by an imaginary air punch, the female equivalent of a testosterone high”.

Her sharp observations, about others and, relentlessly, herself, are what make the book compelling. She’s funny. After interviewing Sheryl Sandberg for the paperback release of Lean In, she wanders around the Facebook campus. “I walk past… the posters on the walls urging staff to be their ‘best selves’ or asking them ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ (Hold a negative opinion about Facebook, perhaps.)”

Brockes’s trek towards motherhood is as arduous as its outcome (twins) but she is clear that it’s the right choice for her.

Sheila Heti is not so certain. Also nearing 40, the narrator of her story oscillates back and forth between having kids or not. At first these seem like what one reviewer has called “circuitous and discursive vacillations”. This is how her book, Motherhood, initially feels, and it is somewhat self-indulgent. But that doesn’t stop it being a brilliant, philosophical study, as it charts the terrifying dilemma women in their 30s face: It’s one thing to not want children, but what if you change your mind afterwards, when you’re 45? No matter how many times you think it through, you can never be sure you won’t feel differently when it’s too late.

Heti mulls this over in excruciating and intimate detail. Her friends are doing it, her mother did it. But would having a child not destroy her lifestyle and kill her art? Why must women feel this pressure? “The hardest thing is actually not to be a mother,” she observes. “Having children is nice. What a great victory to be not-nice. The nicest thing to give the world is a child. Do I ever want to be that nice?”

Heti reaches an uneasy resolution, deciding that writing books, in place of motherhood, is her way of contributing to the world. As an answer, this seems off-key, based on a false dichotomy, since it implies both that people without children need to do something instead and that women with kids are somehow prevented from writing – something with which the eminently “not-nice” Brockes would disagree. But Heti’s conclusion is underpinned by a series of truths, and recognises that not everyone, or every woman, should feel obliged to procreate. “Raising children is the opposite of everything I long for,” she notes simply, “the opposite of everything I know how to do, and all the things I enjoy.”

Motherhood is a state that has long been alternately haloed and attacked. The point is made by Jacqueline Rose, a professor of humanities at Birkbeck University, in her long piece, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty. It begins with a promising thesis. Motherhood is, she proposes, “the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings, for everything that is wrong with the world, which it becomes the task – unrealisable, of course – of mothers to repair”. Rose talks about the obsession with foreign mothers in Britain’s tabloids, and stories of immigrants crowding NHS hospitals to give birth to their babies. She counters this with the observation that an estimated 85,000 lone children and young people have come to Europe since 2015, their mothers (and fathers) either dead or stranded elsewhere.

After opening with this social analysis Rose plunges into literature, looking at the ancient Greeks (Medea), Hamlet, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, Elena Ferrante and others. It’s a grand swathe of literary history, and Rose’s study eddies around its subject, losing direction. Mothers ends up too abstract and broad to have emotional weight – Rose’s discussion of her own experience adopting a child in the final chapter isn’t enough to give it focus.

What’s important and pleasing about Brockes’s and Heti’s books is that they take female experience seriously and articulate it intelligently, even philosophically in Heti’s case. In their different ways, they write honestly about their lives. Rose is right that “mothers are almost invariably the object, either of too much attention or not enough”. With these fresh accounts of motherhood, we’re seeing a glimpse of how that might change.

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