When I was young every morning I drank milk from a small fluted glass with acid-etched flowers and swirls. At the time I thought it was the most elegant thing I had beheld, as if I were drinking from a sacred vessel. Some form of ritual. Looking back, I realise my mother probably pulled it from a sale shelf in an op shop, probably paid not much more than you would for a lemonade icy pole. Why else would an adult give a child a fancy fluted glass to drink from? As these things tend to go, I dropped the glass one morning – don’t cry over spilt milk, my mother said. Crystalline shards and opaque liquid shattered my heart, but back then I didn’t have the words to say. Fuck that.
The phrasal verb to read into means we falsely prescribe value to a situation, a comment, a remark. I’ve always read into things – tea leaves and endless drought. Silences. When I first picked up Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, my grandmother had just died and my best friend told me she was pregnant. I read into Motherhood.
An index draws attention to that which might not have been seen. When I learnt to read, I used my index finger to follow words across the page. To not lose my way. Now I use my index finger to point at a cloud, a star. To scratch an itch. A book’s index points to pages and phrases – its content. You can index a sigh, or potatoes – baked too.
I began this essay as a book review, but instead a conversation formed – an index of small talk. I’ve been writing up and down for months now. Who needs a narrative arc, when at a glance you can read someone like a book? I read the word conversation comes from the Latin conversari, meaning ‘to associate with’. To spend time with. Don’t read into it – or please do.
Lately I have been asking everybody, Do you want to have kids?
When I was younger I wanted to have eleven kids and eleven dogs. Now I am unsure. Dogs moult on couches, their hair coats. I eat pancakes for dinner and cry often. I am not fit to have children. Do you?
Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself – it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.
AWAKEN AND CRY
Is it right to make someone live, so you might not feel some regret?
The other day I watched a home video of a friend’s child on a bouncing castle. The child hesitant at first, the mother’s gentle push – moving child forward, a smile now on their face. To my surprise, I watched this clip over and over. What if I change my mind, what if I want a child?
Never have I felt so sure about something, to only have that certainty shift like a body on a trampoline. Foot askew, the slightest gesture – your body falls.
The thing to do when you’re feeling ambivalent is to wait.
To wait involves intent. It is not, for example, to pour yourself a pot of coffee and get back into bed. Wait is weighted with a sense of purpose built into its bones. Derived from the old French gaitier, which means, ‘to defend, watch out, be on one’s guard, lie in wait for’. Or Old High German wachton – ‘to watch, be awake’.
My sister went into wait when her waters broke. Then her child – unsure and awake – heaved out into a world of bright and loud and love and not-love.
Never have I felt so sure about something, to only have that certainty shift like a body on a trampoline.
Babies cry because they are hungry or tired, or uncertain of whether they are hungry or tired. As adults, we can take example from these ancient rituals and when unsure, cry. Let it be loud and unrelenting. At the very least, it will help you get to sleep until night bleeds into day.
Time is always ticking for women.
I was told once that if I do not have children I will regret it, and if I do have children I will regret it. Either way, you cannot win.
I know I cannot hide from life; that life will give me experiences no matter what I choose.
To be in the thick of things is to find yourself in the middle of it all. Often it is not until we’re in the thick of things we wonder how we got there. Blink and you’re born again. Think a prang. A slip (not the garment). Think rainstorms – the kind that soak through and through. Think falling. Some kind of place between free and not-free, where your body gives into the gravitational pull of a lover, of panic, of a cracked concrete path.
To be in the thick of things is not to disregard the complexity that surrounds our bodies – white privilege, gender, money in the bank. It is not to say that to give in to the affect of a moment is to negate the big and sometimes invisible picture. But being in the thick of it holds its own. It sticks. Like the ancient rage a daughter holds against her mother.
I’m told milk from the breast in the first days after childbirth is as thick as cream.
I read somewhere that the word deadline derives from the lines made around prisons in the Civil War – ‘do not cross’. Lines hold us in and keep us out. I’ve pushed out the deadline for this essay for more than a year now. At some point the line snagged and broke away.
The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it.
I’m not sure I am woman, but neither am I man. When I first read Motherhood I was making my way to Oberon for my grandmother’s funeral – the conversation took shape around death and grief and brief moments of joy. But since then, Love died and my sister fell pregnant. Hope faltered. Days shifted from ice blue, to the colour of ripe peaches and wattle bloom. The deadline bellied out, and–
You think you are creating a trick with your art, but your art ends up tricking you.
Yes, I think that’s true. I thought by writing through reading our conversation would lead to some kind of resolution but all I feel is foolish and tired.
Days shifted from ice blue, to the colour of ripe peaches and wattle bloom.
Last night I dreamt I wrestled with a snake. In the end, we kissed, the snake and I, in bed together. Yet now I cannot recall who won the fight, if either of us at all. I woke in tears. Do you think this fight between the snake and I, was it about choosing motherhood or not?
This is also the same age as when your mother was miserable, and also constantly in tears. It could be a biological phase.
I’m not sure, my mother’s sadness came before mine.
Or it could be the choices you’ve made.
At the beginning you’re told the world is your oyster, you’re told you can have all the cake you want. And as children we are picky eaters. White bread and white rice. But then you grow up, and as an adult there are too many choices amid this capitalist, consumer culture – it becomes very difficult to know what you want anymore.
But what happens when the things we thought we wanted to experience don’t occur?
Disappointment resonates. It curls outwards.
This is not a good feeling to carry around in one’s life.
Seeing someone with a child tells me nothing about the life that was in their head, or is currently in their head, just as seeing someone without a child tells me nothing about the life that was in their head.
At the beginning of the year, a friend of mine gave birth to a stillborn. She is a mother, but some people might not see that. We use the word ‘understand’ to express an ability to grasp or fathom a situation, an experience. In this sense, I do not think it is possible to understand the way her heart broke the day her son was born.
What’s the opposite of despair?
Well, I suppose in a way – the heart. It keeps movement moving. Like hope in the dark. And Love. How the heart aches and breaks, shatters and splits. But also how it holds life alongside grief and loss alongside breath. For there is no life without death. The opposite of despair is your mother’s mother and your mother and another mother’s mother and Gayle, another mother. Motherhood. But also motherhood as a place between the binaries of life and death, yes and no.
Motherhood as a place between the binaries of life and death, yes and no.
Okay, what’s going on in your life?
On the bus home I sit next to a woman who smells like soap. For dinner I cook fritters, then run a bath too hot to get into and sit on the edge. My sister calls to say our mother can’t help out with babysitting Monday night because she’s going to an event for her Bridge group. I’m not surprised – champagne always had more grip on my mother than her daughters, so why shouldn’t Bridge trump it all.
Do you ever feel like you cannot grow beyond your mother?
In some ways, yes. When there is a woman without a child, she is seen as being lesser. Lesser the capacity to love. To take off your hood is to be able to see again. But you cannot return the garment of motherhood once it is worn. My mother let me down, in more ways than one. No one likes to be deserted. But perhaps all this time I have hardened against her, I did not understand. I did not see. The mother is always the first to blame.
Women describe labour as the most painful experience they’ve witnessed. And yet, afterwards, the pain becomes a memory and they go on to give birth to more children. Pain in this instance becomes a thing no longer felt, only thought. After childbirth, my sister made a voice recording of her experience, so that she would not forget how it was the most painful thing she has felt. So that she will not forget that she does not want another child.
There are so many underworlds to travel to, not just one.
My sister’s partner tells me two theories on why people watch horror films. Firstly, it is like riding a roller coaster, he says. In the midst of it, you’re terrified. Your stomach is going to fall out of your mouth. Then when it is over, you’re ready for it to happen all over again. Secondly, he says, it is like chilli. You eat it until your mouth burns, tears run and snot leaks. Then once it is over, you begin again. More please.
How silly, stupid and petty we all are!
But these kinds of under worlds – racing hearts and hot mouths – this kind of pain, is not the same as losing a child.
But why should I think it?
Some things don’t bear thinking about.
PIE AND PINK SKY
When I tell people my sister had a baby, the question most frequently ask (after girl or boy?) is, do you want kids? Most of the time I say no.
Can it bless us in ways nothing else can?
Every mother says having a child blesses you in a way nothing else can.
That mother could be you.
But think fresh apple pie and pink skies. There is more than one way to be blessed.
There is more than one way to be blessed.
On Saturday night a woman came up to me and asked if she had done something to offend me. We had crossed paths only moments before in the dark. She had read something – in my body, my eyes or breath – to feel unwelcomed by me in the darkness.
Oh well. That’s too bad.
It is. Though what I mean is when I first started reading Motherhood, I fell into conversation and I thought it would lead somewhere – to an understanding. But just as the woman in the dark read meaning into my body, I read meaning into Motherhood.
Well, I guess that seems fair.
Yes, but – a conversation is an exchange, there are no answers and there is no knowing. It is about stale persistence and fragments of talk and unfinished thought. Glimpses not meaning. Conversation as association, and pancakes with jam and butter and chats with neighbours and dog-eared pages.
Yes, but – words eventually snap and banter rarely leads to answer.
The reason you can’t find an answer, whenever you can’t, is because the answer doesn’t much matter, in the general course of things. If something can be debated endlessly and without resolution, it cannot matter. The things that cannot be debated are the things that matter most. For some it cannot be debated whether they will have a child, but for those whom it can be debated, it’s probably a fine life either way.
Lines presented in italics within this piece are quoted from Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (Vintage), available now at Readings.