Either/Both: Considering Literature’s Pervasive Motherhood/Creativity Divide
Ariella Garmaise on Reading Elif Batuman and Sheila Heti (and Wanting Kids Anyway)
Depending on who you ask, there are a million reasons not to want children: a dying planet with little time left; a cruel state that leaves families to fend for themselves; an extreme income gap on a rapid rise; a history of childbirth as violence; a history of child rearing as subjugation; a culture that prizes career and productivity above all else; a lifetime of sleepless nights; the prospect of boredom.
Pew Research says the rate of childlessness is at an all time high, with more and more adults each year reporting that they don’t want kids. Even amongst peers who are in long-term monogamous relationships, I notice an air of judgment when I profess to wanting children. For an urbanite media-type, the kind who reads and writes ominous headlines about the state of the world, I sometimes think wanting kids makes me uncool.
A forced choice, between motherhood and career, between domesticity and creativity, pervades literature and pop culture, where women must negotiate this divide and pick a side that will define their lives. Selin Karadağ, entering her sophomore year at Harvard in Elif Batuman’s Either/Or, her sequel to 2017’s The Idiot, would likely question my faith in domesticity.
Selin wonders why her classmates, privileged to study at one of the world’s most elite institutions, all seem so ready to relinquish the freedom education provides. “The most likely explanation was that most people in the world just didn’t know they were allowed not to want kids,” she concludes. “Either that, or they were too unimaginative to think of anything else to do, or too-beaten down to do whatever it was they thought of.”
Batuman’s Either/Or picks up where her original kunstlerroman leaves off: Selin has returned to school after a confusing summer spent teaching English in Hungary and chasing her older crush Ivan, trying to make sense of her desires and the distance between what she has and what she wants. She becomes fixated with Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, after which Batuman titles her sequel, wherein Kierkegaard outlines both a case for an aesthetic life, defined by a pursuit of art and hedonistic pleasure, and an ethical life, anchored to marriage and family values. She sees herself and her friend Svetlana, who is eager to find a boyfriend and settle down, as embodying this split.
In pursuit of an aesthetic life, Selin ventures to her ancestral Turkey as a writer for Harvard’s student guidebook series Let’s Go, navigating Central Anatolia in much the same way she does college life: an earnest anthropologist eager to translate the mysterious ways of foreign inhabitants for her readers. She devours books as she pursues new lovers, undeterred by the potential for heartbreak; to try to escape the danger of love, she tells us, is “immature and anti-novelistic.”
For Selin, love is not about marriage or having children but artistic expression—it’s the stuff novels are made of. Kierkegaard compels Selin with the notion that she can dedicate herself to her writing: “it was the first time I had heard of an organizing principle or goal you could have for your life, other than making money and having kids,” she says. The pursuit of the novel—reading them, and living them, so as to write them—is Selin’s organizing principle.
In the autofictional Motherhood, Sheila Heti’s narrator meets a writer who refers to this divide between the aesthetic and ethical—or really, between mothers and nonmothers—as a civil war. This combat rages on, as evident in the self-reflexively titled book of essays Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, or when the Atlantic’s Elizabeth Breunig publishes an op-ed about how much she loves her children to massive backlash.
In Motherhood, Heti’s narrator is approaching 40 and wrestles with which side to take, returning to a similar organizing principle as Selin that “if no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented boyfriends. I would have invented sex, friendships, art. I would not have invented child-rearing.” Art, she concludes, can be a lot like motherhood—maybe she doesn’t need to have children because she’s an artist. If one’s impetus for childrearing is legacy, then art is sure to outlast any progeny. Her orthodox Jewish cousin has six children and she has six books, Heti’s narrator thinks, and her books are more honest distillations of herself than an independent human being ever could be.
We’re both childless, but Heti’s narrator is inching towards an age when she’ll no longer have to think about motherhood, when her body will have decided for her, and, at 24, I can feel myself barreling towards the path she didn’t choose. It feels like my body has already decided for me, when as soon as I turned 16 I found myself unable to keep my eyes off of little toes poking out of passing carriages or to stop myself from waving at the toddlers who pick at dandelions in the park across from my apartment.
Still, there’s a difference between knowing you want to have children and actually having them, and it was jarring to realize that now, with a stable job and partner, a surprise pregnancy wouldn’t be so scandalous. My mother had me when she was 29—that’s only 5 years away—but I feel like I’m really 19, Selin’s age, when the difference between the aesthetic and ethical is abstract and not a material question of whether to get married and yank out my IUD. I’m too young to feel like I’m running out of time.
I oscillate between ready and unready for a life as either/both an artist and/or future mother. It feels like there are endless permutations but really there are just four: do one, do the other, do both, do neither. If I spend too long thinking about it though both deadlines will slip by. If I don’t submit a draft I won’t be an artist, if I don’t get pregnant by 30 I won’t be a mother.
“The time-span of a woman’s life is about thirty years,” Heti writes. “Apparently, during these thirty years—fourteen to forty-four—everything must be done. She must find a man, make babies, start and accelerate her career, avoid diseases, and collect enough money in a private account so that her husband can’t gamble their life’s savings away. Thirty years is not enough time to live a whole life!” (194)
So really it comes down to time. And you only have time for a few boyfriends and a husband, or a lot of boyfriends but no husband. Boyfriends are a sort of currency; you can collect them, and in their multitude they accrue in value, where individually they might appear dubious but in unison they comprise a varied portfolio that attests to an interesting personhood.
Or you can invest in boyfriends, you can pick one or two and bet your life on them, you can even marry them, have children with them. There isn’t really time for both: Heti says you have thirty years, but to avoid risk you really have about 18 years, and that’s if you have boyfriends when you’re fourteen, which I didn’t. It’s not fair, for men it’s easier, Charlie Chaplin had kids when he was 73, but maybe that’s why historically men conquer nations and civilizations and erect hideous towers; they’re jealous of the worlds women can create inside themselves.
Can you live an aesthetic life, can you pursue art and beauty, with children? Will I count as an aesthetic woman if I outfit my children in Breton stripes and linen and force them into ballet? Miles, the boyfriend of Heti’s narrator, says that the role of the artist and the parent are at war with one another, that “one can either be a great artist and a mediocre parent, or the reverse, but not great at both, because both art and parenthood take all one’s time and attention.”
In the Norwegian film The Worst Person in the World, the third installment of director Joachim Trier’s “Oslo Trilogy,” Julie is a medical student-cum-psychologist-cum-photographer-cum-writer, who flits between careers like she does boyfriends, never able to reconcile her artistic pursuits with her romantic ones. One partner begs her to have his children but she resists, convinced that it would distract her from her work. In one of the film’s final scenes, Julie looks on at an ex who, despite having claimed not to want children, clings on to a baby, while Julie returns to her photography studio; the decision not to have children is one Julie has stuck with.
“Julie is made to be an either/or,” Annie Geng wrote for Gawker in a review of the film. “She is either dealing with these men, or thinking about her art.” We never get a sense of why exactly Julie can’t consider her art and motherhood at the same time, and the film suffers from letting this dichotomy go unexplained. Why love can’t inform her work? Maybe learning to surmount the tedium of a long-term relationship would strengthen Julie’s commitment to her art, and capturing difficult subjects would help her to look past the inevitable flaws in any partner. Women, including Heti, report to higher levels of joy and creativity when ovulating; sometimes I wonder how I could ever do something more creative than produce a child.
To dedicate oneself to writing, and to sex, friendships, and art, sounds romantic but impossible; in practice, boyfriends, people in general, can tell when they’re secondary to your narrative. The best way to survive in capitalism is to avoid obligations, not least because serious commitment is expensive: rent an apartment, work temporary contract jobs, go on as many Hinge dates as you can. Hook-up culture is the gig economy of the sexual marketplace, where relationships are transactional and fleeting and don’t come with benefits.
“You’re assuming that a lack of responsibilities make a person happy, and vice versa,” a friend tells Selin when they discuss procreation. “Are you happy? Maybe you would feel happier if you had more responsibilities.” A housekeeper tells Selin that you need children to take care of you in your old age, but she insists that she’d rather pay someone preexisting than to produce a free caretaker. Maybe motherhood is a mutual servitude in which you take care of your children until they take care of you.
In a mid-May interview with Heti on the podcast Red Scare, host Dasha Nekrasova posits that millennials are less likely to reproduce because they covet experiences, which children invariably interrupt. Coveting experiences is also an advertising category; Marketing Week advises companies to reach the 18-34 demographic by appealing to lifestyle support and well-being over possessions. Here, experience evokes the gaudiness of a themed pop-up bar or immersive exhibition that masquerade as meaningful interaction but amount to photo-ops, and yet, there are experiences, both trite and existential, that I don’t want to miss out on. I feel torn between two conflicting desires; to nest, save for a detached home, and share my notes app of baby names, or to move to a different country, to pursue a career that feels shameful to even admit to wanting.
I imagine that the responsibility of a child might render my work more meaningful, and I picture motherhood to be a delicate sort of autofiction; how difficult it must be not to put too much of yourself into your child, especially when you see your own eyes staring back at you.
Still, too unimaginative to think of anything else to do reverberates in my brain. Am I too timid to commit myself to a life dedicated to art? Much like Selin, I consume novels like guidebooks, and Batuman’s writing has the uncanny ability to pick at hidden wounds, in the same way I previously thought only a mother capable. Selin probably is right, I decide, but I still want kids. My boyfriend has a baby niece now, and I think that if I could spend all day petting her hair I’d feel more joy than any article or byline could ever bring. Motherhood seems nice because it’s maybe the least original experience in the world, and yet, no one else will ever have your baby.
For what it’s worth, Batuman herself no longer sees the aesthetic and ethical in conflict with one another, and told The New Yorker she now returns to Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” in which we are obligated to free both ourselves and others, a philosophy she feels is at once aesthetic and ethical. Kierkegaard says it doesn’t matter either way, giving a prescient 19th century rebuke to the women’s magazine’s eternal question: Can Women Really Have it All? “Do it or do not do it,” he writes. “You will regret both.”