The Choice Plot

Why are so many new novels obsessed with whether–and how–to have children?

Sanjena Sathian
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Imagined children loom over my life of late. They haunt nearly every conversation as my circle collectively wonders whether, when, and how to procreate. There is the friend weighing climate pessimism and a meager paycheck against his love of kids. The friend who watches graphic birthing videos as a form of contraception. The doctor friend, once eager for babies, who sees ectopic pregnancies and septic miscarriages and deems gestation too risky after Dobbs. The friend who worries he won’t be able to adopt as an unpartnered gay man. The child-free queer friends feeling betrayed by other queers’ baby fever. The friend who joins a “committee,” complete with Zoom calls and pitch decks, to help a single woman pick a sperm donor. The friend who keeps her abortion secret; it is a season of babies, not terminations. The friend whose miscarriage is so physically excruciating it makes her reconsider “trying” again. The friend freezing embryos as truce in a long battle with her husband: he is ready for children now; she may never want them. The friend freezing eggs who absconds to the bathroom at a wedding to administer her hormone shots.

Millennials did not invent waffling about reproduction, but we have put our generational spin on a familiar story. Twenty-first-century social norms and fertility technologies let us postpone childbearing; our equivocation is still further protracted because our reproductive years have been marked by recessions and envi­ronmental catastrophes, in light of which having kids can seem impossible or immoral. All this is to say nothing of the wild swings in our rights. I began my twenties in an age of procreative opti­mism, forty years after Roe v. Wade, when commercial egg freezing and gay marriage alike were new. I turned thirty months before the Supreme Court overturned Roe; threatened contraception, fertility treatments, and miscarriage care; and began to erode queer rights. The contemporary American paradox: we live in an age of medi­cally expanded but legally diminished choice.

Inevitably, in the United States and beyond, novelists are tak­ing up the dilemmas of twenty-first-century procreation. There has been a slew of recent novels about pregnancy and reproductive choice. Among the newest are Louisa Hall’s Reproduction (2023), about a Frankenstein-obsessed novelist’s pregnancy, and Ashley Wurzbacher’s How to Care for a Human Girl (2023), about two sisters who get pregnant simultaneously. Fiction is particularly suited to addressing the quandaries of choice. Interiority and free indirect discourse allow readers to gain intimacy with characters’ ambivalent worldviews, while scene and plot let writers dramatize multiple perspectives and eschew polemic. An ability to represent paradox may in fact be the novel’s greatest ethical power.

Of course, these contemporary books have ancestors. “The novel has long been a vessel for intense but paradoxical feelings about the question of creating new life,” writes critic Aaron Matz in The Novel and the Problem of New Life (2021), which examines literary representations of skepticism around reproduction. Such representations, Matz points out, appear in the nineteenth-century work of Gustave Flaubert and D. H. Lawrence and extend into the twentieth century in the novels of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing, among others.

In 2018, a new kind of book about choice arrived, heralding what we might call “the choice plot.” Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is a diaristic chronicle of a woman torn about whether to have a baby; seeking help with her decision, she turns to the I Ching and flips coins. (She decides against.) In Motherhood, the long-standing “procreative-skeptical strain” Matz identifies as a hallmark of fiction became a stand-alone subject. Motherhood split critics. Some saw it as navel-gazing, others as revelatory. Matz called Motherhood’s focus on one woman’s interior vacillation “airless,” and wondered, “Can an entire novel subsist on the basis of this theme?” The choice plot replies with a hearty yes. Because of course it can. In my friends’ discussions about childbearing lie the universal, fun­damental questions of fiction: of how to arrange a life, and how to make meaning of that life.

Choice plots, like Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby (2021) and Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born (2023), follow the process of decision-making about procreation: namely, whether, when, and how to bear children. These books linger in the increasingly prolonged period of choosing, treating it as a full, rich phase of life, rather than as a way station en route to some realer, more embodied existence. We become ourselves by negotiating medically, socially, romantically, and sexually, to bring about that adulthood. Our identities shift in relation to imagined children; conceiving our own lives is as vital and essential a process as conceiving, or not conceiving, a child.

The choice plot is capacious—options around parenthood are myriad—but one might divide novels of choice into four broad types, with some overlap: books about people who want children, which depict how one attempts to procreate today; books about people who are of two minds about childbearing; books about people who don’t want children, now or ever, which capture the challenges of crafting a child-free life; and books about the respon­sibilities of caretaking, even for those who do not parent.

As lawmakers privilege the “personhood” of a fetus above that of its parent, stories about the sundry selfhoods of people consid­ering procreation are radical because they show us how varied the routes to reproductive freedom are. Honoring the transformations we undergo in the process of choosing—even accepting that choos­ing is a process—is the first step in valuing the people we become on the other side of that choice.

the struggle to conceive is a subject as old as myth, but, as Matz writes, “The novel was once oblique, even silent, about the causes of reproduction.” That silence seems a conspicuous waste, since the causes of reproduction are rife with narrative possibilities, filled with relational dramas, shifting agency, personal evolution, and twists. Blood, ovulation calendars, turkey basters, sonograms, Clomid, progesterone, and the conversations we have about them form the fabric of our choosing. Choice plots, naturally, are highly voluble about the means of reproduction, whether the medicaliza­tion of procreation (as in Elisa Albert’s Human Blues [2022], about a musician navigating the fertility industrial complex) or non-normative family construction, as in Peters’s Detransition, Baby. If cultural narratives in the 2000s and 2010s tended to celebrate white, cis women having it all—think of the 2008 movie Baby Mama, in which Tina Fey plays a girlboss who hires a working-class woman (Amy Poehler) to be her surrogate—then today’s pop culture tends to champion queer people accessing that same plenitude of choice.

Detransition, Baby, like Heti’s Motherhood, never arrives at what its title suggests: an actual baby. Unfolding over eight weeks of a first-trimester pregnancy, the novel follows three characters: a trans woman named Reese who craves motherhood; her ex, Ames, who lived as a woman named Amy before detransitioning; and Ames’s new lover, Katrina, a cis woman unaware of Ames’s trans past. When Ames accidentally gets Katrina pregnant, he issues a proposition: he is willing to co-parent with Katrina only if they share the baby with Reese. Detransition, for Ames, has not been a renunciation of his trans identity; he is “a woman but not, a father but not.” Katrina has known him only as a man, but Reese still sees him as a woman, and will let him be a parent without forcing him to be a “father.”

Novels allow space for the many less-discussed deci­sions surrounding procreation.

Choice in Detransition, Baby, as in life, is complicated; it involves issues of awkward, unequal interdependence. Katrina wants a baby but does not want to parent alone. Her decisions hinge on a part­ner whose past comes as a surprise and a woman whom she has never met, while Reese’s dream of motherhood hinges on a cis stranger. As Ames says to Katrina: “You have no choice…And yet, the choice is yours.”

The possibility of children, even when unrealized, recasts us. In Detransition, Baby, the news of the pregnancy causes each char­acter to imagine how a baby might change their life. Ames sees an opportunity: “Every generation must reinvent parenting, and he, Reese, and Katrina, will be part of their own generational rein­vention.” He pitches Katrina and Reese on examples of queer fam­ily, such as a trans man and his cis boyfriend sharing a compound and two children with a lesbian couple. The vision tempts all three characters. Reese curbs some of her self-destructive tendencies— which previously included cheating on Amy. Katrina, a thirty-nine-year-old divorcée, reconsiders the heteronormative nuclear family. And Ames realizes he might need to go back to living as Amy.

In a painful yet honest twist, those transformations make this trio incompatible co-parents. Katrina schedules an abortion, deciding that if Ames might transition again, she cannot rely on him to be a stable partner. “I lost my baby…I had a miscarriage,” Reese says when she learns of Katrina’s plans. Reese considers the simultaneous truth and untruth of the statement: “Is this a lie?… is it really a lie?…Perhaps it was a trans version of a miscarriage.” For now, claiming loss, if not a baby, is as close as Reese gets to motherhood.

In our embattled political moment, “choice” is often reduced to what we see in headlines—the fundamental right to an abortion. But novels allow space for the many other, less-discussed, deci­sions surrounding procreation. Black feminists have for genera­tions argued that the right to parent is as essential as the right to not parent—to have an abortion—and that choice must be paired with a broader advocacy known as reproductive justice, a political strat­egy that includes abortion access alongside safety nets and rights for people who do want or who already have children. Choice plots, like that of Detransition, Baby, make an implicit political argument in favor of reproductive justice by portraying the reality of our interlocking, conflicting decisions. They remind us that choice, in a vacuum, is insufficient liberation.

the novel is the form “best suited to dramatizing and channeling vacillation and ambivalence,” as Matz writes, but ambivalence pres­ents an aesthetic challenge. Ambivalence is not often thought of as generative or dynamic; we see it as paralyzing and static. However, a novelist whose characters have doubts about reproduction must attempt to make a plot and structure out of ambivalence, and to find within that state something propagative.

Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind (2021) follows Dorothy, a precariously employed adjunct professor teaching a course called “Writing Apocalypse.” When the book opens, Dorothy has just had a miscarriage—“less than a trauma and more than an inconvenience”—and has been bleeding for days. The ambiguity of a truncated pregnancy haunts her. She struggles to find words for what happened inside her.

What happened, medically, was this: During her first trimester, the cells in her uterus had stopped developing, leading her doc­tor to prescribe the so-called abortion pill, which brings on labor.

This means that Dorothy simultaneously experiences loss, abor­tion, and labor, a morass that leaves her uncertain about how to even think about the experience, let alone discuss it with her friends or partner. Naming the event is nearly impossible. Dorothy finds it “embarrassing” and “disrespectful” to say she experienced labor pains, while calling her miscarriage an abortion feels both dishon­est and “a version of the truth.” (The linguistic predicament recalls Detransition, Baby’s Reese wondering if she can claim Katrina’s abortion as her miscarriage.) Without a vocabulary, Dorothy takes refuge in her undeciphered body, sniffing her blood-spotted panty liners, tasting her own excretions.

Because the political left, unlike the right, lacks a tidy narra­tive for her experience, Dorothy must interpret her physical and emotional state for herself. The right has a singular story of preg­nancy: Dorothy, who grew up around Christians holding protest signs featuring pictures of fetuses and chanting, “It’s a child, not a choice,” finds it odd that “the same women who were vocifer­ous defenders of abortion rights could festoon their refrigerators and social media feeds with fetal photography…If you wanted it, it was a baby and you could email it around to your friends; if you didn’t, it was an act of violence to be asked to look at it.” Dorothy finds this duality “overconfident.” There is no agreed-upon script, even among progressives, for pregnancy, let alone miscarriage. There are, instead, tenuous political coalitions that depend on that “overconfident” belief in an individual’s right to choose not just what to do with their body but also how to name what is happen­ing within their body. As Maggie Nelson puts it in The Argonauts (2015): “Feminists may never make a bumper sticker that says IT’S A CHOICE AND A CHILD, but of course that’s what it is.” Ambivalence makes for clunky political slogans, but rich novels.

The Life of the Mind doesn’t come to pat conclusions about Dorothy’s loss. In a transcendent set piece, it refuses answers with tragicomic pizzazz. When Dorothy goes to the doctor for a fol­low-up after the miscarriage, she requests a photo of her uterus, the kind of picture future parents hang on refrigerators—only hers will be an image of a uterus without a fetus. Dorothy finds her uterus “hard to read; it was like a map she couldn’t orient her­self to…In one sense, there was nothing in there…But it wouldn’t be right to call it empty.” That description could also apply to the uterus of a post-abortion patient or someone awaiting an embryo transfer. Whether Dorothy’s womb was ever filled with life, or just the possibility of life; whether it is now a space of grief or relief, depends on how Dorothy reads that photo. The morning after the miscarriage, Dorothy wakes into “a fabulous dawn rush…The rot had been flushed away and with it the dread; she was risen.” Then her partner, Rog, interrupts her ability to read that space for her­self; he believes her euphoria means that she “really didn’t want to have a baby.” Dorothy finds this binary—the notion that she either wanted or did not want what was inside her—unfair. Desires around motherhood are more mutable than Rog, or reproductive politics, allows.

The Life of the Mind and Detransition, Baby both close with an abortion. Dorothy’s friend Gaby gets pregnant for a second time. For most of the book, Gaby has been Dorothy’s inverse: wealthy, well-adjusted, and a mother. Although her first pregnancy was “a divine gift,” Gaby does not want a second child. (Most abortion seekers in America are mothers.) While terminating the pregnancy at home, Gaby sits in a womb chair, holding her infant son, and awaits the contractions. Gaby’s breezy confidence in her decision— she jokes about Instagramming the experience—is hilarious in its contrast to Dorothy’s neurotic grappling with language. “‘Isn’t it amazing,’ Gaby said, chewing the pretzel with her mouth open, insisting with her eyes that Dorothy agree, ‘that we have the power to choose?’” Yet even in this moment of feminist triumph, Dorothy fumbles with social etiquette. Should she make a gesture of “sol­idarity and sisterhood”? Or would that make “the moment more dramatic than it should be, if Gaby believed—correctly!—that ter­minating a pregnancy was NBD.” Dorothy cringes when she calls Gaby’s embryo a baby, yet she feels saying “abortion” in Gaby’s nursery would be “gauche.” At the end, the novel’s bequest is something more cathartic than finding precise vocabulary for mis­carriage, pregnancy, or abortion. It is an acceptance of the farce of attempting to name an experience that defies language.

last year, a twenty-something meddling desi-auntie in training shouted at me—actually shouted!—when she learned that I did not plan on having children. She objected not on political grounds, but imaginative ones: What, she demanded, would a life without kids look like? What satisfactions could lie on the other side of such a choice? As Rebecca Solnit writes in her Harper’s essay about choosing not to bear children, “The Mother of All Questions”: “The problem may be a literary one: we are given a single story line about what makes a good life.” It is these missing story lines that choice plot number three takes up—the one about people decid­ing not to have children, now or ever. These choice plots do not perform public relations on behalf of confidently childless women; rather, they depict women trapped within that single storyline, who are trying to author an alternative. Heti writes in Motherhood that “What holds me back is my actual freedom—my reluctance before the void. Reluctant to make my own meanings, in case I make them up badly.” This choice plot is an endless iteration of those possible meanings, depicting characters attempting, and often failing, to make their own meanings within what has long been considered a societal void: a childless woman’s life.

For thirty-four-year-old Shibata, the narrator of Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void (2022), the impossibility of creating another storyline is mildly comic. Shibata is a Tokyo office worker in Japan’s pro­natalist era, during which the government encourages work-life balance for women in an attempt to raise the birth rate. Pregnancy is a path toward being treated well by the state and colleagues alike. So, Shibata fakes it. Her lie begins on a whim. One day, confronted for the nth time by a mess of coffee cups and cigarette butts that her male colleagues have left for her to clean up, Shibata becomes fed up with the gendered task. She claims that the smells of coffee and smoke make her sick because she’s pregnant. The fib works; a man must perform the task in her stead. Here, pregnancy even elevates her above men.

A family, Shibata muses, might be about “creating an environ­ment in which people make space for one another—maybe without even trying, just naturally, to make sure that nobody’s forgotten.” Until she creates her own “pregnancy,” Shibata is forgotten; at the izakaya, her friends chat about their husbands and kids, ignoring her. At work, her labor feeds only “the void that was my belly.” She continues to lie about being pregnant because the fiction serves her. She becomes healthier, gaining weight because her boss allows her to leave the office at five to cook. She soaks for hours in the bathtub, opens a savings account for her “child’s education,” and makes friends at prenatal aerobics. (“How long had it been since I’d walked anywhere…with other women like this?”) Shibata envies the way pregnancy lends her immediate purpose and a com­munity, and longs to incubate something as publicly meaningful and transformative as a fetus: “I suddenly wanted something of my own, something to make space for. Even if it was just my own and no one else could even see it—something like a lie.”

Is it possible that representing people living one way can make space for other ways of living?

But Shibata’s cheeky fib is not just her own, because pregnancy is never private. It is also the business of the medical system, the state, and the male colleague who keeps advising her to adjust her diet. Under the pressure of those social forces, Shibata’s “preg­nancy” turns briefly surreal. The “baby” kicks. During an ultra­sound, Shibata sees a “little being in the shape of a person,” but, moments later, nothing more than “a sandstorm, bits of dust blow­ing all over the place.” The doctor, though, maintains that there is a fetus, seeing what a sexist society always wants to see: a baby filling the void of an “empty” uterus; a pregnant woman, not a childless one.

In the end, Shibata does not give birth, but enjoys maternity leave, studying for a real estate license during her months off. Returning to work, she passes off a stranger’s Instagram photos as those of her son. Like the bickering couple in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Shibata plays a game of pretend, which itself becomes procreative. She has brought a new life into this world: her own—but only by gaming the system, not escaping it.

i am often advised to make an easy peace with my disinterest in childbearing, to form a life without defining myself against other people’s choices. As Heti writes, “I don’t want ‘not a mother’ to be part of who I am—for my identity to be the negative of someone else’s positive identity.” Yet even if we do not have our own chil­dren, we are still frequently defined by other people’s, and in par­ticular by the “social responsibility” of raising children, as Angela Garbes puts it in Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change (2022). That social responsibility of caretaking is the concern of the final choice plot.

A prime example is Guadalupe Nettel’s International Booker Prize–nominated novel, Still Born, which follows two friends liv­ing in Mexico City. Both Laura, the narrator, and Alina have long been “convinced” that they will never have children; Laura, a free-spirited graduate student with a love of tarot and meditation, has even had her tubes tied. Then Alina surprises Laura by announc­ing that she does indeed want a child. The two women appear to be diverging. But instead of narrating only Laura’s story, the book oscillates between her first-person perspective and a tender, close-third-person account of Alina’s, thereby suggesting that the differ­ences in the women’s lives are not unbridgeable, and their stories still belong together.

Alina does get pregnant, but things go horribly wrong. In her seventh month, she learns that her future baby has microlissen­cephaly, a rare brain disorder that, the doctors tell her, will likely cause her child to be stillborn. “Mothers have no choice in the mat­ter,” Laura muses: biology tethers them to their child, while fathers come and go. Laura is not entirely correct: as a mother, Alina does have choices, but they are brutal ones. While other pregnant peo­ple choose cribs and strollers, she must choose between having an illegal third-trimester termination or carrying to term. She and her husband, Aurelio, opt for the latter, but that leads to more awful choices: picking a funeral parlor, selecting an urn, deciding who will sign the death paperwork.

When the baby, Inés, is born alive against all odds, Alina faces infinitely more unmapped choices: “a life in which everything was still to be invented.” Inés is blind and has limited mobility, but she can breastfeed. Laura says Inés resembles Alina. Alina, mean­while, is distraught. She prepared for death, not life. Hauntingly, just before Alina leaves the hospital with Inés, a physician prof­fers a vial of medicine that would end the baby’s life painlessly and without a trace. “Wait and see how she develops and how you feel with her,” the doctor advises. The doctor makes possible the most unthinkable choice: raise a child (and become one of the moth­ers Laura feared Alina could turn into—“those creatures with no life of their own”) or kill her. The fatal medicine reminds us that even after a child arrives, ambivalence—not only about choices, but about the sacrifice that caretaking demands—looms over many mothers’ lives.

Still Born toggles between Laura’s quiet days spent writing her dissertation and Alina’s higher-drama story of motherhood. The two characters initially present as neat opposites, even types: the independent, childless woman and the burdened, martyred mother. But Laura’s freedom becomes complicated when she develops a relationship with her neighbors, a depressed woman named Doris and her sometimes violent son Nicolás, whom Doris struggles to love, in part because Nicolás resembles his abusive father. (Doris’s name may be a nod to the novelist Doris Lessing, who left two of her children, though she raised a third.) When Laura learns that Nicolás is often unfed and locked indoors, she takes him on outings to Chapultepec Park, makes him sandwiches, and adopts a caregiver role that many people are eager to force on childless women.

Laura, like Alina, technically has a choice about whether to care for a child. Indeed, Laura’s choice appears simpler than Alina’s: she has no biological obligation to Doris’s son. But it is difficult to ignore the blatant suffering of a hungry child next door. Nonetheless, though Laura takes care of Nicolás, she does not discover a sudden font of maternal love eroding her frigid spinsterhood.

Culturally, many exalt Alina’s sacrificial mode—a mother yield­ing everything to her baby. But Nettel celebrates, in Laura’s story, an alternate mode of care, beyond mothering children: tending to one’s own peers. When Doris decides to send Nicolás away, Laura is conflicted; though she worries about Nicolás’s fate, she knows that Doris, healing from an abusive relationship and battling alco­holism, needs care, too. In the novel’s final pages, Laura drops Nicolás at the bus station to make a long, dangerous ride alone, to a relative’s house. Then she returns home to Doris and the two have sex. Each claims she isn’t queer. “I guess it doesn’t have a name,” Laura says of what transpired between them. Laura and Doris’s sex is not procreative. It’s also not the loving cornerstone of a queer family. Their togetherness is not justified in relation to a younger generation; it isn’t about making anything new, but about accept­ing what is already here.

As the narrator of the book, Laura also provides this kind of care for Alina, by braiding her friend’s story with her own. Nettel’s decision to intertwine Alina’s and Laura’s plotlines recalls one of Heti’s reflections in Motherhood: “Living one way is not a criticism of every other way of living.” The choice plot may take that notion one step further: is it possible that representing people living one way can in fact make space for other ways of living? Novels of choice—including and especially the ones that do not end in child­bearing—may actually make space for mothers and non-mothers to speak more authentically to each other about our value beyond our procreative capacity.

There has recently been a revival of a 1970s anthropological theory known as matrescence: the idea that becoming a mother is a coming-of-age transition, the entrance into a new stage of life, like adolescence. Another metamorphosis precedes matres­cence, though, for all of us who pass through this phase of trying or choosing. Some of us are altered bodily during that phase—by hormones, terminations, and losses. Others are transformed imag­inatively. The choice plot suggests that we are all always coming of age, with every successive decision and every act of imagination, whether we have children or not.

Sanjena Sathian is the author of the novel Gold Diggers. Her fiction and essays also appear in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Drift, and elsewhere. She teaches at Emory University.
Originally published:
September 18, 2023


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