The M Word, ed. Kerry Clare, and Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

July 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Possibly the most surprising thing a woman with no children can learn from a woman with children is that the ambivalence never leaves. The childless (or child-free) woman must therefore re-evaluate her conception of her own position as nuanced and that of the mother (or child-encumbered woman) as necessarily simplistic. From purely anecdotal evidence it seems to me that far from disappearing on the birth of a baby, ambivalence might well be the defining feature of parenthood, and of motherhood in particular (fathers in general still having fewer compartments of their life that are affected by the fact of having children).

Children or art? It seems like a tough choice. Having it all is reserved for people who have “real” jobs, not the kind of vocation in which paying for daycare to allow the writing of an as yet financially uncompensated book can seem like expensive vanity. Many of the essays in The M Word, a collection by established and emerging writers edited by Kerry Clare, address the intersection of motherhood and writing, which might also be described as the intersection of motherhood and selfhood.

m word

Several essays deal with this forked road, “children” signposted one way and “writing career” signposted the other. I would have liked—no, I would like very much in a further volume of this extremely interesting book—to see whether this ambivalence and hesitation is widespread across society. What about women who start their own businesses in non-creative industries: selling clothes, party-planning, inventing useful products that fill needs, and are patronisingly labelled mompreneurs? Is it a question of time-management/time-insufficiency as a freelancer or self-employed person? Or do doctors and lawyers (or should we call them momdocs or momyers?) feel the same professional panic too, whether related or not to mat leave–induced career-flatlining? What about teachers, secretaries, shop owners, farmers, civil servants, hairdressers? Is the shock of motherhood a double blow to a writer because her career/vocation is so entangled with the self in a way that doesn’t happen if you have a job you go to at set hours? Does religion make a difference—if you have always believed your role as a woman is to nurture children, is the transition easier? And indeed the experience of men: do they notice or experience such a binary split between parents and non-parents?

Some of the writers in this collection have more reason than others to feel stationed far outside maternity’s central zone, as Kerry Clare’s introduction puts it: women who become stepmothers without having had children of their own; women who either by design or circumstance raise and bear children alone; women who either by design or circumstance have no children; women raising children with a female partner. Then there are the women who have had abortions, or had their babies adopted, or had their children (yes, plural) die. These open-hearted essays are all fascinating and absorbing, and sometimes heartbreaking. Ultimately these writers are speaking, as they take care to point out, for no one but themselves, and they do it tremendously well.

The main message I took away from The M Word is that being a mother can be desperately awful and pretty wonderful. Also that not being a mother can be desperately awful and pretty wonderful. The ratio of awfulness to wonderfulness is often but not always related to the strength of your original desire to reproduce or to remain childless, and to whether your ultimate fate aligns with this. Motherhood–many different, dark, unspoken aspects of it–is no fairytale even when it does have a happy ending. Ambivalence climbs the intertwined helical strands of maternal feeling and artistic ambition like a voracious vine, clinging, powerful. Being a mother heightens emotional extremes (despair to joy and back again dozens of times a day) while muting actual life extremes (possibility of adventure, spontaneity, freedom from responsibility).


Having read all these essays, it was fascinating to turn immediately to Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation. Described as a portrait of a marriage by some blurbs, it seemed, given my recent immersion in stories of parenthood, more a portrait of how having a child changes everything: minds, relationships, careers, people.

I’m not going to write about the book here, but there were so many brilliant quotes that I want to share just a couple, because Offill manages to convey the most painful of truths in the most exquisite ways.

‘A boy who is pure of heart comes over for dinner. One of the women who is dabbling with being young again brings him. He holds himself stiffly and permits himself only the smallest of smiles at our jokes. He is ten years younger than we are, alert to any sign of compromise or dead-ending within us. “You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones,” someone says after the boy who is pure of heart leaves.’

‘My Very Educated Mother Just Serves Us Noodles. This is the mnemonic they give [my daughter] to remember the names of the planets.’

‘How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.’

Dept of Speculation is a wonderful novel about getting older and losing that brief and mostly illusory freedom that children believe all adults enjoy. I’ve seen several bloggers suggest it for the Booker longlist; I do hope it will be there.

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