Review of The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer, modern fiction.
The first 25 pages of The Ten-Year Nap made me think that the nap is about staying at home with your children, and that waking up from that nap means going back into the paid workforce. I thought this book was going to be a wry exploration of why and how upper-middle-class women in Manhattan stayed home with their kids, and when they'd finally come to their senses or bow to social or financial pressure to go back.
But, oh, did I underestimate it. Wolitzer's book is, in fact, a wry exploration of the fears and resignation and daze middle class and upper-middle class women walk around with all the time. The nap is actually this tunnel you wander into when you become a mother and all you need or can give is love and attention to mundane, minute detail.
Wolitzer's four main characters are all SAHMs, and we get to see things from each of their points of view at different times in the book. They each have different issues, but all are struggling with what their mission in life is. How their passions have shifted or stayed the same, and what they should be focusing on now that their children don't need them on a minute-by-minute basis anymore.
I think she could just as easily have written the book about a group of four WOHMs. The things they talked about might have shifted slightly from the conversations of the SAHMs, but the essence of their worries would stay the same: Am I good enough mother? Am I loving my children the best I can? Who am I? Am I living up to my potential? When will this end? If I ran into my 17-year-old self, how could I possibly face her?
I was a little surprised that Wolitzer didn't give us more of the points of view of the two WOHM characters mentioned most often in the book, but perhaps that would have messed with the narrative arc. In contrast to, oh, almost every other book I've ever read about Manhattan mothers and the majority of popular fiction about mothers in general, Wolitzer's characters don't actually resent each other for their work-life choices. Instead, they're nuanced enough to admit that they don't feel in complete control of their own lives and working situations for the most part, but far enough removed from the crucible of the infant-toddler years not to have their deflector shields up all the time. Not to each other, necessarily, but we get to see their insecurities and victories, so we get a richer picture of each woman than most modern fiction about mothers-and-work allows.
I was right that the book is wry. Wry and laugh-out-loud funny. Wolitzer has Barbara Pym-like observation skills, and has created this world that's just like reality, only with different brand names and details. There's a scene in the coffee shop that made me gasp with horrified laughter the same way I did during the liver scene in Portnoy's Complaint*. There's sadness and loss and disappointment and resignation in this book, but also fierce love and acceptance and a burnished sort of comfort.
This is the money shot of the book:
"You stayed around your children as long as you could, inhaling the ambient gold shavings of their childhood, and at the last minute you tried to see them off into life and hoped that the little piece of time you'd given them was enough to prevent them from one day feeling lonely and afraid and hopeless. You wouldn't know the outcome for a long time."
I really, really recommend this book, especially for women who have kids kindergarten age or above, or who are starting to look around at their friends and wonder, "Wait a minute! How did we get here, exactly?"
(When you do read the book, please go talk about it at the MotherTalk Book Club.)
Can we talk about one of the central themes of the book, that everyone's "supposed" to be passionate about something according to society, and what if you've never found that thing, or are no longer passionate about something that you once loved? My mentor (back before I realized she was going to be my mentor) told me that motherhood had galvanized her, and that she could see that it had galvanized me, too. She was absolutely right --before children I was lost and diffuse, with many things I was interested in but nothing I was passionate about. Having children changed me, and focused me. But I don't think it's the same for all of us.
What has happened to you? Are you more focused or less focused (don't answer this if your child is still waking at night!)? Have your priorities changed more than you expected? Do the things you used to love still thrill you, or have different things inserted themselves into your psyche?
* I'm not linking to Portnoy's Complaint because I despise the book and think it's a horrible reflection on the '60s that people thought such a misogynistic, anti-semitic piece of insipidness was "a humorous classic."