THE TEN-YEAR NAP
By Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead, 351 pages, $24.95
I loved Meg Wolitzer’s previous novels The Wife (2003) and The Position (2005), but when I told a friend that her new book, The Ten-Year Nap, was about stay-at-home mothers who lamented their old selves, and my friend said, “Disenchanted mommies—it’s so cliché to be one now,” I knew she had a point. (She then added, “For the record, I was whining about motherhood before it was cool.”)
The four female protagonists in The Ten-Year Nap don’t so much whine as wonder, somewhat naïvely, how they wound up abandoning their dreams, or at least their careers, to wade into the deceptively placid waters of round-the-clock domesticity. Being a full-time mother is a job for which they are vastly overqualified (as are most women these days) but for which they nonetheless marshal their energies like CEO’s. “You, the brainy, restless female, were the one who had to keep your family life rolling forward like a tank. You, of all people, were in charge of snacks,” thinks one of them. “Your hands tore apart the cellophane on six-packs of juice boxes, while your head cocked to hold a cordless phone into which you spoke the words, ‘Maureen? Hi, it’s Mason Buckner’s mom. I’m calling to set up a playdate with Jared.’ You had to say ‘playdate’—that nonword that had been so easily welcomed into the lexicon—and you had to say it without irony.”
Much has been written, both fictional and non-, about the compromised position of mothers in the 21st century. Rachel Cusk, Allison Pearson, Judith Warner, Linda Hirshman, Leslie Bennetts have all brought their own particular insight to the muddle that is modern motherhood. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s no room for more on the subject, but it raises the bar higher.
And unfortunately, though Ms. Wolitzer’s light-handed satire is always a pleasure to read, the women in The Ten-Year Nap represent such a broad spectrum that the novel winds up feeling at once relevant and diffuse.
There’s Amy, a lawyer-turned-SAHM, despite the fact that her mother held feminist consciousness-raising groups in her living room in the 1970’s; Roberta, who didn’t so much reject her former life as an artist but tire of the constant struggle it entailed; Jill, a former academic who got derailed when her dissertation was rejected; and Karen, the daughter of Asian immigrants and quant jock who doesn’t regret her decision to leave her high-paying analyst job to look after her twin boys one bit.
The SAHM’s compare themselves to the WM’s, especially to Penny Ramsey—mother of three and museum director—of whom they are in particular awe. The men, meanwhile, are semi-present in the whole exhausting venture. “The husbands they lived with were part past, part future. They were not the future itself. They were not, apparently, the fruits of feminism, offered up to the daughters of its founders as a perfect gift.”
Ms. Wolitzer, who is gentle and nonjudgmental with her main characters, sends three of the four back to work, although in lesser capacities—the price paid for the decision to opt out. As the authorial voice in The Ten-Year Nap notes, with a sigh of resignation, “Change always required slightly longer than a generation.”
Ruth Davis Konigsberg is a contributing writer for Elle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.