Feeling Restless After The Ten-Year Nap

The Ten-Year Nap finds four friends, women who live in New York, contemplating the choices they made about parenting and professions. The four all gave up their careers about ten years ago (hence the title), and some regret the decision; others are comfortable with the lives they’ve chosen.

The Ten-Year Nap 

It’s a testament to the talents of Meg Wolitzer that even thought I didn’t care for this book, I still borrowed two more of her novels from my local library. She’s very, very funny — keep an eye out for Amy Lamb’s reaction to her son’s favored reading material.

The novel follows all four women, plus one more character who drives the plot, and then veers off to show vignettes in the lives of women related the main characters. I felt that the novel never settled, as if Ms. Wolitzer couldn’t decide which person she was most interested in exploring; there’s fodder here for two or three novels.

Another aggravation for me was the jacket copy (no surprise there), which described the characters as middle class. Um, no. Maybe two of them are middle class by New York standards, as my friend Katie pointed out, but by any other standard these women are wealthy, wealthy, wealthy, with the luxury of choosing whether or not to parent their children at home.

Occasionally they glance at the lives of the less fortunate. Roberta, for instance, flutters in and out of left-wing activism; at the private boys’ school attended by three of the friends’ sons, poor children of color are invited for a yearly visit that is halted after an incident (there’s not too much plot to give away here, but nonetheless, I refrain.). Even Jill, whose adopted daughter comes from an understaffed Russian orphanage, spends her mental energy focused on herself, without much thought for the other children left without adoptive parents.  I found these women unlikable, but I suspect Ms. Wolitzer is trying to point out foibles that we might find in ourselves: a tendency, no matter our political leanings, toward self-centeredness. We draw back from the world we see out the window.

The Ten Year-Nap also made me uncomfortable because it hits close to home. I’m the at-home parent to our son, and though he’s too small for school now, I do wonder what I will do, how I will feel, when he’s ten, or twelve, or fifteen. Even if I wanted to enter the workforce right now (I’m ambivalent, given H’s age), or go back to grad school to finish my PhD, we couldn’t afford it. Yes, you read that right. Daycare is so expensive here that it’s cheaper for me to stay home than to work as a teacher. And for other women the situation is reversed: they can’t afford not to work. As I often explain, it’s a complicated calculus, one that will probably hold for the next few years, though I hope not forever. I love my child and will do my best to see that he arrives safely at adulthood as a kind and loving person, and I think that’s a worthy goal, a worthy and difficult occupation. But I want to contribute something more to the world —not necessarily something better, just something more.

To me, The Ten-Year Nap implies that the women it follows had done something wrong, some disservice to themselves, by parenting their children at home. Even the title is diminutive, implying that the women are childish (not a rest or a sleep, but a nap). Maybe it’s the suggestion that these women are asleep to themselves that I find annoying; why can’t one be oneself and an at-home parent too?

Have you read the novel? What did you think?

Recommended Reading: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

A tip of the hat once more to my friend Katie, who pointed me toward Meg Wolitzer (Katie was, at the time, reading The Ten-Year Nap, and that’s on my list now, too!). The Wife is about a very unfunny subject —the unravelling of a marriage — but in Ms. Wolitzer’s capable hands, Joan (the wife in question) tells her story in darkly comic fashion.

Photo courtesy Tanatat / Freedigitalphotos.net

Photo courtesy Tanatat / Freedigitalphotos.net

Joan’s husband is the much-awarded novelist Joe Castleman, and when the novel opens, she’s made up her mind to leave him as they fly to Helsinki, where he’s to receive his latest accolade. From there, Joan takes the narrative back to Smith College in the 1950s, and we learn how the pair met, and just how it all went wrong.

As a narrator, Joan is simultaneously unreliable and honest, and always a keen observer, not only of her own marriage, but also of the changing world around her. Though The Wife was published ten years ago, Joan’s observations about the role of wives echo loudly, especially with the recent debates about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article on work-life balance in last summer’s Atlantic. Here’s Joan near the end of the novel:

Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream of blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life. (183)

Apparently, I’m not the first reader to love this passage; the page was dog-eared when I picked up the book.