I was in my car when I heard Meg Wolitzer on NPR discussing her new novel, The Ten Year Nap. For a weird second, it seemed like I was talking on the radio, but that was impossible because I was in my car, swerving inappropriately into other people’s lanes. Wolitzer was definitely talking about my life-the life of a woman who quit working to stay home with the kids. I dug around for a pen, and scribbled the title of the book on an old bank receipt.
I went straight home and ordered the book. The Ten Year Nap follows a group of women who put careers on hold to be stay-at-home moms. But, Wolitzer doesn’t write about that initial decision that comes as such a shock to many modern new moms who find themselves embracing what we thought was an old-fashioned notion of motherhood. Instead she focuses on a later stage of motherhood, when the infants have become school-aged, and what was meant to be a temporary situation begins to feel disturbingly permanent. Wolitzer examines the moment when the mother comes up for air, catches her breath, and figures out how to become comfortable in her own skin again. I responded as strongly as I did to Wolitzer’s book because I am a mother who quit working to raise a child. I was desperate to read The Ten Year Nap because I hoped to find some explanation or justification for the decisions I’ve made. Honestly, I was hoping the book would confirm that what I was doing was smart and worthwhile.
Wolitzer’s book, though, doesn’t take sides in the work-home debate. What it does do is elevate the debate by treating the subject intelligently, with wry humor, and a certain amount of contemplative reverence. It is a fairly realistic paean to the confusing mess of feelings that go along with modern motherhood. The women in the novel, each in their own way, are experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis. One central character, Amy, gave up a law career ten years earlier and now worries that she’s too out-of-date to go back to work. She’s also coming to grips with the financial toll the decision to stay at home has had on her family. Amy’s best friend, Jill, chose to stay at home to raise her adopted daughter with whom she is disturbingly unable to bond. Isolated in her new suburban home, Amy struggles to reconcile her expectations with her real life. The barrier-busting feminists from the early days of the women’s lib movement are represented in the character of Amy’s mother, Antonia. In a way, Antonia and her group of aging feminists seem almost as dated as a group of June Clever moms. Yet Amy can’t help wondering if, in making her decision to quit working, she has turned her back on the hard-fought gains made by women like her mother. Is a woman who quits work to raise children backsliding? It’s a question many women struggle to answer.
When I entered the work world in the 1980’s, women executives tied little scarves around their necks in a strange homage to men’s neckties. Female veterans of the workplace warned of the danger of appearing too feminine. We should never coo over pictures of other people’s children and should never bring baked goods to office parties. God forbid anyone should visualize us in the kitchen with a mixer and an oven mitt. We were wedging our way into what had been an exclusively man’s world by mimicking as closely as possible the successful man. What our strategy failed to consider was that by modeling ourselves on men, we became conspirators in further diminishing the value of work traditionally considered “women’s.” If the feminist movement was about “self-actualization,” it has failed women who choose home over work. Women have gained status in the work world. But women who discover they want to stay home with their children can’t shake the feeling that they are somehow settling for less than they should.
If men and women were valued equally, there would be equal numbers of men and women choosing home over work. Clearly that is not the case. The Ten Year Nap illustrates how intensely personal these decisions are. It also reflects the biases that still remain in play between men and women. The decision to return to work or stay home with a child depends, not just on unique personal factors, but also on perceptions. Real parity between the sexes isn’t possible until both sexes perceive both kinds of work as equally valuable.