Meg Wolitzer on motherhood and meaning
First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes someone in a baby carriage, but what comes, say, 10 years later? A midlife crisis? In her smart new novel, The Ten-Year Nap, Meg Wolitzer explores this question through the interlaced stories of a group of women who abandoned their careers (in law, academia and the arts) to practice full-time parenting. Now a decade into it, these New York mothers find themselves reassessing their choices with an eye towards the future.
As in her seven previous novels, including The Position, The Wife and Surrender, Dorothy, Wolitzer demonstrates her powers of keen observation and razor-sharp wit. The Ten-Year Nap is a perceptive, compassionate and entertaining look at the choices we make and the ever-evolving ways in which we define ourselves. And Wolitzer accomplishes all of this while withholding judgment on the decisions made by her characters.
The four protagonists—Amy, Karen, Jill and Roberta—meet daily at a cafe called The Golden Horn. It is there that they find the support and camaraderie that, as any mother knows, is essential to navigating those golden early years of motherhood. But now that their kids are becoming increasingly independent, they feel the tectonic plates of their world begin to shift. Having long ago given up the careers that defined them in favor of full-immersion motherhood, they find themselves somewhat at sea. "There is some kind of taking stock that just innately takes place. You see the life cycle in your child happening, and it almost stirs that in you," Wolitzer says during a morning call to her New York apartment.
There are many nonfiction books in the ongoing dialogue between mothers who opt out of work and mothers who return to it, but, as Wolitzer points out, those books usually have an agenda and can only hint at the complexities of women's lives. "It's tiring for women to have to look at their lives as a nonfiction article because no one's life is like that," she says. In writing this novel, she wanted to approach the topic objectively through the lives of her characters. "To be reductive about anyone's choice is a mistake. I wanted to write this novel as a way to examine the multiple reasons women stay away or want to go back." And she's well aware that she is writing about and for women of a certain demographic, those who are indeed fortunate enough to have a choice in the matter at all. "The book takes place within a narrow band of society; the women have the option to stay home, most people don't."
Wolitzer says her interest in this issue began when she met other mothers through her children, now teenagers. "I was surprised to find women who had stopped doing what they did, or didn't know what they wanted to do, because I'm in an unusual position as a writer. I've been both home with my kids and working, and there are very few jobs that allow you that. I basically got to see both worlds, the world of motherhood and the world of work," she says. "I wanted to show the tensions between motherhood and ambition and work and vulnerability in as broad a way as I could."
It should be noted that to Wolitzer, ambition isn't a dirty word, one that should be spoken of in a hushed tones like some unseemly affliction (as in "She has . . . [stage whisper] ambition.") She notes how in our culture, specifically in the current political campaign, it gets a bad rap—ambitiousness is a quality revered in men but reviled in women, the scarlet "A" of our era. Wolitzer, however, chooses to embrace it. (No surprise, since it does take a certain amount of drive to write eight novels, the first straight out of college.) "Even for strong women, there's a fear about what that word says."
Wolitzer came of age in the 1970s, a period, she jokes, that she can't seem to stay away from in her fiction. Raised during the era of women's lib and conscious-raising groups, she was bewildered when she had kids and discovered that everyone wasn't trying to "have it all." She didn't have to look far for encouragement because her mother, Hilma Wolitzer, is also a novelist. Though fortunate to have the unique perspective of a writer and writer's daughter, Wolitzer admits that her situation isn't perfect. "Children are narcissists. They want what's good for them. A writer wants what's good for her. It's not ideal, and sometimes you cut corners. Children just want you to be theirs." She adds, "The notion of feminism that said you can have it all, that didn't turn out to be true really. Change takes a generation and a half."
Wolitzer says that she's never understood why writing about motherhood is seen as soft. "That's crazy to me," she laughs. In her capable hands, it is anything but. She manages to write poignantly about motherhood without being sentimental or mawkish. It is easy, she says, to veer towards the satiric, a route she didn't want to take. She insists that she did not set out to lampoon the stay-at-home mom, though admits that "there's satire to be mined in the over-involved mother." Of course, it wouldn't be a Meg Wolitzer novel if she didn't have some fun along the way, as in the chapter where a former corporate mom approaches a school meeting with boardroom intensity. Wolitzer is more interested in what would make someone behave that way and suggests that, in this case, it is perhaps because that mother doesn't know what to do next.
Motherhood, she suggests, is a series of necessary, albeit heart-wrenching, letting-gos. Wolitzer says she has moved through "great pockets of grief about it," but adds that, though the bond between mother and child is a powerful thing, "the letting go is equally profound."
"You've done your job because they're in the world. I think for women who have not started to think about 'what now?' - whatever that is - it's hard for them to let go of the hand of that child." She offers this poetic analogy: "It's like a big square dance, the partner, the child, moves away, and you have to make a new formation."
Katherine Wyrick is a writer and mother in Little Rock.