Baby vs. Career: The Ten-Year Nap’s author on whether to work or stay home.Meg Wolitzer
Mothers and fathers of babies: I know from my own experience that it may sometimes seem freakish to imagine your children big, and entirely separate from you, and to thusly imagine yourself big (by which I mean oldish), and separate too. Early parenthood is, among other things, a time of merging, to use therapeutic parlance. Skin meets skin, sensual pleasures abound, the family bed is the nerve center of the household. My husband and I used to lie in bed with our baby and say to each other: One day this baby will come swaggering into this room on his own steam. We laughed out loud at the absurdity of this fantasy, and all we could picture was a gigantic baby, like Diane Arbus’s “Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents”-someone who was exceedingly tall, yet still sweet-skinned and peach-bald – hulking into the room. Truthfully, we could not really picture him changed, partly grown. We could not imagine time passing. We could not imagine a later.
But there was a later, of course. There was, it seemed, a ten-years later. The baby lost that babiness and did walk, then swaggered. And all the other babies in my midst did, too. And along with that, some of their mothers began to think about their own lives with more focus than they had in years. What’s next for me? asked some of them, women I knew who had stopped working, or had put aside their work ambitions for a while, or who had realized, partly through the powerful experience of motherhood, that they had never been passionate about the corporate world they had once given so much of themselves to. Watching all of this – paying attention to the period of time between when your child is born and when he or she is solidly out in the world – the idea for my novel The Ten-Year Nap slowly formed.
It seemed to me that in choosing to write a novel about a group of women who stop working after their children are born – and who suddenly, in a “Sunrise, Sunset” moment, find that ten years have passed and they’re now experiencing varying degrees of ambivalence about returning to work – I understood that I was entering territory that was volatile and strange but highly familiar to many readers. Everyone I knew had had strong and sometimes strongly-worded conversations about their own lives and the lives of others. Everyone had a very specific story to tell. And some of their stories had been told in non-fiction books that took a stand on the issue: yes, women ought to go back to work because of the following reasons, or else: no, it was no one’s business but their own, and so forth. But I had not seen these stories written about in fiction form, except in the kind of novels that perhaps had illustrations of a stork carrying a briefcase on the cover, and took a lighthearted (if mean-spirited) look at crazy stay-at-home mothers and overzealous female executives who had kids they spent absolutely no time with. Everyone in those novels would probably be slightly mocked. No one would get a fair shake.
I decided, when I was writing The Ten-Year Nap, that it wasn’t my place here to take a stand about work, or to make fun of anyone. Instead, I would try to write what I had seen, would try to distill some of the conversations I’d had with other mothers about work and money and love and passion and ambition, and put them in a novel that would take motherhood and work seriously and treat them as topics of worth. I knew it was not fashionable to write in a literary way about mothers and children. Right away, it was as though you were putting a hex sign on the cover of your novel, saying, in essence: Men, Stay Away! Read books by Cormac McCarthy instead! But it galled me that while both men and women would read about the lives of men, only women, it seemed, would read about the lives of women. Of course,what goes on in the home is as essential to learning about a culture as what goes in the workplace.
For a long time, I think I had been somewhat judgmental about women who stayed at home. I went by the easy assumption that someone who worked was by nature more interesting than someone who didn’t. But really, I came to see both as I wrote and as I lived in the world: if you are seated at a dinner next to someone who works in marketing at Revlon, say, will you definitely have a better time than if you were seated next to someone who stays at home? Suddenly, I knew this wasn’t all clear-cut, and I knew that it wasn’t my place to create a hierarchy of worthiness. That’s a polemicist’s job, not a novelist’s.
Work itself doesn’t make you interesting, I saw, though interesting work can. My notion of “work” in this novel centers as much on the concept of “purpose” as it does on the notion of money-making employment. The characters in The Ten-Year Nap have to make decisions about whether to stay home or go back to work, and their decisions are reached through various complex processes, some financial, some about that dreaded 1970s word “fulfillment.”
These characters in fact have a luxury to consider these matters in a way that most women in America do not. I was very aware of this disparity, and in certain ways the book became a novel about class. But even though I think the most concentrated drama about this topic takes place within a narrow band of society, (and I set my novel in New York City, to heighten that idea), ideas about staying at home versus going back to work do bleed into the lives of many women in different kinds of places around the country, for whom ideas of work and motherhood remain shifting and tricky and ongoing, to some degree or another.
For me, work and motherhood have been deeply entwined. I’d been a novelist since college, Work itself doesn’t make you interesting, I saw, though interesting work can. when I sold my first book for $5000 and headed out into the nebulous and small-potatoes world of being a fiction writer. I had no family money, no secret reserves of cash that would cover my rent. But back then, in the beginning of adult life, I didn’t care that I had very little money. My expenses were few. I went out in large groups of friends for cheap Indian food at night. We were all working, working, and none of us were thinking about babies. Then, in a kind of “Sunrise, Sunset” moment, suddenly time had passed and our children were born. I watched as friends who had had great careers or big or tedious jobs they disliked let work deliberately fall to the side, focusing happily if sometimes anxiously on their babies, and on the present moment.
And then, those big ten years passed. (Incidentally, though I called my novel The Ten-Year Nap, I certainly don’t think most women are idle during that period. But there is in fact a dreamlike quality to the intense early years of mother and baby, and there is also frequently a sensation of “waking up” to the idea of something new, once your “baby” is no longer remotely a baby.) I wanted to write about a very important sweep of time that I had observed in the middle of life, and so the novel came out of that desire. It may seem, to the mothers and fathers of little babies who are even now pressed against you in an idyll of oneness, that none of this may ever be your own experience. It may seem – and it may even be true – that somehow parenthood and work and desire and ambition and money and sexual equality will all fall gently and evenly and unambivalently around you like a soft snow. I think I once thought that too. But the novelist in me is glad it wasn’t true.