Feminism and The Ten Year Nap

ImageMeg Wolitzer wrote an acclaimed, lauded, best-seller, The Ten Year Nap, which, in a nutshell, delivers what it promises. (Haha.) Her characters are all stay-at-home moms who were once promising in their careers but left them for one reason or another for early child rearing. Now, their children have grown, they’re not needed as much as they once were, and the mothers are left with the shambles of their personal and professional lives. The novel begins with all the women waking up, an obvious metaphor: Who am I? What have I become? What am I doing with my life? Am I happy? To answer: no one, nothing, nothing, no. I found this novel boring and I found a great many of the characters chokable. (That’s not to say that I didn’t identify with all of them (in a way).) This novel honestly portrays the choice to stay home, but even more to the point, it does raise some very important questions concerning feminism today. So let’s descend into the Mommy Wars.

Wolitzer has said that she in no way wanted to judge or promote one particular side. She just wanted to write a novel about high powered, smart and talented women–upper class white women–living in New York, who decide to forgo “it all” and raise their children. Many, including myself, do not want to place their babies in daycare. 3 out of 4 of these women are in a place where they can afford to live off one parent’s salary. In mine and Roberta’s case, whatever job we could get with our MFA degrees is not going to cover the cost of daycare, and keeping one parent at home is actually more feasible. I’m not against daycare, but I am happy that I was able to spend my daughter’s first two years at home with her.

In The Ten Year Nap, these women are miserable, pathetic even, some are basically children plugging their ears when they hear something unpleasant and are too afraid to even open the bills. Rather than becoming domestic queens of their domiciles, they’re reduced to whiny ash. Their dreams, once bright and open, have decayed into bitterness. They wake up realizing that they’re failures. (Not with their children: they’re happy, growing, flourishing even, but we get the impression that this doesn’t really matter, is beside the novel’s point. Not wanting to take a side, indeed.) We don’t get to see those early sleepless diaper strewn days. We see them with oodles of free time while their kids are at school. We see them sitting and bitching at the diner, attending job interviews for their own sake (since, miraculously, they’re often offered the jobs but never take them. In what economy, I ask? The economy right before the financial collapse…), and just generally moping and hanging out with their friends. The painter doesn’t paint. The writer doesn’t writer. The number cruncher, the happiest one, crunches numbers but not for money, and our ipso facto protagonist, Ms. Amy Lamb, is the worst of the clique.

Amy’s mother is a flag-waving feminist. One day she woke up, saw that her lot was bullshit and started holding consciousness raising meetings with other dissatisfied women. She followed her passion and became a successful novelist. She fought, she paved, and now she quietly disapproves of her daughter’s lifestyle choices, but she stays out of the novel’s limelight for the most part. I wanted more, but I always want more of the grit, more of the real. More of the Freudian.

I wanted the ladies to really jump into the rabbit hole of their depressions. I wanted to see their raw, dark, sexual, desperate sides. I wanted warts and all. Instead I got a general graying of feeling. Everything became tainted in meh.

Wolitzer’s observations, however, were poignant. Men today are helping more with child rearing. They’re changing diapers, walking kids to school, helping with homework, all that jazz. However, there’s still an imbalance. Men are far, FAR less likely to stay home with the kids. Society puts too much pressure on them–pressure to work and succeed–that they couldn’t even conceive of dropping out. They also, because inequality is still rampant, make more money. It makes sense for the lesser earner (and the “natural nurturer” and the food supply…) to stay back. Also, many men just find kids boring. (Those assholes who want to make ‘em but then have so little to do with them.) Here, the husbands are saintly but kind of dopey. But most importantly, they’re all bankers, lawyers, or corporate sharks. Except for Roberta’s husband. I couldn’t get past their social status, but they’re supposed to be Joe Six-pack. Because all men are alike. Amirite, ladies? Men be stooopid.

How many times, someone remarked, had you seen a man pushing a stroller, and then you looked down and noticed that the baby was wearing only one sock. “Wait up! Wait up!” a female passerby would call from farther back from the street, running toward the man and child with the teeny rogue sock in hand.

But such characterizations weren’t accurate, someone else said. And even if they are, the deficits weren’t fatal. It wasn’t as if these men would take their children out naked in the winter and drop them in the woods. It wasn’t as if they would starve them. But the husbands they lived with were part past, part future.

She then goes on to say the thirty-something year old husbands were so lithe and beautiful staying at home with the kids while the wives worked. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Sure, some, but oh my god, not enough to stamp it equal. This novel is considered funny, but often, like tawdry newlywed game jokes, the humor lies in pointing out insufferable gender stereotypes.

So boys, in their wildness, were simple, and girls, static and contemplative, were complex. Boys ran and ran, and then, when they were eventually tired, they sat and took things apart and put other things together, while girls quietly braided friendship bracelets out of little snippets of colored thread and gave each other the chills and promised lifelong fidelity.

As we’ve discussed, gender works on a sliding scale. Girls often feel forced to sit quietly and create while boys get to be boys and are encouraged to build, demolish, and run amok.

The deluge of pink alone! Pink, the color of submission and docility. Cops paint drunk tanks pink to limit the fighting, and it works. Don’t tell me society doesn’t love little girls sitting quietly braiding hair.

The humor lies in the cynicism, but I was often confused whether or not Wolitzer was critical of the way things are or championing them. If the former, then the whole book is satire but told without irony. Or is Wolitzer just a witness? Like any deft novelist tackling a controversial topic, she steers clear of definite answers, but she does show the boredom of the women in their gender-specific role, and the fatigue of the men in theirs. It’s not fair that the men have to slaughter the pig and bring home the bacon. But what really wasn’t fair was that once upon a time women weren’t allowed to do either of those things. Now they can, but some don’t, and third-wave feminism says that’s okay, but is it?

Elizabeth Wurtzel says no, and it kind of feels like a response to The Ten Year Nap.

The woman in 14F from Amy’s building had to move out of her expensive apartment because her husband dropped dead. That woman, who gives Amy a great deal of anxiety, depends on her husband, just as Amy does, just as all the women do. And then what happens if they were on their own? They’d have to go back to work, which, spoilers, most of them do in the epilogue, but until then, they all struck me as lazy. THEY’RE CORPORATE BANKERS’ WIVES. They get to choose to do nothing, complain, and look the other way while their husbands destroy the planet and the middle class. And voilà, their lives lack meaning. So Amy tries to locate meaning in a “friend’s” love affair (a fantastically insipid subplot), and in being morally superior to her husband and a slew of the other mothers.

Onto Margaret Thatcher, a small play within a play. “No one in skirts could get anywhere in today’s society without a spine. You had to speak with hard, unfeminine edges and in carefully constructed paragraphs, and if your listeners’ interest began to flag, then you had to do something about it, perhaps metaphorically birching the lot of them.” Is this still the case? Do women have to act like “men” to get anywhere today? Can’t women carefully construct their paragraphs without switching genders? Or do all women speak as Iriguray says, circularly, touching back on topics? Are all women maternal? Are we all fluid, preferring to bend to space rather than occupy it? OF COURSE NOT. Any suggestion of essentialism is ridiculous. Just as calling placenta eating a myth, and claiming that any woman who did practice it was giving feminism a bad name. Why? Because it’s gross? Because it makes these characters uncomfortable? Because it’s a form of radical motherhood? Or because it’s supposed to be a droll remark?

But these cynical, droll remarks add up. These women are judgmental, unhappy, unfulfilled, hating on their roles, blaming husbands for not contributing more to the child-rearing pot, but THEN THEY DON’T DO ANYTHING ELSE THEMSELVES (except for Roberta, an ex-artist, whose husband is also an artist, she volunteers her time driving underprivileged girls in rural areas to get abortions). Just a bunch of caddy, complaining, useless bitches. I’m being harsh but I don’t care. I hated them all. Not because they are stay-at-home moms, but because they are judgmental and rich and BORING. I think Wolitzer doesn’t like them either. I think she judges them too. I see it in the prose.

On the morning of the first day back to school after Christmas vacation, the first snow fell upon the city. From the windows of their financial and legal towers, men and women peered out upon the natural phenomenon. The men thought of sleds and of their children and of being a child. And from those same towers or their apartments or the warm light of the small shops that lined the avenues, more than a few of the women wondered if their children’s boots from last year still fit. The men thought of freedom, and the women thought of necessity.

The underlining principle I took away from The Ten Year Nap, was that without women, nothing domestic would get done, therefore, we’re not equal. Women had to stay home or they had to work and still do all the cooking, cleaning, cuddling, diaper changing, comforting, parenting. Of course they would opt to stay home. It was easier, easier than fighting the front lines of domesticity. Men were big kids after all. They’d eat nothing but Chinese take-out or cold soup out of cans if it weren’t for their wives. This, of course, is an exaggeration, but it does wear a shade of the uncomfortable truth.

Also, many women want to stay home.

Anne-Marie Slaughter tackles this in her much-buzzed article: Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.

Wolitzer wanted to write a novel about affluent, successful women who choose to stay home. She wanted it to be acerbic, honest, but it’s ultimately dull. She wanted to wake these women up from their ten year naps (as their children are ten) and have them look around and see just how useless their lives have become. They used their kids as an excuse to stay static, but see, girls like to be static, remember? Boo. Hissssss.

What I would have preferred would have been a book about Amy’s mother and her feminist friends. They have that deer-in-the-headlights can-do fighting spirit mixed with the perfect amount of naiveté and rage. They’re the grandmothers you wish you had, and they make excellent, depressing, and irksome points.

“I am willing to accept that the young generation is moving on in and dictating the way society will live,” said Betty Jean, a woman in a corner of the room. “Morality is not a cause I feel I can take on. Although, as a political progressive, I’m used to losing almost all my battles.” The women nodded in sympathy. “I follow every single story about injustices toward women, and there are plenty,” Betty Jean continued. “But what with fundamentalist Islam and the threat of terrorism, it’s gotten even harder to get anyone to invest their energy in this. It’s as though there’s just so much political interest most people can sustain. It’s like that game Scissors, Paper, Stone. Terrorism is ‘Stone’ now, and feminism––along with everything else––is ‘Scissors.’ Terrorism wins.”

This made me think of Simone, and how she says that a great reasons women’s rights never rose was because there is always some other cause “more important,” some other cause dividing the women up, and gobbling the men’s time.

Some say feminism died a long time ago. They say no one’s mad anymore. The “Me Generation” is too narcissistic and apathetic. They say they’ve hit the glass ceiling and are floating up there, all meek and unwilling to shatter that shit. Some say, the world is crawling with feminazis (a word that literally equates fighting for gender equality with genocide) and that there’s a war on white men.

I read this for my feminist book club, and us too, our conversation moved into politics, but that’s a testament, I think, to the book, and not some ingrained hierarchy. I learned nothing new from The Ten Year Nap. There were many times where I thought, Huh. I’ve noticed that! But then I almost immediately began fantasizing about food.

About Cathy Borders

Writer. Book Midwife. The Republic of Letters. Waterline Writers. Omnia Vanitas Review.
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