'The Ten-Year Nap': Stay-at-Home Mama Drama

Meg Wolitzer

hide captionMeg Wolitzer's new novel explores the ups and downs of four smart women who chose the "mommy track."

Deborah Copaken Kogan

Meg Wolitzer's new novel, The Ten-Year Nap, is the story of a group of women who choose full-time motherhood over promising professional careers — and then find themselves questioning that decision a decade later.

Wolitzer's other books include The Position and The Wife, which was a New York Times Notable Book.

Excerpt: 'The Ten-Year Nap'

The Ten Year Nap

Chapter One

All around the country, the women were waking up. Their alarm clocks bleated one by one, making soothing sounds or grating sounds or the stirrings of a favorite song. There were hums and beeps and a random burst of radio. There were wind chimes and roaring surf, and the electronic approximation of birdsong and other gentle animal noises. All of it accompanied the passage of time, sliding forward in liquid crystal. Almost everything in these women's homes required a plug. Voltage stuttered through the curls of wire, and if you put your ear to one of the complicated clocks in any of the bedrooms, you could hear the burble of industry deep inside its cavity. Something was quietly happening.

BIP BIP BIP. By a bed on this Monday morning in fall, the ? rst alarm went off in a house with cedar shingles in a small, buffed suburb, and a woman sat up, the prospects of the entire day rising before her. BOOP BOOP BOOP. Three towns over, there went another alarm, a full octave lower, and a woman broke the skin of consciousness in her colonial, blinking. "-A LOOK AT THE TRAFFIC. RANDY, WHAT'S HAPPENING OUT THERE?" Throughout the region, and in others not unlike it, in houses broader and more spread apart or else smaller and tightly bunched, the women awakened. Farther away, across unswimmable waters and over a nexus of highway and bridge, in the residential towers of the city, a whole other crop of alarms peeped and chirruped and wailed and beckoned.

They sounded in both suburb and city, on individual night tables beside facedown, broken-spined volumes being read for book group with titles like Bigfoot Was Here: A Father's Letters to His Newborn Son from Iraq, and among curling school permission slips ("I, _______, allow my child, _______, to attend the field trip to the recycling plant"). The intensifying chorus of alarms urged the women to get up and go wherever the day would take them. Some would shepherd their children into huge, fully stocked, cornball American family vehicles, adjusting rearview mirrors and backing out into the world, while others would grab their children by their soft little hands and yank them like pull-toys into the mash of urban foot traffic.

One by one the women began their separate and familiar routines. Unlike in the past, there were no presentations to give, no fears of having to keep vast savannahs of information in their heads all morning, and then, at eleven a.m., having to recite it all aloud to a roomful of colleagues. Because now there were no colleagues, just as there were no conference calls or lunches with "a client." All of that was over, and when the alarms sounded in the morning and the women were startled awake, they sometimes took a momentary dip into the memory of what they had left behind, and then, with varying degrees of relief or regret, they let the memory go.

COO COO COO COO COOOOOO. In a light-stippled apartment on Third Avenue in New York City, on the eleventh floor of a newish colossus of a rental building fashioned of glazed brown brick, an alarm called out in Amy Lamb's bedroom. She was alone, as she always was when the alarm went off, for Leo had been awakened by his own Timex over an hour earlier, and had staggered like a newborn monster through the violet shadows to the bathroom and the elevator and the gym and then finally to the office. By the time the doves called to Amy, Leo Buckner was already at his desk in midtown, looking into the eye of a video device that sent a slightly convex version of him to the clients sitting around a platter of pastries in an industrial-park conference room in Pittsburgh.

As Leo went about the start of the workday, Amy slowly woke up. Her clock, which he had bought her as a recent birthday present from the Domestic Edge catalogue, and which, depending on the setting, made a noise like one of a variety of animals, today sounded like a flock of mourning doves. Leo and their son Mason were sent into a shared frenzy by gadgetry. The apartment, because of this, contained objects that blinked and hummed and made animal noises and sometimes actually spoke sentences in flattened android voices, remarking, Your-keys-are-o-ver-here, so clearly indifferent to where your keys actually were. But husband and son were content with the impersonal nature of electronics; they didn't need these objects to love and embrace them, because Amy did, and that was enough.

"Mason!" she cried in a dry, fruitless morning voice. "Time to get up!" There was no response. It would have made much more sense if she'd simply gone into his room right away and hung over his bed like a jackal in a tree, the way some mothers did. "MASON!" she cried again, rasping but loud. Still nothing, and so Amy gave it a rest, standing in the middle of her pale bedroom and moving her head from side to side, listening to the internal neck pops and explosions. At age forty her physical self seemed to make much more noise and require so much more attention than it used to. She stretched her arms over her head, her body nicely thin but slightly battered by middle age, tight-nippled inside one of Leo's oversized undershirts, which she wore to bed each night out of habit, because long ago he had said it was an erotic sight. For some reason, men often liked women in some sort of nominal drag, though Amy couldn't remember the last time Leo had been all that excited by her. Maybe she should have had gadgets affixed to her body, she thought. Instead, married for thirteen years and in the middle of their life together, they often lay in bed at night like two tired prehistoric animals that had individually been out in the world for many hours, fighting for survival.

"What a stupid day," Leo had said last night in the dark, and his hand halfheartedly, almost accidentally, bumped against her breast and stayed there. "Stutzman wanted to know when we're going to be ready to go to court. I told him I can only do so much. That I'm not Vishnu. So he said, 'Who's that, a new associate?'"

"Oh God," she said. "I remember that kind of thing."

"It's worse now. You always have to stop and explain what you mean. And you have to appease everyone. It's an onslaught. Corinna and I basically just roll our eyes."

Corinna Berry was his closest friend at the of?ce. Once, long ago, Amy had been Leo's primary work confidante, the one he had rolled his eyes with, but she had lost that tender role. "I'm sorry," she told him.

"Everyone else manages," said Leo. "It's like they're being thrown some bone that no one's throwing me." He added, dolefully, "I keep waiting for the bone."

Whenever Leo expressed unhappiness about his job, Amy tried to ? nd something to say that might be a comfort, even an anecdote about herself that could create a marital symmetry between them. "My day was bad too," she'd said. "The pediatrician's waiting room. Like typhoid central! And we sat there for a full hour."

It was as though they performed small reenactments for each other in bed, depicting the different ways the day had been spent. When he described and acted out scenes from his life at Kenley Shuber, the law firm where she had once worked too and where they had first met, she easily pictured the toast-colored corridors, the conference room with its oak table and recessed lights. But as she began to tell him about her own day, he made polite, generic sounds of sympathy in his throat. She knew he could barely picture Dr. Andrea Wishstein's waiting room with its streppy, fractious children on the floor pushing wooden beads along wire, and its pastels of clowns on unicycles lining the walls, and that he wouldn't really want to picture it even if he could.

The paradox was that Leo adored her but wasn't always interested in how she spent her time. Jill Hamlin, Amy's closest friend since college, who had moved from the city last spring to the suburb of Holly Hills, had recently told her about a woman she'd met there whose husband had admitted that he swallowed their hyperactive son's Ritalin every evening on the commuter train going home so he could actually pay attention at night when his wife told him about her day. "He couldn't bear to listen to her without it," Jill had told Amy. "He said he loved her so much, but that whenever she started to speak, he would automatically think about other things. He was so ashamed."

"Are men's stories inherently more interesting?"

"Yes."

"Yes? You're serious?"

"During my two-second career in film," said Jill, "or at least right at the end, they kept emphasizing the idea of the four quadrants, like it was an Aristotelian concept. The four quadrants are: older male, younger male, older female, younger female. The fact is that both older and younger men and older and younger women—all four quadrants—will go see movies about men, but that only two quadrants—women, young and old, will go see movies about women. So right away there's a huge discrepancy. But it's the way it is."

Amy saw herself on a screen, in afternoon light, walking down a city street to the dry cleaner, then sitting on a small chair at her son's school, attending a meeting about the evacuation policies in case of terrorism. There was very little dramatic tension to these scenes; out in the audience, the men would start to rustle, and one by one they would leave the theater.

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by Meg Wolitzer

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