Monday, March 31, 2008

(About The Ten Year Nap)

At twenty, I was a dreamy girl halfway through college until a brisk full-moon night laced with snow and stars revealed my firstborn's shocking existence. I fell into motherhood clumsily...ineptly. I hadn't necessarily wanted to be a mother--was never a girl who had her dream wedding planned since seventh grade with the ideal set of matching babies to go along with it. I swooned over stories of poets locked in Parisian garrets or writers with heavy notebooks thumbing rides across the country and back again. I hungered for travel and pined for a vagabond life that wasn't meant for me--right up until the baby was born, when I couldn't see any further than the glow cast by her nightlight as we swayed in the rocking chair--a whole continent unto ourselves. I wasn't a natural at it...still am not in a conventional sense. But, shhh...don't tell my three children that, because for eleven years we have stumbled along together--making it up as we go along...winging it, carrying on in a greater adventure than any I'd read about.

Still, it was unusual...juggling babysitters and packing a diaper bag with sippy cups then dashing across campus, looking to the world like just another co-ed, to attend seminars on Women in Shakespeare or Linguistics: Semiotics, praying that the mandatory study session wouldn't interfere with the baby's bedtime. I ventured into student-teaching (full-time work with zero pay), putting her in daycare without a second thought--not realizing until I stood up in front of an angst and hormone-ridden classroom that I craved my daughter like a drug and I couldn't bring myself to leave her for work "for real". The semester ended, and so did my brief foray into full-time teaching...I quickly got used to being the youngest mother on the playground and to scraping by on just one income. I never fit in with the "mommies" who had handi-wipes in their bags to share or an extra pack of goldfish crackers when I'd remembered to bring along a book of Neruda's poems in my backpack, but not the baby's snack. Somehow my age insulated me from the hotly contested "mommy wars" and related issues--I was already an odd-ball mother, and we already didn't have any money to speak of.

The characters in Meg Wolitzer's novel, The Ten Year Nap, were already established in their careers when they made the often-fraught decision to leave the workforce behind to raise their children. They contend with issues of finances, shifting roles in their marriages, and a deep sense of inertia now that their children's early years have passed. Unlike most of the material written about the relationship between stay-at-home and working-mothers, this is a work of fiction--so the potential to get deeply within the subject exists without the need for objective/academic distance. However, my feelings about this novel are definitely mixed. Wolitzer's writing is undeniably poetic and lyrical in places, however, the overall trajectory of the story was a bit slow for me. I appreciated how the author traveled in and out of the perspectives of the women, providing depth and insight into the broader spectrum of emotions brought up by being a full-time mother. But, the one "working-mother" character, Penny, isn't given her own point-of-view and is instead viewed at a distance by the full-time mothers who alternate feelings of envy and sympathy for her situation. To cover the broader spectrum of maternal uncertainty, and to illustrate that *both* working and at-home mothers experience very similar concerns and doubts, it would have made sense to give Penny a voice. Many people argue that the issues between mothers who work out of the home and those who don't have been a bit over-played at this point. Women who want to work and/or need to work should--and those who don't/can't shouldn't feel forced to. Right? However, in The Ten Year Nap, Wolitzer gives readers more to think about concerning this ambiguous and often-debated topic. It is well-worth a read.

As for me, I will be joining the full-time workforce this fall with the onset of a high-school teaching gig. I have cobbled together a part-time college adjunct and freelance writing and editing career in the eleven years I've been a, in many ways, I still hover just beyond the edges of this discussion, not fully fitting into either mothering "camp". Still, my heaviest work days are ahead of eldest will enter junior high in September and come home to an empty house afterwards. My third-grade son and kindergarten "baby" will be in a classroom until after I am done work for the day. Unlike the mothers in this novel who grapple with whether or not they want to go back to work, I am leaping in without a second thought. Life has shifted profoundly in the past six months and, for me, having this teaching career launched once and for all is a part of the deep process of "waking up" I'm experiencing already. I think women's experiences are far more complex and dynamic than to distill mothering down into two roles: SAHM or Working Mother and then declare one superior to the other.

And anyway, there will always be the gypsy-mamas like me who never quite fit into the carefully constructed ideals...who are surprised by motherhood, shocked by the ferocity of their love for their children...mothers who keep active in the workplace but also spend long afternoons painting watercolors with a toddler...mothers who are wistful on cold starry nights and who may not be able to run a company or to remember to bring the color-coded-tupperware-lidded-baked-from-scratch cupcakes to the classroom party either. But, my backpack is still full of poetry...and if you ask me nicely...I just may share the ephemeral wonder of words with you.

***I'm also willing to share my copy of The Ten Year Nap with one random commenter below! (Leave your thoughts about this issue or about "waking up" in general & I'll let you know next Thursday who that is.)***

Edited to add: we put the names into a baseball hat and my youngest picked JANUARY's name out! I hope you enjoy the book...

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Blogger Vesper de Vil said...

wow, this is a wonderful post and review.

i had my son when i was 21, half way through university.

my husband and i separated when i was 24, and were officially divorced in 2007.

we share custody. i have never been a conventional mother, and i have always been the youngest in any crowd of parents. not only am i a lot younger than most of them, but i also look about 5 years younger than my age. i'll be 28 in may, and most people assume i'm around 22. drives me nuts now, but i'll probably appreciate it when i'm much older.

i'm going back to university for my second degree. my first was in english, and i'd like to study psychology and psychotherapy, and become a private therapist, working from home.

i want to take my son around the world. i want him to see and experience as much as possible.

i appreciate your words so much.


3:41 PM  
Blogger daisies said...

i too had my son while i was halfway through my university career and then became a part time single mom when my son was 5. i had the most wonderful university daycare which i could drop in and volunteer which i did often, the bliss of staying home for a couple of years, working part time and then the need to work full time while sharing my son in a co-parenting arrangement.

throughout the oddball circumstances of it all, i never really fit into the roles either. i was always the youngest mom with the assortment of journals and cameras and even now that my son is a teenager, we still seem to not quite mesh but then i think who really does. i think there are as many varieties of mommys as there are people and that is a good thing, staying home or working full time or doing combinations ~ its all good i think.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Melba said...

This post made me want more of you!

I want to read the book of your life. To hear your whole story in novel form. Tell me oneday that I will be able to~

9:41 PM  
Blogger Amber said...

Any review you write always makes me want to pick it up. I love how you start with your own smart! It means more.

Gosh, I think all the time about how complicated it is to be a woman and a mother. It has been by far my most meaningful teacher, this gig.

I heart you. :)

12:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love how you wrote this piece. Intertwining your experience and the review of the book. I too have never felt I belonged to any group. Maybe all women feel this way...even those in the "perfect mother" camp.


9:55 AM  
Blogger Britta Reque-Dragicevic said...

You're right. There are those of us like myself who work full-time from home and mother. We're not in either "camp." I'm a full-time freelance copywriter/author and have a 5-year-old son and a 2 1/2-year-old daughter. Having my children physically near me is simply part of who I am as a mother. It is what I need.

There are so many women out there who would give anything to be able to work from home and be with their kids--and I know that I am very fortunate. Motherhood is too individualistic and intimate a life journey for any of us to be judging each other. Our children grow up knowing only the mother they have had.

It's whether we give them foundations for their souls to stand on that counts. It's all about the relationship you have with your child. And that can be bad even if you are a SAHM or good if you are a Working Mom. It all depends on what kind of woman you are and how you relate and respect your children.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Left-handed Trees... said...

Oh, such great thoughts here!

vesper: i am with you on taking the children around the world--i cannot wait until i get to travel widely with mine. Thank you for sharing your story as well...

daisies: yes, yes, yes "there are as many varieties of mommys as there are people and that is a good thing" true.

melba: your enthusiasm is so appreciated...i truly don't know if i'll ever write my story out in book-form. i did try *just once* and it was incredibly difficult! i think i am just too enamored of the lyrical form of poetry and the imaginative leaps of fiction to be able to be raw and "straightforward" enough to sink in and write memoir! {i journal madly, though, so perhaps that counts?}

amber: i heart you, too.

andrea: you are absolutely right--i think this book showed clearly that even those mothers in "the perfect camp" still feel ambivalent and unsure at times.

britta: ah, yes...the "working at home mothers" are definitely in the "gypsy" group, neither here nor there exactly. Your comment was beautifully worded--especially the "motherhood is too individualistic and intimate a life journey for any of us to be judging each other." That should definitely be remembered!


11:59 AM  
Blogger Relyn said...

I came across yoru blog from Tangled Wings who lists you as someone with "words so delicious I want to eat them." I have to say that I agree. I love how you describe your own style of motherhood as having a backpack still full of poetry, with or without the handiwipes.

It has made my day to find a woman who is unapologetic and proud to mother in a way that she knows is right for her and her children. I think too many of us waste way so much time feeling guilty for not being able to be all and do all.

My own experiences are quite different from yours. I became a mother at 31 after nearly 10 years of marriage. I don't fit the mold either, and I like it that way.

I haven't read "The Ten Year Map", but I plan to request it from our library. Thank you for the recommendation. In return, I thought I would tell you about "Confessions of a Slacker Mom" by Muffy Mead-Ferro. She also has an uncommon approach to motherhood. I found her essays thought-provoking, even challenging. You might enjoy it.

I'll be back for more of your yummy words. Blessings on you and your children. Also on your new working venture.

10:16 PM  
Blogger odessa said...

oh my, what beautiful words! i'm with melba, i can't wait to read a book of yours someday.

and hats off to you and all the parents out there. i've worked with children and their families for 7 years now and all i can say is that parenting is definitely one of the best and the toughest roles in the world. i don't know if i can do it, for now i guess working with kids is enough for me. =)

2:20 AM  
Blogger January said...

Great review! Yes, your review makes me want to read the book.

It is difficult to carve out a career and have a family. So I appreciate the tough choices families make every day to function as a unit.

12:52 AM  
Blogger Left-handed Trees... said...

relyn: i'm glad Michelle led you my way, i always appreciate hearing how people find themselves reading here...thank you for sharing your experiences (and the book recommendation).

odessa: working with kids absolutely counts as a tough but rewarding job, so you intuitively already know how complex it is! i don't have teenagers (quite) yet, but i've worked with them enough to know that *parents* of teens deserve a whole lot of love, so i understand where you're coming from.

january: "tough choices" is exactly it...i'm always so impressed with the diverse ways people make it all work.


1:05 PM  

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