Parenting is work. Lovely, gruelling work, all swing shifts and no sick days, with a cumulative sleep deficit so enormous you can feel individual brain cells popping like soap bubbles. So the title of Meg Wolitzer’s new novel seems perfectly pitched to exhausted parents of small children, for whom sleep is the new sex.
As it turns out, the title is not a prescription but a wake-up call. The decade-long nap Wolitzer has in mind is the phenomenon New York Times contributor Lisa Belkin dubbed the “Opt Out Revolution” — highly educated women who drop out of the workforce to raise their children.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Somebody has to mind the kids, and it might as well be their parents, although that’s an increasingly privileged choice. The catch is that childhood is fleeting and, as Wolitzer notes, there’s only so long you can use a young child as “a human shield” against those dinner-party questions about what you “do.” But Wolitzer’s heroine, Amy Lamb, discovers that “work wasn’t like a trolley; you couldn’t just jump on and off.”
This is a novel of manners as much as a literary take on a sociological dilemma, and as a portrait of the modern heterosexual urban bourgeoisie, much of it is wickedly bang-on. Amy and her friends, fortyish New Yorkers, stand at the crossroads of youth and experience. Once ambitious, now ambivalent, they take critical stock of their mid-life selves, their hardworking husbands, the working mothers who look like they have it all, and the younger men throwing themselves joyfully into full-time parenting.
Wolitzer’s prose is warm, funny, and eminently quotable, although some of her satire is a trifle blunt, and a few characters are implausibly sketched. The compassionate and good-humoured message seems to be that stay-at-home parents can ultimately have their cupcake and eat it too. Life is not a race, and we all snooze in one way or another, for months or years, with no harm done. (Riverhead, 368 pages, $24.95)