Book Review -July 2009
This Little Mommy Stayed Home
by: Eliot Baker
It’s hard to imagine an ordained minister from the New Seminary with a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School describing the post-partum vagina of her novel’s heroine in terms ranging from “a moldy jar of marmalade” to shock-rocker Alice Cooper’s face.
But Samantha Wilde does exactly that in the opening pages of her first novel, “This Little Mommy Stayed Home,” released last month by Bantam Books.
“Motherhood is a calling,” says Wilde, the daughter of Nantucket novelist Nancy Thayer, tying her own religious background to her heroine’s tribulations. “Whether in directly religious ways or not, it’s a calling.”
Illuminating the dark corners of motherhood in “This Little Mommy Stayed Home” with light prose and breezy language, Wilde goes where no chick-lit has gone before. It’s a 384-page book written to be enjoyed between naps and diaper changes. Mothers will laugh as they nod along. Fathers will inwardly wince as they laugh. The quick hits of lean, raunchy comedy tantalize readers like bites of spicy chocolate as protagonist Joy McGuire reclaims her femininity from drooping body parts amid a floundering marriage and illicit love interests.
Wilde’s family moved to Nantucket when she was 9, but she spent the majority of her childhood at the Concord Academy boarding school. While Wilde, who is in her early thirties and the mother of two children born just 20 months apart, wasn’t sure if “This Little Mommy Stayed Home” would be her first published novel, her mother – a best-selling author whose 19 novels include many based on Nantucket – had no doubt.
“She read the first 20 pages and she said, ‘This is the one’,” says Wilde, whose second book in a two-book-deal from Bantam is due for release next year. “It was a strange coincidence the way they all came at the same time, a two-book deal and two babies.”
Wilde, who lives in Belchertown, Massachusetts, didn’t intend for her book to be political or autobiographical, but the author’s own feminism shines through the narrative. Ironically-named Joy does not apologize for frequently wanting “to slap” her clueless, boarding-school dean husband while pining for an old flame and yearning for some extracurricular heavy breathing exercises with her yoga instructor. The writing, like Joy, is never passive while the comedic analogies stay appropriate
“In general broad strokes, having a baby explodes this kind of dreamy myth that there’s any gender equality. If you’re a stay-at-home mother it’s even more true. If someone’s gone all day and you’re staying at home all day, it changes the dynamics,” Wilde says.
Joy charms the reader with her wit as she punctuates smoldering inner monologues with punchy dialogue. Her cynicism is matched only by her disillusionment (which ultimately sublimates into a disarmingly authentic self-awareness). Joy loves her newborn son like a teen crush, but she experiences motherhood as an exquisite form of torture. Sleep deprivation, isolation and gruesome-but-typical body changes puncture her bubbly upper-middle-class notions of motherly challenges.
“I’m definitely a feminist but I’m a peculiar feminist,” says Wilde. “I’m a feminist who feels passionate about staying at home with my children.”
That’s not to say being a mommy is all gravy for Wilde, unless you count the stuff her own two children toss in her hair. The one area where Wilde’s reality aligns with her fiction involves coming to terms with staying at home in the face of seductive career and social opportunities.
“Joy chooses to stay at home. It is a difficult adjustment but she finds ultimately that she doesn’t want to go back to work,” says Wilde, who laughs off any other parallels to her protagonist.
“That resonates for some women. Even though it’s the hardest thing they’ve done, it’s kind of underground. At least in my circle, you’re not going to wax poetic about staying at home. You won’t say, ‘Yes, I went to Smith College, I went to graduate school at Yale, and now I’m staying at home cleaning cloth diapers.’ Oh, that’s another thing I have in common with Joy, I really use cloth diapers.”
While poop talk at the sandbox is often a rite of passage for mothers, the wilderness of post-partum (Joy often calls it “post-mortem”) desire and suffering remains taboo for many. But Wilde dives into that aching, sleep-deprived psychology head-first and smiling. Her gift for humor and comedic timing allows for an effortless foray into potentially-dangerous territory. She won’t shy away from sexuality or nasty thoughts, but Wilde knows how to temper the bad stuff with good humor. And she can be counted on to whisk her readers away from anything too dark before it becomes a bummer.
The point is to laugh, after all, not cry. A close friend paid Wilde the ultimate compliment when telling her that her book could serve as a ministry to mothers. It was a moving statement for Wilde, who felt she was simply writing the book she wanted to read during those endless hours in sweat pants and dirty hair, carrying a baby in one arm and phoning, e-mailing and cooking with the other. The moments she could spare to read and to laugh were necessary for her survival, she says soberly.
“I always thought I was going to save the world, or win the Nobel prize, win the Pulitzer, and all of a sudden it didn’t make sense to me to do things on that scale. There was no meaning to it. The real meaning to me was to make someone laugh. In that sense there was a deep spiritual pull to this novel because that is what makes meaning out of our lives.
There was a moment for me as a minister who had more education than I needed, where I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to get the Nobel Prize, I don’t want it. I want to be a good mother and do something that I love and give someone a day of pleasure.”
Eliot Baker is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.