Monday, October 24, 2011


“Any fool can get married and have a baby,” I remember my mother saying to me as a teenager. “Work” was the mantra of my mother’s generation as they drove the ideal of independence into our skulls from birth. Our careers were our mothers holy grail. Proof that generations of oppression was over, the women’s revolution complete and women were finally “free”.

Lady GaGa said this month; "Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their
 dreams. If you're wondering which way to go, remember that your career will
 never wake up and tell you that it doesn't love you anymore.” Her comments caused a blog-storm as women all over the world asserted that you can most certainly wake up and find that your career doesn’t love you any more, and to put career ahead of love and family can be a treacherous mistake.

 In a recent survey it was revealed that young mothers between the ages of 18 and 34 consider homemaking the aspirational lifestyle choice as opposed to ‘career woman’. Luxury is no longer a four thousand pound handbag, but the time to stay at home and decorate cupcakes, pot up jam for the farmer’s market and spend quality time with their children. Like our grandmothers, but without the scratchy woolen underwear and mangles. Bluntly, the lifespan of the “Amazing Juggling Woman” is over. We made it look too hard. And that’s because it is hard.

 Our mothers wanted us to be independent from men – but they equated independence entirely with money. So while we no longer rely on men for cash, now that we are working, we need them more than ever in so many more ways than before. The monthly wage packet no longer buys them their slippers by the fire. We need them to empty the dishwasher, and forgo their Saturday sports to take the kids off our hands. Men have gone from being the petrol that fuelled the household machine, to being an essential cog in the wheel.

Except now it only works when it is prodded and pushed and now we have to provide half the petrol ourselves. Did our mothers honestly think that men were going to step up to the plate and take fifty percent of the fall out from a battle that was, frankly, not theirs? My parents were both teachers. My mother worked locally, my father in the city. So every morning he would leave the house an hour earlier than my mother with his paper tucked under his arm and get the tube to work. My mother had to wash, dress, and feed and transport three of us to school, leaving the baby at home with her mother. After school she had to take us all home, feed us and do our homework and by the time my father got home, less one hour after she did, have a hot meal ready on the table.

 The truth is she was so thrilled to be allowed to work (her own mother was a trained teacher who had to, by law, give up work in Ireland after she got married) that she didn’t take all the other ‘work’ into account. The unpaid, thankless work that women had been doing since time began, so low was the self-worth of our mother’s generation that they barely noticed that they were now bringing home the bacon and cooking it.

 The drudgery of cleaning and cooking and child-rearing that had trapped women in their houses until the 1960’s it has now transpired was actually very important, and very skilled labor. So skilled, in fact, that we now need television programs to show us how to clean our toilets, and rear our children and cook our dinners. The most basic housekeeping skills, like working out how much money you have to spend each week and sticking to it, seem to have completely eluded us. Debt? Our grandmothers did not know what that meant. Could they have ever imagined their granddaughters would be stupid enough to spend half a month’s wages on a handbag and the other on Marks & Spencer’s ready meals? Or throw a perfectly good blouse out because of a missing button, or not know how to bake a batch of buns without looking up a lavishly illustrated cookbook.

 Our mothers wanted to go out to work for all sorts of reasons. Independence, freedom, fulfillment – but mainly they wanted to do it because men did it and their work was more valued in society. In actual fact, men were not valued because of the work they did outside the home, but simply because they were men. And they were valued and respected not because they deserved it, but because they set the rules and the men need to be valued and respected otherwise they won’t do anything! So we set a new rule saying, we’ll go out to work too (if you do fifty percent of the house and kids stuff. Ok – do thirty and I’ll pretend it’s fifty. Hell – I’ll pretend it’s eighty!) and in one generation we have reversed the situation so that a man who allows his wife to stay at home and keep house is doing her a favor.

Economically, the woman who has time to stay home and cook her kids a dinner from scratch is not down-trodden but privileged. Menu-planning and having the time to steam clean your upholstery is a luxury ladies. I remember my poor, emancipated mother looking on aghast one Saturday afternoon as I modeled my new Anthropologie apron and discussed brownie recipes with my sisters. “I wanted you educated so you’d discuss Proust – or at least current affairs!” We reminded her that as full time working mothers, we barely have time to read the newspapers never mind discuss them. Our homes and children have become our recreation. Our aspiration is not longer to be more intelligent, or accomplished but to become more “homey”.

Money has outlived its promise as a means towards independence or even a designer handbag. What we want money to buy us now is time, the time to sit around our perfectly managed kitchens discussing current affairs. The time to not feel guilty about the amount of time we’re not spending with our kids. The time to give our cutlery drawer a good clear out without eating into a precious Sunday afternoon. Enough time to feel that being a good mother and earning and income is not an either/or decision. Our mother’s told us we would need to learn to “juggle our lives”. You’ve got dishwashers now, they said, today’s young men are great – they’ll help out. You can cook a dinner with one hand tied behind your back, microwave some chips – that’ll do them. After a generation of trying to hold it all together frankly, we’ve already dropped a few balls and now we’ve discovered they were the one’s marked “cup cakes” and “cuddle baby all day”. Balls marked “2 Hour Commute” and “Midnight empty-dishwasher” we’re still endlessly throwing round, and round, and round. We’re not fighting for our right to work any more, we’re fighting for our right to knit.

 What our mother’s neglected to tell us was that women had been keeping the show on the road for centuries. That our skills as homemakers were important. Nourishing our children, managing the money, the traditional crafts of knitting and sewing – these were not simply things we had to do, but creative occupations that added as much value to family life as they money the men bought it. Or, as we are discovering now, more. The pressure of the modern working mother is turning the next generation into aspiring Stepford Wives – and nobody wants that either. Maybe instead of passing the values of working independence to our daughters, our mother’s would have been better placed in validating the importance of being good homemakers to their sons. Although with our macho TV chef-culture it looks hopeful that, before long, men will be convinced that at home growing vegetables and pottering around the kitchen, baby in one arm, roulade mould in the other is where they truly belong.

 The problem for women might be – can we get back in there first before men discover the joys of knitting? More terrifying a prospect than that is what are we going to tell our own daughters having got it so very wrong ourselves. We’re certainly never going to allow ourselves go back to the Jane Austen days of simply marrying a rich man (not least because there aren’t enough of them to go around and more!)

Perhaps what our mother’s mistake has taught us is that when it comes to living a truly successful life there are no absolutes. Women do have more choices, we just have to make sure we help the next generation make the ones that will help them fulfil their dreams – not ours.


  1. Hi Kate
    I loved what you wrote. of course it's all true. I have been a very happy and fulfilled full time stay at home mum for 11 years. My husband just got made redundant and hasn't been able to get another job here in NZ. We have decided to not move but just manage living very simply. Life is great. I now work about 25 hours a week and Martin is enjoying the veggie plot, dog walking and running the house as well as seeing more of me and the girls.
    I'm going to try to create a link so that I get your updates direct into my inbox.
    I'm eagerly awaiting your next novel. They just get better and better. Thank you.
    I've come across a book called City of Hope, is this really the next one now available? I only found one copy on amazon. Seems a bit odd.
    Please let me know so that I can buy it.

  2. This is lovely, Kate -- well thought out, sensible, and oh-so-true both sides of the Pond. Thank you for pointing out the obvious that so many trip over without seeing. I like your style.

  3. Wonderful post! I looked you up because I recently read Ellis Island and loved it. I am a SAHM and agree so much with your sentiments here. There is a book in the US called "The Two-Income Trap" by a wonderful woman, Elizabeth Warren, who is now running for the Senate in Massachusetts. She doesn't necessarily say we should go back to the good old days, but points out how since women went to work it hasn't made us wealthier but actually poorer as families can no longer (hardly) live on one income. With housing and fuel and other costs so high, we've priced ourselves out of the good life. Sadly.