Rightly (conservative version) or wrongly (liberal version), the workplace is structured to suit men, preferably men with stay-at-home wives. The qualities rewarded there – self-reliance, ambition, single-minded devotion to work – make women unfit for marriage and vice versa. By the time they are ready to settle down, their male contemporaries are married or looking for younger, softer women; if it’s not too late for a husband, it’s likely to be too late for a baby; if they manage to produce one, they’ll confront the fundamental incompatibility – practical, psychological, emotional – of motherhood and career. With some variations, this narrative of forced choices and biological deadlines, in which feminism is either irrelevant or itself the problem, forms the theme of many recent highly publicised advice books. Sometimes the young unmarried woman is told she is having too much fun and will pay later; sometimes she is told she is miserable, and no wonder – while men postpone commitment, her eggs are already scrambling. The young mother may be advised to give up work till her children are older or she may be urged to fight for government policies and workplace changes that would enable her more easily to combine both roles. But basically the books all give the same depressing advice: compromise, settle, tone yourself down, and do it sooner rather than later.
To the puzzlement of pundits and despite masses of publicity, these books tend to languish on the shelves. The commercial flop of Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Baby Hunger (published in the US as Creating a Life) was noted on the front page of the New York Times. But why the surprise? Only women buy this kind of book about women, and women know perfectly well that it’s hard to find love, that offices are unfriendly to mothers, that 40 is not the ideal age to try to get pregnant. They also know that early marriage and childbearing won’t work either. The whole structure of modern middle-class professional life is against it: long years of education and training that cannot easily be started as a 35-year-old woman with a family, the need for two incomes to maintain status, the increasingly voluntary nature of marriage and childbearing itself. The best context in which to write about these conflicts is not the political tract or sociological potboiler but mass-market fiction, where feminist and retro impulses can be resolved, or blurred, through a judicious combination of truth-telling (it’s a man’s world, and the man is a swine) and fantasy.
Although both books began life as newspaper columns, it would be unfair to call Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It a working-mother version of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Pearson is a more literary writer than Helen Fielding (and almost as funny). On the other hand, both novels, while seemingly on the side of their plucky post-feminist heroines, revel in their pratfalls and humiliations. And both send conservative, ultimately dispiriting messages about women’s lives. Fielding’s point, after all, is that however much they gallivant about and mock the Smug Marrieds, single women secretly want nothing so much as a sober, stable, prosperous husband. Bridget marries the very man her parents would have chosen for her – a human rights lawyer who, in real life, would probably never marry someone as dissolute and ignorant as Bridget (that’s the fantasy element). Pearson’s message is that combining a high-powered career and motherhood is impossible, even for women as energetic and hyperorganised – to say nothing of attractive, smart and rich – as her heroine, the financial analyst Kate Reddy.
When we first meet Kate she is in her kitchen at 1.37 a.m., ‘distressing’ store-bought mince pies with a rolling-pin to make them look homemade for a school fête. Kate may seem to have it all: work she loves, a gentle architect husband, a big house (with cleaner), adorable five-year-old Emily and toddler Ben (with nanny), and – it’s that kind of book – a closetful of high-fashion clothes. Secretly, though, she’s miserable, ruled by guilt, exhaustion, perfectionism and fear. She’s afraid of the Muffia: the stay-at-home mothers of gentrified Hackney, who when not engaged in competitive baking are plotting their preschoolers’ acceptance into the right private school. She’s afraid of her nanny, a feckless Sloane Ranger, and her maid, whose many comically presented ailments prevent her from doing much cleaning. She’s even afraid of her daughter, whom maternal deprivation has turned whiny and clingy. She’s not afraid of her husband – although she does spend a lot of time brushing her teeth to avoid bedtime sex, which would mean spending precious morning minutes in the shower – but that’s only because she takes him for granted and rarely talks to him except to issue commands and reminders. At home, she feels like an interloper and a drill sergeant. In the office, a high-powered City firm populated by obnoxious, sexist men where there are only a few women and she is the only mother, she’s forced to act as if her children do not exist. The incompatibility of her femaleness and her career is neatly illustrated when she discovers during a crucial meeting that all the men are staring at her: hastily dressing in the dark after an exhausting night up with the baby, she had grabbed without thinking a sexy red bra, now clearly visible under her businesslike white blouse.
Trapped between the Muffia and the sexists at the office, Kate splurges on shoes, flirts dangerously with a client, and works, works, works – until finally her husband leaves and she has to, as they say, rethink her priorities. The fantasy element here is that she and her women friends in the City are able to avenge themselves on the most woman-hating man in the office. Kate then quits, not in defeat but as a gesture of female moral superiority: ‘becoming a man is the waste of a woman’ – and because this is popular fiction, she finds a way to have it all.
It’s hard to imagine a mother with a demanding career who won’t find something to identify with in Kate’s situation: the worry that the children love the nanny more than you, the slow-boil about sexism on the job, the exasperation with the overgrown adolescent husband who dresses the baby in its sister’s doll’s clothes, the jerry-built schedules, the death of sex. As the book goes on, Kate’s feminist fury modulates into resignation: ‘Do I believe in equality between the sexes? I’m not sure . . . they could give you good jobs and maternity leave, but until they programmed a man to notice you were out of toilet paper the project was doomed. Women carry the puzzle of family life in their heads, they just do.’ However, fantasy soon kicks in: ‘They treat us as though they’re doing us a great favour by letting us work after we’ve had a child,’ says her boss’s wife, a brilliant woman who gave up her career to stay at home with her sons. ‘And the price we pay for that favour is not making a fuss, not letting on how life can never be the same for us again. But always remember it’s us who are doing them the favour. We’re perpetuating the human race, and there’s nothing more important than that.’ Compared with childbirth, Kate decides, ‘everything else is just noise and men.’ And men can’t help themselves: if her husband forgets the errands, ‘it’s not laziness, it’s biology.’ The ‘Masters of the Universe’ are ‘hopeless, helplessly boyish’. Even a truly vile and racist humiliator of women is ‘more sad than bad’. Wendy, meet Peter.
One reason we can accept Kate’s disillusion with her work is the poignancy of her daughter’s need for her. (‘This is my mummy. Isn’t she lovely and tall?’ Emily says proudly when Kate comes with her to school.) Another is that her job is carefully presented as pointless and arid: her brutally exhausting business trips are not really necessary, and what’s the point of it all except to make money for people who already have lots of it? Pearson’s critique of the consumerist treadmill is very funny, but it’s a bit of a set-up. What if Kate worked those long unpredictable hours as a doctor, like thousands of working mothers, or as a human rights lawyer like Bridget Jones’s suitor? Or even a journalist and novelist like Pearson herself? The paradox of books by mothers disparaging the fast-track life is that almost by definition the authors aren’t following their own advice.
A Life’s Work, the novelist Rachel Cusk’s account of her first year as a mother, offers a brisk corrective to Pearson’s maternal romanticism: ‘Looking after children is a low-status occupation. It is isolating, frequently boring, relentlessly demanding and exhausting. It erodes your self-esteem and your membership of the adult world.’ Think you can procreate and carry on with your liberated woman’s life? Dream on! ‘Childbirth and motherhood are the anvil upon which sexual inequality was forged, and the women in our society whose responsibilities, expectations and experiences are like those of men are right to approach it with trepidation.’ Motherhood alienates you from yourself in ways that can be quite disturbing: think of the willowy, romantic Natasha, who becomes a mundane, overweight housewife and whose soul, in Tolstoy’s words, ‘was not visible at all’.
Cusk captures the intensities, ambivalences and sheer labour of taking care of babies, bringing something new to the enormous literature on child-rearing: the voice of a highly educated, independent, gifted woman who lets nothing slip by. Cusk is without cant, uncowed by expert authority and resistant to attempts to make her feel guilty, infantilised, stupid: ‘No Korean cheerleading team was ever ruled with so iron a rod as pregnant women in the English-speaking world,’ she says of guides for expectant mothers. ‘“When you raise your fork to your lips,” reads one book on this subject, “look at it and think: Is this the best bite I can give my baby? If the answer is no, put your fork down.”’ She’s scathing on breastfeeding, health visitors, clinics, sleeplessness and the unhelpfulness of childless friends. Very little goes right: the baby screams for hours at a stretch; the sitters she hires, all immigrants, are exploitative and bizarre; her attempts to socialise with other mothers resemble a scene from The Stepford Wives as rewritten by Sylvia Plath. ‘“Julia bakes marvellous cakes,” the woman next to her informed me after a pause. “Really?” I said, with frantic delight. “I’ve always thought I’d love to be a baker. Do you make any money out of it?” The two women looked at each other like schoolgirls, with horrified eyes.’ Cusk mourns the loss of adult freedom, but on the rare occasions she goes out for an evening, she spends the whole time calling home to make sure the baby is all right. Her feelings for her colicky infant daughter have some of the qualities of a desperate love affair, in which passion is entangled with a sense of entrapment and loss of self – with the difference that babies do eventually sleep through the night and grow more charming rather than, like many lovers, less so.
Cusk doesn’t have much to say about the low-key pleasure and satisfaction that is also part of having a baby, and yet it must have been there. After all, she had a second baby only 15 months after the first one. She’s interested in what she sees as taboo truths: what motherhood is really like as opposed to what women are told to feel about it. Given a more playful and paternal spin, that same gap between cliché and reality is the subject of Ian Sansom’s book, an alphabetically organised grab-bag of tiny chapters made up of autobiographical reflections, epigrams, anecdotes and irresistible quotations. Chekhov shows up in ‘Fathers’: ‘Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. Ham only noticed that his father was a drunkard, and completely lost sight of the fact that he was a genius, that he had built an ark and saved the world.’ Ted Hughes, as quoted by Emma Tennant, weighs in on ‘Nappies’: ‘“I can’t change nappies,” Ted said. It was clear that this wasn’t a failure of skills which he regretted; he was saying he can’t and won’t; and yet I’ve not asked him to do this, nor – if he had taken the trouble to find out – do I have a child young enough to need them.’ And who is the subject of the following bit of gossip? ‘I meet someone who happens to be the cousin of a famous writer. The famous writer has several young children. Children loom large in his work. How does the famous writer cope, I ask the cousin. Oh, says the cousin, he doesn’t do anything round the house. He doesn’t have anything to do with the children.’
Sansom, by his own account a champion nappy-changer, enjoys rubbing the reader’s nose in the grosser side of infant care: colostrum, digestion, dribble, meconium, piss, sick, shit, snot and vomit each get a chapter. So do anxiety, boredom, chaos, depression, disappointment, headaches, loneliness, noise, regrets, resentment, tiredness, work and worry. His forays into whimsy are mildly irritating – ‘buttons become gendered’ is a mysterious remark – and, as with childcare itself, there are pedestrian moments: ‘the scrapbook is half empty. Or half-full, you say.’ What he captures beautifully, though, is the sheer over-the-topness, the too-muchness of life with a new baby: ‘I hate babies’; ‘Your piss smells so good I think about bottling it’; ‘We’re obsessed.’
If Laurie Taylor and Matthew Taylor, father and son, had read Rachel Cusk and Ian Sansom, they might not be so vexed by the question they pose in their title. A pop-sociological essay with autobiographical digressions, What Are Children For? is an odd book in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is the psychodrama of the authors: Laurie pretty much abandoned little Matthew and Matthew’s mother back in the footloose 1960s, and Matthew, who is understandably still angry about this, never misses a chance to point out what a responsible, put-upon parent he is, even if, as he admits, he does leave the heavy lifting to his wife. It is not immediately clear why these men would be the ones to explain the value of children. They start by acknowledging that children often conflict with things modern people, especially women, have a right to want, but by the end they are hectoring people into reproducing as a way of resisting the meaningless wasteland of hedonism, workaholism, consumption, accumulation, self-centredness. Childraising as a form of resistance to consumer capitalism? Talk about swimming upstream: I’d like to meet the couple who buy less stuff after they have a child. In any case, this seems a cold and abstract motive for such a big and intimate decision – Kate Reddy might say it’s the sort of reason a man would come up with. The Taylors have little to say about the intense bonds between parents and children – it’s almost as if they were wondering why fewer people keep pigeons nowadays or what pet ferrets are for. Perhaps the way to understand what children are for is to ask why so many people still want them.
None of these writers seems to believe that caring for an infant could be made less exhausting, less harried, less solitary. But surely it could be quite different. After all, men (and now women) who join the military get a plethora of benefits from a grateful nation: in the United States, for example, they get scholarships, free medical care for life, extra points on civil-service exams and much more. If governments are worried about low birthrates, as many are, they could do a lot better than lecture uppity women one day and offer paltry child bonuses the next. Free tuition for life would be more like it, along with free childcare, mandatory paternity leave (men in Britain have recently been granted two weeks’ paternity leave) and a Real Men Change Nappies campaign. The trouble is – and here Allison Pearson is right – modern life is largely organised round the split between home and work, and women cannot stitch up that division by themselves. If it remains in place, working mothers will always be holding down two full-time jobs, only one of which is paid, and both of which are based on outmoded notions of gender roles: the always available male employee and the subordinate stay-at-home wife.
The women’s movement of the 1970s hoped to change all this. The ideal was a more integrated and egalitarian life for both sexes, not that women should exhaust themselves trying to be superwomen while men sat back and watched. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild has been one of the shrewdest analysts of the semi-transformation of sex roles. In The Second Shift, her illuminating study of two-job couples and the division of domestic labour, she called this a ‘stalled revolution’. In her new collection of essays, she uses stronger language: feminism has been ‘abducted’ by commercial forces that drain meaning from intimate life, and push both sexes to shape themselves in accordance with the imperatives of male-dominant capitalism. Analysing recent romantic-advice books for women, she finds that despite surface disagreements, they tend to favour ‘assimilating to male rules of love’: more detachment, compartmentalisation, psychological armour. ‘Women are encouraged to be cooler while men are not urged to be warmer.’
If one extends that insight from romance to family life and careers, it’s Kate Reddy’s dilemma in a nutshell. Hochschild’s concluding essay examines the nuts and bolts of academic success (tenure, publications, renown in one’s field) to produce an incisive analysis of the obstacles women face in climbing the professional ladder. For one thing, they are competing with men who have wives, while often being wives themselves. The family (but mostly the wife/ mother) is the ‘unacknowledged service agency’ for the university – as, one might add, for the economy as a whole.
Hochschild claims that
certain aspects of the women’s movement have entered the mainstream of American life through a process Herbert Marcuse described as ‘resistance through incorporation’. American culture incorporated what of feminism fitted with capitalism and individualism, but it resisted the rest. It incorporated the idea of equal pay for equal work and diversity but dispensed with any challenge to the priorities of the system women wanted in on.
On the one hand, this is over-optimistic: women are a long way from equal pay, and individualism hardly reigns supreme if a woman can’t look her age after thirty and if both spouses feel uncomfortable, as Hochschild shows many do, when the wife earns more than the husband. As the growing movement against abortion shows, self-determination for women is still controversial. On the other hand, Hochschild’s view seems too bleak: Ian Sansom isn’t the only man who’s plunged into domesticity and childcare, is he?