I quit a dream job to be at home, but I’m no surrendered wife
Too much of what passes for feminist commentary involves slagging off each other’s choices
US first lady Michelle Obama. Photograph: Getty
I've always liked Michelle Obama. She seems authentic; a woman’s woman – the kind you could open a bottle of wine with, and discuss books, the economy and whether that Liz Earle cleanser is really as good as they say.
So I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing she would now just drop the harridan-in-chief shtick.
Here she is, in Vogue , talking about the apartment her husband lived in when he first went to Washington: “Pizza boxes everywhere. That place caught on fire. And I was like, I told you it was a dump.”
And here, in the same interview, is her husband on his relationship with her: “What Michelle has done is to remind me every day of the virtues of order. Being on time. Hanging up your clothes.”
The Obamas are an exceptional case: in order to get him elected, she had to be soft-soaped from high-powered careerist to unthreatening mommy-in-chief. Now, they are bringing up two children in a goldfish bowl and she is, rightly, focused on keeping their lives as normal as possible.
But Obama won’t be running again: does she really need to keep reassuring the world that her chief preoccupation in life is ensuring his boxers never stay on the bathroom floor for a millisecond longer than necessary?
Michelle’s reinvention took place in some fairly extraordinary circumstances, but she seems to have become an accidental role model for what several other media outlets are now identifying as an aspirational new trend: the surrendered wife.
Alongside Vogue on the newsstands, for instance, is New York magazine, whose cover story is entitled the “The Retro Wife – feminists who say they’re having it all by choosing to stay home”.
The magazine features an interview with a former wealth adviser who “feels it’s a privilege to manage her children’s lives” and whose husband’s contribution is to “go to work and deposit his paycheck”; and another with a self-proclaimed feminist, “who keeps a list of [her husband’s] clothing sizes in her iPhone and, devoted to his cuteness, surprises him regularly with new items”.
The idea that I may be part of this rising tide of high-achieving women who are devoting themselves to shopping for their husband’s jeans and micromanaging their children’s social lives makes me feel slightly ill.
And yet, just under two years ago, I did give up a demanding position in the media, the kind of role that I might once have described as my dream job, because I wanted to spend more time with my children.
I now write from home three or four days a week, while my children are cared for by their childminder. My working days are regularly interrupted by the sound of little feet tramping up the stairs to my attic office; their afternoons are regularly interrupted by me popping downstairs to interrogate them about whether they’ve eaten their sandwiches. It’s not perfect, but it works for us.
Am I happy? Very. Surrendered? Give me a break.
At its most basic, feminism is about equality and the freedom to choose – too much of what passes for feminist commentary involves slagging off each other’s choices.
There are many women for whom putting their career on hold to spend more, or all, of their time with their children is the best course.
There are women for whom paid employment is essential to their economic and psychological wellbeing; others who would like to be at home more, but don’t have the privilege of that choice; others who are at home only because they can’t find a job. And, of course, all of these complexities are true of men too.
The faintly creepy cult of motherhood being perpetuated by the media doesn’t benefit anybody. It excludes men, denying their ability to care for their children and reducing their role to one of paycheque-bearer.
It encourages women to pit themselves against each other in a contrived career-mother-versus- stay-at-home-mother dichotomy, and against unattainable (if you’re anything like me) standards of domestic and parenting
It over-glamorises the role of caring for small children without answering the question of what happens when those children are no longer small. It also contributes to the feeling that, as a woman, you are damned whatever you do.
Then there’s the question of what all this “super-involved parenting”, as the Vogue piece on the Obamas terms it, does to the children.
Most people would probably agree that “super-involved” is better than uninvolved – but isn’t there a happy medium somewhere between encasing your kids in bubble wrap, and hurling them out into the world with a McDonald’s voucher and the address of the nearest A&E?
I doubt a violin lesson ever caused long-term trauma, but when did “play dates” replace “playing out”? When did “after school” stop being the period when children lay about moaning about being bored, and become the collective noun for the endless series of activities to which they must be ferried?
It is often easier to jump in and overparent, than stand back and let children develop at their own meandering pace – especially, I suspect, if you have left another career to make their development your chief goal in life. But children, unlike corporations, are not designed to be micromanaged.
When I left my job, I made a promise to myself that I would not try to replicate at home the standards I had sought at work. Instead, I would aim for a steady mediocrity. Most of the time, I don’t even manage that. And I suspect we’re all the happier for it.