A housewife's choice

Leaving a stressful career to care for her son and keep house has been a relief and a revelation for Hilly Janes. But it's also created an identity crisis
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Hardly a day goes by without fresh sparks flying in the debate about whose turn it is to get a seat on the board/put the rubbish out/tidy up the Duplo. Or, as a sociologist might put it: "Gender, family and the workplace in a post-feminist era: discuss." Now Madonna has fanned the flames with her decision to stop working and spend more time with her daughter, hot on the heels of Suzanne Franks and her new book, Having None of It: Men, Women and the Future of Work.

I have been following the latest developments with particular interest, because I recently traded my full-time, highly paid executive job for full-time housewifery and motherhood. Reader, these words are written by a woman who made her own marzipan this Christmas.

Before I explain how it feels, let me explain why. I am typical of my generation in that I put off having children until my biological clock said 11.55pm. I may have got it all later than most but by the time I was 44, this summer, I definitely had it all: career, husband, child, house, dishwasher, the lot.

So what went wrong? It wasn't just the 10-hour working days - that's the norm for plenty of us. Like many other employees in the Nineties, in no matter what profession, my company was going through endless cutbacks and restructuring. My husband had given up his job to study for an MBA full time and spent more hours glued to the computer screen than I did, Sundays included. I saw my son for about an hour a day during the week.

Unless I was able to sleep in on Saturdays and excused any form of human contact until lunchtime, I would spend the weekend in a fug of tiredness until about 10pm on Sunday when I'd finally perk up, just in time for bed at 10.30pm.

Sometimes I felt dizzy at work and had tingling pains in my arms. The GP said I was hyperventilating. I had two miscarriages in two years. "Shabby" was how one of my best friends described our house, and she was being tactful. No wonder; it was suffering from total neglect. Not that it really mattered, "dinner party" was not part of my vocabulary.

When the chance came to stop, I leapt at it. Two things made it possible. My husband's Herculean efforts in front of the computer means that he is now well-paid enough to support all of us. I managed to negotiate a generous settlement from my employer. My husband's new job would be very demanding, but at least we wouldn't both be in the same boat. We could even afford to keep our nanny on part-time. Smug? No, I know how lucky I am.

"How does it feel not to work at all, what do you do all day?", people ask, mostly of the workaholic variety. "How does it feel to be on Planet Tharg totally naked apart from a pair of rubber underpants on your head?" would be a less alien concept, judging by the look on their faces.

In many ways it feels great. Most of my former colleagues don't recognise me. Only one of them had the nerve to say why: "You look 10 years younger." Bedtime is no longer 10.30pm. I've seen more films, plays and exhibitions and read more books in the last six months than in the last six years.

I'm still having problems pronouncing "dinner party", but at least I've started cooking proper meals again and stopped shopping for World War III. When I worked all day, some repressed mothering instinct had me filling the late-night supermarket trolley with extra jars and tins of food, just in case. Most of them never got eaten.

I keep weekends free of household chores so that we can go on outings as a family. Now my husband gets a lie-in on Saturdays. I spend one day a week visiting my elderly parents. Our house has had a fresh lick of paint and the charity shop has benefited from a major decluttering session.

Best of all, my relationship with my son has improved no end. We are simply more at ease with each other. In my experience, the worlds of the busy executive and the capable mummy were totally at odds. Because time with him was precious, and I wanted it to be fun, I'd give in to his demands. No prizes for guessing who was in charge. I am sure I was not the only working parent who felt a sense of relief as I left the house on Mondays for the place I felt more at home in: the office.

Now I understand that arguing with a small child is futile. Changing the subject works far better, but this demands energy, playfulness, being on his wavelength, the very attributes that may be in short supply if you can't quite switch off from a problem at work or the four loads of dirty washing in the laundry basket. Now he accepts that mummy is not such a pushover, and I accept that if he doesn't like the new book, so what?

Renegotiating the ground rules with my husband is trickier. I am not a gracious housewife. Take last week's row about bananas. Why, I asked, should I lug home vast quantities of fruit from the supermarket, only for it to disappear into his briefcase? Don't they sell fruit in the West End, where he works? After all, if I found time to do all the shopping when I was working, how come he can't buy a few bananas?

There used to be a joke about how the only thing working women needed to get to the top was a wife. I found it funny then, but I don't now. If my husband had agreed to put his career on the back burner for the sake of our mutual sanity, how much further up the greasy pole could I have slithered? I find these feelings of resentment humiliating. Have I really got nothing better to do than squabble about bananas? Can't I just be grateful that he is supporting me?

And why can't I get my act together? Being a housewife demands self-discipline and organisation, and even after six months I feel inadequate. Life used to be simple - get up, go to work, come home. Now the days and weeks have no internal rhythm. It is all too easy to fritter away the free time between dropping my son off at nursery and picking him up two hours later. Unless I write commitments down I risk double-booking myself, or forgetting. And how come last night we ran out of milk, when I had been at home most of the day?

No doubt, practice makes perfect. But there is something else that will not improve. When I was working, I reminded myself frequently that certain people were interested in me because of what I was, not who I was. Knowing it was one thing; feeling it is something else, and the further I paddle my canoe from the familiar shore where status is measured in job titles and pay cheques, the scarier it gets. "You feel as if you are falling off the edge of everybody's radar, and it's frightening you," my husband said, and he's right.

I know what the pundits will say about Madonna. Good for her. But it's all very well, she's the boss. What about the rest of us? And we'll point a finger at employers and politicians who refuse to implement family-friendly working policies, put the blame on anybody else but ourselves. Perhaps we could start looking for the answers closer to home. Next time you meet somebody who makes their own marzipan, ignore the rubber underpants on her head, and show a little respect.