The Bitch in the House: Meet Attila the honey

A new book lifts the lid on an explosive social phenomenon: the angry working woman. This time, it's not about feminism, though, says Caroline Stacey. It's about unwashed socks
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The Independent Culture

Once, wimmin were angry. Angry about inequality, childcare, abortion, the bigger than bra-burning issues of the 1970s. Now, we're getting ourselves into a lather again. And what is it about, this anger that it is becoming all the rage to express?

Once, wimmin were angry. Angry about inequality, childcare, abortion, the bigger than bra-burning issues of the 1970s. Now, we're getting ourselves into a lather again. And what is it about, this anger that it is becoming all the rage to express?

What started as understandable ululations of feminist dissatisfaction – parodied in Private Eye in a way guaranteed to make even the palest-pink sister see red – has changed expression. Scowls of discontent are spreading across the professional, post-feminist sorority.

Feeling permanently frustrated and irritated, professional working women – most vociferously, those with children – are coming out and saying it. Especially writers who hammer away at home among the deep litter of small plastic toys, struggling to polish their stories about combining home and work, while fighting off the menace of finger-paints and Froobs in the background. It's not pretty, it's sometimes funny, and it, being an originally American admission, often involves truths arrived at through therapy.

In The Bitch in the House, published by Viking this month, 26 women out themselves in a wry, hand-wringing, disenchanted but mainly optimistic collection that is already ringing bells with women over here as insistently as a toddler with a novelty whistle. It's not, "I don't know how she does it?", so much as, "Help, I'm telling you I just can't do it".

"Here I am in the domestic wasteland, turning more and more shrewish by the moment," says Elissa Schappell in "Crossing the Line in the Sand: How Mad Can Mother Get", the essay that most struck a chord with me. "Some days, it seems that all I do is yell at my kids, then apologise for yelling at them, then feel guilty for being such a lousy mother, then start to feel resentful about being made to feel like a bad mother."

There used to be a collective anger, with some dignity, and a common purpose. Women's causes. Now, we rail alone against the teetering piles of impossible targets facing each of us every day. Who has the energy to be angry about real injustices, when we're running between work and home, assaulted the minute we move from the ordered adult world to the chaotic domestic one? "I don't get angry in the office, but I take it out on them at home", is a typical verdict, from an English lawyer friend. "Now, would you get off the phone, I've got a wash to put on and a report to write." When you can't admit that life's out of control at work, whoever is behind the domestic front door will bear the brunt.

"Authority at home has to be earned on an hourly basis," says Lissa, who comes home from managing a motivated team, to put an intractable toddler to bed. Each transaction – cleaning teeth, climbing a flight of stairs – has to be patiently negotiated. That's when the continually buzzing tinnitus of tiredness and irritation flares up without warning into a high-pitched crescendo of rage.

We may be ashamed of our fury, but incidents can be retold – fast, there isn't time to hang about chatting, that's why I snap so – in the competitive confessional. We pass off our failings as parents as a joke, rolling our eyes in exasperation that isn't mock. There's a one-upwomanship involved; those of us who do paid work, too, like to show we have our mind on other things. Sample some blithe admissions of dereliction on the domestic front: the drive to McDonald's for Sunday lunch because there was nothing else to eat; the pyjama top worn instead of a clean shirt; nits breeding in hair unwashed for weeks; and larvae in the flour for the Hallowe'en disco fairy-cakes. (I own up to three out of four of these.) Behind the clenched-teeth humour is the resentment that it should always be our – not the father's – responsibility for cooking Sunday lunch, combing hair and cleaning clothes.

How did the fishwife get her reputation? Or the battle-axe? There have always been women bold enough to display bad temper brought on by the fecklessness of men and the pressure of poverty. Now that we have the chance to voice frustrations in ways that our mothers never did – creative writing course, anyone? – middle-class women are appropriating the feelings of the genuinely oppressed and exhausted. But, though it's true we haven't much to complain about, we're mainly mad because of the impossible demands on our time.

Greta Colman, a senior registered practitioner with the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, finds that the women in many of the couples that she sees are angry because they expect more from relationships. At work, they expect recognition and equal pay, yet they still have to put up with sexism. When the expected equality is not met, the response will range from irritation to full-out shaking with fury, the whole cluster of emotions under the anger umbrella.

Our mothers, and the earlier feminists, felt more general resentment, but not personally let down. Not the fury of realising that the unwritten contract is quickly forgotten by one of the "signatories". "I didn't apply for this job, arranging the holidays, buying the birthday cards for his family as well as mine and all the children's friends, on top of washing, childcare, shopping and cooking," ranted Jane – the GP with three children and a husband who seems to jump on a plane at the drop of a dirty sock – outside school this morning.

When Shelton Kartun set up anger-management courses ( www.angerandstress.co.uk) two years ago, he never expected that half the places would be taken by women. "There is less shame around women being aggressive and snappy," he believes. "Anger is like a pressure-cooker. Everyone who bottles it up will eventually explode." But what about when you're constantly exploding? "The more demands are made on us, the more the stress, and that predisposes us more to anger. And women are experiencing higher levels of stress than ever before."

So we may not be angry about anything more than the amount we're expected to cope with. Which seems a good enough reason to be angry. But with whom? Only, in many cases, ourselves for being unable to delegate hanging up the washing because he won't shake the wrinkles out first. "And hormonal changes and menopause also predispose, as does hunger and tiredness..." Oh shut up, why don't you? Sorry, Shelton, I suddenly felt tired and cross. "Children have become more demanding because they're more materialistic and have learnt how to manipulate." More annoying, in other words. And it's not just my children.

"Anger itself is not a problem. It's a natural human emotion like fear and happiness. Anger is there to tell the person something is wrong. The problem," adds Kartun, "is when it's out of control or expressed inappropriately." Anger might be justified, but losing your temper isn't, not when you shout yourself hoarse and give yourself a headache.

So who did leave that bowl of half-eaten cereal on the floor? Bugger, where do we keep the floorcloth? Why aren't there any lightbulbs? Or bread? Who on earth is ringing at this time of night? Where's the mobile-phone charger? The homework? Don't just stand there... At the end of a typical evening's outburst, my husband-equivalent will, quite rightly, utter his usual mantra: "Count your blessings." How infuriating is that?

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