Morals, matrimony and money

Lack of money creates problems in families, but it's not the reason they are breaking down
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The Independent Culture
AS A working mother with a workaholic husband, a toddler and two young stepchildren, it's not often that I have time to leaf through the many magazines that are ostensibly published to cater for women such as myself. Yesterday, though, I made an exception, and hunkered down with a copy of Prima, the German-owned woman's monthly which became a surprise market-leader when it launched in the UK in the mid-Eighties.

God, it was exhausting. Forget about actually reading the features. Let's concentrate on a few of the tips for completing an action-packed Prima- style February.

Teach your children about sex using the Internet. Try a great new lotion for getting rid of their head lice. Stop using commercial baby food because it may cause allergies. Hit the streets to shop for your spring wardrobe. Get your Valentine's Day celebrations sorted out. Take your body language in hand. Sew exotic cushions. Co-ordinate your desk with fancy filing trays and matching pen-holders. Plant a Zen garden. Make a colonial cupboard/a chopstick frame/Chinese candles/lacquer boxes/laminated place mats /lampshades/ blinds. Give to charity. Organise a sponsored event for charity. Double-check your car's safety and security. Improve the lifestyle of the family dog. Get yourself a new hairdo. Do more exercise, in a dynamic and highly disciplined new regime. Varnish your nails better. Make a complete weekend wardrobe with the free patterns provided. Go on a diet. Knit an outdoor jacket using the instructions below. Change your food shopping habits to create healthier family meals. Redecorate your home from top to bottom. Develop imaginative themes for your children's parties. Find child care that works for you so that you can really focus when you're at work. Self-diagnose simple ailments and get yourself down to the chemist. Cut your cancer risk. Cook dinner in 10 minutes. Go on holiday. Read. Go to the cinema. Go to the theatre. Hire a video. And, of course, consult the stars to see what effect all this self-improvement may have on your future.

So far I've ticked off one thing on this list. I've consulted my stars. This is what they say: "You're under more pressure than you ever thought possible and something urgent has to happen to sort the situation out. Yet you're up against a rule that can't be broken, a factor that won't budge or a person who won't co-operate. It's all down to the combined influence of Saturn, Mars and Mercury. This is a tense time but it's also highly constructive as it will force you to do one of the bravest things you've ever done and afterwards you'll never look back."

I think you'll agree that what my stars are telling me to do is pretty obvious. That's right. I'm going to strike the Zen garden option off my list. No, sod it, I'm going to chuck Prima straight into the bin without acting on any of its advice. (Well, I'm going to tear out the page with the nit-lotion company number on it, but that's definitely where I stop.) Anyway, the one thing I bought the damned magazine for isn't there.

Earlier this week Prima released a wide-ranging survey investigating its readers' attitudes towards family life in Britain, prompted by an interview the magazine's editor, Lindsay Nicholson, had conducted with Tony Blair. Though the survey results aren't in fact published in this month's Prima, the survey's findings hit the headlines elsewhere because 71 per cent of Prima readers said home life had become "less satisfying", while 89 per cent of them claimed that "balancing home life and work was tougher now", with 41 per cent citing the reason for this as "not enough time". (Presumably the other 59 per cent do have a Zen garden.)

The rest of the media greeted these revelations with shock, which can only be because they don't understand what Prima women are trying to achieve - old-fashioned, all-singing, all-dancing, knitting, sewing, baking, sampler-stitching wife-and-motherhood, in combination with work, Zen gardening and community health care. Instead they promptly linked Prima's findings with an authoritative report by the Mental Health Foundation saying that one in five children suffers mental health problems, and with William and Ffion Hague's launch of National Marriage Week.

The latter link is the more obvious and straightforward, since another finding of the Prima survey was that 78 per cent of women questioned considered marriage to be "vital for stable family life", while 80 per cent felt that tax advantages were the best motivation for couples to enter into and remain in marriage. Enter Mr Hague, with a speech to Sussex Tories signalling new tax policies designed to reward married couples and women who stay at home to care for their families. (Not a choice that William and Ffion themselves have had to work though during their own brief union, but hey, we all understand that the examples political families set on these occasions have narrow limits.)

A good result for Prima readers, but not necessarily so great for the children suffering from mental health problems. The MHF's report cited 21 risk factors, 10 of which are linked to problems in the family, and particularly affect the children of broken families. Hague's argument may be that with his tax advantages, fewer families will be broken; but since the cost of divorce is financially devastating anyway and doesn't seem to put people off too much, it's difficult to see how a few extra quid a year will make much of an impact.

An added kick in the teeth to children is that 68 per cent of Prima readers believe single mothers should be encouraged to work (as well as knit, and make their own clothes, delicious dinners, etc), presumably so that the money they'd otherwise be scrounging off the state can be instead be diverted to like-minded married folk such as, say, Tony and Cherie Blair, who can squirrel this dosh away along with their family allowance to provide spending-money during holidays in the Seychelles.

Which brings us to another of the problems of further rewarding those who are financially affluent anyway. Already dual-income family units have forced up the cost of living - particularly when it comes to property prices - to the point where a family living on around pounds 30,000 a year can barely afford to purchase a tiny one-bedroom flat in London. Fiddling further with financial inequalities will create as many problems as it solves, and while tax relief for hard-pressed families should be welcomed, financial rewards for comfortably off people who happen to be married are surely a frivolous waste of public money.

Lack of money certainly creates problems in families, but it is not the major reason why they are breaking down, and it is not going to be the means by which we stick them back together again. Instead, an answer to the difficulties women find in balancing home, family and work can be found by flicking through the male equivalent of Prima. There is, of course, no such thing, although the nearest magazine on the market appears to be Esquire, which calls itself "the sharper read for men".

So what do we have here? Our guide to playboys and playmates. Sex and the C-spot. Catherine Zeta Jones on a rug. What it's like to have a heart attack. How to cheat at cards. Arsenal ladies team. Fear in a glass - the pint cocktail. Pick of the kit for the ultimate bloke's pad. And so on. No babies, no child care, no relationships, no parenting, no knitting, no sewing, no Zen gardens, no 10-minute dinners, and no stars. No idea what the future may hold for married men, or for the children these "men" must someday vaguely assume they'll have.

I don't know which is more damaging - the absurd demands placed on women by Prima, or the absurd denial of demands placed on men by Esquire. But I do know that it's in the space between these fantasies that families fall apart. It's a space that can be filled by mature reflection on how men and women can really make an equal world in which our children can thrive. But it can't be filled by tax breaks.

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