Mother of battles

WHAT ABOUT US? An Open Letter to the Mothers Feminism Forgot by Maureen Freely, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99
THERE was just one thing that bothered me about Maureen Freely when I started reading What About Us?, her new book on feminism: how could this woman enter into a discourse on sisterhood, when not so long ago she revealed the details of her affair with another woman's husband in a chirpy newspaper article, complete with references to adulterous fellatio performed on a train? ("I did what I had to do to get what I wanted," declared Ms Freely at the time.) But it's hardly an act of female solidarity, is it?

As it turns out, Freely's new book is not about how to be a good feminist but, at least in part, an endearingly honest account of her own failings as a feminist. With comic, barely controlled hysteria, she documents the difficulties of staying in control of her complicated household: comprising Frank (formerly the other woman's husband), his two children from his first marriage, her two children from her first marriage and the two children conceived in their current relationship.

"So this is what it's come to," she writes despairingly. "Once I assumed I knew exactly how to change the world. Now I just get through the day." And getting through the day, as Freely understands it, is not simply a matter of trying to work whilst maintaining precarious domestic arrangements; she also finds herself conducting "an interior monologue, which, if I transcribed it, would read like a women's page run amok ... If I leave the house without clearing up the breakfast dishes, I'm a pushover, because really I should have asked Frank. If he clears them without my asking, then I'm luckier, at least according to the latest statistics, than 97% of women in this country. If I forget to thank him, I'm a shrew. If I do thank him, I'm setting up the expectation that household chores, if he does them, are favours and not duties, and so I become my own worst enemy."

And those are just her thoughts on the washing up; negotiating the path of motherhood is even more of a minefield. Is she neglecting the children by working too hard? Is she a good role-model? Why does she have to change so many nappies? And even though she loves her babies dearly, how on earth did she end up this way?

It does not take long for Freely to decide that the reason she has failed as a feminist is because feminism - by ignoring the needs of motherhood - has failed her. Now 43 years old, she observes: "When I was at university, the woman's movement was dominated by women 15 years older than I who were desperate to escape from motherhood. Now it is dominated by women 15 years younger than I who hardly seem to realise that it exists."

In order to prove her point, Freely takes us on a gallop through feminist theory: starting with Simone de Beauvoir, who believed that motherhood was a condition to be avoided by any woman who sought to be "authentic"; followed by Betty Friedan, who wrote that mothers should get out of the house in order to avoid a "massive sickness of sex without self"; and then on to Germaine Greer, who said that the bond between mother and child was "an introverted relationship of mutual exploitation".

And it gets no better with the new wave of feminists: Susan Faludi, Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe. "They're outside playing 'Let's Just Pretend It Isn't Happening'," fumes Maureen Freely, with some justification (though this may change now that Naomi Wolf is pregnant). "Let's just pretend that an entire generation of feminist mothers does not exist, or not in human form, anyway - having emerged from the labour ward with marshmallows for brains."

And she has a point. Susan Faludi, for example, in her book Backlash, seems to assume that all mothers want to work - for in her world it is work, and work alone, which truly defines our identities - and the only thing that stops women from working is the lack of daycare centres for children. Yet, as any working mother will testify, daycare does not solve the problems of the exhausted mother - or father, for that matter - who works a second, unpaid shift once they get home from the office or the factory floor. (Nor does it take into account the needs of children, who may wish to spend more time with their parents than full-time work allows, or of the parents who would rather be at home with their children.)

Unlike her feminist forebears, Freely does not suggest that we should simply avoid having children: she clearly enjoys motherhood, against all the odds. Indeed, once she had recovered from the shock of having her first child, she realised that it had not turned her into the inauthentic failure that the early feminist canon deems most mothers to be. "In fact, I was in control of my life. And the baby's life. And as the months passed, I had managed to create out of chaos an intermittently pleasing and harmonious routine. My life with the baby was taking shape. My life had purpose."

No, the problem as she sees it is not motherhood, but the inability of modern society to accommodate it. Feminism has failed us - and everyone else has failed us, too: employers who sack mothers during maternity leave; politicians who fail to protect mothers with employment law; a school system that does not fit in with the schedules of full-time employment; the lack of affordable child care; the rising cost of living, which means that most households now need two wage-earners simply in order to survive.

Little wonder, then, says Freely, that the Nineties woman is so frazzled: trying to be a satisfactory mother, wife, housekeeper and career-woman at the same time as preserving a modicum of sanity. The picture that she paints is a familiar one: it could be me, or her, or any number of fraught middle-class women who grew up expecting to Have It All, and discovered that there was no time to do any of it properly.

Of course, there are women who have always faced these problems: the working-class mothers who have had no choice but to work - for economic reasons, rather than feminist ones - and also look after their children. Their plight was largely ignored by Betty Friedan, who assumed that her readers had the luxury to stay at home; and by subsequent feminist authors, including, to an extent, Freely herself. Not that you can blame her: she has filled a book by making her personal story political - which is, for all its flaws, perhaps the most effective form of feminism available.