Sisterhood of the failed killer babes

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The Independent Culture
I AM writing this at my desk in the corner of the living-room. To one side is a recently dismantled Lego space station; to the other is a plastic fire engine, a police car, a rubber dino-saur with its tail missing, and a broken rescue helicopter. This is not the way I once imagined I would live. Fifteen years ago, when I had just arrived at University, I had a room of my own, and I read A Room Of One's Own, and I sat in my room and talked to my friends about Feminism and the Meaning of Life and our (we hoped) Brilliant Careers.

In those days, I lived in an almost exclusively female household. Now, I live with three men (well, two small boys and a husband), and I fear that I have become that most pathetic of species, a failed feminist. These failings were made manifest last week, when I had to fill in a form for my son's school about parental skills that might come in handy in the classroom. I put down for myself: writing; cooking. I put down for my husband: music; woodwork. He makes the shelves in our house; I make the dinner.

I rang up Antonia, my best friend from university, who now successfully combines having two children with having a full-time job, and I said, "I can't believe what has happened to me." I told her that I couldn't concentrate on writing because of the sea of Lego and broken toys that surrounded me; and that anyway, my brain had turned into porridge after several years of sleep deprivation.

"Was I always like this?" I asked her, between mouthfuls of a family- sized Cadbury's Fruit & Nut bar.

"You've simply matured," she said, comfortingly. Then she reminded me that the meetings of the Selwyn College women's group, which we had regularly attended in our three years at Cambridge, revolved mainly around large quantities of chocolate biscuits and gossip. I had, in fact, forgotten about the women's group (hardly surprising, given that I can't remember what I did last week).

"Everyone used to sit around and talk about their boyfriends and orgasms," she said.

"I'm sure I didn't," I said. "I didn't, did I?"

"Well, in a small way," said Antonia, tactfully. "Not in the full spirit of confession."

According to Antonia, I'm not really a failed feminist, just part of a new kind of sisterhood. I think she's right, and it's called motherhood. I know women have been doing it for years (thousands and thousands of years), without making a fuss about it. But just as we stumbled into sex when we were teenagers, and talked about how to do it because we thought we were almost the first girls in the world to make this revolutionary discovery ("I bought him a Valentine's card, but he says he wants a bonk..."), now we compare notes on our fumbling attempts to bring up our children ("I bought him a baby doll, but he says he wants a new Power Ranger...").

There is some further discussion about sex (or the lack of it, due to exhaustion/babies in parental bed/plummeting self-esteem). The subject of careers also arises (and, for similar reasons, the lack of them, too). I do not know anyone who goes to a women's group: but you can see small impromptu female gatherings outside the school gates; and beside the sand-pit; and in the greengrocer's queue.

Does this mean that we are in need of a good dose of radical feminism? ("Repeat after me: I am not simply a mother, I am a serious person in my own right.") Possibly. But I'm not sure what practical use this would be. The most helpful advice was given to me by two older women, both in their late forties, who said that if you can afford it, taking off five or six years when your children are small is a positive boon to a career because, when you return to work, you are overjoyed to have escaped there from your kitchen, and, as a result, everyone thinks you are new and brilliant and full of abundant energy.

One of these women, who now has a very grand job in a publishing company, says that she looks around at the younger women in her office, and pities them. "The twentysomethings are usually having unsatisfactory love affairs, and half the time they're too distraught to concentrate on their work," she says. "And the thirtysomethings have babies and are racked with guilt about leaving them with a nanny or a childminder, and they're too tired to think straight." (As for the men, she concludes simply, "they're all burnt out by 45.")

The trouble is, many of my friends with young children have no choice but to go to work, whether they want to or not, because their mortgages are based on two incomes. Would feminism solve their problems? No, not at all. ("Repeat after me. I can work 50 hours a week in the office, and 90 hours at home. I am a Superwoman!")

But where do we go from here? According to my friend Debbie, the answer is to marry a man who has all the qualities of a very efficient au pair (or maybe simply divorce the husband, and move in with the au pair). My sister-in-law takes a more robust view.

"For goodness sake, get a life, Justine!" She said to me last week. "Go out and buy yourself a sequinned bikini!"

She may well be right. The only trouble is, would I look convincingly modern if I suddenly needed to eat some chocolate or cook the children's dinner while wearing my new spangly bikini? Sadly, I think not: which means that I'm a failed post-feminist, too.

Perhaps I could start a new self-help group for women like me... "Repeat after me: tomorrow I will wear diamant hot-pants and grind my children's Lego beneath my 7in-high patent stiletto heels. Tomorrow I will be empowered. Tomorrow I will cast off the dull shackles of motherhood and transform myself into a ... killer babe!" !