Harriet Walker: Guess what? Women don't want it all

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The Independent Online

There's something about January that brings out my inner housewife. Not that I have a sudden urge to iron pillowcases, you understand; simply that I'd rather not have to get up and go to work. I can only imagine how this malaise really starts to pinch when going to work also entails leaving behind small people who dote on you and want to hold your hand all day and going to work is an irritating eight hours away from a home that takes 24 hours to maintain.

A new book out this week by Gaby Hinsliff, a former former political editor of The Observer, explores the inescapable tug of war and conscience, that most modern women face between desk and duty, career and carer.

Half A Wife: The Working Family's Guide To Getting A Life Back doesn't offer easy solutions – in fact, Hinsliff took the rather extreme step of giving up her demanding day-job and concentrating on work that allowed her to spend time with her children – but it offers a depth of understanding and empathy that working women are crying out for.

Hinsliff highlights precisely the difficulties, not to mention absurdities, of the daily transformation from world-saving, war-crying boardroom battleaxe to beatific, nappy-changing nursery playmate. And she notes something that many have not dared utter before: women don't want it all. Anyone who actively courted so schizophrenic a life would be, well, schizophrenic. Everyday existence shouldn't be this hard.

But our lives are still run on the outmoded assumption that work happens from 9 to 6 and family slots in around it. This was the case when men won bread and women sat at home taking antidepressants, but more often than not, men now want to be with their children, too. And women don't want to have to give up the career they have crafted so carefully simply because they are mothers.

The "half a wife" of the title is the model Hinsliff arrives at: both parents should create the ideal between them, rather than women trying to do everything. It already works like this elsewhere: in France women are not expected to drop everything for their children; in The Netherlands, where fewer than 25 per cent of women earn enough even to be considered financially independent; in Finland and Iceland, where parents may share the leave between them.

Could it work in Britain? Probably not. Young couples can't afford housing, they can't afford childcare, they work longer hours than anyone else in Europe, slogging away to provide what little they can for themselves and their families. From this much it's clear: the problem isn't having it all, but not having enough in the first place.