Having it all - the housewife makes a comeback

We may sneer at childless women who don't work, but are we secretly jealous? ISABEL BERWICK makes the case for the corporate wife
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Maybe you have a friend who has time for everything. She puts your shambolic life to shame by getting up early to go to the gym, taking French lessons, reading hardback books, and devoting herself to her husband, family and friends. Frankly, she makes you feel pretty useless.

The reason for your harried existence and her glossy magazine lifestyle is about 40 hours a week. For this woman doesn't go to work. She's member of a new breed: the Born-Again Housewives.

These women used to have great jobs, but they've packed in the high-powered career and are supported by their wealthy husbands. Twenty five years ago, they would have been considered commonplace. In 1975 only half of married women aged 25-34 had any paid income. By 1996, three in four married women of this age are employed and we can assume most of the rest don't work because they're looking after their children. But the young, married, childless woman who doesn't work does exist. Indeed, I am meeting them in increasing numbers.

Admit it: you're annoyed. Many of us resent the kind of woman who can spend her day doing up the house or return to college to do a course that's always interested her while the rest of us toil on as wage slaves. But why do we hate it ? Are we jealous because they have snagged rich men? Or is it legitimate anger at women who have betrayed the hard-won gains we've achieved in the workplace in the last 50 years?

Ironically, I could have been one of these women. My boyfriend at university gave up on an academic career and reinvented himself as one of the "rocket scientists" who power American banks. (To give you some idea of his salary, I now earn the same amount as he did seven years ago when he was starting out. Less the bonus, of course.)

For several years I lived the life of the corporate girlfriend: evenings making small talk to his colleagues, weekends spent socialising at hotels chosen for their golf courses. There were swanky restaurants, taxis everywhere, catered parties in antiques-laden Chelsea townhouses.

I was useless at it all. I had cheap clothes, no make-up and (worst sin of all for all the American clients I was supposed to schmooze) very short hair. The low point came on a corporate weekend at one of the country's most expensive hotels. One of the bankers vomited onto the carpet in the hotel bar during a pounds 50-a round drinking game. I decided that there had to be better ways to spend a Saturday night.

And yet, sometimes I look back and wonder what my life would have been like if I'd stayed with the banker. Certainly all the Nineties housewives I spoke to for this piece said repeatedly that they feel healthier, fitter and mentally happier than they ever did when they were stuck in an office for eight (or more like 12) hours a day. They even eat better food - "I don't have to buy aged mushrooms from the corner shop, I can buy fresh every day," Laura, 30, says. She gave up her City career last year to follow her husband's posting to Eastern Europe, and is expecting her first child: "You exercise more, and even though I am pregnant I feel fitter and healthier than I ever did in London. "

A non-working partner can take care of all the time-consuming drudgery: the housekeeping, shopping and bill-paying. No more traipsing round Sainsbury's on a hellish Saturday morning. No need to rush to late night shopping to buy a birthday present. And time to cook an evening meal when your beloved comes home from the office. It reads like a page from a 1950s manual for young wives but it obviously makes for a less stressful life, fewer rows, and the chance to do exactly what you want with your spare time.

But surely it's boring to pay bills and supervise the cleaner when you used to have a high-rolling job? Afraid not. "So many of my friends said they'd never quit work - and they said I would be bored in two weeks," remembers Trish Crofts who left her job in a large advertising agency six months ago. "But to tell you the truth, I have not been bored for one second." Organising her wedding and househunting have kept her more than busy she says.

Sometimes it's a really mundane problem which persuades a woman to give up her half of a hefty dual income. Mary, 32, has just quit as a corporate lawyer earning six figures. She had been unhappy for some time but the decision was triggered when she and her husband, who works in the City, found they didn't have the time to go house-hunting.

Her story offers support to the case that the modern phenomenon of the "ex-career" wife springs not from graduate slackers who want to give up and look for the perfect shade of distressed paint; but rather from our obsession with working too hard. Mary says: "We just realised you don't need two of you slogging it out. Why have two people getting up at 6am and getting home at 7.30pm? You both have a lack of time for other parts of your life."

The wider problem for the future, she suggests, is that most men don't get the choice of whether to give up work or not. "It is still more sensible for the woman to give up work - although my husband would be happy to do it. Now everyone works really hard and if they are men they have to continue. We discussed him giving up work but I would be resentful if he didn't work and I did - that's my character. But he would be fine at home."

Women who have given up work know they are targets for undisguised hostility from contemporaries. Trish Crofts was aware of a feeling that she was "sponging" off her partner, Graham - who owns an advertising agency - when she announced she was quitting. But she doesn't feel there's anything to apologise for or justify: "We are a team, and he agreed that if I wasn't getting job satisfaction then I should take a break."

The revenge for those of us still slogging it out in the office is that no one is going to look impressed when you tell them you spend your days running a home and a relationship. You don't even have the excuse of children as a legitimate reason for being at home. And for previous high-flyers who have given up work, loss of status can hit hard.

According to Laura: "It was difficult to begin with when people asked me `What do you do?' and I said I didn't actually do anything. Then you realise it's frightening how much you identify with your job." But she admits she had a good excuse for not working: "I think moving abroad makes it easier. I don't know that I would have had the courage to give up and live in the same town where all my friends live and still work."

Loss of economic power is terrifying when you have been used to having your own money. Mary won't give up her work altogether for that reason. Losing the day job has given her the chance to think about new moves and she is due to start freelance writing for specialist publications: "To earn nothing would be a terrible shock," she says. The idea behind this move is to create a sustainable new income source for when she has children.

However, Laura, living away from the relentless pressure of London life, doesn't feel so upset about the loss of economic power. "I don't notice it. When you get married you agree to support each other, so if one of you doesn't work the money is shared."

But what happens if you do give up work and it all goes wrong? Non-working wives have traditionally had a poor deal when they get divorced. If you are not working you can't pay into a pension, and too many women with well-off husbands fail to make alternative investments. The Government has delayed (probably until 2004) much-needed legislation to give divorced wives an immediate entitlement to take over half of their ex-husband's pension fund, which can run to a million pounds in even fairly unspectacular jobs.

The women I spoke to seemed confident and self-assured about their finances, despite the fact that to an outsider it looks as though they're in an incredibly vulnerable position. Mary, for instance, knows a couple where the inbalance has caused problems - "I have heard a friend of mine turn on his wife and say `Who brings the money into this house?'" - but she doesn't think the same conversation will ever happen in her own relationship. "It has to be a joint decision between you and your husband. If I'd felt that I was going to lose bargaining power in the marriage I would never have given up my job."

Meanwhile in America, "corporate wives" are starting to be recognised by American courts. Last year Lorna Wendt won a record $20m settlement from her husband of 32 years, the head of giant investment company GE Capital. She spent some of this money setting up the Institution for Equality in Marriage - a think-tank dedicated to getting marriage recognised as a "partnership of equals", regardless of whether both partners work.

My life with the banker seems like a long time ago now and, looking back, I feel fortunate that we kept our finances, and flats, strictly separate. I'm happily married now to a scruffy, non-City man who suits me much better. But if he ever makes it rich I might just be the first in the queue at the John Lewis curtain department on a Monday morning. Maybe I'll see you there.