Ms Barnes takes a break

Successful women with careers and children live lives their mothers would never even have dreamt of. So why are they miserable?

Last week Brenda Barnes, the 43-year-old chief executive of Pepsi-Cola earning $2m (pounds 1.25m) a year, decided that she couldn't actually have it all. She wants to spend more time with her three school-age children.

Her move is a clear echo of the decision by Penny Hughes, the British head of Pepsi's arch rival Coca-Cola, to quit her pounds 250,000-a-year job three years ago to have a baby. Among the high-flyers, they are exceptions. Nicola Horlick, the pounds 1m-a-year pension fund manager with five children and a dedicated nanny, Joan Buckfield, is more representative, but the rules may be changing.

Stories about the best-paid women always make the papers. We hear less about women muddling through, not earning mega-money, but doing full-time, demanding jobs, bringing upchildren, sustaining some sort of relationship with a partner, and being expected to feel "empowered" by it. They don't. They feel exhausted.

Jenny is an example of someone who seems sure of her ability to cope with what life throws at her. She is a junior solicitor in a West End firm with a good salary and a solid future; she is married to a similarly successful and emotionally sensitive man; their two children are healthy, reasonably bright and settled in the early years of school; she does not have cancer, or a parent with Alzheimer's; there is no threat of foreclosure on her four-bedroom house in a leafy part of south-west London. And yet, she is not "confident". Jenny fails to feel good about herself.

She doubts her ability ever to equal the clout, never mind the salary, of the loud-mouthed balding bloke who joined her firm at the same time as she did, but is whizzing up the fast lane ahead of her. Should she compete? Try some sly stuff? Or go part-time and do without the grief? She doesn't know what to do when a senior partner appraises her legs when she crosses them in meetings. Slap him? Or use it to get on herself?

Equally worrying is whether she can pull off the roast woodcock from Ruth Rogers and Rosie Gray's River Cafe Cook Book 2 for a dinner party that's coming up. Tomorrow she'll drop the kids early, find a park near that organic poultry place, and order some rucola at the local deli. But if her friend Jemima, a fund manager with a foreign bank and three children, did it, and fabulously, so must she.

Pretty, in a well-maintained sort of way, Jenny is increasingly perplexed that, in spite of lunch-time gym sessions, her bottom is too large for the curvy clothes she wants to buy. Of course these are not for work, though she notices that the other, younger female associates are less conservative - so now she is worried over whether she looks old-fashioned.

Lately, she's lain awake at night, wondering whether her children are getting all the stimulation they need from the Australian nanny she hired through an ad in TNT. She checked four of the references, but what if the fifth one was the story all mothers dread - of child abuse and starvation. Meanwhile her husband, Roger, sleeps peacefully on.

There is never enough space to list all the differences between male and female behaviour, or to start to understand what they mean. The shelves of any bookshop show that questions about gender have kept some women, and a few men, very busy for about 30 years now. But, hearing the story of Jenny and the many women like her, you have to wonder where has it got us? Are women any happier about themselves?

Much headway has been made since women began to toss off those yokes of oppression that once we were all born with. But the female template then was cut in a way that seems almost enviable now. You knew what was expected: look pretty, sew well and act sweet, to attract a "good" husband. This was not always because you were crazy for the man, but because it would liberate you from the tyranny of being a daughter who was expected to defer to every male, from father on down. Once you were married, things weren't very different anyway, since you had the legal status of a dependent minor, like some five-year-old with ringlets, and expected to be just as ditsy.

You've come a long way baby, what with the recent decades' advances in contraception (and abortion), changes to the laws of marriage and divorce, vastly improved health services for mothers and their children, employment opportunities, established practices against sexual harassment. Every week brings news which indicates that - for many working women in this country - things are only getting better. Those of us who work full-time now earn 80 per cent of our male counterparts' incomes, a figure that has been climbing slowly since the 1975 Equal Pay Act and is now higher than that of a comparable survey in the United States. In an international survey, workers claimed to prefer female bosses. The number of women MPs doubled at the May election and now Liberal-Democrat women have pushed through a new system to encourage more women candidates. And these examples are just from the last fortnight.

But rather than gain confidence from such news, many middle-class women are finding that their lives have become even more demanding as they are "allowed" more freedom. American lifestyle guru Martha Stewart says you should spend five minutes on each place setting when entertaining; schools are demanding that parents - they mean mothers - become increasingly involved in extra-curricular activities; the husbands of today, faced with a barrage of "Hello boys"-style advertising, expect a full and frank sex life. All those theories about being liberated to assert ourselves, find independent interests, gain confidence in our own decisions and opinions seem to have led to more confusion over what women are "meant" to be.

Irish writer Clare Boylan wrote recently in the Guardian, "Little girls are still cast naked into the world and desperately in search of a costume." As a child in the Fifties, she felt she could choose from two futures: "Single and caught up in the desperate and comic search for a husband, or married and enduring the claustrophobia of stay-at-home wives. Now the apparent range of choices has widened the chasm before which the insecure adolescent stands."

Whose life then seems best to sum up the mix of push and pull, meek and assertive, genuine and fabulously fake that makes up the modern woman? A recent survey of sixth formers at some of Britain's leading girls' schools plucked out high-profile working mothers Cherie Blair, Hillary Clinton, Nicola Horlick and, er, Pamela Anderson in the premier league. Sweetly topping the polls, however, with twice the number of votes than other contenders were the girls' own mothers. Sadly, the survey didn't tell us just how their mothers defined themselves - housewife superstar? corporate raider? - though it did add that most of the girls thought that combining motherhood and work was perfectly normal.

Grown-up women, who have left the sixth form far behind, are hard-pressed to choose whom to emulate: Boylan's chasm of choice is still awesome. The options are so many and varied, but we do seem to think women have to make a fist of them all, like Jane Asher, who appears to be hands-on mother, business woman, novelist and actress, seductive wife and probably good in the garden too. And then we resent them for beingcapable of turning such acrobatic twists while keeping all these balls in the air.

Men can fantasise that they score like David Beckham or serve like Pete Sampras without asking that their hero also be clever, or nice, or good at DIY. Women want their heroines to be the whole package. To work, nurture, support, feed, care for - and look like they'd spent all day in the Harvey Nichols Aveda spa. Today's women expect a lot from the women they wannabe and increasingly find themselves failing to measure up to the fantasy.

Smart thirty-something achievers today wouldn't choose Hillary Clinton as a role model, for example. Not so much because of Bill's infidelities, but they wouldn't want her legs or hair or dress sense. And - brilliant career, family, marriage, etc notwithstanding - they would probably say something similar about Cherie Blair.

Mary Riddell of the New Statesman claimed the reason she didn't rate women like Cherie Blair and Nicola Horlick is that they were "anachronisms" from a previous decade: "juggling is inevitably a part of most women's lives. But the full eight-balls-in-the-air Chipperfields special is now seen far less as a pinnacle of achievement than as a slog to be side-stepped or delegated."

Their "excellence" might throw us into a fit of self-doubt, but it doesn't mean that what they're doing is wrong. It's very British - and very female - to play up one's own failures and down one's achievements; although that kind of behaviour isn't going to get you a pay rise, nor convince your partner that your job is as important as his, and that he should stay home with the sick child for once.

Now that so few of us can easily define what elements it takes to be a "successful" grown-up woman today - and so know what everyone else is supposed to make of us - maybe it's time that we checked the role models and, having done so, set our own flawed but largely livable existences on a pedestal, in the style of the American sitcom Cybill. She works, she has children, she gets the odd date, and sinks the odd souffle. I just wish she'd stop wearing that brown lipstick.

Incidentally, Penny Hughes, who left that pounds 250,000 job at Coke to have a baby, is back at work.

Louise Chunn is features director of `Vogue'.

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