When two careers collide: Can working couples make happy families? Geraldine Bedell reports

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IS IT such a good idea to educate women? When I got into university, my mother worried that it would make me unhappy. She was thrilled too, so she didn't tell me that she'd been worried until much later; besides, she knew she wouldn't have been worried if I'd been a boy, and she is an instinctive feminist.

But she knew it meant that I would probably expect to have a career, and that a career is incompatible with looking after a man and children as men and children most like to be looked after. What if this career took me to America, say, and my future, putative husband's career kept him in London? Who would give way? And who would make the house into a home and take time off when the children were sick? Whatever the solutions, they might very well make me unhappy. Or at the very least, exhausted.

My mother'sfears have proved well founded, not just for me, but for a whole generation of women. And for men too, who grew up seeing their fathers lavishly tended by their mothers, but know they can't expect the same of their own wives (while still, in some secret part of themselves, wishing that they could).

At the Conservative party conference, minister after minister seemed to be hammering home the message that we must bring back the happy nuclear family. But 65 per cent of women aged between 16 and 59 now work, most of them full-time. Of the million jobs which will be created between now and 2000, 90 per cent will be for women, the Department of Emloyment says. As a result, vast new areas of conflict have opened up in the home.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester, points out in his new book, The Workplace Revolution (written with Suzan Lewis), that many women have joined organisations in which 'long hours are equated with commitment, although there is no evidence that long hours increase productivity.'

Many women feel uncomfortable at joining in this boys' game, with its rules set by and for men who have massive domestic backup. They worry about whether it leaves them time and energy to be proper women. 'I feel a responsibility to be a good wife in the traditional sense,' says Gillian Roberts, who left accountants Ernst and Young for another accountancy job when she had a baby, as she was working a 70 hour week and being expected to be away much of the time.

'Someone has to take a step backwards for the sake of the family, and it's more socially acceptable, and more acceptable at work, for the woman to do it. Simply because my husband is a man, and people will assume he can give more to his job, he is likely to earn more than me in the long term, so it seems appropriate that I should take the domestic strain.'

Her husband, Miles Roberts, is an accountant with an engineering firm; he currently picks up their son from nursery two nights in three. 'Gillian's ideal would be to work part- time,' he says. Would he consider working part-time? 'I wouldn't mind. I think of Oliver as our joint responsibility. But I think it would be extremely difficult work for me to get - more so than for Gill. The majority of people who do work part-time are women; I'm not sure employers would be so amenable to the idea of a man doing it. Having said that, I haven't really tried. Perhaps I have rather traditional values after all . . .'

Some women react by trying to outplay the boys, and some boys don't like it. 'Intellectually, men support the idea of the new man; emotionally they find it quite tough,' says Professor Cooper. 'The caveman mentality lingers. And how many women are really prepared to accept an unsuccessful man? It's the big dilemma of the milennium.'

A successful wife 'is all very nice in theory, as long as she's still constantly available at home,' says Dommie Pettifer, a director of an advertising agency, whose eight-year marriage to a television journalist ended in the emotional chaos of trying to manage two careers in one family - 'and as long as she isn't too successful. I am certain that if I hadn't worked, we'd still be together. I had the potential to earn more and be more successful than my husband, but he resented that, and my job was supposed to take second place. I tried, I really did. I cooked every night, even if I was late back and he'd been at home all day.'

They divorced last year, and Dommie now lives with the director of another advertising agency. They have an understanding that for both of them, work comes first.

That sort of thing is much harder when there are children. 'I am constantly aware of having to be in two places at once, two people at once,' says Susie Henry, a creative director. 'Every other day I think about giving up. I have decided now that I can't have three children and work every day in the office at the same time.'

Her husband, Alex Field, runs his own company. 'When one of thechildren is ill I always say it can't be me who looks after them because I've got a business to run, but I always end up giving in,' he says. But he adds, 'My conscience is always pricked on Saturday morning, when I look at these three growing-up people and think how on earth did I manage to avoid them all week?'

Professor Cooper's dilemma becomes acute when the wife earns more, or one partner is offered a job involving a move. 'When I first met Susie, she was earning double what I earned,' says Alex Field. 'About five years ago I earned more, and now she's earning more than me. I think I felt more confident and happier when I earned more. Ultimately I would like to provide for both of us, so she could go off and write film scripts. I suppose at the end I'm just an old-fashioned chap.'

Alan Greene has a publishing company, and earns less than his wife, Pauline, an editorial director of a bigger firm, although when asked about this, he says: 'It's a difficult question, because there's an asset value on what I'm building up.' He adds that he would be happy to be kept by her.

Commuter marriages (telegamy in American-speak), can work, believes Professor Cooper, especially if the commuting is a short-term arrangement, 'although the problems come with re-entry. The person in the family home from Monday to Friday, usually the woman, has been running everything, and probably been effectively a single parent. It is quite difficult to adjust to having another person on the scene.'

Increasing numbers of people are resorting to living apart some of the time, although for many it remains highly undesirable: a travesty of marriage and a handicap to the career of the partner left in sole charge of the children.

Professor Anthony Neuberger of the London Business School, who is married to Rabbi Julia Neuberger, notes that 90 per cent of his profession is in the United States; he has never contemplated moving there because it would not be compatible with her career.

Steve Pipe, an accountant, woke in the night three days after he had returned to work from paternity leave, and decided 'that the roles of perfect father and perfect corporate player were in conflict. If I'd stayed in my job I would always have had to make compromises.' He handed in his notice and set up his own business. But his wife, Carol, had already decided to work part-time, and still shoulders most of the domestic load.

Cary Cooper sees something like Steve Pipe's response as the way forward - but he'd like to see it inside big companies. He thinks that companies must learn to accept that families are crucial to their employees' health, and cannot be sustained in the teeth of current pressures.

Professor Cooper is right, of course - but where driven, hard-working people are attracted to each other, domestic life is never going to be smooth.

Most couples who suffer the strain of dual careers choose to do so as the lesser of two evils. As Professor Neuberger says: 'We don't have to live like this. We are both addicted to our careers.'

It may no longer true, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, that 'the only glory of woman is to be admired by her husband and to serve her family'. But women who love their families still feel an urge to serve them. All those centuries of conditioning are tough to shake off, for everyone.

The Workplace Revolution by Cary Cooper and Suzan Lewis (Kogan Page, pounds 9.99) is published on 28 October

(Photographs omitted)