When I was a little girl, and when all my friends were little girls, none of us thought we'd grow up to be housewives. We might have played dollies. We might have sat in Wendy houses and made pretend buns and cakes and poured invisible tea from plastic pots, but no one ever considered that being a housewife, a home-maker, would be something that we would choose to be. For many years, that was not even an option.
As I got older and passed through my adolescence and onwards, it never occurred to me that staying at home, having children, and baking cakes would be something I could ever enjoy. But now I wonder why not? My mother stayed at home. She baked cakes - terrible ones - and dusted and cleaned and vacuumed and darned names on knickers and drove backwards and forwards from school and obviously hated it. She would tell me, when we would go to the park together, how dull she thought stay-at-home mothers were. She would tell me how she'd wanted to be an artist but that her father, my grandfather, wouldn't let her because nice girls did not go to art school in London. She worked for a while as a physiotherapist and then, after she married my father, stopped working altogether, as so many women did.
But, during my childhood, my mother provided me with a steady stream of literature by women such as Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Simone de Beauvoir and Susie Orbach. We talked a lot about women's issues. We camped out at Greenham Common and linked arms with other women and we all felt empowered. I think I felt I was changing the world, that I was part of a movement that seemed so important to me. I still think it was important. It changed my life.
My mother was intent that we were educated properly. She took us abroad and showed us art, history and architecture. She helped me learn the joy of having an enquiring mind, of not just accepting everything I was told. She congratulated me when I challenged my teachers, even though she was hauled in to see the head of my grammar school on a termly basis.
So did my mother expect me and my sister to stay at home and have children and turn into "housewives"? No, she did not. And, yet, what has happened to us all? In Susan Faludi's 1993 book Backlash she predicted that the tide would turn, that feminism would start becoming a dirty word, that men would march against women and that women would return, mentally-beaten and bereaved, back to the hearth and home. Now we have Darla Shine, who says in her book Happy Housewives that American women should be allowed to embrace the mother, the housewife, within and should no longer feel that they have to go to work and break through the glass ceiling in order to be a proper, functioning person. "Why wasn't being a Mom offered to me as a career?" Shine says.
What has changed? So many things. Staying at home - or even saying you want to stay at home - is breaking the last taboo. When, aged 29, I had my first child, all my friends thought I was mad. They thought I was even crazier when I moved out of London life and re-emerged in the countryside complete with wellies, trug, fresh blackberries and apples and an apron. They baulked when I got a dog. They nearly cried when I went on to have two more children and spent all my earnings on small shoes and romper suits. But now I know my friends love to come and see me. They love the homely atmosphere of the house, the freshly-cooked food, the salad picked from the garden, the grubby, muddy, tearaway children and the over-friendly dog. And yet I still work. I ask myself why: is it too much part of my past, part of what my mother instilled in me for me to totally embrace my domestic goddess within?
But I am not the only woman who secretly likes baking an apple pie. Many women seem to have quietly turned away from work. There has suddenly been a plethora of books on how to keep a clean, happy and well-functioning home. Everyone is "downsizing" and searching for "quality of life". Suddenly working doesn't look like fun any more. Why have it all when you only want a little bit?
I think part of the problem is that women never really thought about what "work" meant. It's no fun being a woman holding down a full-time job and also trying to run a house, children and a marriage. Where's the joy in trudging back and forth from work, to home, to the shops, and back again on a daily basis? (I am sure men feel just the same way but we are talking housewives here, not house-husbands). It's quite simply exhausting. I tried it not so long ago. It was a disaster. I barely saw my children. I had no idea what they were up to. The cupboard was bare, the house was cold and unloved. I felt more tired than I ever have been. I resorted to checking my eldest son's homework when he was in bed. I made packed lunches at 11pm. I barely spoke to my partner. At work, I sneakily called plumbers and electricians. Yet I seemed to achieve nothing, either at work or at home.
When I recently suggested to a friend that I give up work and stay at home with my children full-time, she gasped in horror, "But work is so much a part of who you are!" But work used to be part of who she was. Now she has two children, a husband who works from home, a serious tennis addiction and the best-baked cakes in our valley. She used to live in London. She used to work as a legal representative for refugees. Doesn't she miss her working life? She says not. When I press her on it, she says that she had always told herself that, if she had children, it would be her job to look after them. "I feel I owe that to them," she says. Her children, it has to be said, are happy.
And now I'm surrounded by these stay-at-home women! My sister, my sisters-in-law, my friends; none of them work. Elizabeth used to be a doctor but now stays at home with her three girls. Susan used to have a high-ranking bank job but is now at home with her two sons and expecting her third. Emma was in films as a producer but now spends her life videoing her twins, and Kate was a lawyer in Hong Kong but was paid off. She's used her money to buy a run-down pile and, whenever you go round, there she is, paintbrush in hand, surrounded by children having fun renovating the place. They all seem happy. They all seem fulfilled. They are intelligent women and these are the choices they have made.
Something has shifted. I find myself increasingly drawn to making cakes and staring wistfully at ingredients in the fridge. My friend calls up to tell me of a new lentil recipe her kids like (stewed lentils with roasted vegetables and feta cheese crumbled on top, if you're interested). The correct feminist response would be, "why are you calling me up with cooking tips? Burn your bra, baby!" Instead I hurry to the shop to prepare for cooking it myself the next night.
The truth is, I feel better when the house is clean and organised and the kids' clothes are folded and in their drawers. I like to put a pot of steaming casserole on the table for my partner when he comes home from work. On a day when I'm not working and the kids are at nursery, I go for a ride, or walk the dog, or pop round for coffee and a cake at a friend's house. Life is so much less stressful. I find I rather like wearing an apron. I have a "baking" cupboard, although I am still not very good on cakes. But the kids like making them so, some afternoons, we get floury and pour everything into a mixing bowl and then eat it.
The children are happier. My partner is happier. The dog is happier and I am happier. If I'm feeling particularly daring, I might even open a bottle of wine at lunchtime and invite people round. It's so much more relaxing than working. And who decreed that we should all work so hard that we forget how to enjoy life?
I think women are redefining things. Working hard, being successful and beating men at their own game now seems tiring and boring and, at the end of the day, not necessarily fulfilling. It's much more fun to have freedom: the freedom to be at home, to play with the kids, to walk a dog, to make my own decisions about my life.
Being a housewife is no longer the dead-end job it was, and it's also not for ever. As their children get older, many women I know intend to start up some sort of small business. The internet has made this perfectly possible. Others intend to retrain as family therapists, teachers and such like. Some are doing extra-curricular courses in art, ceramics, philosophy.
If I had daughters, I'd give them the books to read that my mother gave me. I would encourage them to see that they have choices, and that those choices are not between a man's world or a woman's world, or between going to work or staying at home, but the chance to do whatever it is they feel they want to do. And if it's a duster that does it for them, hey, so be it.
Desperate to be housewives?
By Kate Wiggans
Priya Patel, 28, student
"I would leave work to be a housewife, but I'd also want to run my own business from home. I think I'd just get bored otherwise. But I wouldn't want to work for anybody else and raise a family. If I married somebody really rich, I'd probably think twice about working, if I'm honest."
Maureen Montgomery, 58, manages own company
"I was a full-time mother for 12 years before I started running my business. I did that through choice; I wanted to leave my job and raise my children. I think it's the most important thing in life you can do, being a mother. Young women are driven by economic factors that make them have to work. It's no joy having a full-time job and raising a family, and women always end up doing most of the work because they're the nurturers, it's in their nature. All that 'superwoman' stuff is total codswallop - there's no way you can have it all."
Maria Graham, 25, investment banker
"Maybe at some point I'd feel different, but right now I can't see myself giving up my job to raise a family. But I respect women who do choose to stay at home. I'm in my twenties and enjoy my work; I've no intention of giving up yet. I never aspired to being a housewife, I always just saw myself doing something kick-ass in the City."
Rebekah Cain, 29, personal investment adviser
"I have to admit, there are days when I think it would be quite nice! I've got friends who are 'stay-at-home moms' but I think they enjoy it because it's not 1950s domestic bliss, it's more like coffee mornings and socialising while everyone else is at work. That's appealing."
Caroline Slocock, 48, chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission
"In my twenties, I thought you couldn't have children and a career, so I thought I wouldn't have children. I'm glad I changed my mind. With two children, I struggle daily with two jobs, but I never dream of becoming a housewife. I love my work outside home too much. It doesn't have to be an either/or. I chose to work part-time, and flexibly. I think too many women are forced to trade down in jobs because part-time and flexible work is often not available."