Angela Neustatter: You can be a feminist and be happy at home

I never said women should return to the 1950s, but that should not mean that the home gets overlooked

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I earned my feminist colours back in the 1970s and 80s, fighting the good fight for equality. So it has been a shock to find myself suddenly tagged a turncoat. The reason is that I have written a book mentioning home, women and children on the same page and that, it seems, equals an attack on working mothers. As a result, I have been attacked for apparently suggesting that women with children should ditch their careers and march back into the world of Mad Men wives.

I plead not guilty. I never said women should return to the 1950s and I certainly don't advocate it. Indeed, it seems to me that hearts and minds are largely won over to seeing the benefits of men and women both contributing skills and talents in the marketplace, being capable breadwinners and getting pleasure from work.

But that should not mean that the possibility of home being a place of pleasure, nurture, space for the hurly-burly of intimate relationships and downtime with kids gets overlooked. Yet, that is how it has been with the culture of the past three decades, a time in which we have been encouraged to see all that is stimulating, rewarding, exciting as going on in the outside world. Work, of course, usually gives us little choice but to be away from home, and for many, working is a must. The irony is that plenty of people who have no choice do all they can to be home as much as possible.

No. I am talking about those of us who are seduced by jobs that demand all the most vigorous and animated hours of our day; juggernaut jobs where you belong to the firm from breakfast with the CEO to whenever networking drinks and dining finish in the evening. In return, there is visible success in the outside world. And no matter that you have no time or energy to sleep with your partner more than once a month, let alone put the kids to bed.

Although the pursuit of mega-wealth at any price looks a bit shabby right now, until very recently it was the way to go, with Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" ringing in the ears and the seductions of glitzy socialising in the outside world ever available. Then there was the glossily promoted idea that we can all be faux celebs if we just hang around the right restaurants, bars and clubs.

All of which might be fine if it made for a happy society. But the measures of adult happiness in the UK are significantly lower than in most other developed countries. One in four children have a mental health problem. Marriages break down at a rate of more than 40 per cent and have an average life of 11 years. It is a dismal picture and one that I am convinced could be very different if we found creative ways to re-imagine home.

I say this on the basis of having explored the many ways in which focusing more on home time and giving less available time to the public world has been a source of unexpected pleasure and happiness for many people. How they have felt greater harmony in their lives, how they have found space to work through conflicts and difficulties with partners, friends and children, and come out the other side.

Some have radically changed their lives; others have joined co-housing projects and schemes where costs are kept down, and communality is seen as enriching. Others, less radically, have chosen to work part-time, at home, to cut back on outside activities, and so on.

And, in visiting different homes, I have seen the truth in what the philosopher Alain de Botton observes: "Home constitutes, for almost all of us, simple rituals that link us with sequences of the day and patterns of time. The rituals that surround gathering food, cooking for ourselves or our families, washing, eating, sleeping and cleaning connect us to almost all of humanity."

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former adviser to Hillary Clinton, wrote an article recently about quitting her juggernaut job when she could no longer bear the distress of her youngest child at her going away so often, and she saw her 14-year-old son "spiralling out of control". She concluded: "My family needs me more than my country does." And this even though her husband was much at home.

Of course, that choice is a lot easier with money, and people who have to work in whatever circumstances they are offered have a harder job making space for a home life they have energy to enjoy and be a vibrant part of. And there are people for whom there is no home available worth giving the name. You wonder why, given the benefits in protecting families living together in places that feel homely, governments don't make Scandinavian-style flexible working time and decent housing a priority. But it is no use relying on a government, which anyway only really approves of the Mad Men type of family, when the important thing about the places we choose to hang our hats is that they do not conform but harbour the most diverse permutations of people. All of whom can benefit from having quality home time.

Angela Neustatter is the author of 'A Home for the Heart: Home as the Key to Happiness' (Gibson Square). Available at £9.49, from The Independent Bookshop on 0843 060 0030 or www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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