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Harriet Walker: A truth that has rarely been uttered before - women don't want it all


There's something about January that brings out my inner housewife. Not that I have a sudden urge to start ironing pillowcases, you understand; simply that I'd rather not have to get up and go to work. I can only imagine how this malaise really starts to pinch when going to work also entails leaving behind small people who dote on you and want to hold your hand all day, when going to work is an irritating eight-hour chunk away from a home that takes 24 hours to maintain.

A new book published this week and written by Gaby Hinsliff, a former former political editor of The Observer, explores the inescapable tug of war, and of conscience, that most modern women face between desk and duty, career and carer.

Half A Wife: The Working Family's Guide To Getting A Life Back doesn't offer easy solutions – in fact, Hinsliff took the rather extreme step of giving up her demanding day-job and concentrating on work that allowed her to spend time with her children – but it offers a depth of understanding and empathy that working women are crying out for.

Hinsliff highlights precisely the difficulties, not to mention the absurdities, of the daily Ovidian transformation from world-saving, war-crying boardroom battleaxe to beatific, nappy-changing nursery playmate. And she points out something that many people have not dared to utter before: women don't want it all. Anyone who actively courted so schizophrenic a way of life would be, well, schizophrenic. Everyday existence shouldn't be this hard.

But our lives are still governed by the outmoded assumption that work happens from 9am until 6pm and family slots in around it. It was certainly the case when men won bread and women sat at home taking antidepressants, but more often than not, men now want to spend time with their children, too. And women don't want to have to give up the career they have crafted so carefully simply because they are mothers.

The "half a wife" of the title is the model that Hinsliff arrives at: both parents should constitute the ideal between them, rather than the women trying to be everything to everyone. It already works like this in many places: in France, where women are not expected to drop everything for their children; in The Netherlands, where fewer than 25 per cent of women earn enough money even to be considered financially independent; in Finland and Iceland, where parents may share the leave between them.

Could it work in Britain? Probably not. Young couples can't afford housing, they can't afford childcare, they work longer hours than anyone else in Europe, slogging away to provide what little they can for themselves and their families. From this much it's clear: the problem isn't having it all, but not having enough in the first place.

My leg is broken, but the NHS doesn't have to be

Week six of My Life with a Broken Leg, and the things I have learned are myriad: bananas are easier to carry than apples; escalators will kill you; and the NHS moves in mysterious ways.

When I turned up to start physio this week, the consultant who fixed me in the operating theatre announced that I wouldn't need it. My leg couldn't be more useless at the moment if it were attached to my nose, so I practically had to block the exits before he'd find a physiotherapist to teach me to walk again.

I completely understand why the NHS might want to scrimp on non-essentials. If I could have jumped up and walked like Jesus's cripple, I would have done. I can't fault the efficacy of the health service but there is a rather myopic view on the ground – and that certainly won't be helped by the current economy drive from above.

h.walker@independent.co.uk; twitter/@harrywalker1