Rowan Pelling: My life as a desperate housewife

Along with queer, nigga, virgin and bitch, the name 'housewife' has been reclaimed as a badge of pride
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The Independent Online

When I met my husband 11 years ago, the dedicatedly urbane boyfriend I deserted in the process threw the cruellest jibe he could muster, "Go and be a Cambridge housewife then!" It was hard to think of a worse insult in 1993. Women hadn't worn shoulder pads the size of Boeing wings throughout the Eighties to be classified as drudges. We would rather have eaten our own ovaries than be viewed in terms of our skill with dust management. So my ex-boyfriend's jibe found its mark and is probably the reason I abandoned a life of aimless pottering for a decade of London commuting and seven-day weeks.

Then last year, I lost my magazine and my office, gained a baby, and found myself for the first time in my life spending the bulk of my existence within the four walls of my own home. I felt uniquely ill-equipped for the terrain - it was like finding myself in Siberia armed only with a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic. Tesco, the Co-op and my own kitchen cupboards were unchartered badlands. Now, it might be a little misleading if I gave you the impression that I actually started doing any housework.

My husband has run the house smoothly for years and - hallelujah! - continues to do so. But then he has the luxury of knowing that a little skivvy work will not undermine his ability to think of himself as a hunter, a gatherer, a man of letters and a dashed, attractive fellow. Just being in my house for days on end is enough to send me into a tailspin. I am lost without the soot and sin that peppers your soul the second you step from a train at King's Cross.

Experiments to put that edge into a Cambridge day had mixed results. The tranquillizers I received for flying had few benefits other than that daytime television suddenly made sense. Sherry has its merits - "fortified" takes on a whole new meaning. I even took up smoking for the first time in my life, after years of nagging my husband for the vice and saying I was allergic to ashtrays - oh, and this was six weeks after having a baby. That was how demented I had become. But I should have just chilled out. There's no longer any need to fight it - 2005 is the year of the housewife.

Like ponchos, her day has come again. Along with queer, nigga, virgin and bitch, her name has been reclaimed as a badge of tribal pride. And like them, this time she's cool and ironic. How Clean is Your House revived Marigolds and now the movement has found its acme with Desperate Housewives, Channel 4's latest US import. The drama steals audaciously from David Lynch's notion that behind every perfect picket fence lurks a garden full of skeletons, and from Sex in the City's girlish heart-to-hearts.

But the writers have abandoned the quest for Mr Right for that far more absorbing question: what happens when you have the man, the home, the kids and you still want to blow your brains out? Do you a) shag the gardener b) get divorced c) turn housework into your religion. Sorry, c) is the wrong answer. The only character in Desperate Housewives who is loathed by her entire family is Bree, the Stepford wife clone, whose fundamentalist brand of domesticity is likened by her spouse to "a detergent commercial".

The same message was conveyed by Wife Swap where "a mindful wife" (roughly translated as subservient slave) was called a "freak" by a sofa-bound slattern from Doncaster. I found this immensely comforting, but I suspect the slant was influenced by stressed-out female TV executives who would be in serious trouble if domestic skills were seen as key to household bliss.

Sadly for me and them, ironic movements tend to lose their sly wink as they move into the mainstream. Remember the lad? At first he was funny, then he really was a boorish, sexist lout down the boozer. I suspect that the same thing will happen with the housewife and that in real life it won't be Bree whose husband asks for a divorce.

My older sister has just moved nearby and I can't help but notice that her remarkable ability to turn a slum into a nest and groceries into supper has impressed my husband. They are even plotting to go halves on a set of plumber's rods to unblock drains. It occurs to me that soon I may be living out my very own wife swap.