Once upon a time, I interviewed prime ministers and travelled to war zones. As the political editor of a national newspaper, I spent 18- hour days happily absorbed in poking around beneath the government's skin.
When my son was born, I took nine months off, and was as excited as I was faintly terrified about going back to work. My son seemed happy and thriving with our new nanny.
But, to my surprise, I was the one who failed to settle, tormented by the secret running tally I kept in my head of how few hours a week he spent with his parents versus how many he spent being raised by someone else.
It would make for a neater story if I could explain exactly what tipped me over the edge, such as the time I broke up a family holiday to deal with a cabinet resignation. Or the night before a work trip to Afghanistan, when I lay awake for hours trying to compose a letter for my little boy to read should the RAF flight somehow be shot down. But none of these stories quite explains why I resigned a little less than two years after returning from maternity leave.
The peculiar force of gravity that draws working parents back towards the home is often taken for granted; yet, when it came for me, I was surprised by how little I understood it. In the end, the closest I can come to explaining it is a fierce feeling of possessiveness, a rather shameful sense that someone else had something that was mine.
Even now, at the end of a working day, there is a small primal shock when my son hurls himself at me smelling faintly of his childminder's perfume. Rationally, I know it's a good thing that she cuddles him; but instinctively, it feels like trespass. He is mine. I am his.
At times, parenthood is as impulsive and irrational as any other love affair. A couple of months before my son was born, we moved across London into the tall, sunny Victorian terrace that was to be our family home.
When my husband hacked back the overgrown shrubs in the garden, the old plum tree smothered beneath them burst first into candyfloss blossom, then rather feebly into fruit. That summer, while the baby slept in his Moses basket and a political news story broke that I should otherwise have been covering, I stayed home and made pots of purple jam with gingham checked lids.
Nothing could have been further removed from my normal life, and my husband was as amused as I was faintly embarrassed by it all.
But I remember that summer like the mythical summers of childhood, sunny and sweet: although, in reality, doubtless it was as wet as it ever is, and sleepless, too. The next August, after a bit of judicious watering, the plum tree was even more laden. I made jam again, perhaps hoping to recapture something of the summer before, but that something was gone.
After six months back at work, I was still struggling to prove myself on every front: I ended up stubbornly stoning mountains of plums at midnight, no longer enjoying it but refusing to concede defeat. Stopping would have been an admission that it wasn't possible to live both lives; that the desire to write and think and influence could not be reconciled with a subterranean desire, emerging only after motherhood, to make and create and nurture.
The year after that, I didn't have time to thin out the tree in spring, and by late July it was so overladen with fruit that half the trunk sheared off beneath the weight. But, by then, the house was already on the market and I was mentally composing my resignation letter.
That November, we moved out of the city to rural Oxfordshire and I began a new phase of my career, writing freelance from home. I didn't give up a great job to make jam. But I gave it up, as an awful lot of parents do, because while my identity was no longer defined by work alone, my days all too often were.
Many parents who work two or three or four days a week talk about having time just ‘to be a parent’, or at least the kind of parent they want to be. For others, it's about feeling that full-time would be too much, and not working too little: part-time is an acceptable compromise. But working in unconventional patterns — by which I mean anything other than standard office hours, five days a week — is surely also about riding out the contradictions in wanting to be with one's children yet part of something bigger, too.
It's a way of keeping multiple identities alive: and that is what I came to think of as being half a wife, but holding on to at least half a life — since, personally speaking, I couldn't imagine a life without work.
What constitutes this kind of ‘wife work’ is an entirely personal thing, although in this house this week it's included the normal household chores plus: tracking down a Spiderman costume for one of those compulsory children's fancy-dress days apparently designed to catch parents out; a trip to the vet; a morning at the village school my son will soon be attending; and working out how to kill the ants' nest under the kitchen floorboards without poisoning the dog too.
When I sat down to work out how much time we needed to restore some kind of sanity to family life, I reckoned we needed only about two days' worth of ‘wife time’ carved out of a working week. The great thing about being at home two days a week is that it feels, at its best, like pulling off a conjuring trick: you are magically more present than absent both at work and at home, since you're in the office for three out of five working days, yet still with the children for four out of seven days.
Battling with the boss But the ‘one-and-a-half earner’ pattern is also the one couples can fall into without really thinking, just because it's the easiest. Her boss has probably vaguely expected a request for reduced hours since she got pregnant — it's easier to shorten her hours if she earns less, and if she has already spent a year with the children on maternity leave, she is probably the more emotionally entangled parent.
He may retreat, regarding the whole mess — whether with relief or with sadness — as not his business. But since we know (from a YouGov and Centre for Policy Studies poll in Britain in February 2009) that only about a quarter of men would work full-time if money were no object, this ‘one-and-a-half earner’ model may well be what fathers are resigned to getting, rather than what they ideally want.
For all the shifts in working life over the past couple of decades, the ideal career track for ambitious professionals remains broadly unchanged from that of their parents' day: a relentless upward trajectory through ever-rising levels of responsibility, rung by logical rung. It's often referred to as a male career path, reflecting a common and erroneous assumption that only women's lives are changed by having children. But the trouble is, fathers are now beginning to rebel against it, too. And I think that's because it is really a sole breadwinner path, rather than somehow a biologically male path.
Three decades ago, the model of male breadwinner and female homemaker was the norm in family life: by 2010, according to the Office for National Statistics, twothirds of mothers were working. It may not feel like it, but the evidence suggests that women are closer than men to securing the family lives they want: men are now more likely than women to say they want shorter hours, and are less satisfied than women with their current working arrangements, according to surveys.
Of course, some of those mothers probably lose out professionally, since both the pay gap and the dearth of senior women in corporate life suggest fathers are closer than mothers to having the working lives they want. Neither sex has a monopoly on victimhood. But when mothers miss out on intellectual satisfaction and financial security at work, while fathers miss out on intimacy and closeness with their children by spending so much time in the office, neither sex is really having it all, either.
And both sexes are increasingly restless, even angry, about that. Full-time men who make formal flexible working requests are still twice as likely as full-time women to be turned down. What about the men? Men are more likely than women to work for inflexible employers, who don't offer many ways of working, and more likely to be senior, when flexibility is easier for juniors to get; but there is almost certainly some inbuilt resistance, too, to men who go against the macho grain.
The biggest reason men give for not asking is ‘business reasons’, otherwise known as the fear that management won't wear it. Jason is a sheet metal worker by trade, married to Cathy, a teacher, and the couple have two daughters under five. When his wife returned to work after maternity leave with her second child and the girls went to nursery, pressure on the family ratcheted up to virtually unsustainable levels.
“Everything was a rush all the time,” Jason says. So he asked for flexi-time at the factory where he worked, to fit round the morning nursery run. He was only the second man in a factory of several hundred workers to try to change his hours. He simply wanted a slightly later start and finish time, rather than reduced hours, but his foreman baulked.
Undaunted, Jason appealed higher up and won, but it wasn't forgotten. Jason ended up racing to reach work only 15 minutes late and staying a full 30 minutes longer at the end, effectively doing unpaid overtime — a scenario many working mothers will recognise. What clinched his decision to leave was when Jason realised the monthly salary he made after tax was swallowed up by mounting childcare and petrol costs. Since his wife is the bigger earner, the couple decided Jason should become a full-time father. “I'm very happy with the decision we made,” he says.
When the girls are older, he wants to find a job fitting round school hours, but Cathy worries he'll never earn again what he did at the factory. Women reading this may be tempted to think: welcome to my world, buster. For decades, having children has jeopardised women's careers, and it's usually been men who benefited from them dropping by the wayside. It can be hard to feel sorry when the tables are turned. But women need to rise above their scepticism, and not just because men have as much right to a full and happy family life as they do.
This is a golden opportunity for working mothers to make common cause with men who increasingly share their interest in the way time at work is used. After all, causes are liable to be taken more seriously when twice as many employees espouse them, and — unfairly — sometimes also when men instead of women complain. But to forge alliances such as this, both sexes have to stop competing for ‘victim’ status and recognise that each faces pressures that the other doesn't.
A successful woman who compromises her career for the children will often be praised for doing so, because she is conforming to a sentimental idea of what ‘good’ women do. A man doing the same, however, is challenging the idea of what it means to be a man: competitive, ambitious and a successful provider. The idea that mothers are ‘necessary’ to children but fathers more dispensable is ingrained in most men from childhood, not least by their own fathers.
While mothers have grown wise to the dangers of filling little girls' heads with tales of passive fairy princesses, we've been less alert to the surprising lack of domesticated literary role models for little boys. Mothers in children's books tend to be as saintly and comforting as stepmothers are wicked; fathers, however, are often loving but comically useless. It sounds petty, but stereotypes — whether of domestically incompetent men or helpless but beautiful princesses — can be surprisingly powerful.
Contrary to popular male opinion, women weren't born knowing what to do when a baby has a temperature — these things were painstakingly learned. For the first few weeks, new parents now mostly stumble through it all together: both flip frantically through the baby book at 2am, trying to work out what's wrong with the purple-faced ball of fury, and neither really knows how to collapse the pushchair.
Yet once the few short weeks of paternity leave are over, the world divides like a segmented orange. Men return to the hard-edged world of work, and so many women float off in a pink bubble of new ‘mummy friends’, their own mothers, female health visitors and mornings spent in buggy-gridlocked cafes. Living this strangely female life after so many years in the grittier climates of journalism and politics was a shock for me: it deepened in profoundly moving ways my relationships with my mother, sister and friends who had children, but I had never felt the world so rigidly divided by gender — or so separated from my husband's.
Consciously or not, the ‘mummy network’ of playgroups and coffee mornings can still exclude fathers just as sharply as the old boys' network excludes women in the office. Stay-at-home father Lee (26) quickly became disillusioned with the playgroup scene. “Women don't half moan, and mostly about men. The sole purpose of toddlers' groups is for women to moan about their partners.”
He tried a single dads' group but found he had nothing much in common with them, either: at-home dads are still rare enough for the chances of finding a kindred spirit to be small. One househusband I know, meanwhile, recalls mothers physically leaving the sandpit when he and his toddler joined in, “like I was about to pounce on them”. But it's time that does most to strengthen the maternal bond at the expense of the paternal.
After up to a year of mother at home and father at work, she's the one who can open the buggy with the flick of one hand; he's the one rummaging around during nappy changes, not sure where the wipes live. There is a small, martyred part of many women that loves to be needed: it can be horribly gratifying to be the expert at home, especially after a long day of being made to feel unwelcome at work.
Maternal gatekeeping, or the art of subtly refusing to surrender the baby to anyone else, is a serious obstacle to involved fathers. And what women too rarely acknowledge, when they sacrifice their jobs to spend more time with the children, is that in doing so they may be making their partner's choices for him: if she isn't going to earn, then the pressure rises on him to earn more, regardless of how much that may take him away from his children. Women have choices, men have responsibilities Too often women have choices, and men merely responsibilities. They may find that doing what they thought was required of a ‘good father’ — working hard, chasing promotion — suddenly generates a startling amount of fury from their wives.
Confusingly, what men were brought up to offer no longer seems to be what women want, or certainly not all they want, although this economic effort still wins the respect of employers and of other men. And that leaves men torn not just between work and their children, but between the approval of men and the love of women — and increasingly, between work and their marriage.
Once upon a time, merely having children made marriages less likely to fail: couples marrying in the 1960s were statistically less likely to divorce if they were parents. By the 1970s, this protective effect was still evident when children were under four, although not for those with older children. But for couples marrying in the 1980s, parenthood suddenly became risky in itself: those with two children were 17pc more likely than childless couples to get divorced, according to research by sociologists at Oxford and Limerick universities.
The 1980s mothers were perhaps more likely to work and to be able to support themselves: arguably, they had greater economic freedom to leave than 1970s mothers. But that really explains only why parents should become as likely to separate as childless couples, not why they became more likely to do so. Work is only half the story — the other half involves what happens at home.
The free time available to new parents shrinks alarmingly as the work at home mushrooms: the weekly laundry that's suddenly twice daily, interspersed with what a friend once called the “endless wiping” — snotty noses, bespattered highchairs, sticky handprints on the wall. A study of full-time workers carried out by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that household chores made blood pressure rise faster than work meetings. The worst affected were those who felt they were shouldering the most responsibility, not necessarily those spending most time on housework.
It's the feeling of injustice that rankles, whether for the woman lumbered with the loo brush or the man nagged into cleaning when, deep down, he feels that working all day long should be enough. The trouble is that to men and women, domestic work often means different things. For women, caring for a home and children involves more than practical necessity. Cooking a meal means nurturing those around the table, not just feeding them, and even tidying up signifies the creation of a relaxing environment for others. Housework carries an emotional significance for many women, who are culturally conditioned to see caretaking as an expression of love, so when their partner doesn't do any in return, they feel insulted and rejected.
But for men, chores are just chores, and low-status ones at that. These tensions may have existed before parenthood, but they are thrown into sharp relief by the arrival of children and perhaps by the shrinking of our social horizons that often comes with it.
Home takes on an awful lot more significance when you are suddenly spending much of your time there, instead of being part of a bigger and more sociable world. There is an argument my husband and I have been having now for at least a decade, and it runs in wearily familiar circles around the fact that I have done more, and he has done less, around the house for as long as we have lived together.
I have shouted, pleaded, nagged; drawn up endless indignant lists consisting of long sprawling columns (my domestic contribution) versus a few brief sentences (his). And, mostly, I have failed. Or I had until this book began to take shape, and it became obvious that conflict over housework is too dangerous to ignore. When the academic Wendy Sigle-Rushton began studying the relationship between housework and divorce, she analysed the responses of 3,500 married couples with children aged five and over to questions from a survey taken in the 1970s.
Wendy found that marriages foundered more often when women worked, but they became more stable than average when the men helped out at home. His willingness to do chores seemed to offset the risk created by her working. In couples where he did very little domestically and she worked, the risk of divorce was almost double that of the most stable relationships. Nicola returned to her job as a social worker when her daughter was only three months old, because she didn't qualify for full maternity pay.
At first she worked three days a week and coped well enough, but the cracks soon set in at home. “When I was back at work, I thought that would mean we'd be sharing the childcare 50/50,” she says. “That didn't happen. Resentment just built up and up. “By the time she was about 18 months, we had gone from being a couple that shared everything to me being a housewife with a job, too.
“The nursery would ring me, not Mike; even the cleaner would leave notes for me, not him. It had become a huge respect issue: ‘If you loved me, you'd help…' We never came back from it, really.” The couple had split up by the time their daughter was two. The impact of the so-called ‘second shift’ done by women on top of work is a marital risk factor most couples go to the altar knowing little about.
Get a man who stacks the dishwasher Young women prone to swooning that their boyfriend will be ‘a really great father’ because he likes small children should learn to check instead how often he stacks the dishwasher, perhaps a better indicator of a man ready to share the routine daily work involved in family life. Antenatal preparation for couples, meanwhile, could usefully include more emphasis on discussing honestly how life changes after a baby, and who is going to do what.
In fact, an American scheme known as Family Foundation offers new parents classes covering not just the practicalities of having a baby but also an exploration of how relationships are likely to be affected. Interestingly, the single most important quality I found in those couples who were sharing work and care more evenly was that they saw family life as a joint project, ‘wife work’ as a joint responsibility and both careers as closely entwined.
They were highly conscious of the impact their decisions had on each other, rather than competing with each other, and that made it possible for them to approach work in a very different way. Most strikingly, the fathers tended to be good at seeing success in terms of the whole family's happiness, rather than just their own professional status.
© Gaby Hinsliff 2012 Extracted from ‘Half a wife: the working family’s guide to getting a life back’ by Gaby Hinsliff, published by Chatto & Windus