Domesticity appeals to a new generation of women

By Cathrin Schaer

Many women - and men - would choose home over full-time work. Photo / Getty Images
Many women - and men - would choose home over full-time work. Photo / Getty Images

For many women it is their most secret shame, a forbidden fantasy that involves quitting their jobs and going home to make jam, change nappies and bake cupcakes. Now it seems that many liberated women are 'fessing up to this dreadful desire: they want to go home.

A cosy afternoon of scone-baking, jam-making, maybe a spot of tidying and then, ah yes, spending quality time with your loved ones. Sounds rather marvellous, doesn't it? And it certainly doesn't compare well with sitting at a desk all day, staring at a computer. Or a clock. Or a wall. Dealing with the vagaries of your workmates and then struggling home through a grey snarl of traffic in the dark.

So perhaps it's no wonder that recently, despite prevailing modern attitudes that say women and men are equal and that women can be both loving mothers and well-qualified managers, a growing backlash against the feminist "superwoman" has begun. Just quietly - and, in some cases, it's more like some secret shame - it seems that more and more women want to quit work and just, well, you know, stay home and make jam.

As Joanne Hollows, who works in media and cultural studies at Nottingham Trent University, writes in her 2006 book, Feminism in Popular Culture, she developed "an increasing fascination with the domestic as a forbidden fantasy among my contemporaries. I appear to know a number of feminist-influenced women in their 30s and early 40s who have a secret fantasy of giving up their careers in order to bake cakes, tend the garden, knit or do home improvements."

A rash of surveys and studies indicate that more women than you might expect, think it's time to go home. Late last year a British think-tank founded by Margaret Thatcher, the Centre for Policy Studies, released a study called "What Women Want". Results of a poll it commissioned from British researchers YouGov indicated that only 12 per cent of all mothers wanted to work part-time and, in fact, almost a third (31 per cent) did not want to work at all.

In the same month, a similar poll was making headlines in the United States. A survey of nearly 4000 American women, conducted by US magazine Women's Day and the AOL website's Living channel, found that 57 per cent of women, "dream of quitting altogether to stay at home with their kids".

And then there have been studies like the one undertaken by Jacqueline Scott, a professor of empirical sociology at Cambridge University in Britain. In analysing data from international social surveys and public opinion polls in Britain, the US and Germany from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, she found that attitudes towards the idea of women being able to "have it all" were changing.

"Opinions are shifting as the shine of the 'super mum' syndrome wears off," Scott said when the study was released.

"And the idea of women juggling high-powered careers while also baking cookies and reading bedtime stories is increasingly seen to be unrealisable by ordinary mortals."

Scott's report showed that during the 1990s more than half of all British women and men believed family life would not suffer if a woman went to work. Now only around 46 per cent of women and 42 per cent of men believe this.

When it comes to New Zealand, author Jodie Hedley-Ward, who wrote the book Your Sexy Mother and who is currently conducting an international survey of mothers' attitudes and lives, agrees that: "A much greater proportion than we might expect of mothers would rather be doing something that is different to what they are experiencing right now." Hedley-Ward is referring to both working and stay-at-home mothers; she argues that, "in general there appears to be far too many women making choices based on what they think society 'expects' of them".

Now add to all of that a dash of the domestic goddess. Look at the likes of popular British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, the chintzy design skills of designer Cath Kidston and the whole Martha Stewart empire (minus that businesswoman's time in the big house), as well as more mind-boggling treatises such as To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, by respected American journalist Caitlin Flanagan, who says "that women have a deeply felt emotional connection to housekeeping".

Oh dear. By now some of us are feeling like the hippie parents who fell in love at Woodstock, watching their teenage son take a vow of celibacy: queasy and anxious. Could this really be the beginning of a backlash against feminism and a return to the conservative values of the past that said a woman's place was in the kitchen, possibly barefoot, preferably pregnant?

In fact, this isn't a battle between the apron-clad, stay-at-home-mothers and the shaven-headed, dungaree-clad feminists at all. Sure, that debate, which started decades ago, still seems to be dragging on.

And it would be very easy to read this movement back to the home as a backlash against feminism, writes cultural theorist Hollows in her book. But, as the British researcher who has just published a book about feminism and domesticity, argues: "The point is that old feminist battles have become obsolete.

"The argument is no longer about whether women should pursue career or motherhood or both. It is about how they can best combine whichever roles suit them."

At the end of last year, British headmistress Jill Berry, who is also the vice-president of the Girls' Schools Association in Britain, caused debate when she made a speech to the association addressing exactly this.

"A lot of our girls want to have it all," she said. "That is perfectly acceptable but we need to make them realistic. At different stages of their lives, they may want different things. There is nothing wrong with them saying 'I need to work part-time' or 'I need support in order to enable me to do my career and have children'. Women can feel very guilty," she concluded. "It is as if they have somehow compromised their principles. What we can do, as teachers, is ... help them recognise that life is about balance."

"Personally I take [the word feminist] to mean 'choice for women', in its simplest form," Hedley-Ward argues. "I absolutely believe it is possible to be a stay-at-home-mother and wife and still be a feminist. The difference between now and at the beginning of the feminist movement is that we didn't have a choice back then. Now we do. That is something I feel very grateful for."

And in fact, once you start looking at the various surveys that have inspired all this talk about a backlash more closely, or combining those findings with other research, it starts to feel as though this isn't actually about skinheads versus pinafores, rather it is about something altogether prettier and more positive: your work/life balance - also known as "downshifting" or "opting out".

In 2003, Clive Hamilton, former director of the Australia Institute, a think-tank based in Canberra, estimated around a quarter of Australians and British aged between 30 and 59 had downshifted in some way. That is, they had voluntarily "made a long-term change in lifestyle that resulted in them earning less money". When his research included anyone who had stopped work to look after a baby, or to start their own business, the numbers went up to around 30 per cent.

Now take another look at the survey of Scott's collection of attitudinal surveys. While more people in Europe and America believed that family life would suffer if a woman went out to work, it also showed that fewer people believed in those traditional family roles - that is, that a man's role was to go out to work and a woman's was to stay at home.

In Britain in 1984, 59.2 per cent of women and 65.5 per cent of men thought that Tarzan was supposed to bring home the bananas and Jane to make the banana cake. But this century, those numbers have fallen with only 31.1 per cent of women feeling that way in 2002, alongside 41.1 per cent of men.

And then let's go back to that YouGov survey in Britain that made headlines about women not wanting to work. Turns out that men don't want to either. As the report finally says: "While 19 per cent of women working full-time wouldn't work if they didn't have to, 28 per cent of men working full-time don't want to".

Then there's the study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in Britain, which funds research into social development, that found that the traditional view that mothers put family first and fathers put work first "do not fit the facts" today. In fact, the study reported that for fathers and mothers, family came first, equally. And another British survey of 1000 mothers with children under 18 found that 83 per cent "would work for themselves if they knew they could work as little or as much as they wanted".

Basically none of this seems to be about going back into the kitchen and sobbing into your pancake batter, it's about being able to take up the choices that your suffragette sisters fought to give you. A pioneer in this area was British sociologist Catherine Hakim. According to her research, the majority of women are "adaptive", changing their working lives to suit.

Racheal Wills, a Wellingtonian mother of two in her early 40s proves all those theories.

"I think when the kids are really little that if you can afford to stay home, you should," says the management consultant who, since the birth of her second daughter six months ago, is working only two days a week; Wills' partner earns a good salary and she is able to work fewer days. "That's why I like being part-time. You get some job satisfaction and some intellectual stimulation as well as being at home most of the time.

"Because you can't deny it, there's a huge amount of drudgery involved in being a parent. There is obviously also joy and satisfaction but you certainly don't use your brain the way you do at work. The trade-off, though, is that your career doesn't progress the same way.

"Women are not homogenous creatures," she concludes, "and each person has their own value system."

And there are other social factors that come into downshifting, or improving the work-life balance. A focus on the environment has led us to question our consumerist way of life and what is most important to us (for many, family is the answer). Additionally workplaces are becoming far more flexible - far more men and women now work part-time, from home or are self-employed. Older, affluent mothers - New Zealand's median birth rate lingers around 30 - who are more advanced in their careers are also better able to manage their choices about whether to work or stay at home.

Kelly Donaldson knows both sides. Until her family recently relocated overseas, the Auckland mother of two daughters, who is in her late 30s, was running her own artist management business. When her husband was offered a job in London, she left her own business behind.

"When I was working, I would feel like I was rushing around all the time. I would be picking my daughter up from school and see parents just standing around and I'd just know they were not working - because they didn't look so harassed."

But now that Donaldson is not working, she says she can imagine going back to work - although only when her daughters are slightly older.

"I don't think I am cut out to be a full-time mother for the whole of my daughters' childhood," she says. "And I think, in some ways, I will be a better mother when I am doing something else as well".

But, she concludes.

"I think anyone, in any situation, always thinks the grass is greener on the other side. I don't think being at home is drudgery. But I don't think being at work is glamorous either."

Finally, if you're still wondering about a backlash, you may wish to consider this: regardless of whether you are a mother or a father, a man or a woman, a lawyer or a waiter, what would you say if somebody told you that tomorrow you could stop working - without any financial repercussions? Exactly.

- NZ Herald

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