Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Lazy days filled with manicures and skinny lattes

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Stay-at-home mothers no longer slaves to domestic drudgery but still thrilled kids are finally back at school.

Moments after the morning school drop-off, groups of women flutter to the local nail bar. Photo / Thinkstock
Moments after the morning school drop-off, groups of women flutter to the local nail bar. Photo / Thinkstock

C'mon, fess up. We won't judge. Anyone with school age children is allowed to admit they're just a little bit relieved that our longest holiday ever has come to an end and their children are finally going back to school.

Time to get back to the gym! Time to have coffee!

Staying at home with the kids used to be "the problem that had no name" - as Betty Friedan called it - a life of suburban neurosis, drudgery and oppression. But it's hard to see it like that any more, at least for those middle-class women with time for manicures.

Before sitting down to write this I put the washing on and didn't even have to measure out the detergent (it comes in nifty pre-measured capsules).

So, shamefully, I know exactly what a het-up woman called Carol Varley was getting at in the Spectator when she argued, vividly, "There is no such thing as a full-time mum."

Varley says the full-time mother is a recently constructed mythical figure. In the past the rich farmed out the job of child-rearing altogether, and the poor just fitted it in around their labouring.

In my parents' generation women who stayed at home could more accurately be called full-time housekeepers rather than mothers. Doing the cooking, washing and cleaning took up all their time; there was little or no "quality time" for the kids.

But those days are long gone. Mothers at home never had it so good. Housework is a once-over-lightly doddle now. Who irons their sheets? Or starches their husband's shirts?

Varley sneers: "Moments after the morning school drop-off, groups of women flutter to the nearest skinny latte. Local nail bars, hairdressers, swimming pools and gyms are profitably occupied by the mother-aged at hours that cannot possibly be lunch breaks from honest toil."

Varley says these women are not full-time mothers, let alone saints, but lazy mares. What her diatribe overlooks is that what is expected of today's middle-class SAHM (stay at home mother) doesn't involve putting washing through a wringer but is possibly just as onerous.

She is expected to be thin and groomed and glamorous. Her house must be more than clean; it needs to look like a glossy spread in a design magazine. And dinner is not rissoles any more , but some restaurant-quality creation.

And then there are the children themselves. Sheesh! Where to start there: the little darlings have to be academically achieving and accomplished and ferried around every afternoon to various improving activities.

And there seems to be a common temptation for women who have chosen to stay at home to prove themselves by "over-parenting". New research shows that some privileged children are struggling in later life because they have never been allowed to experience failure.

Jessica Lahey, a teacher writing about "Why parents need to let their children fail" in the Atlantic, says there is a whole new level of overprotectiveness with parents "raising their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness". These full-time mums are doing too much.

Varley is smug about the fact that she always worked. But she is fortunate to be a writer, a handy job where you can find flexible options and work from home.

Many of the women she writes about are most likely to be offered all-or-nothing alternatives by potential employers. Toil in an office for long hours and barely see your children: take it or leave it.

I suspect if Varley went to talk to the women she disdains, rather than just gobbing at them from across the cafe, she might find that quite a few of them, despite not being high-powered executives nor scrubbing their floors, are doing all sorts of other productive glue-keeping-the-community-together type things, like looking after elderly parents or staffing PTA fundraisers.

And what's really wrong with being idle? I have only ever had one manicure in my life, I try never to be seen in public in lycra exercise gear and I'm a slattern when it comes to housework.

But never mind, I'm going to have lots of time to get my act together now the kids are back at school.

- NZ Herald

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