Today being Mothering Sunday, like me you may have been given a breakfast of sorts in bed accompanied by assorted prezzies paid for by your grateful husband. Yet counter-cyclical as ever, I would ask you today to spare a thought for fathers too. For I wonder if, like Marilyn Monroe?s alter ego Sugar Cane, they are not getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop.
Last week?s Budget has occasioned much analysis, with profiles of families whose circumstances provide clues as to how much we have gained or lost. The pictures usually showed mother and children centrestage while the male provider hovered in the background looking grey. I wonder how many men last week, however apparently successful, will have felt that the Budget just rearranged the deckchairs on the Titanic. And how many middle class women will be already planning how to spend the increase in Child Benefit. Tennis classes, a final Pep? Don?t deny it. If our men are out there earning the dosh, don?t most of us secretly think of Child Benefit as Mum?s spendies.
In last week?s Spectator Leanda de Lisle wrote from a country perspective pointing out that while girls outperform boys at school, her three sons, if they opt to live in the country, will have to knuckle down and support these academic prodigies whenever they decide to down tools and produce children. For in the country you don?t need to justify not working. "Even if your husband is going bankrupt, no one expects you to have a job." She also bravely suggests that there is more spoken about the biological clock than the fact that women have the choice of giving up work and having children, while men must just soldier on.
When I was living in a big city, her copy would have struck me as ridiculously old hat; for in cities almost all families need two incomes. It was not until I moved to the country that I came across so many non-working women, whose husbands toiled in St Andrews Square while they could have coffee mornings ? often very dressy affairs ? and enjoy a game of tennis or golf on a sunny afternoon. At the school gate, I was one of the very few working women, albeit part-time, but still an exception to be pitied. I wondered why the men put up with it? Some confessed that their husband grumbled but there was a complacency, that, after a lifetime of going Dutch, I found breathtaking.
Now many will argue that to have mother at home is best for families. Yet I wonder just who has the power in such relationships? Whereas years ago the man ruled and the woman who would have to account for her housekeeping, now with plastic credit, and wider car ownership, the men toil, while their country wives can easily scoot over to the Gyle or Princes Square. I remember a pretty fund manager?s wife who had persuaded her husband to take on a cripplingly large mortgage because she so liked the house, seriously observing just how much shopping you can do in three days in New York. Yet it takes a strong man to close down the credit lines, for in the competitive middle classes, how can he see his children less well-dressed, or his wife discontented with her home? I see too that the long hours men are forced to work often feed working parent?s guilt and a wifely ?when the cat away? attitude. Such spending has double effect, for it entraps the man, as the accompanying debt binds him in such chains he cannot afford to leave.
Of course many country wives are homemakers are thrift itself, with any slack taken up by voluntary work. However as even the St John ?s Ambulance Service among others are running out of volunteers, I believe too often competing middle class country wives turn into Wendys, as in When d?you think we can buy X. Evolving a constant shopping agenda which must be bought now, with the concomitant debt on the family balance sheet, however hard he works. I confess I am so interested in why men remain married to Wendys, I have created one in my novel . "Christopher had embraced this new job in the way only a man could who had two families, eight credit cards, a large overdraft and a ?340,000 mortgage." (The Cousins? Tale) His Wendy becomes a livewire, eventually. But alas, life is not fiction and even if characters can change, for most of us, reforming such spending patterns takes more loss of face with our high-spending peers than we can bear.
Now with a son and daughter to raise I find myself thinking how can they negotiate the financial patterns of their relationships ? assuming they are lucky enough to find partners. Somehow my son will have to be strong enough to draw a line on his wife?s spending, while my daughter must not become a whining Wendy. Perhaps they have inherited my allergy to shops. I hope so.
So on this Mother?s Day, if you are lucky enough to have a well-paid man to support you , may I suggest you close your eyes and imagine just how you would like still having to jump on a train every day to work, and when you have done that, let him go to the aromatherapist with the Child Benefit this week instead of you?
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