For a nine-year-old, my daughter Matilda has very clear and precise ambitions. ‘When I grow up I’m going to marry a rich man,’ she declared last week. ‘Then I’m going to have six children, two dogs and some ponies, and I’m going to live on a farm with a cottage for you in the garden.’
So far so good.
‘And what about your job?’ I ventured carefully. Matilda rounded on me, her eyes wide with incredulity.
Yet far from launching into a speech about women’s rights and the foremothers who laid down their lives to free us from the shackles of domesticity and subjugation, I found myself nodding sagely. Wise girl, I thought.
I should point out that this conversation took place as we strolled to her £3,000-a-term junior school. A single-sex school chosen for its outstanding all-round education and which has just topped the local A-level league tables; a school which counts among its former pupils Cheryl Taylor, controller of CBBC, Kate Bellingham, BBC technology presenter and engineer, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s first female president.
As former academics, my husband Anthony and I place great importance on her learning. Indeed, we hope she will go on to study at Oxford University.
But not because it will be her launching pad into a stellar career as a lawyer, doctor, or magazine editor. As we see it, Oxford is the ideal place for her to find a husband with the right background and career prospects to make enough money so Matilda can become a stay‑at-home mother.
Before feminists start howling with derision, let me explain.
In the 1980s, I also attended an academically selective girls’ private school in Sheffield. There, we were taught that the ultimate aim in life was a career, preferably in law, medicine or engineering. Motherhood was never even mentioned.
Nobody ever suggested that trying to combine children and work might leave women broken and unhappy. Grim experience taught me that.
I studied at Liverpool University, graduating with a First in German.
When I met my husband Anthony — who had been one of my tutors at university and was 30 years my senior — he
was keen for me to retain my professional and financial independence. So when I was head-hunted for a lecturing job at Leeds University in 2001, I reluctantly accepted.
Six months later, I was delighted to fall pregnant.
William was born in May 2002, when I was 30, and I took a year’s maternity leave.
‘I bet you can’t wait to use your brain again,’ a (male) colleague said when he called in for coffee.
‘I’d sooner boil in oil than go back to work,’ I replied.
I did go back to work just after William’s first birthday, not least to avoid having to repay my maternity pay (the penalty for not returning). It was the most miserable period of my life. I would howl in the car as I passed my mummy friends pushing their buggies to playgroup.
I was also jealous of the bond between William and Anthony; Anthony, by this time retired, was shocked by the domestic grind.
When he grumbled about the laundry, I couldn’t bear it. ‘Well, I’ll swap with you any day,’ I snapped.
Things came to a head just before Matilda was born in 2004. My sobbing and Anthony’s unspoken resentment were too much to bear. For the sake of our marriage, I had to resign.
At the end of my final lecture in 2004, I told the female students: ‘Forget all this career nonsense — marry a rich man and have children while you’re young.’
Interestingly, the only people shocked by this were my colleagues: the young male ones and the ageing feminists.
‘You are a disgraceful role model to young women,’ a male colleague and one-time friend said angrily. ‘I thought you were intelligent,’ a female colleague added sadly.
However, several girls confided afterwards that I had only voiced their secret thoughts.
I started scratching a living working from home instead. Although it has given me the time I craved with my family, it is far from ideal.
My own childhood was my template for the perfect female life. My mother married a newly qualified accountant at 22 and had her first child, me, at 23. She never wanted or needed to work, finding fulfilment in her family and home.
She was, and is, the ultimate role model for her daughters: quick-witted, clever, generous, quirky — and always there.
My own life, by contrast, is a messy compromise. I desperately want to be a ‘proper’ stay-at-home mother who irons the children’s pyjamas, cooks proper meals from scratch, makes their beds and vacuums.
But I need to earn money (not least to pay those horrendous school fees).
And so I write frantically while the children are at school, watching the ironing and cleaning pile up, fretting about the lack of food in the house and dreaming of a life of simple domestic pleasure.
However, that dream life would require a rich husband. It’s too late for me — but not for Matilda.
Having children young, as she knows, is an option only if her husband is wealthy enough to provide for them. I am not spending a fortune on her education for her to become a young, penniless mother.
To that end, I have already enlisted a well-connected friend to draw up a list of potential husbands from wealthy families to whom I shall introduce Matilda at a later date.
My son William, now 11, is at an excellent prep school and is likely to proceed to a top public school (where we might just happen to find Matilda a suitable husband among his classmates). But the huge sums we spend on his education are not to bag him a wealthy wife. They are largely to prepare him for the lucrative career that will enable him to fulfil his biological role of protector and provider for his future family.
He knows I would expect him to support a wife, and that I would want her to be a stay-at-home mother).
I know some such women are frustrated by the grind of childcare and envy their husband’s independence. Others have a horror of being financially dependent on a man who might leave them high and dry.
But their demands for financial independence surely indicate they have no faith in the long-term future of their relationship. With just a little trust, they might would find themselves leading much happier lives.
Look at the women around me.
One friend spent 20 years building up her career as a solicitor only to end up single and childless at 43.
‘My partner earned enough for both of us, but I didn’t want to become dependent,’ she says. ‘I did want a baby, but the time never felt right career-wise.’
He is now married a woman who is a full-time mother to their twins.
Another friend, a mother of three, had to return to her secretarial job. ‘We couldn’t begin to live on my husband’s salary alone, though I hate working and would far sooner be a full-time mum,’ she says.
She married because she was ‘madly in love’ — but was shocked to find that love isn’t enough.
‘Now all I do is juggle work, childcare, cooking and cleaning,’ she says. ‘I feel miserable and downtrodden.’
Then there’s the friend who gave up her teaching job when she married a wealthy stockbroker, and now lives with their five children, two dogs and several chickens in an idyllic house in the Cotswolds. I know whose life I want for Matilda.
When I discuss this with friends, some are incredulous.
‘Why not just send her to a rubbish state school if all you want is for her to become a housewife?’ one asked.
Another — who is uncomfortable with her own wife-and-mother status — asked: ‘Did you really know what youwanted when you were 21? Isn’t it better to gain a bit of life experience before you settle down?’
But I spent my 20s gaining ‘life experience’. It was only once my children were born that I realised this time had been largely wasted.
Being a mother and wife is not an easy job, but it is the one that has brought me true happiness.
I still think longingly of the three or four more children I could have had if only I had started earlier.
Matilda’s excellent education will, I hope, enable her to become the very best mother and wife she can be.
I am not just paying for her to learn Mandarin: I want her to be kind, generous, thoughtful and well-spoken. I want her to pass on her creativity, knowledge and intelligence to her children, not waste them climbing the career ladder.
I don’t want her to suffer the fate of my generation, miserably trying to juggle careers and home life before their relationships collapse.
‘Having it all’ is my aim for her. But if she is a full-time mother with a comfortable home and a prosperous husband by the time she is 25, that is the ‘all’ my girl could ever need.