By some cruel quirk of fate, I was a lanky redhead teenage girl in the early Nineties, when every other film seemed to feature a lanky, redhead leading lady. There is nothing quite like ticking off the constituent parts of beauty on your fingers to make you realise, sadly, that it’s a sum that will never come right without the addition or subtraction of something far harder to quantity than leg length or hair shade. On paper, there was nothing to stop me being Julia Roberts…but, try as I might to live in books, the world isn’t made of paper.
It wasn’t just Julia Roberts, of course (and oh, though I now see so many things in it to make me cringe, what sixteen year old girl didn’t dream of being her in Pretty Woman?) There was Nicole Kidman too, though she betrayed me twice over by going blonde and by marrying Tom Cruise. And there was Geena Davis, most especially in Thelma and Louise, which I watched over and over again, wallowing in not even trying to check my sobs at the end. I only watched it again recently, more genuinely upset at the tales of the two women’s lives than I understood enough to have been back then.
I’m still no Geena Davis, and I am quietly, bustlingly happy in a way that precludes a one-way road trip of any kind. I still find myself preoccupied, though, with that sense of the small incremental choices and curtailments, conscious or otherwise, that drive a life along a particular route; prey to the dawning realisation that some destinations are closed to me now as the likelihood of driving through Paris in a sports-car with the wind in my hair (although, provided someone else was at the wheel, I’d still welcome the chance).
This summer sees a milestone birthday (to hell with the coyness, I turn forty). I love the gifts that the years have brought me: an awareness of self, a valuing of others, a peaceful resignation to the state of not being Julia Roberts. It’s not the birthday itself that I mind, so much as the timid sort of existential crisis that comes with hitting forty as a housewife and a mother and little else. Demonstrable achievements feel as distant as dreams, now; being Someone outside of the house an alien, exotic concept.
I need to plot my course for the next phase of my life, and I’m struggling to find my starting position, let alone identify a destination. Of course, there have been many forks in the road before now. Every choice closed off other options (and oh, how lucky I have been to have the choices that I have had). Maybe it is just the fortyness of forty, but the decisions ahead of me now feel definitive in a way that others haven’t. I’m entering the next decade of my life just as my youngest starts the adventure of school, and I’m needed, as much as ever, but in a distorted kind of way that squeezes me around the shapes of my children’s lives and leaves me unsure where they end and I start. Questions about work and career, about what I want and what they need, leave me wondering how to draw the boundaries without handing over too much of my own territory or encroaching too much upon theirs. There’s no sat-nav for this journey; no right or wrong turns, just a weighing up of what matters most, now and in the future, and accepting that something has to give.
There was much coverage earlier in the week of a strange phenomenon among uber-wealthy wives on Wall Street. Trading in their educations and careers for a gilded kept existence of social climbing and gym fanaticism, some have turned to negotiating with their breadwinning husbands (though “bread” seems an inadequate word for the dizzying sums we’re talking about here) to set measurable targets which bring the promise of a bonus payment beyond that of mere lifestyle accoutrements. I bang on often enough about women’s work – wife work – being undervalued, but even I don’t think that this is the right way to redress the balance (although nor do I think that navigating the social x-ray infested waters of Manhattan society sounds like a picnic).
What I disliked most, however, was the tone of the coverage. According to one headline, these women “think they deserve” the bonuses; others quickly spun a quirk among a freakishly wealthy microcosm of an alien society into a more general attack on what one called the “defensive manoeuvre” of the argument that being a stay-at-home-parent is a real job. Here’s the thing. I worked after I had babies. I am trying, actively, to get back into work, after a few years of half chosen/half imposed career break. I haven’t spent my time at home in a ceaseless loop of nurturing, I haven’t spun and spoon fed my way through a form of motherhood superior to that practised by my working sisters. But I refuse to accept that my time at home has been neutral at best. I agree that by contributing to the family income I will be helping my husband and setting my children a good example; that by using my skills and education I will be more fulfilled as an individual and quite possibly happier and less frustrated. At the same time, however, I can see that my presence here has allowed my children the advantages of activities they love, and lazy imagination-filled holiday mornings in pyjamas. It’s given them ambling walks to and from school, a swift collection when they are poorly, the security of a certain routine every day at 3.20pm. These things aren’t everything, I agree. But hopefully the fact that I am preparing to give them all up means that I am allowed to say that nor are they nothing. Why do we fall so easily into this trope that women who stay at home make their choice out of laziness, fecklessness or cupidity?
Gone, in the main, are the suggestions and downright insistence that a child being cared for by someone other than its mother is detrimental; gone too, thankfully, are mainstream pieces arguing that a woman’s place is at home. In their place, however, is a new accepted reality: that a mother who isn’t in employment is in some kind of vacuum, neither contributing nor occupying anything of value.
Fashions come, and fashions go. There are lanky redhead leading ladies still, but (I am reliably informed) the look to aim for now, equally unrealistic for most, is that of the opulent lips and derrieres of a new generation. It’s the same with motherhood, isn’t it? We start with where we are and what we have, and we rock it the best we can.