…have ambitious daughters.’ A friend of mine, Charlotte Chidley, fed me this glorious quotation from the US Journal of Psychological Science reporting a study by Dr Alyssa Croft.
As she breastfed her two month old, Katie; as her two year old, Harriet, scampered around the living room pulling out books and teddy bears; and as little Tennessee gripped my hand whilst looking at these exciting new faces that had landed in her home, Charlotte and I spoke about being mothers – and women. Women who want to be there for their children whilst still building our careers; women who don’t want to let go of those years of study and thinking and writing and learning. Women who don’t want to sign up to the rather sinister Cath Kidston, baking, gardening, Stepford Wives throwback that seems to be gripping many of our middle class friends.
I want my daughter to love me, I said – but I also want her to admire me. In other words, I want Tennessee to see me as a writer, not just as mummy.
Out of the hundreds of girls I’ve taught and looked after at Haileybury, Downe House and Wellington, I’ve picked up on a common and disturbing pattern in how a daughters perceives their parents: they love their mothers (in that complex, often fraught and critical but nevertheless profound way) but they respect their fathers. Their mothers, who gave up everything to raise them, are appreciated for their thereness, their dependability, but their fathers, now they’re the interesting ones. The ones with jobs, with colleagues, who have a place in the world besides the home. It makes my heart bleed for womankind and motherkind in particular.
It’s an issue particularly vivid to me at the moment as I take time away from Tennessee to edit book two and as I prepare my lessons for September when Tennessee will be looked after by my mother and two wonderful nannies: Juliet and Samantha. Will she resent me for not being there every second? Will she miss out in some way for not having one, constant carer? Will I regret the hours spent with other people doing other things? There’ll be some of that, of course, but as I’m the kind of mother who smothers her with love and stimulates her into an inch of her life in the hours I am with her, I don’t think she’ll experience me as absent. From her for goodness sake, give it a rest, face when I give her one too many kisses in her soft, warm neck and her please stop singing to me, I’m getting a headache frown, I’m sure she’ll want a break from me every now and then! And I’ve chosen nannies rather than nursery so that, when I come in from a lesson, I can give her a cuddle as she’s having her mashed up banana at the kitchen table with Samantha; so that, as I sit in my study, writing, I can watch through the window playing in the garden with Juliet while. So I’ll be there – a constant, niggling presence in her life – even if my full attention will be a little more limited than the stay at home mum.
Of course I’m doing this for me: so that I can keep writing, doing the thing which makes me feel alive, and not throw away the inestimable gift I’ve be handed of being published – the chance of winning the hearts of readers who might, if I work hard enough and if the stars are aligned in my favour, stick with me for a while. But I’m also doing it for Tennessee. Children, in particular little girls, need to grow up seeing their mothers as complete people. Some mothers can do this by staying at home full time. There’s a place for that. But girls must see other models too. A mother who’s a writer, a teacher, a politician – lawyer, like my friend Charlotte. I want Tennessee to grow up thinking – and believing – she can do it all, no matter how hard.
But, coming back, at last, to the quotation with which I started, there’s a key piece of the puzzle that I haven’t mentioned yet – something that will ensure that my daughter grows up ambitious. Something beyond the role model I hope to be. Tennessee will aspire to great things because her father does the washing up. Or, more precisely (we have a dishwasher), because he does the laundry. From the moment an item of clothing lands in the laundry hamper, I no longer have anything to do with it until it returns to my wardrobe, washed, dried, ironed, aired, folded and smelling of Lenor. There’s a line in the film of The English Patient in which Katherine says to Almasy that a woman should never learn to sew – and that if she does, she should never let a man know that she can. Hugh knows that, besides a bit of pottering in the kitchen (and even then, he acts as sous-chef), I’m pretty hopeless at domestic things. Whereas he’s brilliant at it. A man with brains who’s not afraid of putting on the Marigolds, now there’s a catch Jane Austen should have written about.
More to the point, Tennessee watches her father pulling our clothes out of the washing machine. She also watches him changing her nappy, feeding her, putting her to bed, playing with her. She watches her parents sharing all things: a true team. And so, she’ll grow up ambitious. She won’t have her aspirations skewed by gender stereotypes. She’ll audition for the character of Hamlet in the school play and she’ll won’t hesitate to work in an office full of men and to make her voice heard. I’m not a rampant feminist and I don’t thinks he needs to be either. But I do want to raise her to hold her head high and to know that if something’s possible for a man, then it’s possible for a woman too. And, if I have anything to do with it, she’ll marry a man who does the laundry.