What women want

By | March 21, 2005

Tomorrow (Tuesday) I’ll be on the telly. RTE1, 2.30pm on David McWilliams’ programme “The Big Bite”. The subject for discussion is “What women want” and we recorded it last week. The conversation flew all over the place and everything from childbearing to politics to careers to relationships got a mention. At the end of the programme David seemed frustrated because we hadn’t been able to crystalise a simple answer to his question.

So I lay awake in bed last night, whilst the men of the household slept soundly, pondering the issue. My focus was concentrated by publication of an article of mine yesterday in the Sunday Times (!) on a frequent theme – How men get out of housework. Beside my article was another persuading women that they could manage a career and family. India Knight’s article was about female teenage aggression. The paper seemed full of women questioning our nature and purpose. When I copped this I panicked for a second that I had been drawn into some Murdoch inspired campaign which would only serve to undermine women. The last thing I want to be is an unwitting pawn in the Backlash.

However, it is clear that most women are not happy. My previous post on the ‘lesser knife’ seemed to hit a chord and some have been sharing their experiences with me since. One correspondent said that her abiding memory of staying home with the babies would be standing at the sink, chopping carrots, crying. She would never regret staying home minding the babies and putting her career on hold; so why was she unhappy?

I wouldn’t consider abandoning the babies yet and while not unhappy there is an underlying sense of frustration and need to justify my life. I briefly considered Plato’s theory of inconsistent motivations, discussed in a previous post in connection with The Sopranos (see the book Philosophy and The Sopranos for more). Tony and Carmella will never be happy since their desire to live like a normal family is incosistent with their desire to live off their mafia earnings (and in Tony’s case to sleep with lots of other women). Perhaps most women simply have inconsistent motivations. They want the family, to spend lots of time with their babies, but they also want the money and excitement that goes with a career. Since never the twain shall meet, they will always be miserable. They’re also under huge pressure to have the perfect house and body but since that takes time and money, both of which are generally in short supply, that adds to the dissatisfaction.

However I dimissed this, because although relevant I still don’t think it’s at the heart of our self-doubt. I think what most women want is simply approval. From everyone. Husbands, parents, children, bosses. And few get it. To begin with, if you’re in need of external validation (as I am), the last place you’ll find it is at home and certainly not in your role as mother. No one EVER says*, “you’re a great mother”. Instead you are fed a constant stream of advice or asked questions, the answers to which will only confirm that you fall far short of accepted norms. “Does he sleep through?” Of course not, he’s 7 weeks old. “Does he eat for you?” Well most of the time but he’s a toddler; the food will be ignored at least two or three times a week. After that, there is a better babygro, a better bottle, a better way to mash the banana (I kid you not), a better way to feed him, a better way to sit him up, lie him down, wind him , stop him crying, get him to sleep. IT NEVER STOPS. This is even before the bottle/breast war. So if you’re at home, you feel you should be at work and acting like a real person, because staying at home has no value to the rest of the world. If you’re at work you probably feel you should be at home.

That’s why women cry in the changing rooms of clothes shops and when the dinner doesn’t taste nice. WE CAN’T DO ANYTHING RIGHT. It’s terrible really.

Men don’t appear to have this problem. Where we worry all time they are far more relaxed. I used to know a particular guy who was quite good looking and always had a terribly serious expresion, which was most endearing. He confessed to a mutual friend that this caused women to enquire tenderly, on a frequent basis, as to what he was thinking about. He always had to make up an answer because the truth was that he wasn’t thinking about anything. I would love to think about nothing for a while. How relaxing.

*There is one notable exception to this. I recently met Liz McManus the Labour TD. She asked what I was doing i.e. what was I working at. I admitted I was ‘just at home’ in an apologetic fashion. We chatted on and at the close of our conversation as she walked away, she turned around and told me I was doing a ‘great thing’. I nearly wept on the spot.