Whisper it…but NO mother wants to work
It’ll infuriate feminists but HELENA FRITH POWELL – who once lived for her career – says she’s stumbled on a basic human truth
At first, Helena was too scared to admit she was a stay-at-home mother, now she sees it as a ‘liberation’
Two years ago I suddenly found myself, for the first time in my adult life, in a position where I didn’t need to work.
Over dinner one evening my husband, Rupert, announced that he was earning enough money for me to stop working. ‘You could stay at home and look after the children,’ he said, before adding rather nervously, ‘if you want.’
Rupert was right to be apprehensive. What he was suggesting was anathema to everything I’d been brought up to believe in and everything I’d assumed to be right about women’s roles in the 21st century.
As the daughter of a feminist single mother who ran a publishing company, it was drilled into me from a young age that women should be self-sufficient and have high ambitions.
I was led to believe that working was the way you defined who you were and how you justified your existence. Women who didn’t work were, well, not only lazy gold-diggers, but letting the side down.
When people asked me as a child what I wanted to be, my answer was never ‘a rich man’s wife’ or a ‘lady that lunches’. No, I wanted to be a vet, or a writer or, at times, a brain surgeon.
In fact, looking back, I’m not even sure I did really want to be any of those things but like most women of my generation I had been brought up to believe I should work, and what is more, I should want to work.
But now? I wonder if all women don’t secretly long to be in a position where they don’t have to work. Few would admit it, but as I learned myself the truth is that not working not only makes your life more pleasant, it enables you to be a better mother and wife.
As it was, my first response to Rupert was one of utter disbelief. I was the editor of a woman’s magazine. Why on earth would I want to give up a lucrative, apparently dream role? I dismissed his generous offer out of hand.
But the next day I analysed my day in the office and the effect working was having on my life. I no longer had time to exercise. Once I was back from the school-run, going to the gym for half-an-hour hardly seemed worth it.
Each morning I was greeted by my boss whose nickname was (and probably still is, unless she’s grown) the poisoned dwarf. She normally had some irritating comment to make on whatever I was working on.
‘It’s not that we working mothers really think they’re inferior — it’s actually that we want to be them.’
In the afternoon I had the inevitable, fraught calls from the three children aged between eight and 12 who, once home, were at each other’s throats with only a terrified nanny to separate them.
In the evenings, by the time I had calmed everyone down and listened to their gripes, I was far too exhausted to even have a conversation with my husband. Perhaps I had been a little hasty.
‘You’re on,’ I told Rupert the very next day.
My first day at home a few months later was a revelation. I got up, gave everyone breakfast, took the kids to school, went to the gym, even chatted to a talkative friend I bumped into.
Normally I’d have been so busy and stressed I would have hidden behind my locker so as not to see her and feel obliged to chat. Shockingly, after just one morning, I had turned into one of them.
By them, I mean women who don’t work. Those that I had formerly viewed as the enemy — in part because of my feminist upbringing but also, I now realise, because I was insanely jealous of them.
This is the unspoken truth of why a lot of stay-at-home mums come under attack. It’s not that we working mothers really think they’re inferior — it’s actually that we want to be them.
I firmly believe a lot of working women would jump at the chance to have some time off, a view that’s backed up by figures. This week it was revealed that the hours worked by married women has been steadily dropping over the past 25 years, despite an increase in the range of jobs and levels of pay available to them.
The Government estimates more than a third of working mothers would like to quit their jobs if they could.
Some mums stick to their careers even when they don’t need to because, as Claire, one of my new stay-at-home-mum friends, put it: ‘They would rather be working than looking after their children.’
Claire told me she could always spot which children had mothers who worked and which had mums who didn’t. ‘The ones who have working mothers are so much more fraught,’ she told me. ‘It’s like they’re tight little springs waiting to unravel.’
While before I’d have dismissed her theory out of hand, based on my own experience there is truth in this. When I stopped working, the change in our children was as instantaneous as it was in me.
Suddenly there was laughter in the car on the way to school, a ‘see you this afternoon mummy’ as opposed to an anxious ‘will you be home tonight?’.
The bickering diminished, there was a tranquil atmosphere that hadn’t been there before. I was calmer, so they were calmer.
So wasn’t I worried that I was becoming a nobody? That people wouldn’t take me seriously any more? I remember the first time we went out after my ‘liberation’, as I now call it.
Somebody asked me what I did for a living. I was so shocked I couldn’t answer at first. To say I was a magazine editor was of course no longer true.
‘I’m between jobs,’ I replied in the end, sounding like some failed Hollywood actress.
I realised that I was frightened to say I was ‘just a mum’ — but why? Being a mum, as we all know, is actually the hardest job in the world. Even if you have the boss from hell, you can sometimes ignore him (or her). Try ignoring a two-year-old having a tantrum at your peril.
When I was ‘liberated’ my children were eight, 11 and 12 and so I was able to throw myself into trawling round schools with them and prep them for the entrance exams. But, when I wasn’t doing those things, I was doing exactly what I felt like.
This included afternoon naps (almost every day), having my nails maintained by the best in the business and lunching with friends I had previously been too busy to see. Generally my life was much more in order. Instead of running around like a headless chicken yelling at everyone, I was in control of myself, my life and my moods.
We had a kind of equilibrium in our lives I think we had always missed. Looking back on the years when I was working in an office full-time, I would say that at least 70 per cent of arguments and stress were as a result of my having to devote time to work and not the family.
An added bonus was that not only were we happier, but my husband was happier too.
He seemed to really enjoy his role as sole provider, perhaps in part because it meant he had more of my attention, just like the children.
Of course it was not always idyllic or perfect — but I’d be lying if I said that him being the provider and me the wife at home didn’t work better than us both working full-time. In fact, it might have worked rather too well.
My diligent tutoring of our children meant that we got them all into the expensive private schools of our choice. So now I have to work to help pay the fees.
But, while I might need an income, there’s no way I’m going back into an office full-time.
I’ve set up my own PR company and work from home — when it suits me and my family. And yes, my nails are still perfect.
Helena’s novel, The Ex-Factor, is out now.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019