I saw a client last week. Usual sort of thing. They had asked an old school friend to do some building work on their house and everyone had fallen out over money and the quality of the work, and the builder had issued legal proceedings against my client. My client was frightened that the bailiffs would call and take the children’s toys. Except that was only a small part of it. Towards the end of the interview (it is always near the end) my client started crying. She was so lonely. She was married, but her husband worked long hours and was working away at the moment. She had children, one of whom was disabled. But worst of all was the loneliness of being home alone. Because her child was disabled, a bus called to collect him and take him to school, so she did not even have the social contact of the school gates. She could not work because her son was often ill during the day and she needed to be free to go to school to look after him. She was lonely. I felt like crying too. Not only for her, but for myself and for all the other women I know who have felt the same and who have tried to overcome the loneliness of being home alone.
Another client, a few days ago, came for advice because her job was ending in a few months time and she was petrified that she would not be able to cope looking after her child alone at home. She was an articulate, highly educated woman, who had come to the UK to work. She had stayed at home briefly after her child was born, but the loneliness had driven her almost mad. Whilst she was at work she qualified for help from the government to pay for child care for her child. Once she gave up work, that help stopped and it would all be down to her. She could not even see how she could make job applications or attend interviews with this child in tow.
It became clear to me several years ago that many marriages run into problems when the youngest child was about three and a half – roughly the age that children normally start nursery school in the UK. Not that the problems manifest themselves then, but that is when they start. And often it is because the wife finds herself contemplating her future. A future that looks fairly bleak. A future of cleaning, cooking, washing, shopping for food, ministering to everyone, tidying up. Over and over again. The work is solitary and unrewarding. Small pleasures in a beautiful house are dashed and trashed by the other family members. Nobody, except possibly her husband, tells her that she has done her job well. For almost everyone else a job well done is a personal threat – her friends, her family, her husband’s family. She gets very very little affirmation. She is starved of attention. She knows that she is often derided for her pride in her house, but what else does she have?
Most women cope by going back to work. Often they do not need to work for financial reasons, but just to keep their sanity. Others have coffee mornings, or play tennis, or shop (not for food), or visit the beautician. Whatever it takes to keep loneliness at bay. But the sense of loneliness creeps in nonetheless. Since most women cope by returning to work, the pool of women who do not work and are around to socialize during the day (so much more difficult to go out once the children are home) is limited. In my client’s case most of her friends could readily find an economic imperative for returning to work. The necessity of funding private education provides a handy imperative for a lot of women graduates in the UK, where private education is not only about the quality of the education, but also about the social class to which you aspire.
This loneliness is what men have to deal with when they retire, or are unemployed, so beware. No wonder so many of you die as soon as you have to confront it. At least your wife is at home with you. And more of you are happy with your own company.
We spend most of our lives until we have children, or retire, surrounded by other people. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Since I like people (most people), this is a good thing for me, however enjoyable short periods of chosen solitude are. I presume social interaction and contact with other friendly faces was a good thing for my client too.
So, let’s look at at the life of a typical woman. A graduate, but she need not be.
Aged 3-5 Nursery school every day or part of every day. Boys and girls.
Age 5-11 Primary school every day except in school holidays. Friends.
Age 11-16 More school. Hobbies. Friends.
Age 16-18 More school or work. Surrounded by friends.
Age 18-22 University or further education. Friends 24/7.
Age 22-30 Work, every day except for a few weeks holiday with friends.
Age 30-35 Kept busy by young children. Meeting other mothers.
Age 35- Home alone possibly relieved by caring for eldery relatives.
So, by the time she is 35 she has spent 6/7 of her life surrounded by other people in a mixed gender environment. This environment represents normality.
The remaining small portion of her life has been spent in a female-only zone save for male children (if any), diluted by short periods of time spent with a husband who is building a career, coming to terms with the shackles of marriage and being a father, and bored by conversations about baby food. And the future is a life of domestic drudgery unless she decides to return to work.
Finding work is relatively easy. Continuing with a career is almost impossible. Jobs that accommodate the patterns of school terms are in very short supply. As children get older it becomes increasingly difficult to leave them with other carers or in holiday camps, and their dismay at their absent or preoccupied mother becomes more vocal. Teaching sounds like a good idea, but primary school is easier. Secondary school teachers may have long holidays, but they have to spend most evenings marking. Large employers, especially government bodies not driven by profit, are more flexible than small employers and term-time working is becoming a possibility with the largest employers.
Work, however, is only a partial solution. Because it does not replace the life of domestic drudgery but only displaces it. The domestic chores still need to be done (and CANNOT BE REPLACED BY A CLEANER, BEFORE YOU SUGGEST IT). So, now she has two jobs instead of one and is increasingly stressed as a result. Her health will suffer. Bound to. Life seems very hard, though the cage may appear gilded.
None of this is her husband’s fault. It came about because she chose to become a mother. It is definitely not the children’s fault. It is just one of those things.
I gave my client some leaflets about short courses in aromatherapy, floristry, art, cooking and computers. These courses are free and run by the local council at family centres. She thought she would choose the computer course, but I suspect there is a waiting list …