The Times

October 1 2000

Rise up men, and overthrow the queen of the hearth

Men will never be proper fathers until women stop telling them how to do it, says Shirley Conran.

by Shirley Conran
The Sunday Times

Women are preventing men from becoming good fathers. They may complain that men don't do enough with their children but the truth is that mothers often don't allow fathers to have much input. They'll see a father fumbling as he tries to make the formula for the baby's bottle. Instead of letting him get on with it, they get bossy and possessive, and say: "Give the bottle to me; I can do it quicker myself." So the father gives up.

When it comes to raising their children, women want things done their way and in their way only: it's what I call "the maternal mystique". A mother will say to the father: "I want you to take our child to the doctor, and make sure you ask the following six questions." But why does the mother have to tell the father what to say?

When I was a girl we practically ignored my father. Sometimes we had to put up with him being there, as he sat in his armchair. His role was that of "the breadwinner". I suspect that quite a lot of fathers feel like that today. Yet "breadwinner" is a silly, old-fashioned concept. One in three women now earns more than the man she lives with. One in five families is a one-parent family headed by a woman. One in five women is single.

We have to get rid of the maternal mystique because it makes it difficult for a father to have a relationship with his children.

The maternal mystique is proprietorial and part of the territory ruled by "the queen of the hearth". In 1975, when I wrote my book Superwoman, about minimising housework, a lot of women were very angry with me. They said I was taking their job away. I think I was only taking away their sense of self-importance. Yet, 25 years later, the virtues of women as queens of the hearth are still being extolled by the likes of Nigella Lawson in Britain and Martha Stewart in America.

Nigella has written a book called How to be a Domestic Goddess and she appears on television for her series Nigella Bites. I watched one programme where basically what she was demonstrating was how to cook bacon salad but with a fancy Italian name.

Nice work if you can get it. I admire anybody who can make money out of cookery or housework. But Nigella will have depressed an awful lot of women. They will think: "Why can't I do that?" And the answer is that most women haven't got Nigella's advantages: her perfect looks, her famous parents, her education, her contacts throughout the media.

Martha Stewart believes that not only should you bake your own bread but also that you should have cinnamon rolls as well.

It reminds me of how in the 1960s we used to rush home from work and dive into little black dresses to give three-course dinner parties. We had started to prepare for the three-course Elizabeth David dinner party three days beforehand, and then we stayed up all night to do the dishes.

Afterwards we were absolutely exhausted. I suppose it is called "home- making" but I'm not sure that this sort of carrying on really has to do with homes and family life at all.

Leading queens of the hearth who care about table place settings can't really be concerned about their families. If they spend their time matching cutlery they will have no time left for their families.

Why do women fall into the trap of wanting to be the queen of the hearth? Why do they need to control or to be controlling in this way? I think it is because of centuries of female submission to men. The hearth has previously been a teeny bit of the territory that they can claim to be truly theirs.

But today, when 38% of managers are female, and more men work from home, women no longer need rule in this way. It is also disastrous for fathers.

A woman who wants her house to look perfect wants control. Today women are controlling their children as well, so that the children are often overprotected in the home. I believe that children should be taught to do housework at a very early age. As soon as they can throw down a toy they can pick it up, too.

I think children should be encouraged financially. I don't see why they should have pocket money for doing nothing. Nobody gives me money for doing nothing.

We need more parenting and less mothering. We need to learn a new kind of behaviour. But at the moment what is going on in the home is a bit of a muddle and we are sorting it out.

We need a renaissance in the home. What needs to be done and why? Is this a man's or a woman's job? Or can it be done by either? I think we need to have a more friendly atmosphere in the home with less point-scoring between couples.

I think it is crucial that men discover how to father for themselves and not be told how to do so by women. One woman told me how she wanted her husband to take their children to dancing lessons, but he

said he didn't want to do that. He worked out with their children that he would take them swimming, so now everyone is happy.

A main contender for the father of the year award is David Beckham, because he is clearly a devoted dad. He stayed at home when his baby was ill. He has made having a baby the must-have football accessory.

Men and women are different - and vive la différence. We have all been indoctrinated about our gender roles, but we must question these assumptions. Time and again I hear from well-meaning parents [?!] that, when they give dolls to their boys and tanks to their girls, they have swapped within five minutes.

But the little girl sees the mother as her role model. Until the mother has started playing with tanks and the dad starts playing with dolls - or the children - we won't have any real change.

[If indeed 'nurture' rules, and 'nature' has no role. Otherwise, the confusion will continue...]

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.