"Happy wife, happy life.” Most old wifely adages will earn men a slap these days but, in our current confused and contorted climate, the slap you’ll get for quoting this one is likely to sting more than most. After all, no woman in history has ever relished the notion of being a nag, and feminists now consider “henpecking” to be a particularly derogative term. So neither sex will be pleased to hear that according to a study published by the Marriage Foundation on Sunday “happy wife, happy life” isn’t just a trite little dictum — but fact.
Based on the campaign group’s analysis of a Millennium Cohort Study — which tracked 13,000 married couples from nine months after the birth of their first child to the child’s 14th birthday — it discovered that a mother’s happiness is nearly twice as crucial as a father’s when it comes to keeping the family together. It added that while a happy mother also meant that the children would be less likely to develop mental health problems and more likely to enjoy stable relationships of their own in adulthood, a father’s happiness had absolutely zero bearing on his kids’ mental well-being. This is another slap in the face for men, isn’t it? The kind that leaves fingerprints on cheekbones for days.
Despite all the social changes of the past 50 years, whether we like it or not there is an ingredient for keeping the whole family happy, which is only available from the mother or mother figure.
After all that New Man love and support — the sympathetic weight gain during the missus’ pregnancy, nappy-changing, male post-natal depression (don’t laugh: it’s a thing, a 24-50 percentile thing if you listen to research urging women to be more supportive of men at this difficult time) and the career setbacks prompted by that extended paternity leave — it turns out that men didn’t matter. Not to rub it in, given your own father was probably not even in the delivery suite to begin with, but nobody even noticed the “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt you were wearing: they were looking right through you.
The mother figure
“Despite all the social changes of the past 50 years, whether we like it or not there is an ingredient for keeping the whole family happy, which is only available from the mother or mother figure,” confirms Sir Paul Coleridge, the Marriage Foundation’s founder and chairman, who as a former High Court judge in the Family Division also maintains that successful family lives are largely possible “because the wife or mother is a powerful figure”.
Hurrah for us! We’ve got all the power! Only it’s hard to suppress a chuckle when this is precisely the kind of domestic power that many women have been trying to reject for decades — or at least delegate to their other halves. We don’t want to be the CEOs of our own households — but Nasdaq-listed companies. We don’t want the pressure of being single-handedly responsible for everyone’s mental well-being. I mean, it was hard enough being lumbered with the responsibility of buying milk for everyone’s morning tea, but now they’re telling us that the future of the planet’s mental health depends on us? Plus have you ever tried being a nucleus? It’s really un-fun; being positively charged 24/7 is knackering.
And there’s a bigger problem: if everybody’s lives depend on happy wives, then women had better work out what makes them happy, quick smart. Yet, never has this been less clear. According to every other study and statistic you care to read — and despite the political, economic and social freedoms we’ve gained over the past half century — women are more dissatisfied than ever.
I wonder how much of that dissatisfaction is down to confusion. We know what’s supposed to make us happy: being a perfect wife and mother while achieving everything we’ve fought so hard for in the professional arena; maintaining a perfect size 10 figure, ageless physique and inner poise, thanks to the aeons of “me time” that we now know it’s crucial we indulge ourselves in. This all sounds less like deliverance than a lifelong to-do list. Little wonder that, now we are allowed to “have it all”, many of us are secretly asking ourselves whether we want it. Judged against the complex and optimistic expectations foisted upon us by studies, social media and feminist diktats, reality is always going to fall short.
Had you asked a Fifties housewife how happy she was, the answer would probably only have depended on two things: how well things were going at home; and how many of “mother’s little helpers” she’d taken that day. Nowadays, the answer depends on how badly we feel we’ve failed at any number of the roles we’re aiming to excel at simultaneously. Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in any study or set of societal rules; maybe a happy home is simply the sum of its defiantly individual parts.
— Celia Walden is a British journalist, novelist, and critic.