The second gender

You can chat with Simon’s wife, Laura, says C. She’s a doctor.

It was Thursday night and we had driven ninety minutes through heavy rain to drink wine and keep futile watch for the arrival of dinner, with agribusiness’ nearest and dearest.

(I’m sorry – did you need more introduction? asks C, reading over my shoulder. I worry sometimes that he may eventually stop speaking in my presence, for fear of what I may selectively transcribe later. Clever chap.)

But where was I?

It is a peculiar thing, starting out in a new field, when you’ve spent nearly a decade perfecting your ability to fake competence in a different industry. In isolation, you can find patience for your ignorance, but it is something else entirely when faced with a room full of people who have lived and breathed this since they were tall enough to reach the tractor pedals – and who have all aggregated specifically to talk about it with each other. But you have nothing to say. You are that worst combination of features: under-read and over-dressed. What I’m yet to decide is whether it’s worse when no-one expects you to have anything to say.

So instead I chatted to Laura. A stage three wife.

At some point in your working life, you will have come across a stage three spouse. They are the ones standing by themselves in a corner at the office Christmas party, with a glazed look somewhere between inebriation and boredom. If you charitably strike up conversation with them, you will discover that they have lost all will to even politely feign interest in what their partner does for a living.

So I attempted to steer us down a happier path.

So what do you do? I asked brightly, convinced I was teeing her up for a topic she could conjure some enthusiasm for.

Because from my experience (in London at least), doctors are like lawyers. You will know within twenty seconds of meeting one that you have met a doctor or a lawyer. Not just because they say “I’m a [doctor/solicitor/barrister]”, but because the first words out of their mouth, after names and pleasantries have been exchanged, are: So what do you do? 

Perhaps I threw her off balance by getting those five words out first, because instead of what I expected, Laura said, in a voice of abject resignation: We have three children… So I do that.

I left a pause for her to add anything else… but she said nothing.

For a moment I wondered whether C had been mistaken – Simon, after all, had transpired to be a Jeff. But on later reflection, I wondered whether it wasn’t just a disdainful disinterest in being there that had been fuelling her stage three-ness.

We are perhaps the first generation of (privileged, middle-class) women who have been expected to work. The generation before us carried the burden of “bad mommy” guilt – women who worried that returning to the workforce would in some way disadvantage their children. That they would grow up retarded, deviant or emotionally crippled. Now, instead, we have the likes of Cherie Blair, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg valiantly reminding women that their primary responsibility is not to their families, but to the economy. Because everyone knows that when you get to the end of your life, what you will regret the most is not having spent enough time at work. Not having got that extra pay rise. Not having attended just one more teleconference with the Japan office instead of missing it to attend little Jimmy’s parent teacher conference. Such regret.

Our generation has been encouraged to value ourselves by the numbers in our paycheck. So how would it feel to stop earning one, or to start bringing home five figures instead of six? Is your time suddenly less important? Is your worth as a person suddenly diminished? Have you ceased to matter to society? Because as we have somehow been reprogrammed to believe, raising your own children and running your own household is not a job. But do it for someone else, and magically it becomes one – perhaps even three: Nanny? Maid? Cook? But apparently these are dishonourable jobs for an educated woman. You are squandering your potential and your privilege. The responsibility of raising your children to be sentient and considerate additions to society is nothing in comparison to ensuring that a mid-tier corporate hits its sales targets. That’s what job satisfaction is. And what on earth do you do all day? Why can’t you fit it in around work, like all those other reasonable women.

I am, of course, projecting. I don’t really know why Laura was less than enthused at being there that evening. I don’t know what she gave up or got rid of in order to be where she currently is. She may be resentful about leaving a vocation that helped define who she was as a person, or she may be rejoicing at being financially fortunate enough to spend her time as she chooses. What I can say though, is that I was saddened to think she assumed I’d regard her as lesser. Or worse: That she thought less of herself.

Women can be such misogynists sometimes.

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