Words by Penny Vincenzi


A great American comic once said that telling your toddler he must not be jealous of a new baby because you love them both the same, was rather like telling your wife she shouldn’t be jealous of your mistress for the same reason. 

But what do you tell the father of a screaming infant when he feels horribly rejected by his exhausted and harassed wife? What reassurance can he be given that she loves and desires him as much as ever, when the evidence of his own eyes is so obviously to the contrary? There he is, shoved aside in the marital bed to make room for an intruder, one who, moreover, is snuggled up against your breast – where he likes to be – and quite probably nuzzling it as well. 

‘The demands of children are immediate – husbands can wait’ 

 Is it possible to be the Perfect Wife while you’re

trying to be the Perfect Mother? 

He’s trying to tell you about some corporate crisis at work, and how he overcame it, and you’re only – at best – half listening or, at worst, actually dropping off to sleep. Meanwhile, he’s busy wondering how his natty little two-door sports car was exchanged for a five-door tank filled with baby seats, mobiles and stickers. 

Is it any wonder that the poor chap gets a tad edgy from time to time? 

I exaggerate, of course. There’s no shared happiness like that created by a new baby, no greater sense of wonder; and no greater sense of achievement as the infant begins to grow, smile, walk and talk, and generally become a successful, cheerful, well-adjusted child. I did it four times, and the sense of joy and wonder never faded. But truly, I got tired – terribly tired. And cross. And confused. And shouted a lot. My cooking – never cordon bleu anyway – took a nose dive and the chap who delivered pizzas became a family friend. The house was in chaos. Our social life died. And my poor husband stood right there at the back of the queue waiting (mostly) patiently for a few exhausted minutes when he could have scraps of attention from me. Inevitably, he too, got cross sometimes and shouted as well. 

And here lies the crux of a thorny question married women have faced since time immemorial: is it possible to be the Perfect Wife while you’re trying to be the Perfect Mother? 

The fact is that when children arrive, women turn away from the husbands who have, up to that point, been the focus of all their nurturing and love and passion. The trouble is that children are more rewarding for women than they are for men. I’m sorry, the feminists can howl as loudly as they like, but it’s true. Women usually want babies more than men do. We find them a more irresistible prospect, (I think it’s called biology). We (usually) get more excited at the first smile, the first tooth, the first toddle. We (usually) cope better with the boredom, the mess, the racket; and we (usually) find the inevitable loss of income, freedom, and time for ourselves easier to contemplate. It does help hugely, of course, if the father enjoys it all too, in a sufficiently mature and selfless way and not just from a practical point of view. But fathers are born, not made, in my experience, and for every caring, sharing chap, showing pictures of the latest scan in the pub and earnestly sourcing organic carrots for the puree, there are a whole lot more feeling rejected and put upon and wondering where on earth the girl they married went to. 

Men love to be mothered and fed and watered like they were when they were little – and when their wife finds she has a real child who needs mothering, the result can be dreadful tensions in the marriage. 

 The problem is that trying to be a perfect mother takes an

inordinate amount of time. And energy.

For the woman, the demands of children are immediate, constant, and press all the right buttons – the ones marked “urgent”. No one except a monster – or a mother from the Fifties (but we’ll come on to her in a minute) could ignore a hungry baby, a whining toddler or a sick child. The demands of a husband, meanwhile, also press emotional buttons in a wife, but in stark contrast, they are the ones that say “in a minute”, “not now” or even “for goodness sake, can’t you see I’ve got enough to cope with?” 

Which, of course, you have. The point is that every mother wants to be a Perfect Mother. You wouldn’t set out on the whole baby business if you didn’t. It’s the holy grail, the fallacy peddled by all those baby books, magazine and newspaper articles – for many modern women it has become more important than having a good career, indeed it is a career in itself. And if you fail at motherhood, having set out to create a domestic dream, you feel pretty damn bad about yourself. 

At the beginning, you see yourself as calm, smiling, loving, with lots of time to develop talents and interests, read stories and bake organic bread. You may well achieve something pretty close to that. Personally, I seemed to be stressed, scowling and always rushing out to the corner shop to buy a packet of sliced white. But the problem is that trying to be a perfect mother takes an inordinate amount of time. And energy. 

Just creating the requisite atmosphere for bedtime: everyone settled into freshly laundered beds and cots while you read them stories – rather like a scene from The White Company Catalogue – requires more advance planning and critical analysis than the invasion of a small country, or the running of a large company. As for your own bedtime (and your husband’s, which is unlikely to come at the same time), it takes place somewhere between ten and the small hours, after you’ve done the lunch boxes, sorted the socks, and done a bit of frantic ironing. Even then, as you climb exhausted into bed, your sleep is frequently interrupted by cries of “Mummy I feel sick/had a bad dream/can’t find teddy.” 

That’s why the prospect of sex with your husband becomes a distant dream. 

And if you have to add into that equation going out to work, delivering and fetching children from the nursery or childminder, and then embarking on the chores and the cooking when you finally get home, you end up running on empty pretty quickly. 

“The bottom line is that it’s jolly tough on a relationship not

having any time or energy left over for each other.

Soon, you realise you’ve come a long way from that person you set out to be years before, when you swanned up the aisle full of aspirations for an idyllic life with your man: The Perfect Wife. Or at least the Very Good Wife. 

Now, obviously one man’s “very good wife” is not necessarily exactly like another’s; not all men want the Jerry Hall ideal of maid in the living room, cook in the kitchen and whore in the bedroom – although I can’t personally think of many who don’t, not if they were being honest. The Very Good Wife is life enhancing. She makes things fun. She’s the independent, spirited woman her husband fell in love with and wanted to marry. But enter one small noisy, completely exhausting stranger, possessed of such monumental selfishness and manipulative powers, and capable of creating chaos on so unimaginable a scale if it doesn’t get exactly what it wants, and with the best will in the world, the Very Good Wife becomes a terrible one, lost in exhaustion and utterly preoccupied with her child. 

Of course it was not always like this. My mother’s generation – who ran their families in the Forties and Fifties – always put their husbands first. The children were in bed when the householder’s key turned in the lock, a delicious supper was waiting in the oven and Mother became Wife, ready, in a freshly laundered something, a smile on her face and a patient ear at the ready for the recounting of the trials of the day. At the weekend what Father said went; the family scuttled to do his bidding, or at least what he wanted, and anyway, he’d probably be out a lot of the time playing golf, or going to the football. Presumably children must still have had bad dreams or felt sick, but they knew that once Daddy was home, he was the most important person. 

This lofty figure took a tumble in the Sixties, when mothers began to go out to work. But a man’s needs still were out there in the forefront. Even the divine Shirley Conran, High Priestess of Getting It All Done Somehow, counselled that we should make sure that he always had a freshly ironed shirt at the ready. And a handkerchief too. In fact, however long and hard the female day – and even though he was expected to help – he helped in small proportions. And when push came to shove, he was still the most important person. This inevitably bred resentment in the house. That, I think, was the point at which we women began to realise there was a genuine battle raging in the home – tearing us in two as we sought to devote ourselves to our husband and children in equal measure. And since by then many of us had gone out to work, trying to be a perfect mother and a perfect wife – while consumed with guilt at leaving our babies at home – was inevitably doomed to failure. 

These days, men are beginning to understand that when offspring arrive, the paternal figure is no longer going to retain the unquestioning devotion of his wife. Fathers know families are a shared responsibility which they’ve created, and they do an enormous amount to help. I look at them in awe as they walk around Sainsbury’s on Saturday mornings, patiently checking their lists, babies strapped to their chests while toddlers run riot. 

One of the main reasons for this is that their wives have probably just worked a 60-hour week in a high-powered job, and the man is sensible enough to know that if he demands his dinner on the table at 6pm, he’s likely to get a ready meal tipped all over his head as his wife dashes past with a dirty nappy bin under her arm. 

The bottom line is that it’s jolly tough on a relationship not having any time or any energy left over for each other. Communication might not quite break down, but it starts to crumble. It leads, inevitably, to a sense of huge frustration and questions of how and why did we ever get into this. And I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the best solution is to effectively put the marriage on hold: to recognise the problem and know that time – and the arrival of the youngest child at school age – will to a large extent solve it. 

I would not wish to imply it is the end of one’s parental headache, there are positive migraines in store in the form of education, adolescence and God knows what else: but at least there’s a bit more time for a couple to rediscover one another, and to remind themselves that you can make love without a baby screaming in the other room. 

The other way to attempt to solve this intractable problem is for women to temper their ambitions a bit: to accept that there’s no such thing as a perfect anything. 

That striving for it is counterproductive, and that good old muddling along – giving your husband and children as much time as you can – often works better, and is actually more fun. 

© Penny Vincenzi 

The Little Book recommends Penny’s latest novel, THE DECISION.