As a child of the 70s I have very strong memories of a TV program called The Good Life. It was Felicity Kendall’s breakthrough role, and she played an ordinary housewife, who, together with her bumbling but well-intentioned husband, set up a self-sustaining household in the midst of English suburbia. My memory of the show is that goats and vegetable patches and rain tanks replaced manicured shrubberies and tidy lawns, leading to “hilarious” consequences and a central conflict interest with the disapproving neighbour – Penelope Keith in her own breakthrough role.
The Good Life intrigued me in large part because it suggested that a couple of people with wide eyed enthusiasm (no children, some previous source of reasonable income) could opt out of the dreariness of middle class life and make their own choices about what was a reasonable way to live. The couple’s devotion to each other, and shared excitement about their plot of sustainable suburbia – was an attractive side benefit – particularly compared with the thinly veiled boredom of the more conventional relationship next door.
Looking now at my life in the early 2010s, I see that perhaps I now have developed my own version of The Good Life. I recycle my rubbish, use a shared car system, buy organic food, minimise my packaging, and tithe a proportion of my income to charity. I send my children to public schools (at the moment), but contemplate a move to private (in the best interests of my child of course). I worry about the state of the world, but focus my activities primarily on my little part of it – where I can see results and feel in control.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how to “ensure” that my children are going to have a good start in life – and not enough time thinking about how children in general are going to get the right sort of education. I spend a lot of time worrying about my own ecological footprint, and not enough time working out how to reduce the ecological footprint of the wider world around me. I feel (in the vernacular) dis-empowered in the world of politics – nothing that I do will surely make any impact of the decisions of politicians and business leaders – so why bother? Why not spend my time obsessing about drama classes and basketball lessons and whether my son will do well enough at HSC to get into a good university?
Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness – Motherhood in the age of anxiety makes the point that the last decades have seen a move in US society towards an greater focus on our own families, our own interests, our own advancement, and a lessening of interest in the wider world, the societal structures that support individual families.
She describes a frenzy of stress in the mothering experiences of today – resulting in more pressure on children to perform, to excel to live up to the expectations of their parents, and to justify the investments of middle class incomes in their education, health and well-being. She outlines an emerging hostility in American middle class towards people who are poorer or less able or effective.
Warner sees that the generation that is now in our middle ages “grew up with the greatest number of choices of any generation of women before and continues to enjoy that wealth in motherhood.” but then describes a mythology which places all women in a constant quandary over their inability to reconcile a high falutin’ career with the goal of perfect motherhood.
But, she says, there is “a more average kind of ambition” which can be combined with motherhood – so long as the institutional, political structures are in place to support this. Some countries – she suggests those in Western Europe – I don’t know – “believe that lessening the burdens that keep average women and their families from achieving balance in their lives is precisely what society can – and ought – to do.”
instead of worrying endlessly over how many first- year female associates at major law firms make it to the level of partner, how many women ascend to the Supreme Court, and how many grace the ranks of the House and Senate, those of us who care about these issues should instead find a way to demand policies that would permit most women – the great many, not the few – to improve their lives. We should articulate – and find politicians to promote – a Politics of Quality of Life. (p 263)
And I suppose this is the point. It might be time to take a step back from such an intimate focus on ourselves, our families, our immediate environment, and take a step forward towards a greater level of political activism about global and national issues of importance to a broader group of people. A movement from The Good Life to A Better Life perhaps.