Over tea and muffins, I was almost convinced of the case for tighter apron strings. Oh, crumbs!
Last week was a significant one for me because I nearly changed my mind about something. And who ever does that? I didnt change my mind (nobody ever does, about anything) but I did have I think a small insight. I wont say epiphany. Not least because I find it hard to pronounce. But I will say insight.
It came about over a cup of tea with a friend, whom I wont name for fear that people will find her on Twitter and shout at her. Lets just call her @elspeth157. Im joking. Well call her Janet.
Janets daughter, whos struggling through exams, is having a rather grim summer.
Who isnt? I sighed.
But kids should be free from pressure! cried Janet. They can be shielded from terrible news, they should be running around having a carefree time while they can. But there are too many exams, too many tests, too much homework. Its cruel. No wonder they have all got depression.
I agreed. I dread the day my own daughter has to go to school. All the talk is of an overcrowded job market, lack of affordable housing, massive long shot of any decent future to which end, the rat race starts around the age of five. From primary school onwards, theyre like tiny, middle-aged office workers, chained to the desk, shouting: No time to talk, deadlines deadlines!
It turned out that Janet and I had both read last weeks column by the brilliant writer Caitlin Moran, in which Caitlin linked this hothousing to the rise in psychological problems among young women: 33% of teenage girls saying they suffer from depression or anxiety, 285% increase in girls being treated for self-harm and so on.
Caitlin argued that this is the obvious result of an education system that abandons drama, sport and dance in favour of intense and relentless academic study. (A similar conclusion was drawn by Dr Jacqueline Cornish, NHS Englands national clinical director for children, young people and transition to adulthood, who said: We believe [the rise in mental health problems] is due to increasing stress and social pressure on young people, including to succeed at school.)
But heres the thing, said Janet, tearing a muffin apart as my blissfully unschooled daughter chewed a book about a rabbit. Neither of those women spelled out the logical next step. Or they darent say they have.
Which is? I asked, gently removing a fork from my daughters ear.
Women going to work! said Janet. Has it increased the sum of human happiness? No it hasnt.
She continued, muffin crumbs raining lightly on to the tablecloth:
Now that women all go out to work, the country is fairer but it isnt happier. And it isnt especially fair anyway! At least when women mainly aspired to have children, most of them could achieve it. But now theyre expected to want complete professional fulfilment, when only a fraction can even hope for a secure job. So a giant academic competition starts from childhood hugely more pressure on boys too, of course followed by almost inevitable disappointment. Then we have children as well as the job and feel like were now doing two things badly. All these eating disorders and depressions: its an identity crisis, brought on by talk of constant bloody achievement; theyre exhausted before they even start. Motherhood is a perfectly great achievement and always was. Plus its actually achievable, usually, if you start early! Weve been sold a massive pup.
It sounded horribly convincing. I avoided parenthood for the best part of 40 years, having been led to believe it would feel like a stultifying trap compared to the excitement of wage-earning work. Turns out, at the last minute before the door closed, to be more fulfilling than anything I have ever done!
Its not like that for everyone, of course, but not everyone has been so professionally lucky, either. Ive earned money in unusually interesting and varied ways. (That sounds like prostitution. I didnt mean it to.) A fair percentage might be left colder by childcare than I am, but just as many are doing less fulfilling jobs: if an underpaid and undervalued office drone believes her career is more stimulating than full-time motherhood, shes really been sold a lie.
That chat over muffins was my dark hour of the soul. Has the drive out of the house and into the workplace been a force for bad, not good? Would happiness and confidence return if full-time motherhood became the normal expectation again? Should we just shut up about the need for more women in parliament and science and the FTSE 100?
But, of course, Im extrapolating everything from personal experience: if Id never gone out to work, I wouldnt have this husband and child. Id have married one of my early incompatible boyfriends God help them and me and the resulting children would now be 20 and Id be what? Where? In an unhappy marriage, with no other diversion or outlet and no financial independence either.
Maybe this new depression and anxiety is not new at all, it just moved age groups. Perhaps, pre-emancipation, there were as many lost and sad and frightened fortysomethings as there are now teenagers.
In which case, Id say to those troubled girls: hold on, because its better this way round. Suffer the crisis while youre young and healthy, so it isnt waiting for you like a spider in middle age. Panic about who you are at 17, with decades ahead to find out not 47 or 57, in a world without options. Perhaps the terrible anxiety of modern adolescence is the price we paid to stop singing the Ballad of Lucy Jordan. A direct swap.
Grim though it sounds, I hope thats the equation. If not, I have to consider the possibility that everything Ive ever believed is wrong.