Sophie pours another glass of wine. Shaking her head, she sighs heavily. ‘He’s such an idiot. I can’t leave him alone for five seconds. God knows what sort of mess I’ll get home to tonight.’
We all nod sympathetically. ‘Mine practically blew the microwave up last time I ventured out for the evening. He’s so useless,’ says Lisa, pulling a face.
She isn’t talking about her monosyllabic teenage son — she’d never be so rude about him. In fact, although the lad has been twice suspended from school and rarely logs off his incessant computer gaming, Lisa never ceases to boast about his incredible talents and intellect. It’s her husband of 17 years she’s roundly and publicly criticising.
I’m enjoying a regular night out with a gang of girlfriends. We are all mums in our late 30s who meet regularly to giggle, gossip and put the world to rights. Or at least that’s what used to happen.
Over the years, many things have changed. Three babies have arrived. We’ve gone up and — less often — down a few dress sizes. One of us has been promoted, several others have given up work altogether.
Our conversations have evolved from office gossip to family chit-chat — but recently it’s struck me that what may have begun as jocular jibes about our husbands’ lack of familiarity with the vacuum cleaner has evolved into something more unpleasant.
Listen to us talk and you’d be convinced we are married to a bunch of total no-hopers. Our husbands’ sins range from never emptying the dishwasher to being emotional retards who are criminally incompetent at childcare and let our homes go to rack and ruin through lack of interest in DIY.
And I know we are far from alone. Get any group of women together and you can be sure they’ll talk about their husbands — and it will rarely be complimentary.
It’s become so commonplace to run down our spouses that Sally Bercow, publicity-mad wife of the Speaker of the Commons, felt totally at ease painting her husband John as a henpecked domestic drudge on national television.
Gleefully informing her housemates on the trash TV programme Big Brother that she makes John mop the kitchen floor and empty the dishwasher while she has a cup of tea, she appeared to think that belittling her spouse somehow made her look interesting.
But let’s be honest — while we might not do it quite as spitefully as Sally Bercow, most of us modern women have been guilty of sneering at our husbands in public.
To begin with, I didn’t really notice the constant carping about our husbands on girly nights out, and when I did, I dismissed it as a sort of bonding exercise. It was only recently, when I went to Laura’s palatial home, that the hypocrisy of the disgruntled wives club began to grate.
There we were tucking into a delicious lunch, washed down with a glass or two of top-notch wine, and all the while we were listening to Laura castigate the absent Gordon — her husband, who was working, of course — for being boring.
‘He’s such a stick-in-the-mud. He won’t do anything new,’ she moaned. ‘I’ve tried to get him to come salsa dancing, but he always complains he’s tired. He’s so dull.’
It didn’t seem to occur to Laura that Gordon might be tired because he works a 70-hour week so that she can stay at home with their two young boys.
It suddenly seemed the height of bad manners to be chortling over Gordon’s inadequacies when we were sitting in his beautiful home, consuming his food and drink.
To be fair, in running Gordon down, Laura was only following an established pattern. Our female get-togethers have become characterised by a strange sort of competitiveness in which we alternately boast about our children and demean our husbands.
I’m ashamed to admit that for a while I joined in. I criticised Paul, my partner of 18 years, for the most stupid trivia. Not cleaning the bathroom was one heinous crime that I managed to work myself up into a lather about.
My friend Zoe recently informed a group of us at a children’s birthday party that her husband was having a mid-life crisis. ‘He’s taken up rollerblading. Can you imagine anything more ridiculous?’ she sneered. Joining in the spirit, the rest of us roared with laughter.
I can’t in a million years imagine men talking about us with such vindictive nastiness. But belittling your husband has become not just acceptable but even de rigueur. And what’s worse, if you don’t participate in husband-bashing, you’re often cold-shouldered; it’s as if you’re a disappointment to the sisterhood, a sad little wifey.
So why are we doing it? Clinical psychologist Dr Jane McCartney believes that women who mock and sneer at their husbands in public are actually simply angry and resentful. ‘Some women, and Sally Bercow seems to be a good example, begrudge their husbands’ success. Because they don’t have high-flying careers themselves, they feel that they’ve lost power and control. Belittling their husbands is a way of trying to exert some power. Women who are comfortable with themselves rarely ridicule their husbands.’
In today’s ultra-competitive world, we women expect ourselves not only to be great mothers, but also to have fabulous careers. When we fail to achieve A grades on all fronts, it’s our husbands who take the flak. Desperate not to be seen as dependent, we assert ourselves by trampling on our men.
What is especially worrying about the trend is the effect it has on our children. It’s impossible to spend a night with your female friends, having a ‘laugh’ about your useless husband and then go home and treat him with respect.
More than once, I’ve seen mothers and children in cahoots, exchanging raised eyebrows over yet another ‘job’ that Daddy hasn’t done. In sharing tales about men’s incompetence, women are coming dangerously close to normalising a corrosive and lasting disrespect for fathers that can only have devastating consequences.
Research carried out by the University of Kent last year demonstrated that by the age of eight boys believed girls were better behaved and more successful than they were. Surely these negative opinions of their gender are down to boys growing up in a culture that routinely derides and ridicules masculinity.
As a teacher in secondary schools, I’ve noticed that by the age of 14 the idea that girls are more competent than boys is well established. And it is fair to say that in many mixed schools, more is expected of girls than of boys. Those boys who do work hard and apply themselves are criticised and sneered at, called ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds’.
Even boy scouts have to allow girls in now — the same doesn’t hold true for Brownies or Guides, of course. There doesn’t seem to be any space for boys to just be boys, to have fun, let rip, have adventures, go on missions and achieve amazing things.
There always has to be a clever, competent girl alongside them showing them the way. It’s almost as if we believe that boys, left to their own devices, aren’t to be trusted.
It’s my belief that the drip-drip of anti-male sentiment is very damaging for boys. When my friend Carole discovered that her car hadn’t been taken in for a service, she frowned and said in a tone of extreme high-dudgeon: ‘Men, they’re so hopeless. If you want something done, ask a woman.’
Unfortunately, her five-year-old son, Marcus, was standing right next to her.
My friend Penny’s approach is far healthier. Her husband walked out and left her with an eight-month-old baby. The little boy is ten now and he has never heard his mother criticise his father. ‘My son has a right to think his father is a hero,’ Penny explained when I asked her how she managed not to bad-mouth her ex-husband.
I admire Penny more than I can say. I wish more women shared her sentiments. You see, the thing is that most of us do love our husbands. We don’t want to go it alone.
And unlike Penny’s husband, most of the men in our lives, our children’s fathers, are good, honourable decent men. It’s high time we started treating them like that.