When Andrew Clover met Livy Lankester he was writing a novel and earning tiny sums from stand-up comedy. She had a proper job and earned a proper wage. When he complained about how little he earned, she would ask why he didn't do something else instead.
“And that would plunge me into an existential crisis,” he remembered.
They married and had two children (though not in that order). As head of corporate responsibility in a large retail business, Liv still earned more than Andrew.
“So I started doing childcare,” he recalled. “I took an old-fashioned male view: ‘I have failed at my work, so I'm looking after kids.’ I was a lone man in the world of kids. I felt a bit gay as I pushed the buggy up the streets of Hackney.”
People would tell Clover -who writes the Dad Rules column in The Sunday Times – that they admired him. “They'd say it must be terribly fulfilling. I wanted to say: ‘I'm a man. If I'm good at something, I want acknowledgement. A fancy job title. A pay rise. I don't expect to be changing nappies in the middle of the night -working with sewage, for no money, for someone who shouts at me’.”
As he puts it himself, he had the domestic instincts of a smack addict. “The living room was an orgy of dismembered dollies. We were eating tea in the bath. I didn't fix anything. The bulbs would go in the bathroom: we'd use candles.”
Clover's predicament is by no means unique. According to a survey by Investec, the banking group, 39% of women who work full time and have partners believe that they earn more than them.
That “believe” is a telling point: this is still a sensitive and highly secretive corner of the domestic battleground. Fiona O'Sullivan, a headhunter whose husband earns less than she does, said: “You could probably get more people to talk to you on the record about how often they have sex.”
The Investec survey indicates that 1.8m women in full-time work across the country earn more than their partners. This seems to be supported by figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which show that more men than women now “work at home” (and we know what that means): 14% of men compared with only 8% of women. Half of women aged between 22 and 29 earned more than £ 9.55 an hour in April this year, according to the ONS, but less than half of men in the same age bracket earned as much.
It's clear that both men and women are struggling to deal with these altered dynamics. All too often men are made to feel useless, while women struggle to maintain the fiction that they can succeed at work and also uphold a traditional role as wife and mother. Or, as in my household, the man struggles to maintain the fiction that he can do everything -while his high-earning wife watches telly.
BAFFLINGLY, research suggests that once a wife's income is greater than her husband's he tends to be less and less involved at home. Well, you could have fooled me. Working women may sacrifice themselves in the population at large, but it's not how it works in my house.
My wife Harriet has a proper job in an office, and I stay at home. I do the vast majority of the housework. Regardless of who happens to have brought our daughter Nancy home from nursery, it's me who makes the dinner. We both put Nancy to bed, but afterwards, while Harriet watches telly, I do the washing up. (Harriet washes up roughly once every three months.) I empty the bins, clean the windows and even do the sewing: I've replaced buttons and patched jeans.
When Nancy was born, Harriet fed her at night -in our bedroom, with the light on.
I was obliged to sit up and wait until the end so that I could do my bit by winding her. We got her onto bottled milk fairly quickly, which meant I could do the night feeds alone. Harriet slept through them. Today, when Nancy is unwell, it's as likely as not to be me who looks after her -even though I'm self employed and will not be paid to take the day off.
In case you're wondering, I also do the DIY and the gardening. In fact I had no idea how much I did till I wrote it down. Incredibly, Harriet doesn't dispute it.
She just asks who's going to look worse when it appears in print -her for being lazy, or me for being a big blouse?
For the record, it's not necessarily true that I earn less than Harriet -whom I obviously adore, despite her light touch around the house -but as she cheerfully reminded me last week: “There was one dismal year when you earned practically nothing at all.” Rather generously, she added that, as somebody with no great interest in material possessions, I was “quite cheap to run” -so it made little difference how much I earned.
A man in a similar position is Anthony McGowan, who is married to Rebecca Campbell, a fashion designer and novelist. “I'd always had a crappier job than Becky,” McGowan says. “When we first met she was working for her family's fashion business and I was an impoverished PhD student. Later I got a job working for Customs and Excise -a killer combination of boring, difficult and badly paid.
When we had our first child it seemed natural that I should be the one to give up work.”
The plan was that McGowan would also be able to write; he had already composed half a novel. But he found being a stay-home dad trying. “It was a reprise, if you like, of the boring, difficult and badly paid civil service job. But if anything I had even less time to write. And Becky definitely started to look on me in a different light.
“As I was home all day she expected me (perhaps reasonably) to keep the house tidy. I'd always done most of the cooking, so there was no change there. But there had definitely been a shift.”
Did he feel emasculated? “That would be going too far, but there was an element of that. Becky would reach for her cards whenever we were in restaurants with friends, even though we had a joint account -and that never looks good from the male perspective. And anyone we met from a business-type background would want to talk to Becky, while I'd be discussing nappies and breastfeeding with the (non-working) wives.”
The problem, as McGowan sees it, is that people always overestimate the amount of work they do and underestimate (or undervalue) the work their partner does.
“In the early days of a relationship passion blinds you to minor inequalities; but as the years roll by one finds oneself making more careful assessments of the relative contributions you make to the domestic economy.”
As a philosophy graduate he has a rather specialised explanation for this: “It's the transition from Rousseauian innocence to the cynical calculations of Hobbesian possessive individualism.”
Quite so. Every couple occasionally finds the repressed feelings bursting out into furious conversations about who is the better parent, who cares more, who has the less important job, or who is indispensable at work.
All too often, in the homes of higher-earning women, the result is that relationships fall apart. The richer a woman becomes, the more likely she is to divorce her husband, according to Randall Kesselring, a professor of economics at Arkansas State University, who examined the finances of 112,740 women. He found that for every £ 10,000 a wife's earnings increase relative to the family's overall income, the chances of marital break-up rise by 1%.
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up that study. Clover has a friend, Richard, who gave up his career to look after three kids. “They also hired a young male au pair. Richard's wife left him for the au pair. It was brilliant: a complete inversion of what used to happen.” He knows of two other couples that went through a similar break-up.
Sex and food are the glue that can hold together the marriage of a powerful woman, says Elaine Molesworth, who works in a senior position in publishing and has always earned more than her husband.
She confided: “My theory about how to keep the husband happy, if you are in the power position, is that you have to do the sex and the food as much as possible.
Even if you don't feel like it. You have to do that to make the marriage work, even though that's quite unfeminist. If you want to have it all, you have to do it all. I don't mind cooking, and I do the odd thing in the boudoir…”
FAY Weldon allegedly “outraged feminists” by suggesting in her latest book, What Makes Women Happy, that women should fake orgasms to keep their men content. More pertinently, she said: “Men are being undermined. Their role is hard to define now. Because if women can look after themselves, what are men for?” Society at least pays a lot of lip-service to improving women's opportunities. But you don't read much about creating a new role for men.
Duncan Fisher, of Fathers Direct, says: “The old ‘gender agenda’ is based on the premise that you can fix equality for women with no reference to men at all. This is based on a deep sense that men can't change, won't change and don't really care about their children like mothers do.”
He thinks change is occurring: “The new gender agenda is about interdependence – you can't fix women's lot without engaging with men. The new agenda accepts that men are as passionate as women about their children, that men are changing massively and that this is a huge opportunity for women and for men.”
I'm not sure that women are convinced. Take childcare. I've lost count of the number of invitations to toddlers’ parties, to which I've accompanied Nancy while Harriet was at work, that read: “Mums and nannies welcome!” Fathers regularly feel ignored by the array of mothers and female staff when they pick up children from school or nurseries.
Denise Knowles, a Relate counsellor, sympathises: “You hear umpteen dads talk about taking their kids to school in the morning, and afterwards the mums go into each other's houses. Men haven't been invited, but if they were, could they go? What would people say?”
Even Beverley Hughes, the minister for children, young people and families, recognises this ambiguity. Earlier this year she challenged “those unconscious but powerful messages that tell fathers they are neither important nor particularly welcome”.
She added: “In case anyone thinks I'm overstating the case, just remember how difficult it can still be if you're the only woman in a territory that's traditionally and exclusively male … The automatic default position is that parent equals mother. This has to change.”
George McAuley, chairman of the UK Men's Movement (UKMM), doesn't think there is much hope of that. He said robustly: “Women having equal power has the potential to be a disaster for society in general and for children in particular. Many of the men who come to us, having lost a bit of economic power, are edged out of the family.”
McAuley blames men for their own problems. He says he's virtually given up on them and he only bothers chairing the UKMM out of concern for children. “I'm quite sick of the apathy of men. They'll turn up in their thousands to watch a football club but won't protest against the ripping out of a father from the family.”
That may be true of some men. Others have come to terms with the phenomenon of high-earning women in a decidedly positive way -by becoming gold-diggers.
Match.com, a dating website with 15m users, is seeing a rise in men who specify that they want to date only women above a certain income level. In 2004 more than half specified a minimum income for dates, up from 37% in 2001. And 35% of male users of True.com, a dating website with 2.7m users, seek females with higher incomes than their own.
Some men in settled relationships with a high-earning woman are also taking a pro-active interest in exactly where the money is coming from. Glenda Stone is CEO of Aurora, a recruitment specialist for women in business. She says her website is visited by huge numbers of men, who nowadays take a great interest in the companies their wives and girlfriends work for.
“It's about doing due diligence,” Stone said, “and finding out about where their partner is going to work. There's a lot at stake, with maternity leave and opportunities to go back into the company afterwards.”
And some men sensibly rejoice in their good fortune. Peter Leary, whose partner Jane earns more than he does yet works fewer hours, said: “I love it. As her earnings have crept up and overtaken mine the pressure on me has fallen away significantly. It gives you more confidence to do the things you want to do in your own work. You don't have to worry about toeing the line so much.
“I'm in an occupation where money is not the objective, so there's no competition between us. Occasionally I get it in the neck for spending 70 hours a week at work for ‘a pittance’ and she asks, ‘Why can't you do something that pays properly?’
But the answer's obvious -I don't have to because that's what she does.”
MOST “overshadowed” men, I think, do find a route to happiness. For McGowan, things started to improve when he got a publishing deal and his books became successful. (The most recent, Henry Tumour, won the Book Trust Teenage Prize this month.) “But there were still issues. I try hard with the housework, and in terms of effort I do most of it. But I'm not very good at it, so Becky is constantly slightly irritated by the way things are.”
For the record, Becky argues that it's “total bollocks” that he does all the housework. “We have a full-time nanny and a cleaner. Tony has not picked up anything from the floor since 1985. But I do concede that our diet would be mainly toast if not for Tony.”
She still earns more than him, and once in a while comes home early to catch him having an afternoon nap. “It doesn't matter if I've spent six hours hammering away at my keyboard -as far as she's concerned I live a life of leisure,” said McGowan.
“Other aspects of the work I do are quasi invisible -shopping, for example.
Sometimes I think Becky believes the shelves just automatically fill up with things to eat. And she barely notices the way I expertly pee all around the inside of the loo to remove any unsightly deposits.”
Clover, too, says things have improved. “I became a good father. And I started to have a great time. So did the kids. We make birthday cards together. We make books. We spend whole afternoons pretending to be Sleeping Beauty, the Wicked Witch, and the Handsome Prince. So now when Liv comes home we're all in the bath pretending to be mermaids and pirates. Everyone's laughing. And the house is tidy.”
Somehow, he has also managed to write two books, Dad Rules:
how to be happy, with your kids, and his first novel The Shade, out next year.
“I'm happy to describe myself as a stay-at-home dad,” he said. “Although I prefer the title trophy husband. And I feel immensely loving and grateful to Livy that she's allowed this to happen. I think our situation is great. I think more people could be like us. We're the happiest family I know.”