Shattered

  • New Statesman - Melissa Benn, 5 May 2011

    Judging by the rumoured size of the advances, there is a huge market for a new genre of popular fiction: "mum lit", the logical sequel to chick lit, in which the happy-ever-after girl wakes up to find herself surrounded by dank nappies and piles of stuff at the bottom of the stairs, and brimming with resentment at the meaninglessness to which her mid-life is reduced.

    I am curious as to how this squares with the kind of conversation I had the other night with a thirtysomething man who convinced me that these are transformed times. He and nearly all his friends, he said, now live with women who earn far more than they do and, he believes, the women will continue to do so once they have had children.

    On the evidence of Shattered, my thirtysomething friend and his high-earning girlfriend are in for a big shock. According to Rebecca Asher, women may outperform men at school, university and in the early years of work, but once they start a family they become exhausted and dissatisfied jugglers of domestic and professional life. It is their menfolk who go on to earn more and rise higher. In other words, nothing much about family life today is any different.

    Asher's fury at this state of affairs is clearly the product of the shock of having a baby and finding herself in a changed, or rather an unchanged, world. Her afterword hints at an easing up of the exhaustion, so I am reluctant to tell her that one inhabits this shadowy private world of never-ending tasks for a very long time. It is the subtlest form of servitude ever devised. For years, the first thing I have done on waking every morning is to calculate how many hours I have free to do my own work, perpetually devising ways to claw back the hours, including rising early and staying up late.

    Asher would rightly spurn such masochistic strategies. Her writing on motherhood belongs to the brisk, outward-looking, pamphleteering tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft. Asher does not interrogate herself; she interrogates the world (she gives one female magazine editor a thorough drubbing for her repeated sly digs at working mothers). She has no illusions about the privileges and vanities of the many working fathers who relish having it all.

    Ever practical, Asher looks abroad for solutions. The United States provides no model for working parents, but does, rather depressingly, point up the economic advantages to women of not dropping out the labour market for too long. Not surprisingly, it is the Nordic countries that show how, if the state underwrites the efforts of parenthood, everyone benefits. Women are still more likely to take up paid parental leave, but the balance is better.

    As one American father who moved to Sweden is quoted as saying: "I get puzzled why there is not more political will . . . It doesn't have to be the Swedish system . . . you could do something that would still fit the American culture of freedom and flexibility and profit. It's getting harder and harder as a middle-class American to make it work. It's just this grind and you end up paying outrageous amounts of money to put your kid in crappy daycare."

    That complaint applies equally to the UK. Quite why it has taken us so long to do so little is the question that this book throws up. There is a vast difference between the way we wish we lived and the way we do live. That issues affecting women loom large in the media masks the ways in which, collectively, women's worldly power is in retreat. Grass-roots feminism may be enjoying a revival, but the big professions purr along, still male-dominated.

    This doesn't make Asher's solutions - inclu­ding longer and better-paid parental leave for men and women and high-quality early-years care - any less sensible. The strapline on my copy of the book describes it as a "call to arms for a revolution in shared parenting". In fact, it is a moderate manifesto for the amelioration of living condictions for the "squeezed middle", and must surely recommend itself to a Labour Party that urgently needs to stake a claim, not so much for the middle ground, but for the real ground where people live these days.

     

     

  • The Guardian - Rachel Seiffert, 9 April 2011

    As a working parent, with all the juggling and compromise this entails, I'm always ready to hear of a better way to combine work and family. Shattered is described as "a call to arms for a revolution in parenting", so I was intrigued.

    The initial chapters are full of women in postpartum shock, incredulous that having a baby can so affect their career and change the relationship with their partner; born in the 70s and 80s, they were brought up to expect parity in education and the workplace, only to find that childrearing is still overwhelmingly the mother's task.

    Asher sees this attitude begin with antenatal advice, and she rails against the parenting industry too: from the ubiquity of mothers on packaging to the buggies which allegedly enhance a child's intelligence. I agree: early motherhood is scrutinised and commercialised. It can be a frustrating and lonely time, but my own children are older now, and I found myself thinking: I got over all that, these women will get over it too.

    But having all that belly-aching up top turns out to be grist to Asher's mill. Because she's sick of it too; isn't everyone? Especially the carping between mothers and fathers; all that "she's such a martyr", "he doesn't know where the kids' socks are" stuff. Condensed into those chapters, our still so gendered parenting does feel like a form of collective madness.

    The case Asher builds in these early pages is persuasive. Drawing on both male and female contributors, she pinpoints the vicious circle so many families find themselves in. "The mother feels that she must cut back her paid work in order to look after the children because the father is working long hours; the father feels he should work long hours because the mother has cut back her paid work." The result: women lose out on satisfying and remunerative careers, men don't experience the day-to-day of their children's lives, reaping too few of parenting's rewards.

    To find alternatives, Asher trawls parental leave schemes across the developed world, casting her net far wider than the usual – still laudable – Scandinavia, and pulling in the best elements. She sees the first year as crucial, the foundation for equality in child-rearing. Her thesis: if fathers take a half-share of the care from birth onwards, their nurturing role in the family will be cemented, leaving mothers freer to take part in working life, to the benefit of both parents and their children.

    Asher's focus is on families with both parents working from early in their children's lives. Seen from this perspective, her model of properly shared and paid parental leave makes a great deal of sense. The social benefits feel well supported by evidence, it can apply to households up and down the income scale, and she's anticipated loopholes too: incentives to ensure fathers actually take up the leave they are allocated, for example.

    Asher says she's "tired of the loud and dreary chorus" that insists such models are unaffordable. I sympathise, and while there will be readers who question her figures, it shouldn't be assumed she's just asking for public subsidy. "Public policy influences private behaviour", she writes, but that's only half of her argument: parents have to look to themselves. Life with young children is hectic and full of powerful emotional tugs; it's all too easy to "go native". If roles are not to revert after that first year, fathers will have to endure the humdrum tasks, mothers forsake primacy in their children's lives; territory has to be permanently ceded.

    Asher wants a revolution, and her conviction is invigorating, but it also leads to an occasional overstatement of claims. Her ideal combination of "paid worker, parent, community member, self-improver and pleasure-seeker" would indeed be wonderful, and should naturally apply to both sexes, but it sounds more like the achievements of a lifetime than a realistic picture of the years with young children, however evenly the parenting is split. Perhaps more needs to be ceded than Asher thinks it politic to admit.

    I am persuaded, however, that dividing the care in the first year would help us all make strides. From understanding each other's perspectives to normalising shared parenting, and the priority of life beyond work, there is a great deal to be said for Asher's model, and it deserves to be discussed and debated widely.

    Her prose style is that of a campaigning journalist, but some of the same ground is covered across chapters, as in academic texts, perhaps to allow busy policymakers to go straight to the legislative proposals but still get the reasoning behind them. The general reader may feel tempted to skim as a result.

    The key chapters are a dense combination of doughty proposals and analysis, but Asher's choice of contributors leavens the mix. Michael Gove's description of the witching hour before kids' bedtime is very entertaining, and Asher's own turn of phrase is often sharply witty, her caveat about gender quotas in parliament risking "a grim army of groupthink Ken and Barbies" being a fine example. So skim if you must, to avoid being late at the school gates, but you may miss some gems.

    This book should be read by parents and policymakers alike. It's got me examining my own hardened attitudes, for a start: I may have been there, done that, and bought the Mummy Martyr T-shirt, but why should anyone else?

     

  • The Economist - 9 April 2011

    One of the many persuasive sections in this excellent and readable book on the perils of parenting concerns infants’ bedtimes, and how authoritarian one should be about them. Do you endure weeks of screaming while your child is lashed willy-nilly to his cot? Or do you tolerate bun fights and flung toys while valiantly trying to distract him with hand puppets or suggestions of potato-printing?

    Any mother knows this one by heart, even if she never got around to potato-printing. So do a lot of fathers, despite the basic premise of the book—that most women who set off on a footing of equality with their partners are betrayed by them when babies arrive. Mothers become “foundation parents” and de facto household drudges, condemned to professional sidelining and “crap part-time jobs” because fathers fail to pull their weight.

    It is not that men are malevolent. But, at least in Britain, government policies do not encourage them to take equal responsibility for their children, lavishing (largely underpaid) leave on new mothers and only recently offering fathers more (underpaid) time off. Employers frown on it. Society and social services entrench the mother’s role. The promise of equality that this generation of new mums thought their feminist mothers had secured for them is an illusion, says Rebecca Asher, a broadcast journalist with a toddling son.

    More British women than men now go to university. In their 20s women working full-time earn 3% less than men; the gap gapes to 11% when they are in their 30s, skulking down in the service lift to fetch offspring from school or taking sick leave when it is their child who is ill. Most mothers do not work full-time anyway (though the proportion who do is growing), and their part-time jobs are ill-rewarded.

    This is for the most part familiar stuff, which isn’t to say that it is wrong or irrelevant. Where the book is more original is in its analysis of what often happens to couples when the mother gets sucked into becoming First Parent while the father’s career progresses. The balance of power shifts in the relationship. Mothers feel victimised, fathers feel guilty, mothers define themselves by assuming command on the home front, fathers convinced of their own parental incompetence stay later at work. The pair that started out hand-in-hand on an equal-opportunity journey through life end up sniping at each other, or scoring weary points. Many split up.

    Some couples of course manage to parent and win bread pretty equally; in others the father stays home and the mother sallies forth to hunt and gather. But they are the minority. A growing number of women in Britain, mainly educated ones, are choosing not to have children. A growing number of men, feeling themselves surplus to requirements at home and increasingly in competition with women at work, wonder where on earth their sex fits in.

    Britain’s coalition government, which markets itself as family-friendly and has already increased paternity leave, plans to do more for working parents. New rules brewing in the European Union could force the pace. But the government is unlikely to go as far as Ms Asher would like.

    She wants parental leave when a baby is born to be reformed along mainly Nordic lines: ring-fencing half a year off for mothers and another half-year for fathers, on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. The time off would be well enough paid for both parents to afford to take it. Beyond that, she wants everyone to be allowed to work flexibly; good, affordable child care for all; and schools to look after children longer. It’s a bit too prescriptive, and it sounds otherworldly at a time of deep spending cuts in Britain. But the thrust is right, if you accept the basic argument that it is the system frustrating women in their desire to go back to work, and that men can be bribed into taking up the domestic slack.

    The basic argument, however, is not the full story, and Ms Asher is honest enough to recognise that. Choice plays a part in parenting, as in most things. Not all women do want to go back to work, which may be every bit as demanding as looking after children and far more competitive. “Maternal gatekeeping”, setting oneself up as the competent parent who knows which day Johnny has violin lessons, can be a way of avoiding that challenge while keeping one’s pride. Of course fathers could learn the job, given half a chance. But again, many men don’t want to, however much they love their children.

    It is always tempting to look to Nordic practice in matters like this: their outcomes seem better, their societies more cohesive. But Britain is a tough, competitive, unequal place, disdainful of conformity and deeply conservative about a surprising number of things. In many ways it is closer to America, where the government stingily but even-handedly pays neither parent to look after children. Ms Asher does very well to define a real problem, but the solution to it may be less clear-cut than she suggests.

     

     

     

  • Sunday Herald - Susan Flockhart, 3 April 2011

    Motherhood is no longer presumed to be a state of unmitigated bliss. In these enlightened times, when women get to make television programmes and even (occasionally) formulate policy, we hear a little less reverential cooing about love, joy, and pride, and a bit more about the exhaustion, depression and guilt that can often accompany child-rearing.

    One maternal emotion that's rarely discussed, however, is the seething resentment that comes with shouldering an unfair share of the crummy parts of parenthood (cracked nipples, baby poo, crushing domestic tedium) while one's partner rattles up the career ladder in crisp, vomit-free shirts, basking in societal approval for the tiniest displays of new dadism such as pushing buggies to the duck pond, or putting children to bed after they've already been fed, bathed and woman-handled into their PJs.

    Shattered is partly an expression of this rage: a furious, but immenstly articulate, puncturing of the myth that the nirvana of parental equality has been achieved. Author Rebecca Asher was a successful career woman who assumed she and her husband would raise their child in an egalitarian fashion. When he returned to work two weeks into her maternity leave, she was shocked to find her identity being submerged beneath a life of "gruelling, unacknoweldged servitude."

    Slowly, her personal frustration became political. "When a couple choose to have children," she writes, "all the gains for women supposedly made over the past few decades vanish, as the time machine of motherhood transports us back to the 1950s."

    Nor does the inequality end after those first few weeks post-partum, since Britain's paltry paternity leave - allied with 'woman-centred' maternity services which subtly exclude men - have established the pattern of female as chief care-giver. Before long she is deciding it makes sense for her to return to work only part-time. Even full-tme working mothers continue to operate as primary child-managers, organising daycare, maintaining a mental calendar of infant engagements, and tackling most of the housework.

    At times Shattered, which includes dozens of interviews with UK mothers, reads as one long moan. 'It's just clean up the poo, put the nappy on, make the food, wash up ... I was shocked by the drudgery." What did Asher's interviewees expect looking after babies to be like? As for the depressing statistic that while the time men spend on childcare has increased roughly seven-fold since 1975 (to a whopping 34 minutes a day), the female equivalent has also grown to the extent that the gap has scarcely been narrowed.

    Well, don't we partly have ourselves to blame for an over-solicitous approach to child-rearing? Our mothers, remember, let their children roam freely outside instead of ferrying them between organised activities. Nor can we entirely blame 'the system' for forcing mothers to let their careers play second fiddle to their partners', or for excessive standards of cleanliness that chain us to the mop-bucket. In working our fingers to the bone, we could be accused of playing the martyr.

    And hoorah! Asher agrees. In a chapter titled The Enemy Within, she argues that women are colluding in their own subjugation. Even Michelle Obama is guilty, having once revealed that her marriage improved when she stopped expecting her husband to "fix things".

    "The path of least resistance," writes Asher, "runs from Pennsylvania Avenue to the terraced streets of the UK: mothers here are more likely than fathers to believe that childcare is primarily their responsibility." In fact, mothers actively discourage men from doing their share, becoming control freaks about babycare. At a societal level, this "maternal gatekeeping" translates into state services which intimidate and discourage men from attending baby clinics and toddler groups.

    All this matters profoundly at a time of wide-spread revisionist handwringing over the role of mothers in the workplace. Even feminist pioneers such as Rosie Boycott and Erin Pizzey have wondered aloud whether they got it wrong, the subtext being that perhaps a woman's place is in the home after all. Is it? The answer is under our parental noses. Why, asks Asher, are we raising and educating our daughters to think they can be surgeons, industrialists or prime ministers, only to pull the rug away the minute they give birth?

    Shattered is far more than a protracted whine. It offers a carefully thought-out solution including a re-imagining of equality-minded pre- and post-natal services and generous, state-subsidised parental leave, which positively encourages dads to take six months off during the first year. There's plenty of scope for argument: allowing fathers to bed down in post-natal wards won't be to everyone's liking, and while a year's fully-paid parental leave per couple might seem progressive, expecting small businesses, or the state, to pick up the tab in these cost-cutting times is optimistic.

    Shattered is, however, an intelligent, thoroughly researched and highly readable contribution to a debate that urgently needs to be aired in the corridors of power, as well as through gritted teeth over snatched cups of bitter coffee in baby and toddler groups. The message to mothers is clear: don't get martyred, get even.

     

     

     

  • Mail on Sunday - Jemima Lewis, 3 April 2011

    Since having babies, I have read a lot of books about motherhood but none as interesting as this one. Rebecca Asher, a former deputy editor of Woman's Hour, begins wth her own experience of becoming a mother. The first two weeks, while her husband was at home on paternity leave, were much as she had expected: exhilarating, exhausting and messy. But then her husband went back to work. Suddenly she was left alone with an utterly dependent infant for 12 hours a day, every day. Instead of being a respected member of the paid work-force, she faced a life of 'gruelling, unacknowledged servitude'.

    This might have been easier to bear were it not for 'the disparity that was emerging between my existence and that of my husband'. Where previously they had been on the same path, equally free to pursue their careers, social lives and hobbies, now he alone 'pushed ahead with his exterior life' while she was left holding the baby.

    She started jealously fantasising about his working day: a silent, uniterrupted walk to the office; a coffee and a flick through the papers at his desk; the satisfaction of completing a task. By the time he returned home, to find her covered in that day's combination of the baby's bodily fluids, she would be consumed by resentment.

    So far, so regrettably familiar. Most mothers will, to some extent, recognise themselves in Asher's testimony. However much you love your child, you might, as she puts it, come to resent motherhood itself. For Asher's generation, and mine, the 'social demotion' of motherhood comes as a shock. Daughters of Thatcher, raised in a post-feminist age, we grew up imagining ourselves to be truly equal. We kept pace with the opposite sex through school and university and the career-building years of our 20s and 30s. Yet the moment we reproduce, we are zapped back to the Fifties.

    The way the current system works - with women enjoying generous maternity leave and men almost none - actallly conspires against women by locking us into an outdated template of family life. While you are on maternity leave and your husband is working frantically to support his new family, it makes sense for you to do all the work of parenthood: not just the shopping, cooking and mopping, but arranging medical appointments, play-dates, childminders, nurseries and the rest.

    Before you know it, you're a house-wife. Great, if that's the way you like it, but not if you want, or need, to work. the division of child-rearing duties, once established, is not easily rearranged. It is almost always the woman who ends up scaling back her career: 41 per cent of mothers in relationships work part-time, compared to just four per cent of men. This has a predictable effect on women's long-term prospects: mothers who work part-time are four times less likely to hold a senior post.

    Many women, after years of education, drop out of the job market altogether, overwhelmed by the difficulties of combining work and child-rearing. All this is not just bad for women's aspirations and family harmony, it is also a drain on the economy.

    Where most of us grumble about the inequalities of parenting, Asher is out to change them. Her solutions are radical: six months' leave for each parent, fully paid by the State, legislation to give all parents the right to work flexi-time, and the provision of universal, high-quality chidcare. It's radical, but not impossible. Countries such as Germany, Iceland and Sweden already do many of these things, transforming the role that fathers play in their children's upbringing, and lifting the burden from mothers so both sexes are better able to enjoy the pleasures of work and family.

    Asher is an elegant writer and a lucid thinker. She has marshalled a huge amount of data and made it digestible and entertaining. This is a polemical book, stuffed full of research and case studies; yet it is gripping enough to read through the night. It left me fired up with reformist zeal. To the barricades, my fellow mothers: let the revolution begin.

     

     

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Shattered

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