I approached this book with cynical reluctance. "Not another moaning mummy." Rachel Cusk, Naomi Wolf and, most recently, Fiona Millar (Alastair Campbell's other half) have all explored this territory, tearing their hair out as they went. Could there possibly be anything more to say about how difficult it is to be a modern mother?
Yes, it turns out. Within pages, I was utterly gripped. This is powerful stuff. Rebecca Asher's take on the culture of parenting is radical, original and refreshingly spirited, a heartfelt call for change. She doesn't moan or rant. Instead she gets (usefully) angry and - hurrah! - actually tries to suggest some answers. It would be hard to overstate how important this book is.
Asher diagnoses a society in crisis. Mothers and fathers are completely exhausted and confused about their roles. Despite tiny gains towards equality, women are still left holding the baby, in charge of childcare (whether they do it themselves or arrange for someone else to do it). Meanwhile, men are effectively forced to assume the role of breadwinner.
This is not a women's issue, she argues, it's a social problem affecting anyone who becomes a parent. Our culture dictates that mothers - whether in work or not - be the "primary parent", so women end up living with an uncomfortable degree of "enforced domesticity" while men have to put up with what Asher calls "entrapment in the world of work".
But this is the opposite of a tired polemic about the pitfalls of stay-at-home motherhood. Asher does not dictate the best way to raise children. Instead she asks uncomfortable questions. Why do we expect so much of mothers and so little of fathers? Why is it that after years of family-friendly legislation, mothers are still three times more likely to ask for flexible work than fathers?
The most persuasive part of her argument is about men. Why do we treat them like second-class citizens? Why is it that fathers are not welcome at antenatal appointments, for example, where the only time the man's involvement is mentioned is when the midwife asks you f you're a victim of domestic violence? (A standard NHS question, one I've been asked too.) Why is the baby's father usually asked to leave the hospital straight after the birth, even if the mother is physically immobile and unable to look after her new baby? (Happened to us too.)
Why do so many mothers, martyr-like, want it both ways? "Mothers resent childcare as a woman's domain," Asher writes, "and yet they want to keep it that way, viewing men's active involvement as a land grab... Mothers hoard the domestic power they are left with." Asher explores the dangers and the temptations with scores of case studies, sound bites and statistics. The argument sweeps you away.
The solutions fall slightly at the last hurdle, however, thanks to recessionary economics. Can we really hope for any gains in the current conditions? Asher suggests we copy Sweden which spends five times as much as we do on parental leave. But one Swedish mother complains: "There just aren't stay-at-home parents here. Everyone has this amazing leave, but after that the kids just go into day care..."
While admitting there is no easy answer, this book blows open the debate on parenting to make serious, practical suggestions for change. Let's not hold our breath for a revolution, but just be thrilled Asher wrote it.