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.