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.