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?