Holding the Baby

If we are living in an age of gender equality, why are women still left holding the baby? "Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality" is bold enough to ask this question, and propose a set of solutions
Stuart Weir
16 June 2011

Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality, by Rebecca Asher, Harvill Secker, March 2011


If you want to know what the experience of motherhood is like for a modern professional woman, then here it all is in Rebecca Asher’s Shattered, an eloquent exploration of the profound dichotomy between the joyous and richer existence that her son brought her and the loss of the autonomy and sense of self that went with having a career and lifeoutside the home.

The "music stopped" the day that her husband went back to work: "the loss of autonomy and self-abnegation were instant and absolute". She loved her son but came to resent "motherhood" itself.  She had known that having a child meant sacrifice, but why the sacrifice all hers?  The equality of relationship she had thought to be at the heart of her marriage was demolished.  She learned, she writes,

"the inequality mothers in the UK experience in raising their children is not simply the cause of occasional bouts of angst, but the very foundation on which their daily existence is built and future prospects determined.  I was well aware of the penalties that women pay on becoming mothers: the burden of care that falls to them and the consequences that flow from it. But I have had to live that experience to appreciate the defining magnitude of it."

Perhaps the most telling moment in the book for me comes when she turns on the concept of the ‘work-life balance’ – for while work can and does damage home and family life, it also brings ‘life’ outside the home with it.

Asher weaves her tale through a series of interviews – mostly with women like herself and with some men – her experiences, observations and researches, and holds an important balance between the experiences of mothers and fathers who themselves are often "entrapped in the world of work" and lose precious time and closer relationships with their children. 

There are many insights and observations that make this an intriguing and educative read and that I discussed with many of the women in my life. She argues essentially that women should be freed from the enslaving idea that it is they who must take on "primary responsibility" for their children and that both parents should share that responsibility equally and combine it with the "other activities that keep their entire selves alive".  She has also a political manifesto that derives from her findings for what is an astonishingly backward country and society when it comes to the fundamental questions of child-care (I abbreviate her proposals severely here) :-

  1. Scrap the 12 months’ unequal mix of parental leave and replace it with 12  months’ paid leave split equally between mothers and fathers after one month of shared leave after the birth – ‘anything less than a fifty-fifty division of leave condones and perpetuates parental inequality’.  The government would fully compensate both parents’ for loss of income during their leave periods (with a cap on the highest earnings).
  2. All UK employees should have the right to flexible working rather than the currently weak right to request it, with an additional right to return to full-time work or to work longer hours.
  3. The right to flexible working should be combined with ‘universally available, good quality and affordable formal child-care’ - both nurseries and childminders and, later, breakfast, after-school and holiday clubs.

One or two observations of my own here.  As Rebecca Asher acknowledges, 'critics' will cry 'social engineering’,  but these critics will represent both powerful forces and interests in our society and will have the prevailing ideology of subservience to those interests on their side. It is largely true, as she says, that mothers and fathers are already socially engineered into their current role; and it is certainly true that men and women can re-educate ourselves and adapt to equality in parenting. Loads of us already have, loads more of us imperfectly. I don’t under-estimate the power of the lead that people like Rebecca Ash might give to her proposals; and as she says, even the coalition government talks of encouraging ‘shared parenting’ and ‘involved fathers’.  But as she also says, this is "slippery" and "vague". How to firm it up and make a firmer commitment part of Ed Miliband’s blank policy sheet?

I suppose I have three further caveats.  First, I am not convinced that the idea of motherhood is entirely a social construct.  I know and have lived with and talked to many women for whom a more instinctive emotional response to motherhood and child-care seems to be at work; and that is how some of them see it. Secondly, I draw back at the idea that a single model of equal parenting may be envisaged or imposed: yes indeed, for the period of parental leave; yes indeed, the returns in family and social life and children’s lives and education would be immeasurable; but ultimately, to each her or his own.

If Asher’s argument as expressed within the confines of a 260-page book has a weakness it relates to the narrowness of the experience on which she draws. It is the experience of educated and mostly professional women and men. On page 190, she does write of the benefits to parents on low incomes for whom full reimbursement of earnings during their parental leave would allow them to look after their children in a way that hadn’t previously been possible, and a more general concern for well-being informs the book. But I think it would be much stronger if she had been able to discuss the views and arguments that she sets out here with working class women and men and to draw on their responses.

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