Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality

Rebecca Asher’s new book is reviewed on

Rebecca Asher’s book, Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality, begins with a personal description of her own reaction to the brutal shock of the early days of motherhood. Brought up to believe men and women are equal, she talks of how her whole world is turned upside down when the baby comes along. Stuck at home and exhausted, she battles the daily list of baby tasks and puts her career on hold while her partner continues his life more or less as he did before the baby arrived. She speaks of the "fundamental undoing of the life and identity I’d carefully constructed for myself" and how her life gave way to "gruelling, unacknowledged servitude".
It’s a picture of the early days that many women will recognise and it’s one that often breeds a whole host of resentment, tension and misunderstanding between couples who have up until then considered themselves equals. 
She sets out to investigate what it is about parenting that creates this rupture and whether there are ways to make the whole process more equal. She argues that greater equality would be good not just for parents, but for their children [because happier parents means happier children], for the economy and for society as a whole. In doing so, she questions the entire basis of parenting in the UK, the way most of the onus is put on women to do the childcare and domestic work [by the health system, by schools, by government, by family and by women themselves who find it easier to fit in with gender stereotypes than to rebel against them] and the way men lose out through being pushed out or enabled to opt out of the full business of parenting. 

It’s an angry and impassioned book and Asher cites a host of both women and men speaking about their frustration at the current state of affairs. She says the problem is society-wide and she doesn’t let women off the hook either. She rails, for instance, against "maternal gatekeeping", where women contribute to the useless male stereotype and so stop men from getting involved or give those who don’t want to do very much an excuse for not doing much. She says other women use motherhood as an excuse to "make a run for it" if the shine has gone off their working life. They will later regret this, she says, when they opt or are pushed back into the workplace and find it even more difficult after they have taken several years off.

The answer, she says, is to make parenting more equal and this needs to happen from the very beginning. She investigates different baby leave policies in countries such as Iceland, and finds much to admire, even if none has quite got it right yet.

The book ends with a kind of manifesto for change. It is not enough to allow choice, she says. Policy needs to positively encourage shared parenting. This means not only maternity and paternity leave on full pay, but allowing men to stay overnight in the hospital after the baby is born, allowing them time off to support the woman in the first intense week after the birth, then allowing them to take over parental leave six weeks after the baby is born. She calls for baby leave to be split into two even parts of six months – half for the mum and half for the dad on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis. This could be taken on a full- or part-time basis. She wants flexible working to be open to all and "normalised" and calls for good quality, affordable, universal childcare.

To those who object that this is social engineering, she says: "We are already socially engineering the mother and father into different roles; we just pretend that is not the case. Detractors dismiss the Nordic ‘gender quotas’ but our own leave system is entirely gendered: pushing mothers into the role of main carer and fathers into that of main earner."
To those who suggest that, particularly in the current times, such policies are unaffordable, she cites figures showing it would cost the equivalent of five per cent of GDP, but that closing the gap between men and women’s participation in the workforce would increase GDP by eight per cent.
Her arguments are strong and yet there is something missing in the book. Asher speaks about the mechanisms for creating closer bonding between parents and their children, but she does not speak about the whole emotional bonding that comes through carrying the baby for nine months, the whole internal preparation that women have. She speaks in passing about breastfeeding, but she fails to mention what this kind of closeness feels like or how it means in practice that the woman is the person who wakes up in the night to look after the baby, who can comfort it when it is sick. This is not to argue against her powerful call for change and greater equality. It is just to say that perhaps not everything comes down to changing attitudes and policy.

Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality is published by Harvill Secker, price £12.99.

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