Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality

Judging by the rumoured size of the advances, there is a huge market for a new genre of popular fiction: "mum lit", the logical sequel to chick lit, in which the happy-ever-after girl wakes up to find herself surrounded by dank nappies and piles of stuff at the bottom of the stairs, and brimming with resentment at the meaninglessness to which her mid-life is reduced.

I am curious as to how this squares with the kind of conversation I had the other night with a thirtysomething man who convinced me that these are transformed times. He and nearly all his friends, he said, now live with women who earn far more than they do and, he believes, the women will continue to do so once they have had children.

On the evidence of Shattered, my thirtysomething friend and his high-earning girlfriend are in for a big shock. According to Rebecca Asher, women may outperform men at school, university and in the early years of work, but once they start a family they become exhausted and dissatisfied jugglers of domestic and professional life. It is their menfolk who go on to earn more and rise higher. In other words, nothing much about family life today is any different.

Asher's fury at this state of affairs is clearly the product of the shock of having a baby and finding herself in a changed, or rather an unchanged, world. Her afterword hints at an easing up of the exhaustion, so I am reluctant to tell her that one inhabits this shadowy private world of never-ending tasks for a very long time. It is the subtlest form of servitude ever devised. For years, the first thing I have done on waking every morning is to calculate how many hours

I have free to do my own work, perpetually devising ways to claw back the hours, including rising early and staying up late.

Asher would rightly spurn such masochistic strategies. Her writing on motherhood belongs to the brisk, outward-looking, pamphleteering tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft. Asher does not interrogate herself; she interrogates the world (she gives one female magazine editor a thorough drubbing for her repeated sly digs at working mothers). She has no illusions about the privileges and vanities of the many working fathers who relish having it all.

Ever practical, Asher looks abroad for solutions. The United States provides no model for working parents, but does, rather depressingly, point up the economic advantages to women of not dropping out the labour market for too long. Not surprisingly, it is the Nordic countries that show how, if the state underwrites the efforts of parenthood, everyone benefits. Women are still more likely to take up paid parental leave, but the balance is better.

As one American father who moved to Sweden is quoted as saying:

I get puzzled why there is not more political will . . . It doesn't have to be the Swedish system . . . you could do something that would still fit the American culture of freedom and flexibility and profit. It's getting harder and harder as a middle-class American to make it work.

It's just this grind and you end up paying outrageous amounts of money to put your kid in crappy daycare.

That complaint applies equally to the UK. Quite why it has taken us so long to do so little is the question that this book throws up. There is a vast difference between the way we wish we lived and the way we do live. That issues affecting women loom large in the media masks the ways in which, collectively, women's worldly power is in retreat. Grass-roots feminism may be enjoying a revival, but the big professions purr along, still male-dominated.

This doesn't make Asher's solutions - inclu­ding longer and better-paid parental leave for men and women and high-quality early-years care - any less sensible. The strapline on my copy of the book describes it as a "call to arms for a revolution in shared parenting". In fact, it is a moderate manifesto for the amelioration of living condictions for the "squeezed middle", and must surely recommend itself to a Labour Party that urgently needs to stake a claim, not so much for the middle ground, but for the real ground where people live these days. l

Melissa Benn's next book, "School Wars: the Battle for Britain's Education", will be published by Verso in September

Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality
Rebecca Asher
Harvill Secker, 272pp, £12.99