Inside Story

Modern families

Mary Leahy reviews Rebecca Asher’s investigation of how parenthood is shaped by society

Mary Leahy 8 March 2012 2041 words

Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality
By Rebecca Asher | Harvill Secker | $19.95

REBECCA Asher expected that having a baby would be hard, but she didn’t anticipate the disparity between her experience and that of her husband. As she writes towards the beginning of this frank and sometimes confronting book, “When a couple chooses to have children, all the gains women have supposedly made over the past few decades suddenly vanish as the time machine of motherhood transports us back to the 1950s.”

Seeing her situation replicated around her, Asher started what she describes as a deliberate and structured inquiry, conducting in-depth conversations with mothers and fathers in Britain, Sweden, Iceland and Australia and dipping into the academic literature. Her aim was to explore how family life in Britain might better be organised and what would be required to bring about the necessary structural change. Because government policies, employment structures and prevailing attitudes are built on the assumption that mothers will have the primary care of their children, most parents don’t have the option of sharing the care of their children and employment. Although mothers, father and children all lose out, it is mothers whose illusions are shattered. Addressing this inequality, Asher argues, will enable us to address other social problems, including relationship breakdown, child poverty and social atomisation.

Asher begins by mapping out the problem, drawing on her own experience as well as the stories of other mothers and fathers. She makes a forceful case that the gains women have made in education and employment vanish after they have children. Although she found that the extreme polarisation between her husband and herself ended after she returned to paid employment, their respective roles and status had changed irrevocably. After the children come, men and women’s lives are pulled in separate directions. The most common arrangement is what might be called the modified breadwinner model, with the father in full-time employment and the mother in a part-time job. Women and men work the same number of hours but the nature of the work, the status and financial rewards are completely different. Once women return to paid employment they still do more of the care and domestic work. Parenting inevitably involves compromise but it is women who make most of the changes and bear most of the cost.

Asher argues that the different expectations of men and women start before the child is born. Women-centred maternity care doesn’t treat men as equals, and the pressure to breastfeed risks leaving women exhausted and keeping men at a distance. Meanwhile, Britain’s unequal parental leave scheme makes it more likely that mothers will take leave to care for children. British women have access to twelve months maternity leave, thirty-nine weeks of which is paid (at a low flat rate that may be topped up by employers), whereas men are eligible for only two weeks paternity leave (also paid at a low flat rate that may be topped up). Although unused leave can be transferred from the mother to the father, the gender wage gap and employer resistance act as powerful deterrents. After a very short time, the mother has more experience with the baby and the father is back at work – a pattern of specialisation that determines longer term behaviour. Women build networks and become entrenched in the role of primary carer even once they have returned to the workforce.

Part of the problem, according to Asher, is the “parenting industry.” Like the British government, this cluster of pundits and institutions places mothers in the role of primary carer. It also fosters self doubt, exploiting mothers’ insecurity with manuals and every other imaginable product. Although women can use advice in sophisticated ways, Asher is concerned that they still internalise stereotypes of what a good mother should be. Time-use surveys reveal that mothers are spending more hours in the labour market but also more time looking after their children: as the Australian researcher Lynn Craig has carefully documented, they have cut back on everything else in order to protect time with their children. Several of the women Asher spoke to reported that they were depressed in the months following the birth of their child. Asher argues that this is an entirely rational response to “the isolation and standard setting they were exposed to, combined with chronic exhaustion, relentless grind and loss of autonomy.” The mental stress is not a medical problem but a social one, she writes, and it will only be solved by changing our social arrangements.

Asher’s discussion of the nature of paid employment reveals a depressingly familiar story. Long hours of work, inflexible jobs and financial hardship inevitably puts strain on family life. Asher argues that a culture of “presenteeism” makes it very difficult for women to compete and for men to do their fair share at home. As a result, women are disproportionately underrepresented in top level jobs. Having children is still damaging for a woman’s career and the evidence shows that progress towards gender equality in employment has stalled and may even be reversing. In response to the pressure, many women downgrade their careers, either working at lower level jobs or part-time. They lose opportunities for promotion and their pay drops or, at best, stagnates. Despite the availability of flexibility, managers in Britain tend to operate on the assumption that workers will be in full-time positions, working standard hours (as a minimum) and doing their job in the workplace. More troubling is evidence that attitudes to maternal employment in Britain are becoming more conservative, particularly among members of younger generations.

Although much of Asher’s commentary refers to the experience of educated professional parents, the people she interviewed come from a broad range of backgrounds. While long-hours jobs are an issue for some, others experience a combination of too few paid hours and very low rates of pay. Employment is important because it can give women greater financial security, but poor quality, low wage jobs do not necessarily provide an escape from poverty.

And fathers? Their expectations are changing, but Asher argues that the shift in the nature of contemporary fatherhood has been overstated. Although British fathers are expected to be more hands-on now than in the past, this is always in addition to their main role as the breadwinner. Asher points to evidence that children benefit if their fathers are actively involved in their lives. Yet many men do not take even the limited amount of paternity leave available to them. Asher is clear that fathers’ paid employment is a type of involvement in the care of their children, just as necessary as the care that mothers provide or arrange. The problem is the polarisation into two distinct roles. Fathers say they wish to spend more time with their children but often they are not interested in following through; indeed, some find it is easier to work late than deal with tired children. The social expectations of fathers are more limited and less prescriptive than they are for mothers, which means that fathers are often treated as heroes for doing what mothers do every day.

Particularly interesting is Asher’s chapter about women’s complicity in these unequal arrangements. She argues that, like men, women have a hand in settling their own fates. Many women give contradictory signals of maternal fatigue and resentment and territorialism. Maternal gatekeeping might be an adaptive response to inequality, but it lets men off the hook. It means the structural factors that narrow the options available to most women and men are not confronted. For some women motherhood provides a way out of an unsatisfactory job. Just as men assume that women will care for the kids, women assume that men will bring in the money. In the short-term it may make practical and emotional sense to move into the roles of breadwinner or carer but there are long-term consequences. Women run the risk of permanent exclusion from decent employment and men risk weak relationships with their children.

Concluding that family life in Britain is hard, Asher embarks on a search for alternative social arrangements. Predictably, she looks to the Nordic states, but she also seeks ideas in Iceland, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and, interestingly, the United States. While not many writers on work and family look to the United States for inspiration, Asher argues that we can learn two things from experience there. First, don’t keep women out of the workforce for long periods of time; secondly, equalise the entitlements between fathers and mothers. Although US provisions for parents are stingy, Asher concludes that employing women is not seen as a risky option by US employers. In contrast, she is disappointed with the approach taken in Australia; the introduction of paid maternity leave, she argues, has shifted Australia from a more neutral position to one where women are presumed to be the primary carers.

Based on her scan of international arrangements, Asher concludes that it is necessary to designate periods of parental leave for both fathers and mothers. Parental leave must be paid at a higher rate and fathers and mothers must be encouraged to take comparable, relatively short periods of leave. Asher proposes a new parental leave scheme for Britain offering thirteen months’ paid leave, half designated for mothers and half designated for fathers on a use it or lose it basis. Paid by the government, this leave would provide full wage replacement but be capped for the wealthiest. Asher acknowledges that this scheme is costly but believes that the costs are easily outweighed by the benefits: parent who share care are more likely to work as a team to raise their children; children build a close relationship with both parents; and there will be less domestic tension and less strain on relationships. If couples do separate women are in a stronger position because they have stayed engaged in the labour market and fathers are more likely to maintain close connections with their children and contribute to the financial cost of raising them. Children should grow up with the expectation that they will play a range of roles.

In her final chapter Asher draws together the various strands. She is blunt about the problems we face but optimistic that we can find a solution. She points out that lesbian couples with children provide an example of how families can function. They are far more likely to share the paid and unpaid work equally than are heterosexual couples with children. Asher also sees signs of positive shifts in the attitudes of employers.

This is a passionate and articulate examination of the inequality between mothers and fathers. Although it focuses on Britain, it is very relevant to the situation in Australia. My main reservation is that Asher does not adequately deal with the problem of choice. She says that a new child throws all the cards in the air and that society should not dictate how they fall. But she also presents a clear and compelling case that social institutions and policies should encourage a fairer distribution of carework and paid employment. Shared care is a particular arrangement of the cards. Shattered would be a stronger book had she grappled with this apparent tension between choice and justice and provided a more complex argument about the nature of individual freedom and of individual and social responsibility.

Asher identifies the problems but also some practical solutions. She calls for changes to current British work and family policy but also suggests things that individuals can do before these structural changes are introduced. These range from consumer boycotts of “mumsy” products to more open discussion about the challenges and choices. In the words of Bill, one of the fathers she interviewed:

Mum has got to let go and Dad has got to do it properly and not just say. “What do you mean she has not been fed?! She’s had a crisp!” It’s working together as a team… sharing it so that more people enjoy it, not seeing it as a chore or like a job but as a way of life.