Rebecca Asher realised she was entering contentious territory in writing her new book about the stresses of motherhood. Here she addresses some of myths that need tackling if we are to develop more equal and effective arrangements for all parents.
In my book, Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality, I argue that, even after decades of apparent progress, women and men in the UK are still unhappily dragooned into quite distinct family roles, as main carers and main earners respectively. I think this is to the detriment of them and, most importantly, their children.
The book sets out to analyse why this polarisation persists and what we might learn from research and international practice about how to do things differently. Cue frenzied reaction on all sides in newspapers and on various websites. I wanted Shattered to spark this sorely needed debate but even so it was a welcome change of tempo to join others in discussing ‘Modern Parenting: Policy, politics and the illusion of equality’ in the august and reflective environment of the RSA.
My proposals for change include: overhauling maternity services so that fathers are better included; redesigning our uniquely unequal and gendered maternity and paternity leave system so that birth leave of just over a year is evenly split between men and women on a well-remunerated, ‘use it or lose it’ basis; a right to flexible working for all employees – not just parents – and more, and more affordable, childcare provision. I also believe that parents need to change their own behaviour, taking on raising their children as a shared enterprise. Hearteningly this analysis chimes with many who have reviewed the book and attended events such as that at the RSA.
Not everyone nods vigorously in agreement, of course. But, if anything, critical responses have increased my resolve: making me even more aware of the myths that pervade our society about the ‘best’ way to bring up children. Perhaps the most common among them is that it is most beneficial for young children to be cared for by one dedicated adult: the mother.
In fact evidence now suggests that a secure relationship with three main carers – a mother, father and perhaps a grandparent or other trusted adult – is most advantageous to a child’s social and emotional development. There is also a growing body of evidence to show that a father’s close involvement in the daily life of his child is to that child’s psychological and educational benefit.
Yet amongst the mother-centric critics, fathers are off the agenda and there is no early years’ alternative to exclusive mother-care except nurseries or child-minders, their apparent deficiencies ghoulishly dangled before us. But to claim that, across the board, formal care of this nature is worse for a child than care at home is to ignore the crucial issue of quality. If comparing ‘Walmart-style’ nursery care to home care then maybe the latter is better. However, high-quality nursery care has no significant ill effects on children: in fact it produces cognitive gains and puts them ahead of their peers when they start school. At the same time, low-quality care in the home is detrimental. The issue is more complex than the mother-centrics would allow.
Another pervasive myth is that women ‘choose’ to do (often low-status, low-paid) jobs that fit around childcare or, indeed, would rather not work at all. Various surveys and pieces of academic research are cited to back this up. I would argue against taking these findings at face-value: we need to factor in how difficult it is for women to commit themselves to both professional and family life in an environment where they are expected to be the main carer and where support from the state is patchy and expensive. Many decide that aiming lower professionally is the only way to make family life work in these challenging circumstances. It should come as no surprise that some declare that, if there were no financial need, they would rather give up on paid work altogether. Aside from what women ‘choose’, what about what men want? Or children? All this is meant to be ultimately in their young interests, after all.
The third big myth is that women are somehow designed to be the main carers of their children: they give birth and breastfeed, don’t they? In fact, UK breastfeeding rates are relatively low, and significantly lower than in the more sexually egalitarian Scandinavian countries for example, proving that biology and equality are not mutually exclusive. Fathers are just as able to carry out every other care task and of course they can also feed babies formula or expressed breast milk from a bottle. So beyond birth, and certainly beyond the first few weeks, there really should be a biological level playing field. Research shows that looking after children in itself encourages fathers to be more nurturing. Men simply need to be given the opportunity to form the same deep attachment as mothers, through generous paternity leave and flexible working provision.
We should take a step back here. If there really is a biological imperative for mothers to be their children’s main carers – or, indeed, if they freely ‘choose’ this – then what’s the point of educating and training women to the hilt only for their career wings to be inevitably clipped a decade or so down the line? Some argue that a decent parental leave and childcare system, plus flexible employer policies, are unaffordable. But it is the current approach that is financially and socially costly, and economically illiterate.
Progressives need to get proactive about busting such myths. The revolution in family and female life that was started in the 1960s and 70s must be completed. This would certainly be of benefit to mothers and fathers, who would then be able to flourish in their public and private roles. It would be to the great advantage of children, who would grow up with both parents closely involved in their daily lives. And it would pay dividends for society as a whole as we all reap the rewards of living in communities in which families enjoy more stable and happier lives.
Rebecca Asher’s book Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality is published by Harvill Secker.