In Madonna and Child, Melissa Benn shines an unwavering spotlight on the efforts of modern mothers, revealing the myriad ways in which they - we - are trying to do our best, for our children, for ourselves. As Benn makes abundantly clear, the public face of motherhood, about which we hear and see and read so much, is wholly insufficient. The much-publicised concerns and dilemmas of career-orientated middle-class mothers, for example, are so unrepresentative as to be virtually irrelevant in sociological terms. Meanwhile, the private lives of the majority of women become less and less visible. Ordinary women are the disappeared of modern Britain.
Stepping into these relatively unchartered territories, Benn faithfully catalogues the accounts of the women who have decided not to work outside the home, of women who want to, but don't; of women who do, but don't want to. (I manage to be most of these in the course of a routine week.) She shows us that somewhere between the powerful, but fundamentally misleading images of artful benefit scroungers on the one hand, high-flying professionals on the other, lies the reality of modern motherhood. A reality that is complex and diverse, full of ambivalence and uncertainty, a reality that matters.
In the mid to late Eighties, Benn argues, "the burden of proof shifted from the working to the non-working mother". This seems to me one of the most significant changes to affect contemporary women, with or without children. The pressure on women to work is now intense (especially, it seems, if they are lone mothers with not enough to do merely bringing up children single-handed). Far from "having it all", Benn's analysis shows the extent to which mothers today simply cannot win either way.
Women's dogged (and often dog-eared) attempts to be omnipresent have been the saving of politicians and the despair of feminists, and Benn is at her best when she tackles head on the massive failure of politicians and feminists alike to acknowledge the range of experiences that constitute modern motherhood. She takes politicians to task for their reliance on women's devotion to motherhood, while (gently) chiding feminism for its reluctance to bestow a proper respect on that devotion.
In the closing pages of Madonna and Child, Benn urges us to espouse a new "moral ecology". This would involve, amongst other things, rejecting the work culture in favour of a "creative, part-time culture"; elevating the role of caring, even remunerating it financially; introducing paternity leave and parental leave. She advocates that as a matter of some urgency, for our individual and collective well-being, we must replace "globalisation and greed" with "locality, modesty, equality".
In the best tradition of compassionate socialism (rather than the travesty of it we are currently seeing from New Labour), Madonna and Child takes us a little closer to that elusive but crucial goal. It does so with an admirable lightness of touch, intellectual acuity and an unshakeable decency.
Ultimately, though, Melissa Benn asks questions more often, and more effectively, than she supplies answers. Her vision of a new "moral ecology" is as deliciously tempting as it is remote. The word "ecology" means literally "house study", and this is what Benn does: she studied the house we modern mothers live in. If she doesn't actually set it to rights, this is less an indication of her failure than a measure of the fine mess we're now in.