Books: Independent choice - Parenting manuals

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First-time mothers-to-be are suckers when it comes to baby lit. They'll read anything, from the small print in the Boots Mother and Baby catalogue to the picture captions in Miriam Stoppard. But it does seem a little cruel to rip them out of this soft-focused world and point them in the direction of Kate Figes's terrific new book Life After Birth, What Even Your Friends Won't Tell You (Viking, pounds 12.99). For all our upfront talk about episiotomies and Kegel exercises, argues Figes, women in the Nineties are reticent when it comes to acknowledging the long-term physical and emotional consequences of giving birth. Women may no longer die in childbirth, but very few are back to work or having sex by the time of their six-week checkup.

What most women need, she says, is an old-fashioned confinement allowing them to get over traumatic births, poor post-natal care and a legacy of physical complaints from unhealed stitches to incontinence and backache. "The 11 weeks after the birth of my first baby was one of the worst times of my life," one mother reveals in the book: "Nobody said, 'It'll be a total nightmare for a while, but it'll be alright because you'll come out of it'." Life After Birth is well-researched and better written than most books on motherhood. Figes doesn't use first-person interviews and anecdotes as a substitute for information (though she tells a good story about scraping baby pooh off a brown shag pile carpet). Every writer on parenthood has her own obsessions - Figes's are Caesarians and absent fathers - but all new mothers reading her book will find their very own obsessions addressed in therapeutic detail.

After the drama of human birth, it's a relief to turn to Susan Allport's book A Natural History of Parenting (Souvenir Press, pounds 16.99). A science writer and part-time shepherdess, Allport was prompted to investigate childrearing patterns in the animal kingdom when one of her ewes refused to suckle its newborn lamb. Surprised at the diversity of parental behaviour animals exhibit - from the lizard which abandons its young, to the beaver which lets its offspring live for up to two years in the family "lodge" - Allport goes on to show how human parental instincts compare in the nesting, hatching and lactating departments. Not an animal behaviourist by training, she has no new evolutionary theory to pedal, other than to say that parental care is costly, and only those animals that make the right physiological calculations survive.

What Susan Allport calls the "limits of devotion," Brenda Houghton terms "setting boundaries". Her self-help manual The Good Child (Headline, pounds 9.99) is a reaffirming guide to children's moral development; ie it doesn't tell you anything you didn't instinctively know already. Two-year-olds don't recognise the difference between right and wrong, five-year-olds do, and teenagers... you might as well leave them in their bedrooms until they turn into reasoning human beings.

All three authors stress that the most important lesson a child has to learn is that its survival depends on fitting into the social group that sustains it. In most basic terms, parents have needs too - as Figes discovered at three in the morning when, instead of reading her daughter yet another book, she let her cry herself back to sleep.