The true miracle of motherhood is that you've not been certified within the year, says a new breed of baby book. HESTER LACEY reports
When I hear that someone I don't like is having a baby I think, "Ha! Good! Serves them right!" says a mother of two, with a cynical laugh. Another sighs: "Ever since I was little I imagined being a mother. Now that I am I can't believe I wished my time away for this." Another says that having a baby was like having an alien land in the middle of her relationship. "We just didn't know what to do with her. When she screamed we'd panic and run in circles."

Not many mums would admit as much. While no one in their right mind would suggest that motherhood is a bed of roses, very few mothers would come straight out and say that in fact it's hell. However, a clutch of new books suggest that very few women realise exactly what they're letting themselves in for. Indeed, the sheer hard grind of motherhood and the way it changes women's lives remains an area that is still under-researched, according to the latest thinking from the US and Australia.

American psychologist Harriet Lerner's contribution to the debate is entitled The Mother Dance. Based on her own parenting experiences, she wrote it after visiting her local bookshop and finding "thousands of books on parenting but a complete absence of books on how the mother's life was changed by having a baby". It charts what happens to women when they become mothers and how their lives are altered.

"There is so much fake sentimentality surrounding the image of motherhood," says Dr Lerner. "Society sets impossibly high standards. Women desperately need to hear the voices of other women speaking the truth. We need the truth more than we need expert advice." In her view it is "a miracle" that all new mothers aren't mentally ill by their offspring's first birthday.

Australian writer Susan Maushart's book The Mask of Motherhood refers to the tranquil face that mothers wear to conceal the panic inside. She argues that the current generation of childbearing women are less prepared for parenthood than their mothers were - they have been financially and socially independent so the transition is even more of a shock.

Like Harriet Lerner, she draws heavily on personal experience. "I wanted to find out if I was the only one struggling. I suspected I was not - so many times I'd be speaking to friends and one of us would say 'How come nobody ever told us?'" As she had suspected, the overwhelming response from readers was a "great sigh of relief" - which makes it ironic that the book was rejected by several publishers. "One said, 'Women don't want to read about themselves as mothers, they want to read about babies.' That's because they don't have the choice - books on babies are all that's available. This generation of young mothers is very well-informed, highly educated, and used to looking analytically at their experiences."

Next month I'm Okay, You're a Brat! by Susan Jeffers, will be published in this country. Bravely, Jeffers reopens the nature vs nurture debate to say that it's not always the parents' fault when children turn out to be vile. She suggests that a child's personality is shaped by many influences, most of which are not under parental control - and the popular notion that parents are utterly responsible induces unnecessary pressure.

Everyone knows that children need lots of looking after - it's part of the deal. Everyone also knows that becoming a parent is a huge responsibility. So are these women whingers who can't knuckle down?

Nearly every mother I spoke to cheered on Susan Jeffers, Harriet Lerner and Susan Maushart. "I wish I'd had something like this to read when I was pregnant," said one. And talking about their own experiences seemed ominously cathartic for a number - though most asked if they could speak anonymously and all added apologetic riders along the lines of "of course I adore my children and I wouldn't be without them for the world".

What exactly were the shocks that so threw them? The range of them is huge - physical, practical and psychological - and can be best summed up by saying that nothing is "normal" or goes as planned and that it's impossible to get everything "right". A random selection: morning sickness that lasts all day; a baby that screams incessantly - for months; the agony of cracked nipples; feeling guilty for returning/not returning to work; the lack of sleep (cited over and over); the grind of having to look after a helpless creature that can't communicate. In one American study, when new mothers were asked, "Is looking after the baby anything like you thought it would be?" only nine per cent said "yes".

"You just lose your whole life," says one mother, who has a six-month- old baby. "It's relentless, it never, never, never, never, never stops. I just wish she had an off button so I could press it occasionally. But people think you are terrible if you say you'd like to stick your child in a cupboard."

"I've forgotten what it's like to have a conversation with someone who can think and reason in an adult way," says Sue Lincoln, mother of two- year-old Molly. "Toddlers can't make any allowance for how you're feeling. You can't say 'Mummy's tired and doesn't want to read you that book for the 15th time' because they can't relate to anyone but themselves."

"I was in such a state when my daughter was tiny that my marriage suffered," says another harassed mum. "We might even have split up ... except that I don't think either of us wanted to be alone with the baby."

The experts agree that the best way to get a sense of what it's like to have a baby is to watch and learn from an obliging friend or relative. But be prepared for a shock. When Susan Maushart asked her sister what being a mother was like, she replied: "Everyone lies. Do you hear me? Everyone lies about what it's like to have a baby. Don't listen to them. Just watch and remember."

ONE MUM'S STORY

Jane Clucas (right) makes children's clothes which are sold in The Conran Shop and Kath Kidston. She has two children, Harry, seven, and Kitty, five. She wishes she'd known what she was in for before she had them...

When I had Harry, I'd never really even held a baby - I was a youngest child and my friends didn't have children. I assumed that once you had one, it would all come to you.

Well, it doesn't. I think the first few weeks are crucial for your confidence and because I had quite an easy birth I was left alone to get on with it. Harry was lying there in his cot in the hospital, and I thought "What do I do? What do I do?"

My husband is wonderfully good-natured but he was scared too - when he first changed a nappy it was all green, which he wasn't expecting, and he vomited. One evening Harry started screaming at six and didn't stop until 11pm. And he kept on doing it every day. We were at our wits' end. The health visitor said it was three months colic and I said "What's that?"

Every night he would start at six, just as the news came on. The only thing that would get him to sleep was turning all the lights off and playing Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do". And that was our evenings for three months.

Harry was a perfectly healthy baby so I didn't feel I could complain. You think everyone else is doing better than you and don't dare admit when things aren't going so well. Once Kitty slept for 12 hours and I was worried but the health visitor said "Don't say that in front of the other mums - you'll get lynched".

You're scared people will criticise you and they do - everyone becomes an instant expert. Now when I see a mother with a screaming child and everyone tut-tutting I go up now and say "I've been there, don't worry". I think it's the gap between expectation and reality. It's like weddings and holidays - they can be awful but no one will ever admit they haven't had a wonderful time. I think if, before you had the baby, people, said to you "This is going to be a nightmare" at least whatever happened would be better than your expectations. One of my friends had a smiling health visitor turn up on her doorstep who asked her how she was getting on and she said "It's a f---ing nightmare! Why didn't you tell me?"

As they get older, every problem that's alleviated is replaced by another. Practical problems like nappies are replaced by emotional ones like school. The worst time is supposed to be when they pass their driving test! But of course it's the classic thing with children - they just have to smile and you forgive them everything.

'I'm Okay, You're a Brat' by Susan Jeffers, Hodder & Stoughton pounds 9.99; 'The Mother Dance' by Harriet Lerner, Thorsons pounds 8.99; 'The Mask of Motherhood' by Susan Maushart, Pandora pounds 9.99.

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