Being a mother is a difficult, scary, exhausting job and lots of women don't even enjoy it. But you're not allowed to say so. Hester Lacey talks to mothers who are breaking the taboo
"If motherhood were advertised in a job column, it would read 'Hours - constant. All food and entertainment supplied by you. No sick pay. No pension. Must be good at athletics, home repairs, making mince interesting, and finding the other glove.' Would you take this job? I don't think so." The novelist Kathy Lette, whose children Julius and Georgia are six and four, launched this blistering broadside on Radio 4's Soapbox last week. "The myth that motherhood is the ultimate fulfilment for a female is the last great sacred cow, and it's time to whack it on the barbecue," she says. "There's a great conspiracy of silence between women not to tell each other how hideous motherhood is."

Lette, who says she is at the stage of "putting the kids in the cupboard under the sink with the poisonous substances within reach", wrote her new novel Mad Cows (Picador pounds 5.99) as "an antidote to all the Stepford Mums. When I wrote it, no-one would back me up; all my friends pretended motherhood was fab. But it's now at number six in the bestseller list, so women must be relating to it. I can't stress how much you love your progeny. But no one really tells you about the downside: sleep deprivation, constipation, haemorrhoids, cracked nipples, vomit, pooh - and boredom. I get so bored doing creative things with Play-doh that I can see my plants photosynthesising. And we're not helped by the Kiddie Commissars, Penelope Leach and Miriam Stoppard and co, who perpetuate the myth of the Perfect Mother. She doesn't exist."

The bulk of childcare still falls to mothers rather than fathers. Not wanting children is still seen as distinctly odd, and 80 per cent of women in this country are or will become mothers. But while childbirth these days is much discussed, what happens after can come as a shock, as Sally- Anne Collins, 31, discovered.

Sally-Anne, architectural technician and mother of Jak, now 21 months, had a difficult birth. "I was bruised, tired, aching and very emotional. Breast-feeding hurt; I was whimpering in agony, my nipples hurt, my stomach hurt. I kept telling myself that all these wonderful feelings of motherhood would start up; well, it took about a year. I'm normally confident and bubbly, but with this I felt I'd done it all wrong - I felt terrible." Being stuck at home was traumatic. "On the social side, you don't feel you have anything to offer any more. Lots of my friends had no children and I didn't want to end up at coffee mornings talking about nappies."

Jak is now a well-balanced, happy toddler. "I absolutely adore him," says Sally-Anne. "I never, ever wished I hadn't had him. But when he was little, I used to wish, just for 10 seconds at a time, that something would happen so I didn't have to look after him any more. I just wanted it all to stop for a bit."

She believes it is impossible to imagine what motherhood is like before you do it. "It's hard not to be starry-eyed when you're pregnant. If, before you got pregnant, you could put yourself a year on after your baby was born, you probably wouldn't do it. I don't think people ever realise what it's going to be like. I have always been very open about my experiences, because I've found it very helpful to talk about it, but most women are very coy. I recently bumped into a friend who's had a baby, and I said, 'How are you?' and she said 'Oh, fine, fine,' and I thought 'Hmm' because that's just what I used to say."

There's no apprenticeship for motherhood, which can be disconcerting for both parents. "When Emma was born - and she will be my only child - I'd read dozens of books, but I still expected some kind of instinct to kick in," recalls Ruth Parker, 37, who worked in management until her daughter, now five, was born. "We were completely helpless. My husband would say something like 'The baby's crying' and I would have been trying to ignore it, just feeling too tired to try to do anything about it. We ended up screaming at each

other. I remember once yelling 'I know she's bloody crying! I don't care!' I feel ashamed thinking about it now. At one stage we considered splitting up, we'd been so foul to each other, and I really think what kept us together was that neither of us wanted to be alone with the baby, poor little soul."

It is particularly annoying to find all your friends have stressed the positive and kept quiet about the negative. "I rang one of my best friends in tears over some problem with Emma," says Ruth, "and she blithely said 'Oh, yes, that happened with us, too, I was in despair'. She had told me how fantastic motherhood is! Even now, Emma is five, I still wish there was some kind of instruction manual I could turn to - or failing that, an on/off switch. The sheer boredom of reading favourite stories and doing finger-painting over again drives me mad. I can't wait until she's reading Jane Austen."

The fun doesn't stop as time goes on. "My sweet, affectionate, little boy suddenly turned into a would-be cool 12-year-old, fussing about designer labels," complains Geraldine, 43. "He has given up on kisses and hugs, which is hurtful. I feel like a cross between a human cash-machine and a complaints bureau."

Adding siblings to the mix fizzes it up even further. Laura, a lawyer in her late thirties, had a third child, now five, to dilute the chemistry between her first two (daughter, ten, and, son, nine) who squabbled incessantly. "My third son is like a little Napoleon bringing up the rear. Now, they all three fight in a perfectly balanced tripartite way. It drives me berserk. The three of them together are like an army of Visigoths. They are completely uncivilised, they have a real hunt and kill mentality - they can be so mean to each other. Parental attention is the biggie, that's all they really care about."

Appalled parents, wide-eyed with shock at the antics of their kiddiewinks, are phoning for help in droves. Cry-sis, a charity which runs a helpline for parents whose children cry excessively, don't sleep, or show demanding behaviour, reports a continuing year-on-year increase in calls. Cry-sis is desperate for funds; because the charity deals with healthy children, they are a low priority for external financial aid. This does not mean, however, that they do not provide a vital service, says spokesperson Elsie Matthewman. "Dealing with a demanding child is horrendous, agony, torture. Going without sleep yourself is only part of it; if you have other children and a house to run you can end up with depression, or even taking your frustration out on the baby. You can be a loving mum, but it only takes a second, that's why Cry-sis is here - you can ring and take it out on us instead. Doctors and health visitors call us, too - they feel the same frustrations. Young mums especially expect a baby like the ones they see on television; well, it's not like that. You can lay it right on the line - parents can go through hell."

Parentline, the national parenting phone helpline, which deals with 25,000 calls a year, has seen its clientele double in the past four years. "A high percentage are shocked by feelings of inadequacy, guilt because they don't like their child at that moment, and guilt at wanting to be somewhere else," says spokesperson Carole Baisden. "Many thought it would be a bed of roses and are finding it isn't. The same goes for parents of teenagers ,who are shocked to find that their manageable child has suddenly completely changed."

In the Sixties, only one in ten women was voluntarily childless; now the figure is one in five. And women are waiting longer before starting a family. Figures published last week by the Office of National Statistics show that, for the first time, the number of women in Britain giving birth during their early 30s exceeds those having children in their early 20s. Have we all had enough?

The irrepressible Lette has coined the term "women voting with their wombs". Meanwhile, at the annual conference of the Royal College of Psychiatrists earlier this week, an earnest researcher addressed his peers. "Studies suggest that depression in women is limited to the period of their reproductive lives," he observed. "We are not able to explain this." See above.

Contact Cry-sis on 0171 404 5011 and Parentline on 01702 559900.