Writing about the trials and traumas of parenthhood is becoming a whole new genre. Good idea - or just good copy, asks Ann Treneman
KATE FIGES has written a book that tells you how horrible it can be to become a mother. "What even your friends won't tell you," cries the cover. And it does. Take her attempts to placate her newborn daughter: "When she cried inconsolably, her wails sounded so accusing, so tormented and so loud that I used to be convinced something seriously was wrong with her and feel rising anger and shame at my inability to calm her."

Every parent in the land can relate to that, but what about Figes' own children? When they grow up and read this will they be touched, appalled or just embarrassed? It's a question that more and more authors should be asking themselves.

Ours has been called the age of autobiography and there is no doubt that publishing is in the grip of a kind of memoir madness. But writing about your own dreadful childhood (which everyone seems to have had) is not the same as writing about your own dreadful children (which nobody likes to admit to having). "It may be difficult to write about your parents but it is far, far harder to write about your children," says Melissa Benn, daughter of Tony and author of a new book on motherhood, Madonna and Child. "For starters, you want them to be nice to you for a long time." True, but editors and publishers aren't bothered by such things as they search for female readers in an age when confession has become the new journalism.

Ms Benn is careful to point out that, in her book, she has written only five pages on what it was like for her to become a mother at age 37 and 260 pages on motherhood in general. Kate Figes, writer and books editor at the Mail on Sunday's You magazine, makes the same point. "I don't really write about my children. I write about motherhood," she says. "There isn't that much personal stuff in the book. I felt I had to put myself into it but I didn't want to overdo it and it probably makes up 2 per cent." The process of deciding how personal the book should be took time. In the first draft, for instance, she used her children's names and then decided not to. "I just found that to be too personal."

But what about her children reading it? "I did think about that. I think it would be useful and interesting to them. The love is there. That's clear," she says. "I don't know anything about what my own early years were like." But she does know what it is like to have her own life appear in print because her mother, the novelist and feminist Eva, wrote about her.

"I remember one of her articles, I think it was for Cosmo, was on teenage sex and she used me and my friends as case studies. That was an absolute nightmare. I've only just forgiven her!"

She is right to draw a distinction between her book - which is primarily political - and others that are strictly personal. These days we tend to think of the latter in terms of newspaper columns and magazine articles. The March issue of the new women's glossy, Red, for instance, managed to have a dad (Tony Parsons) writing about his son and a daughter (Louise France) writing about her dad. No newspaper is complete without at least one mum and dad going on about nappies and school dinners.

Some writers insist that it is okay to write about their children when they are small. "But I would never write about them as teenagers," says Kate Figes. "It is such a tumultuous time." Times columnist John Diamond also sees trouble ahead. "The difficulty will come when the kids learn to read properly," he says. "Both of them have been grist to my journalistic mill since they were born and I don't have a problem writing about them. But I'm very conscious of the columnist who wrote about his family and had terrible fallings out because his daughter would find her first period the subject of a jocular column, or his son would have trouble keeping his girlfriends, who would find themselves dissected on the page."

The truth is that when the children get old enough to answer back, the columnists don't stop. But they do at least negotiate first. After all, babies and toddlers demand their rights like a teenager can. Michele Hanson knows all about such things, having writing a column in the Guardian about her teenage daughter Amy (better known as Treasure) for years. "She asked me not to write about her boyfriends or anything too upsetting or anything to do with periods," says Michele. "So I didn't." At one point, when Amy was 13, she gave her a pounds 10 a week research fee. "I figured I couldn't do it without her, so she got a fee."

Amy, now 19, says she appreciated the extra money and she made her mother promise to never, ever write about sex. She remembers a few columns that upset her (or, more likely, her friends). "But the thing is that her articles made me feel that she is quite fun really. Wicked."

Now that Treasure is going away to university, Michele has started to write about her own mother. "Grandma reacts much worse than I did," says Amy. "One time she refused to speak to mum for a week." All three are featured in Motherland, yet another new book on the subject that is out this week and edited by Ann McFerran.

Katharine Whitehorn says her family got used to the odd mention in the 30-odd years she wrote for the Observer. Her son, Bernard Lyall, now 33, says the family always communicated by notes and letters anyway and he saw this as just the rather public equivalent of that. "In fact," says Katharine, "it was the only way I could get my son to move out when he was in his twenties. I wrote a column about how young people never seemed to leave home these days."

Bernard doesn't remember it quite that way but he's pretty relaxed about it all. "I think all's fair in love, war and newspapers. It's just good copy." Now that has the ring of truth, though it's not something that many of today's nappy-happy hacks like to admit.

Life After Birth is published this week by Viking (pounds 12.99 paperback)