PRATTLE OF THE SEXES

It's the publishing phenomenon of 1998: never has so much been written by so many on motherhood and masculinity. Hester Lacey provides a who's who
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WORK and parenthood are an increasingly uneasy mix; a fact that is making publishers up and down the land lick their lips and rub their hands with glee. The angst and the anguish of career mothers and fathers is heralding an exceptional book bonanza, as titles pour off the presses. Just who are the victims of the current crisis of confidence among parents isn't clear. Is it the children, neglected and left with the nanny? The mothers, frantically booting up their laptops with one hand and making Marmite soldiers with the other? The fathers, hopelessly excluded from their offsprings' childhood by the pressures of supporting the whole edifice financially and keeping their male end up in the office? All three? No matter: all this guilt makes excellent reading. British writers have finally, in a rush, found their voice. While established American authors like Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia are still doing the rounds, their latest work has not struck the same chord in this country as it did in the Eighties, when the themes were getting women into the boardroom and putting reluctant New Men in touch with their parental feelings. "It seems like a logical step after all the American books," says a spokesman for Jonathan Cape, publisher of Melissa Benn's Madonna and Child: Towards a New Politics of Motherhood. "No-one has written in this way about motherhood up to now, as opposed to feminism. While the research is rigorous, Melissa's book also has a great feeling for popular culture." What started as a trickle has become a gush, and there is more in the pipeline; Jayne Buxton and Aminatta Forna both also have books on motherhood in preparation, for publication later this year.

THE WOMEN

The old Cosmo notion of "having it all" is taking a battering among women writers. The juggling of motherhood and career is the hottest topic around - perhaps because a number of prominent pundits on the subject have recently reproduced. And there is suddenly a strange ambivalence about being a whizz in the office and simultaneously a devoted parent. What goes around comes around: the new breed of young feminist writers with small children have all suddenly and vociferously found that they are absolutely knackered and that there are only 24 hours in each unforgiving day. As for the joyous bond between mother and tot, the latest vogue is telling it like it is - perineal tearing, sleep deprivation, cracked nipples, the lot (though of course it is all still Absolutely Worth It). And where are the men? Working late, poor things - but it's not necessarily their own fault. Ire has mostly shifted from individual partners to overly-demanding bosses and government policies. Below, a guide to the voices of the moment.

Melissa Benn Journalist, novelist and essayist, daughter of Tony, mother of two small daughters, the first born when she was 37. Author of Madonna and Child, which looks at the lives of modern mothers, "glamourised and despised, sentimentalised and overlooked". Looking for a new political stance "prepared to redistribute skill, time, money and love". We need, she says, a new "moral ecology" - "one that recognises a limit to infinite expansion; of income power, ambition and consumption". In other words: you can forget about having it all.

Eileen Gillibrand & Jenny Mosley Each has three children. Joint authors of When I Go To Work, I Feel Guilty: a Working Mother's Guide to Sanity and Survival. Full of charts and quizzes to work out exactly how much guilt is being felt. Don't give in to negative self-belief and concentrate on being positive (for example, rather than thinking "I'm sloppy and messy", try "I might not meet my mother's standards of cleanliness and hygiene but my home does not present a health hazard").

Kate Figes Writer and journalist, mother of two daughters, author of the rather ominously-titled Life After Birth: What Even Your Friends Won't Tell You About Motherhood, "the first thoroughly honest book to chart the changes that motherhood brings". Far from starry-eyed. "Giving birth is like having a near-fatal car crash where you just manage to crawl out of the wreckage," gasps one of her interviewees. "The shock that I was still alive was so great that I cried for half an hour." Somewhat damping conclusion: for new mothers, "things can only get better". Eek.

Elizabeth Perle McKenna Formerly an extremely high-powered American publishing executive. Now the author of When Work Doesn't Work Anymore. Parity in the workplace, she argues, just makes women miserable. Her flash of inspiration came when she realised, in her late thirties after the birth of her son, that she was suffering from "indigestion in the soul" and that meanwhile, her self-esteem was "in the toilet". Her solution: downshift. And start now (even if you're in your twenties). Or you'll regret it when you are a burned-out, atrophied husk with no life outside the office.

Natasha Walter Author of The New Feminism, aged 30, formerly of Vogue and the Independent. In the front rank of the new young feminists. And, given her all-embracing principles, could recruit many more. "Can a woman dress like a mannequin and be a feminist? Can she have rape fantasies and be a feminist? Can she have a white wedding/buy pornography/be a prostitute/be a Conservative voter/be a millionaire and be a feminist?" Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Feminism, says Walters, is more tolerant and diverse than ever before, because the only credential needed is commitment to equality. This can lead to some problems in actually, ahem, recognising it as such, however. Asking a group of schoolgirls whether men and women should be equal provoked resounding agreement. Asked whether they were feminists, only one said yes.

THE MEN

The men, meanwhile, are clearing their throats nervously on the edge of the discussion. Dads Care, even though they are fighting through decades of conditioning that say their place is in the office, doing overtime, and they want to help bring up their sons to be nice to others and good citizens. (Though Cosmo Landesman once tartly pointed out, "It's as if men have grown weary of trying to work out What Women Want and are turning with relief to something smaller, simpler and more malleable. The common complaint of career-driven men is 'I wish I could spend more time with my children'. But when did you last hear one say 'I wish I could spend more time with my wife?'") Meanwhile, macho New Lad, whose one interest in babies was avoiding having any, has reeled off to the detox centre and left the centre-stage to newly-evolved Soft Lad, who doesn't want to drink and carouse but isn't sure quite what he wants to do instead. Though at least now he's ready to talk it through at length.

Richard Benson Editor of the Face, and proud coiner of the term "Soft Lad", whose ranks he claims to belong to. Defining SL characteristic: although well-disposed to his father, Benson is still unable to "talk" to him, even at the age of 31. Topics never discussed with dad: "our loves, our pain, our self-doubt". Soft Lad "finds the individualist aspiration of old Eighties man too shallow, and the you 'n' me sensitivities of Seventies New Man too deep. He is trying to retain a bit of boyishness while not remaining adolescent; he wants to be a real man without drawing on foolish, outdated archetypes." So: terminally confused about sex, work, money, etc, but fundamentally well-intentioned.

Mick Cooper Counselling lecturer and co-author of The MANual: The Complete Man's Guide to Life. Chapter 8 is entitled "Fathering: the nurturing man". "Men can be just as good parents as women; the only thing we can't do is breast-feed," he writes, with the encouraging further point that "even male rats - not normally among nature's best carers - develop nurturing instincts when confronted with newly-born rat pups".

Dave Hill Freelance writer of Guardian/Observer persuasion. Author of Predictions: Men. Things are not looking good for men, writes Hill. There is a crisis of male identity in the West. Men are mysterious creatures, proud, touchy, but ultimately nervous. "The external Bruce Springsteen may mask the Homer Simpson within." Men, he says, need to pull their fingers out. "Now men must do some of the work. They should begin at the beginning: with themselves and their sons."

Blake Morrison Poet and writer. Author of And When Did You Last See Your Father?, a memoir of his own dad. Fifties fathers, he observes, though they have a solid patriarchal image, are imperfect role models. Most recently, he wrote about his own sensual relationship with his little daughter, suggesting that the divide between "normal" and "perverted" behaviour is narrower than we think. Critics were simultaneously shocked and delighted by his frankness.

Jack O'Sullivan The Independent's own New Man; wrote movingly about attending the birth of his daughter, now aged one. Why, he asks, do men get such a bad press? Why aren't men's parenting experiences acknowledged? Why are there no magazines for dads? Has just started to redress the balance with new column on life with said daughter in the Independent. "I actually like being awake with our baby at night," he bravely kicks off. Hooray! When yours is asleep, come round and sit up with ours! write in a thousand sleepy readers.

David Thomas Author of Not Guilty, a defence of masculinity. Curious throw-back to previous era where men are men and women are amusing little things (recent sample: "Women are all mad. A tangled mess of inconsistencies, insecurities and irrationalities. Yes, madam, you too"). Writing about sex appeal, he waxes lyrical. "Girls with long legs who wear teeny bikinis, stockings and Wonderbras, skirts that are weeny, red lips and blue eyes and blonde hair that swings, these are a few of my favourite things". It is, he says, not his fault: it's all down to his gender. His wife is pregnant, hence he is expecting her brain to turn to porridge. The idea of him staggering up for the 2am feed is oddly satisfying.

Look who's talking: from top, Blake Morrison, Kate Figes and Melissa Benn

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