IN A controversial new book, author Susan Maushart dares to suggest what no woman has admitted before - that becoming a mother is not the blissful state modern women are led to believe. The Mask Of Motherhood argues that women today are less prepared for parenthood than their own mothers because they have invariably led financially and socially independent lives.
When they do have a baby, the combination of losing their freedom and the responsibility of looking after someone else comes as a shock.
'Our generation can boast that we know everything about having babies,' Susan writes. 'It's what happens afterwards that we find mysterious, inconceivable, even "unreal".' So is her book a truthful analysis of motherhood today? We asked three women, who have all become mothers in the past three years, to write an honest account of their own experiences as a first-time mum.
FREELANCE writer Frances Hubbard, 35, has two sons, Henry, two-and-a-half, and Toby, 14 months.
She lives with her journalist husband, Nick. She says: LIFE after children? Nostalgia may be bathing the past in candle glow, but I dimly recall a decent salary, regular sex and eating out in places without baked beans on the menu. Frothy little luxuries we once took as our due.
At the risk of sounding negative really, I'm just tired - I know more clearly what it did not involve: physical assault (Toby bites and Henry likes to frisbee saucepan lids into my shins); blackmail (switch on Postman Pat or I'll wail theatrically until the neighbours think I'm being birched); Dettox-scented hours at the doctor's surgery seeking cures for glue ear, sticky eye, eczema and assorted ailments.
I could go on, but I would be wasting my time. The childless, who would benefit from the warning, are already glazed with boredom.
Almost the last subject I wanted to know about before I had children was children. They were surprisingly easy to avoid. The voluntary apartheid that separates mothers from non-mothers kept me miles from duck ponds and Woolworths' video section.
By the time I came home from work, the legion of buggy-pushers who clog the streets during daylight hours had vanished inside to scrape Play-Doh from their sofas.
When I got pregnant I worked through a shelf of Miriam Stoppard, smug in my knowledge of Caesarean versus natural delivery, without having a clue about the reality of parenthood.
High on hormones and images of compliant cherubs playing at my feet, I hardly considered the slog of raising my baby, only the excitement of giving birth. That, it turns out, is the easy bit.
What no book conveys is the profound shock of being suddenly and wholly responsible for another life, a shock that turns new parents into bloodshot amnesiacs unable to recall their own names, but programmed with the exact times of Baby's last 500 feeds.
Children bring joy and promote anxiety. You marvel at their perfection, but worry that they are eating too little and sleeping too much.
Later, your pride in their unique talent for walking/talking/sitting on a pot is undermined by the superior progress of the speccy wunderkind two doors up.
Their vulnerability makes you vulnerable. You love them and want to protect them, but are afraid you won't always be equal to the job.
Not that raising children is recog-nised as proper work. Women, as much as men, downgrade its importance.
I write from home and no longer have a part-time nanny, which means a minuscule ratio of writing to nappy changing. Yet when people ask me what I do, I say 'journalist', because the alternative of 'mother' has a slightly apologetic ring.
That loss of status is a humbling (and probably healthy) blow to the ego.
I want to bring up our sons and I miss them violently when we are apart, but I also miss the independence and recognition of a full-time career.
Mothering, as opposed to doctoring or lawyering, is simply taken for granted, even though it is the toughest test most women ever face. It can provide a sense of purpose and fulfil-ment like nothing else. It can be wonderful, and it can be numbingly dull.
Small children are alternately delights and tyrants who demand instant gratification and stage thousand-decibel tantrums when they don't get it.
There is no escape. They follow you to the loo and then eat the soap if you are irresponsible enough to read a paper when you get there.
They have taught me patience, and made me care less what other people think. What matters to them is love and kindness - and my ability to sing Incey Wincey Spider in public without blushing.
They have given me biceps of steel and a lot more laughter lines. Would I have another one? Absolutely.
LISA SEWARDS, a 32-year-old journalist, is married with two children, Callum, two and Timon, five months. She says:
DURING my first pregnancy, I always wondered why there were never any parent education classes which dealt with life after the birth. Now I realise why: it's because no mother-to-be would believe, or even want to believe, the reality of having a baby.
When friends tried to give me advice about what it would be like, I laughed it off, thinking that naturally my baby would be different and that, somehow, I would be able to cope better than they had.
But the bottom line was that I found it impossible to visualise life after the birth even when I looked at the shiny new nursery equipment, the little nappies, and the tiny baby boots.
After a long and complicated birth I was elated with our gorgeous, chubby little baby, Callum, but it didn't take long before I had my first shock.
After long and tiring breast-feeds he wouldn't just let me put him down in his Moses basket to fall asleep. He would have to be rocked, jigged and walked around the room, consequently I'd still be in my dressing gown at lunchtime.
I hated the fact everything took so long to achieve, and by the time I had managed to race into the shower, get dressed and grab a late breakfast, it would be time to feed and change the baby all over again.
Things I took for granted, like just nipping out to the postbox to send an urgent letter, or buying a pint of milk, became an effort.
GETTING out of the house with the baby and a cumbersome pram was a major exercise.
I felt my baby was inextricably attached to me, and in the evenings, when we would sit down exhausted for dinner, my husband and I would take turns jigging Callum while one of us ate our meal.
I remember thinking then: 'What on earth have we done, and will we ever get our evenings back?' The next big shock came three months later, just before I threw a New Year's Eve dinner party. I looked ludicrously overweight when I squeezed myself into the dress I'd planned to wear. On the verge of tears, I went through my entire wardrobe with my friend and realised there was virtually nothing I could fit into.
I ended up wearing a dress with an outdated skirt line and felt frumpy for most of the evening.
Being a mother meant I'd had no time to pay attention to myself.
I'm not sure this gets any easier with time - every so often I have to remind myself to go clothes shopping or get a haircut, otherwise it's too easy to get swept away in a tide of domestic chores and worries.
Although starting a family is a joy shared with your partner, I found and still find - myself resenting the fact that it is always me, like most mothers, who walks around with a mental checklist of how many nappies are left in the drawer, the
mental checklist of how many nappies are left in the drawer, the date of the next vaccinations, new clothes to be bought, and so on.
When I finally went back to work I suffered a chronic lack of confidence.
I remember sitting at my desk, thinking: 'I can't do this any more; I can't remember how to write.' It also took me a year to bridge the gulf I felt had emerged between becoming a mother and regaining the pace of my old social life.
It took a while to get a trusted, regular babysitter - and at first it seemed hard to juggle getting home from work, putting the baby to bed, then going out to meet friends for dinner, rather than just going straight out from work.
But I have managed to lose the sense of guilt I had if I didn't get back to see the children before bedtime and I am now happy for our nanny to put them to bed - which means my life feels far less shackled to routine, and more like my life before motherhood.
Except the difference is that I now have two gorgeous children who give me a joy which transcends any shock or frustration.
LUCY HAWKING, a 28-year-old journalist, is married with one son, William, 18 months. She says:
ON MY way to my first antenatal class I got lost, which was probably not a good sign. When I finally found the right address, I burst through the door, shouting 'Sorry I'm late', only to find ten enormous pregnant women lying quietly on the floor, concentrating on their breathing.
Lumbering down to join them, I tried to calm my ragged breath to match their controlled sighs. With only four months to go until the birth, I was starting to realise I had some serious work to do to get ready for motherhood.
I dutifully reappeared each week to inhale and exhale, squat and stretch, working towards the promised happy and pain-free childbirth. At the end of each class, we listened with awe to the birthing tales of former class members.
Some came to visit, wielding small aliens in Babygros. Others sent telephone reports, confirming the usefulness of gentle music, aro-matherapy, and a good relationship with their midwives. No one, as I recall, said: 'It hurts like hell and all I wanted to do was take drugs.' What happened after the birth was an even greater mystery - in all the classes I went to, life with a baby was never mentioned.
'Childbirth,' writes Susan Maushart in her book, The Mask Of Motherhood, 'is one day, more or less, in a woman's life. Motherhood is forever.' Yet it is that one day that first-time mothers focus on, as though it were an aim in itself, rather than the beginning of a whole new chapter.
By the time I went into hospital I could have appeared on Mastermind with my special subject as the placenta. Yet strangely, I knew nothing about babies.
William was the most gorgeous, perfect thing I had ever seen, but I had no idea what to do with him other than to love him.
In the first few days and weeks the euphoria buoyed us along. It wasn't until it faded that it dawned on me I was going to have to get on with restoring some normality to my shattered life. It wasn't easy.
Now it seems obvious that there are some things we can do - trips to the park, visits to baby-friendly houses and holidays in Norfolk, and some things we can't - backpacking and staying out late. But then we had to work out everything by trial and error.
Then there was the shock of my changed body. To me, with my Winnie-the-Pooh style, post-Caesarean tummy and black under-eye smudges, other women looked glamorous and carefree. I assumed they were all having great lives, fantastic careers and cocktails.
However much we love our babies, there is no denying that the shift from free agent to domestic prisoner takes some adjusting to.
One moment, it seemed, I had spare cash, free time, nice clothes and lie-ins, the next I had become a sleep-deprived, wild-haired lunatic whose priorities had been reorganised into milk, nappies, milk, nappies, milk, nappies.
My social life revolved around coffee mornings where I met other mothers and we discussed baby rashes, poo and breast versus bottle feeding.
I felt let down by the lack of preparation for coping with a new baby. Yet it is hard to know how parents-to-be could understand what awaits them. All the reading, the classes, the advice from friends and other parents will pale beside the reality.
And I suspect the childless don't really believe the tales of parents anyway. They either think you're making it up, or feel they will do so much better when their time comes that your troubles will not be theirs.
Until they have children too, that is.
Suddenly, they understand.
* THE Mask Of Motherhood, by Susan Maushart, is available at [pounds sterling]7.99, plus P&P. To order a copy, send a cheque or credit card order to Rivers Oram/Pandora Press, 144 Hemingford Road, London N1 1DE.
You may also order by phone on 0171-609 2776.…