Playpen world. Jennie Bristow on the cult of mummy lit

Three Shoes, One Sock and No Hairbrush

Rebecca Abrams<em> Cassell, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0304354295

If the western fertility rate keeps plummeting, there will soon be more books written by parents than there will be children. But then, according to most of the "mummy lit", this year's thriving sub-genre, writing a book is easy; having children, by contrast, is the most torturous, traumatic thing you could ever do. Call me naive, but I don't believe it - apparently, being a childless twenty-something makes me unqualified to say anything about children at all. And if I believed that parenthood was as horrid and hard as Rebecca Abrams, Rachel Cusk, Kate Figes, Helen Simpson and Naomi Wolf make it seem, I would never have kids, for sure.

Buried beneath all the burble about labour, sleep deprivation and the horrors of housework is the recognition that the parenting discussion relates to how we see ourselves: as individuals, as women and as adults. In a society where children increasingly seem to feature more as symbol than as reality, fascination with the parenting problem unites parents, parents-to-be, and never-to-be parents.

In Three Shoes, One Sock and No Hairbrush: everything you need to know about having your second child (Cassell), Rebecca Abrams has a promising chapter titled "All About Us" - which turns out to be a litany of complaint about the mundane tasks of mothering, with the much-repeated assertion that a lack of sleep makes your IQ drop. In Life After Birth (Penguin), Kate Figes got closer, arguing that "a woman's identity and image transforms overnight from a young carefree individual to a responsible grown-up". Frank Furedi, in Paranoid Parenting: abandon your anxieties and be a good parent (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press), is more direct: "Public concerns expressed about parenting are grounded in the confusions that adults have about their lives."

So why, now that we have the choice, thanks to contraception and abortion, are so many of us increasingly choosing not to have kids at all, or at least putting it off until the final hour, until that promotion, that salary rise, until our peers get round to it and, eventually, until we can reasonably cite biological clocks as an excuse? To me, this trend seems only too understandable. Young women at last have equal opportunities in education and work. We earn money, buy flats, kick ass, go out a lot. It can seem somehow disloyal - if not downright stupid - to give that up for the sake of a money-and-energy-guzzling infant who will give us nothing but love.

Today's twenty- and thirtysomethings, it seems, are an infantilised, insecure bunch, apprehensive about the future and terrified of growing up. Perhaps that's why we can't cope with the kids question: whether to have them or not. We are scared of making the degree of commitment that having children demands. In every other area of life - work, relationships, gym membership - we can escape from what we don't like. We comfort ourselves with the fantasy that, when the going gets tough, we can bugger off; and we terrify ourselves with the equally fantastical notion that, once you've had kids, you no longer have any choices, and you never achieve anything else, ever.

For this, I blame a society that exalts youth and play, which presents the ideal twenty- and thirtysomething life as one long gap year of travelling and portfolio careers, and which is so obsessed with keeping the few children it still produces healthy, happy and clever that parenting is more pressured than it has ever been. In this commitment-phobic, playpen world, it's not surprising that people choose childlessness. Nor is it a shock that they write angst-ridden, self-indulgent books on motherhood. Even parents find a grown-up identity hard to accept - so they cast about the bookshops for sympathy and look to the government for support, and hope their kids will forgive them when they are old enough to read.

Most of the "mummy lit" now being reproduced everywhere is self-help for the author, dressed up as advice for everybody else. Figes's Life After Birth at least had some interviews and history in it - but, in setting out to break the "taboo" of new motherhood, it spawned a monster. Abrams, an accomplished literary critic, uses personal experience, advice guides and quotes from Figes to conclude that, well, two children are more work than one. For Misconceptions: truth, lies and the unexpected on the journey to motherhood (Chatto & Windus), Wolf has done her research, but ultimately she is struggling to come to terms with the realisation that "what I had wanted, when I gave birth, I did not find". Rachel Cusk, the author of A Life's Work: on becoming a mother (Fourth Estate), should have stuck to fiction. On the other hand, Helen Simpson's wry short stories in Hey, Yeah, Right, Get a Life (Vintage) are as misery-making as the memoir moans.

Maureen Freely, in The Parent Trap: children, families and the new morality (Virago), and Furedi, in Paranoid Parenting, go beyond the daily grot to look at the wider discussion and public policy. Unfortunately, Freely falls headlong into the parenting trap herself, by arguing for more government intervention in family life because parents can't cope. Only Furedi is more hopeful about parents' ability to parent, and more critical of bossy officials telling them what to do. Some might say that it's because he's a father, not a mother. I suspect it's because he's a sociologist, rather than an ex-feminist who feels bad about her inability to make fairy cakes. Whatever. I'm sticking to chick lit, before I develop prenatal depression.

Jennie Bristow is commissioning editor of Spiked (www.spiked-online.com)