Martha Gellhorn — journalist extraordinaire, tough war correspondent, lover of Ernest Hemingway — didn't spend much time at home. When her son complained that she was never around to greet him after school with fresh-baked biscuits like all the other moms, she said: "Tough, son. That's the way it is."


But for every Martha, there are hundreds of thousands of Marys. Let's face it, the Madonna has a lot to answer for. She may not be the icon of choice for 21st century equality seekers, but as a mother she's a tough act to follow. Pure, unsullied, devoted, sacrificing — it's still the ideal we're lumbered with the minute that pregnancy test reads positive. And when we don't live up to it, the punishments can be, well, crucifying.

You don't have to be a Catholic to recognise that all the dominant images of motherhood have their roots in religion. Even free-thinking Marthas are weighed down by all those centuries of Mary. So how does the humanist mother go about producing reasonably well-balanced, well-educated, moral human beings, protected from irrelevant and oppressive myths?

Anyone who was brought up in a religious household will be troubled by this question. We recognise the value of belonging to a culture: the age-old rituals, the candles, the specialness. Of course you can always borrow the trappings from more devout family and friends, without the accompanying faith requirements. But that rather defeats the point. Because what is missing is certainty.

That's the danger of humanism. Certainty is replaced by doubt. Absolute authority gives way to anything goes. And this is where the unease comes in. Children brought up in devout families tend to be better disciplined, nicer to their parents, more hard-working, ambitious and successful. There is a sneaking suspicion lurking deep in the soul of even the most ardent atheist that once you relax that iron authority, you've started to lose the parenting game. Our children no longer have to honour their father and their mother. Now it's okay to question us and from there it's a slippery road to despising, scorning, using the place as a hotel and eventually writing Mommie Dearest about us or selling their story to the Sun.

It's a bit like the royal family letting in commoners. The mystique disappears and suddenly the whole fabric of autocratic domination disintegrates. In believing families, the rules are the rules, reinforced by endless holy days, extra Islam or Hebrew classes or Sunday school. You're much more likely to work hard and do what you're told if your moral viewpoint is framed by the burning agonies of evil-doers wrought by the wrath of bearded old men.

One solution for the humanist mother is to do nothing at all, thereby liberating her children from outmoded notions of the parent as authority figure. I've got friends who are so hopelessly hippy in their lifestyle that their children in despair have turned the other cheek and become the grown-ups. One is working as a human rights lawyer in the Middle East. Another is running a think tank. They plan to be extremely strict with their children should they be foolish enough to have them.

So benign neglect can be a very good policy if it works. It means you can be lazy and hope for the best. Sadly, it doesn't always work and your children may well join the Salvation Army or the Tory Party just to spite you. They are quite likely to see right through you and your feckless ways, like Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous withering Edina and Patsy with her magnificently polished disdain.

Another ruse is to be less a mother and more a friend. This, too, has its limitations. Motherhood does not really allow for equality. Your job is to relinquish your attractiveness, your sexuality and your allure, to pass on the candle to the next lot. You'd better go with this or you could end up eternally waiting for the mirror to declare you are the most beautiful of all. Listen — the mirror lies. How can you be supportive, nurturing and loving if you are competing with your own children? They may not thank you for offering them a fun companion when what they really need is a mother.

A modern version of the mum as friend is the even more dangerous mum as business partner. Think Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt in Heartbreakers — the sexy mum and daughter duo exploiting pint-sized men with gross-sized fortunes. The danger here is co-dependence — the mother descending into neediness which in turn prevents the child from developing at all. The successful mother, remember, is the mother who knows when to let go. That shared dotcom enterprise is often just another way of never really moving out. And it can be unhealthy in so many ways.

Shudder, for example, at the memory of the Kaplins — one a superannuated lapdancer, the other a self-styled spiritual guru pontificating from her pyramid. Is this what you want? Really?

It's what the ultimate juggling mother, Cherie Blair, thought she wanted. As if the Catholic stuff wasn't enough, she turned to their cocktail of crystals, spiritual healing and, no doubt, a touch of astrology to help her negotiate her inner Martha and Mary. But she made a big mistake when, at the height of Cheriegate, she sobbed: "I'm no superwoman."

Wrong, Cherie. Wrong. Superwoman is exactly what a mother should be, with or without religion. But if you want to instil some values into your children without God and without making yourself ridiculous what you have to do is follow your instincts. Allow yourself to be adored. Be the mother from hell. Be the all-knowing, absolute font of authority and wisdom. Hey — you don't need God. You can be God. How? Just become a Jewish mother. That's how.

Let's not forget that Mary herself was a Jewish mother — in fact, she was the Jewish mother incarnate. She believed her baby was a golden prince, more perfect than any other baby ever and the son of god already. He even had an ology: the ology. The Madonna was the original model for Sophie Tucker's Yiddishe Momma: teacher, protector, worshipper . . and nourisher.

You don't need to be Jewish to be a Jewish mother. Just follow these few simple rules of engagement. Let's begin with the food. Wicked stepmothers starve their children. Real mothers nurture and feed. You must supply chicken soup on tap and strudel by the ton. Don't worry if you're a lousy cook, or if that secret gefilte fish recipe comes courtesy of Marks and Spencer. What matters is the portions. Pile on helpings as large as Australia. That way they'll never need to go to Australia. Practise phrases like, "I made it for you specially," and, "just a little more won't hurt." Offer two desserts. Whichever they choose, immediately snap: "You didn't like the other one?"

Next — fear. Be inspired by the most formidable mother in the whole of literature, Sophie Portnoy. "She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." Did she do it with God? I don't think so. She used terror. Her definition of an acorn? "A pellet you should never shoot at anyone. Not even in jest." Gourmet cuisine? "There are plenty of good things to eat in the world, Alex, without eating a thing like a lobster and running the risk of having paralyzed hands for the rest of your life." So your kids might grow up a little cautious but, hey, is that so bad?

I used to think that the good humanist mother should avoid causing guilt in her children. Now I realise it just depends on the kind of guilt. Instead of giving them grief about eating ham or forgetting to do the rosary, encourage your children to feel guilty about you. When did they last phone? Have they practised piano? Are they living up to your magnificently grandiose expectations?

Your daughter gets 90 percent on her maths test. Your response? "So what happened to the other ten?" Your actor son phones excitedly to tell you he's got the part he just auditioned for. He's going to play the husband. Don't gush, just shrug: "You couldn't get a speaking part?"

Let them feel guilty about the right things, like letting you down. Otherwise how can you sport the other side of motherhood — pride? "Help, help — my son the doctor is drowning." What mother doesn't deep down long to be in a position to scream out her children's professional achievements to a jealous world?

There's nothing wrong with being ambitious for your children. If you want them to be successful, driven, marginally neurotic but ultimately satisfied then make them adore you. Be the centre of their universe. Don't use God. Replace him.

And if you think I'm advocating an unhealthy dependency here don't worry. Remember the wise words of Jewish mothers everywhere. "Oedipus, shmoedipus — who cares, so long as he loves his mother."