17,000,000 Weeping Pregnant Women Can’t Be Wrong

Reading between the lines.
March 3 2012 12:26 AM

17,000,000 Weeping Pregnant Women Can’t Be Wrong

The mean-girl advice of What To Expect When You’re Expecting.

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In Murkoff's quest to, as per her prologue, "help fathers- and mothers-to-be worry less and enjoy their pregnancies more," she's dedicated about one-half to two-thirds of each chapter to the soothing rubric, "What You May Be Concerned About." This is the backbone of the book, with real and imagined worries addressed in a rather stiff Q&A format, intended, I would imagine, to create a sense of intimacy between advice seeker and giver. The actual result is to alert you to worries you’d never otherwise have thought to have.

The questions are incessantly negative, in the voice of an unbearably whiny caricature of a pregnant woman. The answers are deceptively milquetoast in their language, but almost always include some sort of mean-girl slight, slowly chipping away at your instincts and confidence.

Q: I hardly recognize my breasts anymore—they're so huge! Will they stay that way, and will they sag after I give birth?

A: Get used to the chesty look now; although it may not always be in fashion, it's one of the hallmarks of pregnancy.

The just-us-girls approach can at times be comforting (Did I ever tell you about the time my mucous plug came out?) or gross (Did I ever tell you about the time my mucous plug came out?), but most often it’s passive-aggressively terrifying. (Oh, your mucous plug hasn't come out yet? Huh. I'm sure it will. But for a tiny fraction of women, a dysfunctional mucous plug latch means you have three days to live. Consult your physician.)

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Women have been getting pregnant since, well, the beginning, and pretty much every pregnant woman is right away like, Help distract me from my future life!, ergo pregnant women have always sought outside advice. And much of it hasn't been so hot. In her excellent history of childbirth Get Me Out, doctor and journalist Randi Hutter Epstein writes that, in France, "pregnant women rarely left the house after dark because they were told that if they looked at the moon, the baby would become a lunatic or sleepwalker." A popular early pregnancy book written by monks (!) wisely advised women that, as Epstein recounts, "if a cat ejaculated on sage and then a man ate the sperm-tainted herb, he would grow a cat in his stomach and vomit it out." I use that example here only because it is awesome. But the point is: Fear-mongering advice books by non-medical professionals are nothing new.

I asked Epstein why What To Expect, while failing entirely at its purported goal, has been such a success in an already flooded marketplace. In the 1960s and '70s, Epstein pointed out, Lamaze was all the rage, as expectant moms focused on relaxing, meditating, and breathing through the pain of childbirth. Then came the go-go '80s, and along with it the diet and exercise craze and the rise of the epidural. Why breathe through the pain when you can smother it? It was the perfect moment to market a pregnancy preparedness book for the professional woman, the perfectionist ready to tackle fetal health. It's boot camp for your bump. (Though natural childbirth has made a comeback in certain socio-economic circles, it feels more about winning the pain contest, turning down the epidural to gain a leg up in the mommy wars. And I speak from experience, you weak-kneed loser.)

Now, nearly 30 years after the What To Expect approach to pregnancy was born, a thousand parenting sites and mommy blogs have bloomed. You cannot be pregnant in America without getting an email one day from BabyCenter or Babble or Parents.com with the simple and cruel subject line, "Will Your Baby Be Normal?" What To Expect is, then, finally, a self-fulfilling prophesy, because what to expect as an expectant mother today is to be bombarded with information about how you are doing it wrong—whether it is carrying a baby in your womb, pushing it out, or raising it.

And no matter how laid back you are—or want to be—it is impossible not to take that information, process it, and spit it back out into the world to the class of pregnant mothers coming up behind you. There are dangers lurking everywhere, and though Murkoff's book will not calm your nerves, rein in your insanity, or really mirror your pregnancy experience at all, it will prepare you for the judgmental assholes you are about to encounter, and the one you are about to become.

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.

Allison Benedikt is a Slate senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.