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

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

Illustration by Derf Backderf.

If you ask a pregnant woman about pregnancy books, she will generally respond with some hand-waving variation of: “Oh, I don’t read the books. They just make you crazy!” But contrary to our carefully cultivated pregnancy personas, expectant moms devour pregnancy advice. Late into the night. Down into the wormhole. And, with more than 17 million copies in print worldwide, plus untold millions being passed between sisters and friends, What To Expect When You’re Expecting is still the mother of them all.

The origin story goes that, in 1984, expectant mom and advertising copywriter Heidi Murkoff, feeling let down and freaked out by the pregnancy books on the market, decided to write her own. Extreme nesting, perhaps, but the difference between her plan and your notion to knit your child’s entire home-from-the-hospital outfit is that she actually followed through. “Determined to write a guide that would help other expectant parents sleep better at night,” per her bio, Murkoff delivered her book proposal just hours before delivering her first child, Emma. What? Yes. She wrote the proposal for the book all about pregnancy while pregnant with her first child. Three decades, four editions, countless spinoffs, and a notable uptick in Emmas later, 93 percent of American women who read a pregnancy guide read What To Expect, according to its publisher’s website.

The first time I was one of those women, I had two books on my bedside table, each reflecting my potential pregnancy personality: Midwifery guru Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, with stories of 72-hour natural homebirths and testaments to the benefit of deep kissing in labor, in case I turned out to be that person; and What To Expect When You’re Expecting, in case I turned out to be myself. Reading Murkoff’s advice back then—it didn’t really frighten me. It consumed me, as did the pregnancy. When you are in it, you are really in it. And when you are really in it, you are in denial about what is actually going on. (Pro tip: The baby is not only going to come out, it’s going to stay out.) So you sign up for an eight-week childbirth class, think about switching to decaf, feel guilty that you didn’t switch to decaf, watch that Ricki Lake movie, develop philosophies about mom things, make your husband watch that Ricki Lake movie, quietly judge your friends’ philosophies about mom things, buy a 20-class pass for prenatal yoga, go to yoga twice, and read (and re-read) a book that purports to tell you “what to expect” – all in order to focus your crazy-person energy on … something. But now that I’ve had the baby, and another one after that, the book that seemed perfectly normal, even essential, just four years ago, feels harsh, punitive, almost like parody today.

Take Chapter 2, “Now That You’re Pregnant,” the first real chapter of the book after the introductory throat-clearing. It begins with a list of upbeat and celebratory questions, designed to highlight the miracle of that tiny person in your belly. “My husband is over 50. Does advanced paternal age pose risks to the baby?” Oh. “How about chronic medical problems or family genetic problems?” Um. “I had a perfect first baby. Now that I’m pregnant again, I can’t shake the fear that I won’t be so lucky this time.” Mazel tov!

As a newly pregnant woman who has likely not even seen her doctor yet, the most important thing to remember at this point is: Don’t panic! This is merely the first section of the only book that your mother ever passed down to you. There are so many more pages. Plus, panicking puts your fetus at risk. Also putting your fetus at risk and mentioned in the first few pages are previous abortions, Rh incompatibility, Provera, spermicides, chlamydia, living at a high altitude, and herpes. None of these apply to you? Then relax and read this real short paragraph on “Fear of AIDS.”

Despite some controversy in the past over the book’s strict nutritional guidelines—since edited to be less stringent but still including enough calorie counts and references to “efficiency eating” to make any self-hating woman with body dysmorphia feel right at home—no “bump” in the road has been able to derail the “expanding,” some might say “bloated,” publishing juggernaut. The first edition of What To Expect came in at 351 pages. Today, even as the suggested weight gain for pregnant woman continues to shrink, What To Expect just keeps on growing. Now 616 pages in its fourth edition, the so-called pregnancy bible keeps finding new ways to capitalize on the perfectly reasonable Level 10 neurosis that comes with being a pregnant person—specifically, by scaring the shit out of us.

No longer just a book, “What To Expect” is a full-fledged cottage industry, with a series of offshoot guides, from What To Expect: The First Year and What To Expect: The Toddler Years to the head-scratching What To Expect Before You’re Expecting. (Just, like, in general.) There are also “What To Expect” picture books for children, including What To Expect at Preschool and the must-read What To Expect When You Use the Potty. (I won’t give it away.) And in May, Lionsgate will release a movie “based on” the book, which, though many have noted has no real plot, is actually filled with box office catnip: high-stakes drama, painful complications, body horror, vaginas.

Speaking of vaginas—keep yours away from cellphones, sugar substitutes, the family cat, microwaves, tap water, city air, excessive noise, and cocaine. (Chapter 3: “Throughout Your Pregnancy.”)

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.)

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 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.