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Love It Or Hate It, Pregnancy 'Bible' Has A Lot To Say

Some women in pregnancy crave all the information provided in <em>What to Expect When You're Expecting, </em>but for others, it's information overload.
Some women in pregnancy crave all the information provided in What to Expect When You're Expecting, but for others, it's information overload.

Since it was first published in 1984, What to Expect When You're Expecting has changed the way millions of women have experienced pregnancy.

With advice on everything from indigestion to postpartum depression, it's a detailed guide to virtually every moment of pregnancy — some say perhaps too detailed.

Dawn Baker didn't get the book at her baby shower last month, and she wasn't disappointed.

"I've actually been told that it's not a go-to resource anymore for modern-day women," Baker says.

'Is It Normal?'

Young women these days may not need a book to get answers to their questions about pregnancy. After all, they have the Internet for that. Even so, the latest edition of What to Expect still sits at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, and it's been there for more than 500 weeks.

"I think one of the smartest things I've ever said was 'This is a really good proposal. I think we should do this book,' " says Suzanne Rafer of Workman Publishing. Rafer has been editor of What to Expect since the very beginning.

"The proposal just was smartly written — the idea of taking a woman through a pregnancy one month at time," Rafer says.

The woman who wrote that proposal was Heidi Murkoff. Two hours after dropping it off at the publishers, she went into labor with her first child. She says she had no idea what to expect when she first got pregnant and so went searching for answers to her own questions.

"There might have been five books on the market back then," she says, "and I found that they didn't answer my questions. They didn't offer me the reassurance that I was craving."

Before writing the book, Murkoff circulated questionnaires in doctors' offices to find out what pregnant women were worrying about.

"The theme is always 'Is it normal?' And it might be: Is it normal for my palms to turn red? Is it normal that my mouth tastes like I've been sucking on a penny? You know, it's that metallic mouth. But then again, is it normal that I haven't felt the baby kick yet? Is it normal that I felt the baby kick last week but not this week? And the list goes on and on," Murkoff says.

Some women in pregnancy crave all that information. For others, it may be a case of too much, too soon.

Worst Case Scenarios

At Circle Yoga in Washington, D.C., a group of new moms gather for a yoga class with their infants in tow. Young mothers like this are the target audience for What to Expect, so it wasn't hard to find several who had consulted the book during their pregnancies. Ariadne Stanciole had just moved to this country when she became pregnant with her now 6-month-old daughter, Sabine.

"I had no friends, no one, no family, so I said, 'I will buy this book.' I saw in so many movies — must be the bible of the United States. So that's how I bought it," Stanciole says.

Stanciole says she used the book as an encyclopedia and a dictionary for English terms she didn't understand. But Angie Hoffman, mother of 8-week-old Dean, says she couldn't finish it.

"It scared me to death, and I said, 'All these awful things are going to happen to me? I can't read it any further.' So I put it down until my nine-week appointment, and then I picked it up again and I was like, 'I have to put this down again — it's scaring me again.' " Hoffman says.

Hoffman says she was put off by the worst-case scenarios in the book. But Melissa Saura, who is due in a couple of weeks, says she found the book helpful as long as she took it in small doses.

"I didn't want to know too much because I didn't want to scare myself. So with the first month I read the first month and with the second month I read the second month. I've been doing that all along. I didn't want to read too much further ahead," Saura says.

Jill Keane, mother of 4-month-old Siobhan, says reading the book all at once is a mistake.

"I had a friend who warned me: 'Do not read the book from cover to cover as if it were a novel. Otherwise, you will be looking for certain things to happen to yourself. And really, do not miss your own experience,' " Keane says.

Over the years, Heidi Murkoff says she has responded to readers' concerns, making changes in diet recommendations that people found too strict, for example, or moving detailed information about serious complications to the back of the book. But, Murkoff argues, there really is no such thing as too much information when it comes to pregnancy. She says there's TMM — too much misinformation — as well as conflicting information and confusing information.

"The important thing is to get the correct information," she says.

And of course for all those modern young women used to getting their information on the Internet, the book now has its very own Web site.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.