The first thing I did when I learned I was pregnant was find myself a copy of "What To Expect When You're Expecting."According to the book's publisher, that makes me like 90 percent of pregnant women in the country.
Soon I was a nervous wreck. According to my very informal polling, that makes me like a hefty percentage of readers of the book.
Instead of reassurance that healthy eating would mean a healthy child, "What To Expect" gave me a plan called "The Best Odds Diet" which required a spreadsheet to track daily servings of protein, fat and carbs. I quickly gave up, ate what I considered reasonably healthy food, and spent a lot of time feeling inadequate and guilty.
Instead of a practical primer of ways to keep my baby safe, there was much talk of something called "Teratogens," a word I have never heard before nor ever used since, but described all the ways I hadn't thought of to cause "defects or malformations."
Which is why an interview with the book's author, Heidi Murkoff in the LA Times recently caught my eye. With "What To Expect" the movie about to expand the WTE media empire, reporter Eric Estrin asked Murkoff, "Have you ever given anybody bad advice?"
"I don't think so," she answered. "Well, not that I know of. Why did you just say that to me? Now I'm not gonna sleep tonight."
This can't be the first time Murkoff has faced the question of whether her advice, if not necessarily "bad," is, at least, controversial. When I mentioned on my Facebook page that I'd be writing about WTE, women chimed in to tell me about how they threw their own copies away (or, in one case, across the room) in frustration. It's written in "an insensitive and unnecessarily alarmist style," said Seema Kalia. "It made you feel like every possibility of a bad outcome was a significant possibility."
And then there was Tara Kennedy-Kline, who told me by email of how her 1991 edition still falls open to page 110, where a description of cramping and spotting in early months led her to three days of panicked crying before she could be seen by her doctor, during which she was sure she was losing the pregnancy. She wasn't.
"Unfortunately for my OB, my Mom, my husband and every random stranger I meet for the next 7 months, I had already developed 'What To Expect When You're Expecting Syndrome' so I obsessed and worried about every food, chemical, illness or feeling that had anything to do with me and ruining my unborn baby.
According to the nine principles of healthy eating, every bite I put in my mouth was impacting my child ... and if I missed a single meal. EVEN ONE! My baby would starve to death! And who knew that I needed to look out for something called a Teratogen? When the chapter is titled "Playing Baby Roulette" what is an already edgy prego supposed to think?"
Kennedy-Kline is now a parenting coach, and the author of "Stop Raising Einstein: Discover the Unique Brilliance in Your Child." We spent some time on the phone last week reminiscing about our "What To Expect" freak-outs, and then we compared her older edition to the newest one. I knew the book had changed, and as we charted the parts that had been added, removed and revised, Murkoff"s protestations to the LA Times sounded more disingenuous. The book had been altered by someone who had clearly heard the criticisms that it was unnecessarily alarming.
Where earlier editions had a section in each chapter titled "What You Might Be Concerned About This Month," the latest edition now reads "What You May Be Wondering About..." The entire chapter on Teratogens is gone, and the word doesn't even appear in the index. "The Best Odds Diet" chapter has been replaced with "Nine Months of Eating Well," and the actual recipes have been moved to an entirely separate book. Everywhere words have been softened, made conditional, defanged. (There's also a far more chic pregnant woman on the cover.)
And the result? Flipping through still makes me anxious. I know Murkoff is aiming for "reassuring" -- like the good-luck pregnant-belly-pats she is said to give out in person -- but even with all the new caveats, the message is still that there is a right way and a wrong way to be pregnant, and Lord help the mother who does it all wrong.
With 40 million copies in print in 30 countries, that message has consequences.
"The original parenting paranoia feed," Kalia calls it, and I would argue it is not coincidence that it was first published in 1984, at the start of a wave of overprotective parenting.
"I guess after you've successfully saved your child from all the land mines that should have destroyed them before they were born ... how can a parent be expected to relax once that child is out in the big crazy world?" Kennedy-Kline asks.
"And for that," she adds, "we have 'What To Expect The First Year' -- a manual for helicopter parents."