Uneasy Reading: Books About Parenting Fall Flat


By Marjorie Ingall

Published September 24, 2004, issue of September 24, 2004.
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Newly expecting friends often ask me what pregnancy book they should buy. My answer always has been “none.” Because they are all vile. I suggest my friends sign up for weekly e-mails from babycenter.com instead, and search that superb site for answers to any questions that may come up. As for books, well, chas v’chalila, and behold, a catalog of vileness:

“What to Expect When You’re Expecting” (or as my friend Diane calls it, “What To Worry About When You’re Expecting”) by Heidi Murkoff, et al. (Workman, 2002). Editorial attitude: “For God’s sake, put down that piece of cake! With every mouthful you are depriving your baby of vital nutrients he needs to be strong and smart! How can you live with yourself?! Go have some broccoli and swim laps before you do any more damage, you selfish cake-whore!” This classic has been updated since it was first published in 1984, but it still features the attitude that your doctor always knows what’s best; you’d better monitor every morsel of food that goes into your mouth, and since a gazillion things can go wrong in any given pregnancy, you’d better thrum with anxiety about everything.

“The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy” by Vicki Iovine (Pocket, 1995). Editorial attitude: “Stop worrying! You really are fat, and your husband does not find you attractive, so take this opportunity to ‘let yourself go!’ You can get back to the gym after the baby is born, and indeed, you’d better, because that free pass to look disgusting doesn’t last forever and you don’t want your husband to leave you! Oh, and childbirth is horrible, so why wouldn’t you want to be unconscious for it? And hey, make sure your husband gives you jewelry afterward!” (Please note: I am barely exaggerating.)

“The Hip Mama Survival Guide” by Ariel Gore (Hyperion, 1998). Editorial attitude: “You can so totally nurse with pierced nipples! Fight The Man! Breastfeed on the bus! Here’s how not to get your phone service turned off for nonpayment! You rawwwwk!”

And then there are the books about infancy:

“The Baby Book” by William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N. (Little Brown & Co, 1993). Editorial attitude: “Please attach your baby to your body with Krazy Glue. Also, when the baby cries or nurses all night long, try not to resent it. Because soon your baby will be in college, and you’ll forget that you haven’t slept in 17 years.”

“Caring for Your Baby and Young Child” by The American Academy of Pediatrics, edited by Steven P. Shelov, M.D., FAAP, et al. (Bantam, 1993): Editorial attitude: “Nwah nwah nwah nwah nwah.” (That’s my impersonation of the droning adult voices in Charlie Brown cartoons.)

Okay, I actually think that the latter two books complement each other pretty well. The former is deeply hippie and “child centered” and touchy-feely; the latter is sober and more “parent centered” and informative and easily searched, and dull as the tines of a baby-food fork. Together they make a pretty good book. (Even though I mock the judgmentally crunchy, doctrinaire, faux-folksy tone of the Sears duo, I actually do believe in most of the tenets they espouse. But I don’t think one parenting philosophy works for everyone.)

Still, I can’t recommend any of the pregnancy books. I do have high hopes for a new one, due out next summer — a holistic pregnancy guidebook co-written by a talented editor friend of mine, Robin Aronson. Robin is the former editor-in-chief of Parents.com, and her co-author, Dr. Joel Evans, is the founder and director of the Center for Women’s Health in Darien, Conn. The book, to be published by Gotham Books (a Penguin Putnam imprint), will cover both conventional and alternative (aka “complementary”) prenatal care. Most importantly, it will offer tons of anecdotes from women (including me) about their own pregnancies. That’s what all the other books lack: diversity of opinions and experiences. Every pregnancy is different; a variety of choices and emotions are valid; women should trust their own voices and bodies.

Two new, explicitly Jewish books are also trying to fill the gap in multivoiced, dialogic, nonauthoritarian, non-paranoia-inducing pregnancy lit. “Expecting Miracles” by Chana Weisberg (Urim Publications) is a collection of interviews with 24 ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Israeli women about their spiritual experiences during pregnancy. There also are two interviews with Orthodox midwives; several interviews with rabbaniot, or women Torah teachers, and an extremely long, dense, almost incomprehensible Kabbalistic birth meditation.

I love the notion of a collection of real women’s stories and insights, and the book is an interesting anthropological look at a particular subculture. But there’s no synthesis, no analysis. (For instance, some interviewees strongly believe that pain medication is a no-no in childbirth, because of God’s words to Eve in Genesis 3:16: “in sorrow shall you bring forth children.” Other women accept epidurals and other pain management tools willingly. Weisberg doesn’t dwell on their reasoning or differences or on how much community support the different women found.) It’s also hard to make an unmediated collection of interviews compelling. (Even the master of the literary oral history, Studs Turkel, doesn’t always succeed.) The voices blur together; speech patterns are similar; one forgets the individual women as soon as one has turned the page. And someone without much Jewish background would be lost; the short glossary fails to define many Hebrew terms used. As a cultural document, this book would be a nice addition to a collection that included “Spiritual Midwifery,” Ina May Gaskin’s fascinating account of birthing babies on a Tennessee commune founded in the ’70s.

But I think every Jewish woman should have a copy of the recent publication “The Jewish Pregnancy Book” (Jewish Lights), written by married couple Sandy Falk, M.D., and Rabbi Daniel Judson. The general medical information about pregnancy in the book is actually too minimalist to be useful (the authors acknowledge this problem); the book’s real strength lies in its sprawl. There’s a discussion of Jewish perspectives on medical ethical dilemmas, such as prenatal testing and selective termination. There are prayers and kavannot (intentions) for each stage of pregnancy, ranging from an 18th-century Italian prayer to be said every day of the pregnancy to a traditional prayer from the morning service to, say, when you first feel the baby move to a modern prayer/poem to recite before an ultrasound.

(There’s also a chapter by Steven A. Rapp, the creator of the alef-bet yoga, a meditative practice that associates traditional yoga poses with the Hebrew letters those poses resemble. Rapp adapts the poses for pregnancy and offers sequences for each trimester. If it all sounds too woo-woo, no worries — this chapter’s easily skipped.)

I enjoyed Rapp’s chapter, as well as the book’s other quirky elements, such as the list of some of the Talmud’s suggested causes for a miscarriage (a very strong wind, or the fact that the woman walked on fingernail clippings that had been cast in the street). And there are gorgeous essays and prayers by women about their own experiences; my favorite was an essay about visiting the mikvah while nine months pregnant. The authors take care to offer many points of view: Ashkenazic and Sephardic, historical and contemporary, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. The book is simply fun to read, and won’t increase a clueless mom-to-be’s anxiety levels. And in a literary genre that sets the bar pretty low, that’s more than enough.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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