To combat the avalanche of change that a first-time pregnancy brings, I thought I’d read a bunch of books to regain some sort of control over my life. How else would I know how to decipher a Braxton-Hicks contraction from the real thing? (Answer: I still don’t; it’s not that easy to tell.)
While I learned a lot of important facts from all my reading, the maddening tone was a definite turn-off: much of the literature I encountered either infantilized or cosseted pregnant readers, belittled our assuredly doofy husbands or evangelized its preferred birth ideology while knocking down the competitors.
If you’re an expectant mom looking for a pregnancy guide and you ask your own mother for suggestions, chances are she will probably trot out What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Most women over 50 would. After all, it’s the best-selling book in its class, with more than 18 million copies in print and a flock of other editions including an updated What To Expect The First Year, which publishes October 7th. It’s also the only pregnancy book most non-pregnant people can even name and the only one to have a star-studded movie made in its honor.
Still, after delving into anecdotal research, it feels like this so-called pregnancy bible is waning in popularity with the Internet generation. Trade paperback sales of the title declined from 2009 to 2012 by about 240,000 copies according to Publishers Weekly and most women under 50 with whom I spoke, including a doula and a medical provider, basically told me to skip the book. A perusal of recent Amazon reviews wasn’t all too favorable either: some described the book as “scary” and “condescending” and that it made them feel “paranoid” and “upset” to the point of putting it down. While I didn’t get that vibe, I was pretty surprised that one of the most thorough and sequential manuals on the market lacks references to studies and sources for many of its bold assertions.
Three of my recently pregnant friends confirmed my suspicions, ditching What To Expect for a variety of reasons. Ashley Lott heard it was “judgey,” Corynne Cirilli “too cutesy” and Kyra Miller said, “Ugh, hated it. There was so much about what can go horribly wrong and it was not nice to read while pregnant.” Instead, Lott and Cirilli picked up The Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, the second most popular pregnancy book on Amazon.com, for it’s direct approach and pedigree.
And I don’t blame them. What struck me when reading over all these manuals was how many speak to women as if we don’t read books. Birth Happy: The Savvy Woman’s Approach To a Satisfying Birth; Pregnancy Without Weight: Humorous yet Informative Survival Guide for Staying in Your Skinny Jeans; The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy and others with girlie animated covers tend to address readers in a cloying, even infantilizing tone. If a “SAVVY woman,” ranges from “can’t find matching shoes in their closets” to “has Life Goals outlined on spread sheets,” I guess I’m not one. Advice in Savvy includes “rest, relax and try not to puke.” After navigating so many all-cap words and exclamation points, that’s the exact reflex I felt.
Still, ideological reads can be as disturbing as pandering ones. What I found was that so-called natural or relaxation childbirth philosophies mistrust and even undermine each other in their respective literature. Books on Hypnobirth, Bradley and Lamaze seem to be fighting to teach pregnant women to out-relax each other, which made me tense. They also encourage women to treat their medical providers and birth settings with suspicion and to second-guess them, which only adds stress to an already nerve-wracking situation.
The rules of good books should still apply to pregnancy literature. At the very least, you should feel comfortable with the authorial voice and trust your narrator.
Since many of the pregnancy books ignore these two pillars of good writing, it’s not surprising that many pregnant women are turning to online resources—often a quicker, more direct read that pops up in your inbox—in place of books, or to compliment them. Baby Center will email weekly updates about fetal development from what vegetable your fetus resembles this week (tomato, spaghetti squash) to diet and exercise advice and checkup walkthroughs. Apps like Sprout, Baby Bump and What To Expect offer a daily dose of pregnancy information “without over doing it,” as my friend Casie Davidson put it. Still, these apps aren’t without their own drawbacks. Some of their insights can feel aimed at a child or a Sex in the City character. Sprout: “Are your tootsies in turmoil? A foot rub and a pedicure can’t hurt.” Baby Bump: “Now that your belly is getting larger, it’s going to be apparent that you’re pregnant rather than just plump.” Thanks.
Then there’s the genre of dad books, which bring their own minefield of problems (a whole lot of “dudes” in the titles is just one of them.) Titles like Dude, You’re Gonna Be a Dad!, From Dude to Dad: The Diaper Dude Guide to Pregnancy and My Boys Can Swim! inspire little confidence as they seem to pin men as worthless sperm banks needing maturity makeovers. Plenty of jokes, bro language and worn stereotypes highlighting the differences between men and women abound. Men are addressed as “Big Fella” and respond to the news that their wife is pregnant with “clenched sphincters” and projections of “horrific expenses” and the downer cliché: “My life as I knew it was over.” I’m inclined to believe many dads are more prepared than these titles assume. At least I’m hoping my husband is.
Surely, most pregnancy books do offer useful information, including many of the ones mentioned here. But in an era of information oversaturation and a greater diversity of voices, I guess I had imagined there would be more books out there that were at once useful and resonated with me in zeitgeist and tone. I’d like to be empowered with the knowledge of what pregnancy is and how it is managed, while being spoken to like a grownup. More often, pregnancy reading material assumed my default pre-pregnancy setting was pedicures, that I’ll kvetch and annoy my husband for the better part of a year and that my greatest concern is no longer fitting into my clothes.
I’m no longer seeking reading recommendation–unless you’re in the middle of a really good novel.
Yarrow is a TIME contributing columnist and journalist living in Brooklyn.