Why Most Pregnancy Guides Are a Total Turnoff

Pregnant Book
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Even the pregnancy bible, 'What to Expect When You're Expecting,' appears to be waning in popularity with millennial moms

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.


TIME Documentary

Aaron Swartz Documentary Steers Clear of Suicide Conversation

Aaron Swartz
Sage Ross—picture-alliance/dpa/A The programmer Aaron Swartz on Aug. 19, 2009.

A new documentary about a young man who took his own life while facing charges on computer crimes skips a much-needed conversation about suicide

The Internet’s Own Boy is a new documentary out Friday with a controversial premise: It theorizes that laws designed to protect us online — and those who pen, pass and implement them — are not only failing to keep us safe, but they may have the power to kill. The film posits that such failings contributed to the suicide of activist Aaron Swartz in January of last year, when he was just 26 years old.

Swartz suffered from debilitating ulcerative colitis — a bowel condition — as well as crippling depression. His depression only worsened as he and his family spent millions defending against felony charges and a steep prison sentence he faced for downloading millions of academic articles via The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer labs. Swartz’s family called the incident “an alleged crime that had no victims.”

The film reinforces what The New Yorker’s Larissa Macfarquhar, in her engrossing profile of Swartz, calls the family’s message that Swartz was “murdered by the government.” Macfarquhar says that the family deployed that idea in the aftermath of Swartz’s suicide to “direct public sadness and anger to political purposes,” though she writes that while the family doesn’t believe this, they have publicly stuck to it.

In any other era, finding enough footage and photos of someone who lived such a short life would be challenging, but Swartz lived online from the start—it was the space he preferred most. The film is rich with visuals documenting his existence, rendering him sympathetic and lovable to those who never met him.

Swartz helped developed and later sold Reddit, then pioneered political activism organizations that worked to fight the anti-piracy Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) as well as catalyze Elizabeth Warren’s Senate bid. He harbored political aspirations, and the film suggests he could have been among the first politicians to understand the Internet well enough to keep us from censoring it or destroying ourselves with it. Swartz’s capacity for kindness and idealism inverts the stereotype of the tortured coder. He accomplished more in a couple of decades than most people hope to in a lifetime.

This flattering portrait of Swartz sets up one of the film’s major takeaways that hews to the family’s message—that bullying, overreaching prosecutors pursing too harsh a sentence, coupled with a silent university, bear responsibility for Swartz taking his own life. The film derives its title from this idea.

“He was the Internet’s own boy, and the old world killed him,” says Swartz’s former partner, Quinn Norton. It’s a galvanizing theory, but it’s also dangerous for viewers or admirers of Swartz to believe this to be the only reason for his death. It’s too simplistic, too rote. The film would be even more dynamic and challenging if it had questioned this hypothesis.

While the harassment by the justice system seems unjust and even abusive, Swartz’s death should not only compel us to question our law enforcers and lawmakers, but should encourage us to examine the blight of suicide more closely. We otherwise run the risk of settling for what famed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls a single story — one that’s flat and dimensionless because it’s the only one we hear.

Suicide is an epidemic; one million adults attempted suicide and more than two million planned to attempt suicide in 2012, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Men account for nearly 80% of these deaths. Someone leaps from the Golden Gate Bridge approximately every two weeks. Alcohol, opiates (including painkillers) and access to guns are all known risk factors for suicides, which comprise two-thirds of all gun deaths. No two suicides are alike, and yet every individual who takes his or her own life has something in common.

Suicide is increasingly reported in the news, particularly when the victim is young and there is bullying is involved. Bart Palosz, Rebecca Sedwick, Karyn Washington and Cora Delille all took their own lives in the last year and a half since Swartz’s death and were the subject of news stories. Discussion of blame is common—who’s at fault for such overwhelming pain, such unexplained horror. Families often blame themselves, according to research from Nassau Community College. In the cases of Phoebe Prince and Rebecca Sedwick, law enforcement initially fingered and pursued prosecuting high school bullies. But blame, while a natural inclination, can rupture a community, as it did in the cases of Prince and Sedwick, and ruin even more lives in its wake.

Swartz’s internal struggle in the months leading to his death, recounted by friends and family in the film, is tragic. They said he was “terrified” and became increasingly “isolated from friends and family.”

“He didn’t want to be a burden to people,” said partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman.

While Swartz’s death may very well be explained in part by “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” as his family said in a statement released after his death, butit’s dangerous to only frame the tragedy that way because while it starts an important discussion about preserving our liberties as Americans, it halts another valuable one about suicide, its myths and hard truths and how we might help keep each other and those we love safe.

Yarrow is a TIME contributing writer and journalist living in Brooklyn.

TIME Media

‘Sexy’ Toddlers In a New Diaper Ad Kick Up Controversy

Israeli parents protest a provactive new commercial for faux-denim diapers

A new diaper campaign in Israel is stoking criticism for putting toddlers in sexy poses.

The video ad, produced by McCann-Erickson, hocks Huggies new denim diapers, which they posit are fashion forward enough to build little outfits around. In the video, child models accessorize their underpants-jeans with sunglasses, straw hats and guitars. A girl baby adjusts a boy’s bow tie. Another sticks her chest out in one shot, and poses with legs apart and finger in her mouth in another. The 20 second spot is set to music that sounds like a rip-off of Madonna’s 1990 hit, “Vogue,” and had this been shown to me without a timestamp, I’d have guessed the ad was produced around the same time, rather than now.

These little kids seem to move more awkwardly than sexually, as small people tend to do, but that’s not how some Israeli parents feel about the ads.

One local father compared the baby models frozen on billboards to the come-hither pose of Israeli model, Bar Refaeli on a nearby advertisement, according to Vocativ. One Tweeter said the campaign belongs in the Red Light District, while another simply said “@huggies WTF?”

Maybe selling something on the backs of provocatively dressed little people is new for Israel, but not for America where, since the 90s, we have become quite skilled at it. JonBenet Ramsey begat TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, which has long had the dolled up toddler crown on lock. That fixation produced the beloved Honey Boo Boo, whose unique brand and zany family earned her a show of her own.

Not long ago, Vogue Paris was skewered for a spread that depicted little girls in kitten heels, makeup and sultry pouts. Gwyneth Paltrow drew ire over an exclusive line of ruffly kiddie bikinis designed for her lifestyle bible, Goop. Dolls from Barbie to Bratz have been deemed too sexualized for child’s play, but they’re still available for purchase.

Compared to all of the above, these poorly produced Huggies ads seem distasteful, yet tame.

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