The Importance of Reading While Pregnant
On Our Love-Hate Relationship with Parenting Books
The first thing I did when we found out I was pregnant was go to our local second-hand bookstore and buy a used 2002 edition of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. At the time I’d thought it was because I needed advice. We had decided we weren’t going to tell anyone, not even our parents, until we had our first ultrasound and heard a heartbeat. I had called an obstetrician’s office and announced self-importantly, “I’m pregnant! What do I need to do? Should we schedule a visit? Should I get a blood test?”
“Just come in for an ultrasound when you’re ten weeks along,” the voice on the phone answered blandly.
Ten weeks. Ten weeks was a month away. A month of nothing to do but brainstorm excuses for why I wasn’t drinking as I waited for morning sickness to kick in. No blood tests, no urine tests, no proof of this thing happening inside of me but two peed-on sticks and tender breasts.
Not sharing the news with anyone or receiving a physician’s, parent’s, or experienced friend’s stamp of approval for neither the fact of the fetus nor the way I was handling it generated more anxiety than I would have expected. What if the home test had been wrong? Or what if the test was correct, but I somehow wrecked it simply by being left to my own devices?
What did seem to help some was my tattered, not-fully-up-to-date copy of What to Expect. What the book offered in abundance was anxious questions and reassuring answers, as well as a list of physical and emotional symptoms—pretty much every symptom under the sun—many of which I was already experiencing, as well as the promise that they—and I—were perfectly normal.
That was just what I’d needed: to be told by someone or something that I was all right, that I was being good. But even more significant was the sheer act of reading the book: by catching up on the first one-hundred pages up until the point I was in my pregnancy, spending my free time in concentrated consultation with the book as the most urgent item on my to-do list, I was already being a good mother.
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I now know that my reason for instantly buying that book was much more fundamental than a need for advice. Though it did end up serving as a cure for my uncertainty, I would have absolutely bought it even if I were the most confident pregnant woman on earth. Since I can remember myself, reading and writing have been my way of sorting out life and learning how to live it. From the dark poetry I wrote in my childhood bedroom, to the novel I worked on during my time at Columbia University’s MFA program, to the fiction I translate now as part of my career, I’ve always allowed books to lead my life. This doesn’t usually mean self-help books or how-to books. Rather, I normally find indirect ways to navigate through life by reading novels or memoirs that have no obvious connection to my own experiences. I almost never seek out books that deal with a specific subject, which makes the endeavor of reading in order to live accidental, meandering, and often magical. I find strength in unexpected places. Most recently, for instance, I found it in the first volume of Karl Ove Knaausgard’s My Struggle, which describes an experience literally miles away from mine, but which fell on my heart like a ton of bricks.
Now that I was in this completely new and foreign scenario, my body doing things I never realized it knew how, my mind trying to keep up, my emotions all over the place, it made sense to seek out something direct and obvious: a pregnancy book. This is what pregnant women read—it’s part of our lore, and I would become familiar with it.
The weeks went by. We got some tests done, told our families and close friends, and received a volley of advice and shared experiences. As the news was becoming public and my body was stepping out of its tired zombie phase and learning to love food and movement again, I was immensely relieved. Then a paralyzing guilt set in. Now that we were telling people and I was going to doctors’ appointments I could get back to life—there were essays to write, novels to translate, and we had just moved, which introduced such tasks as unpacking, arranging, exploring. Sometimes a few days went by when I barely did or thought about anything baby related and even forgot all about the little alien life form inside of me. For shame, I thought then—I’m missing it! Other times, I got sucked so deep into maternity websites and blogs that I could do little else. For shame, I thought again—I’m a person with a brain and creative urges. Where did they go? Both tendencies left me feeling terrible about myself. I was at all times either a bad mother or a bad person, since I couldn’t make simultaneous space in my brain for the part that wanted to savor this unique experience and the part that liked to be intellectually stimulated. Relief came in the form of a wise friend and new mom, who pointed out that there would be plenty of time for guilt and anxiety after the baby came. Now was the time to just be, she explained. “You’re still you,” she texted, “even though you’re also an incubator right now.”
This statement worked like magic on me, and was reinforced when I began to read Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman, which was recommended to me by a new friend and wise mom who seemed impossibly chill. The book is all about an American woman’s experience giving birth and raising children in Paris, and what she dubs the “Wisdom of French Parenting.” Right off the bat the author addressed the anxiety and over-achieving brought on by too much exposure to the wrong kind of information, the kind that leads a woman to doubt everything she does during her pregnancy. She discussed the very sensation I was grappling with: the sense that my mind and body were being sucked into an all-powerful notion of motherhood that left no room for me. She even pointed out some of the rigid, impossible-to-achieve standards that books like What to Expect were setting for me—that I should be constantly putting the needs of my not-yet-born baby before my own, and in essence make a point of not enjoying anything too pleasurable (eating out at restaurants? Danger! Orgasms? Look out!)
More importantly, I loved the book’s ideas about child rearing. Druckerman presented me with a culture in which a strict frame of rules left lots of space for childish fun for both parents and kids. She talked about how to work toward having a family where kids sleep through the night, say hello to guests, and accept the word “no,” and where moms get to be more than sweatsuit-wearing uteruses. I loved the notion of pausing when a baby begins to fuss to see if he might ease himself back to sleep without a parent’s assistance, of letting a child entertain herself without constantly narrating and structuring her play, and of restricting sweets to an afternoon tea time, to be enjoyed by the entire family. I could already imagine myself doing it.
It seemed I’d found the only book I’d ever need to read—one that put into words the turmoil I was feeling, and made me able to identify and empathize, put myself in the characters’ shoes, and understand what I was hoping for that much better. This parenting book was doing everything a good novel should. Of course, as a lover of books, any good find only whets the appetite. So I started asking other friends for their favorite parenting books—a general term I’ll use from now on to signify books on pregnancy, childbirth, and upbringing. I focused on friends who appreciated a good read, thinking that’s how I would find books that were well-written, like Druckerman’s, and not only informative—books that would feed my need for good writing as well as my need for information. The answers surprised me. It seemed that my literary-minded parent friends were avoiding parenting books. They had all read one or two and been whole-heartedly turned off. At best, they could name one they didn’t hate.
What these friends revealed was that they often felt oppressed by the singularity of attitudes in the books they picked up—it was as if each parent, pediatrician, and education expert subscribed to one all-encompassing theory, denying all others. My friends felt forced, trapped, and chastised by these approaches. As opposed to the abundance of literary fiction and non-fiction they consumed, inspiring them and liberating them, these books made them feel judged, and their worlds small. I found that they only attributed any kind of merit to the whole notion of reading books about parenting when the books matched their own ideas, leading them to feel empowered and vindicated in their views. When a book didn’t resonate with them, the entire endeavor of reading parenting books was deemed unnecessary, too rigid, even pretentious.
My husband was also turned off by these books. He felt that this period would be best spent on all the many fiction and non-fiction books we had on our lists. In other words, he advocated exercising our non-baby brains while we still could.
I understood where he was coming from. Soon, my friends all promised me, I would be so tired, overworked, and preoccupied with questions of parenthood that there would be little time and mind space for anything else, and while I still found it calming to be prepared, for him it just meant his brain being hijacked that much sooner.
Still, I wanted more, and so I did my own research and began to weave my way through Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent, Marie F. Mongan’s HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method, Robert A. Bradley’s Husband-Coached Childbirth, and an Israeli guide to a baby’s first year. I also continued to work my way through each gestational month of What to Expect and followed a couple of balanced, well-written blogs. Reading them was informative and eye opening, and brought on an immense sense of accomplishment. But whenever I looked up from a book, I found myself the representative of a dwindling camp—the camp of people who combine the love of reading with the necessity of reading.
* * * *
The French, I believe, would agree with my friends and husband that people who take pleasure in reading ought to leave more spare time for literary reading, the kind that transports them away from the domestic and inspires more creation. And now, from my advanced position as I enter the eighth month of pregnancy, I see what they mean.
Pregnancy is exciting to the point of mind-blowing and brings out kindness and charity in the people around you. But it can also be an immense strain, not only on the body, but on the mind. There is so much to think about and consider, so many plans to formulate and unravel. Time is also under attack: there are doctors’ visits, blood tests, ultrasounds that take forever. There’s exercise, Kegels, relaxation techniques, prenatal yoga, childbirth education classes. On top of that there’s the urge to sleep more, cook healthier and more elaborate meals, sit leisurely in a bathtub, go out to dinner without finding a babysitter, be idle for the last time in a while. And of course, there is no pre-maternity leave—there’s work, some of which only becomes more urgent now that there’s a clock ticking.
Juggling all of these elements makes it hard to find the time and energy to read anything, as do some physical changes to the reading process: two positions—back lying and tummy lying—have been brutally taken away from me. I can read lying on my side, in which case I will very likely either doze off or become distracted by some charming fetal movement. Or I can recline and prop the book up on the bump, which is quite convenient—like a built-in shelf—if I’m reading a paperback, but can get a little unpleasant if it’s a hardcover. Reading time and reading ease are both constrained, and so choosing between a literary book and a parenting book feels more fateful these days. Back in the first trimester I had harbored a fantasy of finishing all the unread novels on my shelf before my due date. That ship has sailed long ago. My mommy-fantasy of reading all the good parenting books is equally unrealistic.
Another question that comes up is, are the books worth it? As often happens in the realm of literary reading, I’ve stumbled across plenty of the wrong kind of parenting books—the kind that made me feel incompetent, small, even offended. I’ve picked some books up only to put them down again because they just made me feel uneasy, pummeling me with everything that needed to be done for my baby’s survival without reassuring me that I can do it. But even in the books that I did like there was plenty of advice that rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t think Tom Hodgkinson’s plea to avoid taking children anyplace where money changes hands is doable. I don’t always speak in soft and loving tones to promote the soothing prenatal parenting advocated by Marie Mongan. I was outraged when Robert Bradley advised husbands to laugh with their partners, not at them, or they’ll “eat your head off.”
* * * *
Then why do I keep reading the parenting books?
Any kind of reading is a gamble, and a reader must accept a minimal time commitment before he or she can decide whether a book is worth it. I’ve been willing, more or less since I learned how to read, to accept these odds, and I have no qualms about trying out parenting books and seeing if they feel right or not. The stakes are high, emotionally speaking, but for me that’s always been the case with literature. Books stick with me, and that can sometimes hurt.
Still, I find that for the most part I’m able to push aside the urge to self-judge when a book subscribes to a method that I disagree with or reads as personally offensive. I want to know all about this strange experiment I’m a part of, and a passing sense of inadequacy often seems like a small price to pay for the gift of knowledge.
More importantly, I’m still me: a person for whom reading has always been a defining feature. I deal with change by reading my way through it. Now, as a mother-to-be, growing a new life inside of me, I once again find myself at a crossroads. I have no need to be an expert, but one way or another, I must learn how to be this new person, and books are, as ever, my means of accomplishing this mission. While the parenting books officially belong to the baby part of my brain, they actually have the invaluable ability to bring together both parts of my being: the familiar one—me the person, and this new one, still being explored—me the mother; my mind as a reader, and my body as an incubator. I want to be confident, and I want to be informed. I’m hoping if I stick to the right kind of books—the ones that inspire me in ways I never knew, that excite me about being a parent, that teach me how to parent creatively, the way an artist would—I can enjoy the best of both worlds.