Expecting the worst

With almost 6 million copies in print, 'What to Expect When You're Expecting' is one of the nation's top-selling pregnancy guides. By the time my daughter was born, I actively detested it.

Published October 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

I still remember the relief and gratitude I felt when I first opened "What to Expect When You're Expecting." I was standing in a bookstore, having just learned I was pregnant, and it occurred to me I had been quite drunk on at least two occasions since this totally unplanned infant was conceived. When I read what the other pregnancy tomes had to say about this, I grew faint. Then I came upon "What to Expect." The cover featured a pastel drawing of a pensive pregnant woman in a rocking chair against the backdrop of a floral quilt. Inside I read: "There's no evidence that a few drinks on a couple of occasions early in pregnancy will prove harmful to a developing embryo." I promptly bought this wonderful book.

With almost 6 million copies in print, "What to Expect" is one of the nation's top-selling pregnancy books. Women like it because, in a world of stern, scary pregnancy guides, it is easy to use, gentle and reassuring. The authors are women, but they aren't grinding the feminist ax that makes "Our Bodies, Ourselves" both so interesting and so useless. Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi Murkoff and Sandee Hathaway write for mainstream women who would not necessarily mind an epidural.

But they are not, I soon discovered, anywhere near as friendly as they initially appear.

Most women want to have big, robust babies and look willowy two seconds later. I was certainly no exception. "What to Expect" had the answer: the Best Odds Diet. I studied it with interest. It is called "Best Odds" because, the authors assert, it offers your infant the best odds for being born healthy. The authors refer to this diet on just about every page, and claim that it helps with morning sickness, fatigue, stress, insomnia, dental problems, premature labor, stretch marks, depression and constipation. What an astonishing diet! Of course, it will also keep you from getting fat. And, as the book reminds us on many occasions, "delivery won't make thighs and hips thickened by overindulgence during pregnancy magically disappear."

If you ask me, that's an unnecessarily demeaning way to describe weight gain, but still, I had always prided myself on being slim and I wanted to stay that way. Early on, I thought I might actually follow the Best Odds Diet. Looking back on it, though, there was no chance. "Before you close your mouth on a forkful of food, consider, 'Is this the best bite I can give my baby?'" the authors write. "If it will benefit your baby, chew away. If it'll only benefit your sweet tooth or appease your appetite, put your fork down."

And they really meant it. I had no problem meeting their vegetable quota. It was the variety of foods the book strictly forbade that stumped me: white rice, white flour, refined sugars, anything fried. Once a week, you're allowed to "cheat" by eating a bagel or a honey-sweetened bran muffin. Once a month, you can "treat yourself to something terribly wicked: a slice of cake or pie; an ice cream sundae; a candy bar." In what circles is a slice of pie considered "terribly wicked"? And why couldn't I be wicked a little more often?

I started to notice there was something icky about the prose. I also noticed these women had a lot of ideas about why I needed to exercise, what I should wear and how I could "keep the love light burning" with my husband. "When you leave the practitioner's office after your next visit," they suggest, "surprise him with a pair of tickets for his favorite opera or sports event." Sure, that's a nice thing to do ... I guess. Except it reminded me of the simple-minded marital tips that magazines of the 1950s used to dole out to happy homemakers, right next to the ads for cake mix. The more pregnant I became, the more plastic "What to Expect's" advice seemed. And as I got bigger and bigger, that unpleasant diet began to make me feel really bad about myself. I was pregnant and exhausted and I was supposed to prepare a soup of tomato juice, tomato paste and skim milk sprinkled with a dusting of wheat germ?

Well, yes. The book offers control-freak suggestions for just about every eating occasion. Trouble sleeping? Try a light snack, say "whole-grain fruit-sweetened cookies and milk; fruit and cheese; cottage cheese and unsweetened applesauce." What if I wanted sweetened applesauce? What if I wanted baklava? Wasn't I smart enough -- wasn't I old enough -- to pick my own bedtime snacks?

Apparently not. And I could forget about trusting my instincts at a restaurant. Several pages were devoted to instructions: "Push away the bread basket unless it's filled with whole-grain choices ... Beware that "dark" breads, such as pumpernickel or dark rye, may get their wholesome looking color from caramel color or molasses rather than from whole grains. Be sure that you tally the butter or margarine you spread on your bread into your daily fat allowance." Then, pregnant women, as your companions dig into fried calamari, you turn to your salad, with the dressing on the side "so you can stay within the Best Odds Diet guidelines." Order the steamed fish (but skip the side of white rice). As you watch your husband enjoy some pecan pie, you remember that "Desserts should, except on special occasions, be limited to unsweetened and unliqueured fresh or cooked fruits and berries (with a dollop of whipped cream if you wish)."

There is something so niggardly about that dollop of whipped cream. There is something so prissy about nibbling fruit-juice sweetened cookies and toting around "a small flask of toasted wheat germ (you CAN develop a taste for it ...)." Even if you don't see the point of all this self-denial (I mean, pregnant women get big, it's what they do), your husband might. In the chapter for fathers, a man worries that his pregnant wife will become "fat and flabby." Instead of telling him where he can stuff it, the authors propose techniques for helping the little mommy-to-be stay on her diet: "If you must indulge in dietary indiscretion, do so out of your home and away from your wife," they counsel. "If she slips, nagging will only help her to fall faster and farther. Remind, don't remonstrate. Prod her conscience, don't try to become it. Signal her quietly when in public, rather than making a pointed announcement to all within earshot about her ordering her chicken breaded and fried."

I can't quite forgive the authors for this one. I've tried to picture my husband quietly signaling his disapproval of my fried chicken. I would have divorced him. By the time our daughter was born I actively detested "What to Expect." I had surpassed their recommended weight gain and I felt like a mountain. I guess by their calculations, I got what I deserved. But then again, the baby was big and healthy. After breastfeeding for a few months, I weighed less than I did when I got pregnant. So there.

It seems so obvious that you should eat well when you're pregnant (duh!). And we'd all be healthier if we never ate dessert. But pregnant women need less to feel bad about, not more. Does a piece of fried chicken really jeopardize your child's well-being? During one of the most alarming, astonishing and creative times of your life, do you really need a book that makes you feel guilty for eating a pudding pop?

By Jennifer Reese

Jennifer Reese is a writer living in San Francisco.

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