Saturday, January 31, 2009

Baby Books

I'm not really sure why or how people come to this blog, but I'll bet it has nothing to do with an unplanned pregnancy. That's about to change. Lets say you suddenly find yourself "with child" and know nothing about pregnancy and childbirth except what you've picked up from novels like Chris Bohjalian's Midwives, and movies like Juno and Knocked Up. What do you do? Once you've overcome the fits of nervous/manic laughter you do the only truly comforting thing you can think of, and surround yourself with Baby Books.

The Baby Books section of the book store is really frightening for the first time browser. Which books do you chose? They all seem so bulky, and there are millions - all this at a time when you're not supposed to carry heavy loads. Can someone just give it to you straight? I'm going to try.  Here's a breakdown of my most memorable reads:

What to Expect When You're Expecting, by Heidi Murkoff, Arlene Eisenberg, and Sandee Hathaway.
These ladies have something like seven kids between the three of them, and seem to really know what they are talking about. The book itself is nearly 15 years old (first published in 1984), but it's revised every few years, and the edition I bought is from 2002. This was the first pregnancy book I read, and it was very helpful, since I knew practically nothing about pregnancy or babies.  For example, I learned that a baby's first dump is honored with a special name: meconium. Who says that the Right of Passage is dead in American culture?

So many people have since said to me, "I've heard that What to Expect is the worse book to read, really alarmist and it will make you so scared to be pregnant and give birth." I'm not sure why people say this. It just seems like something that's out there in the zeitgeist that people hear and repeat almost mindlessly (but with total conviction), like, "I heard Dennis Lehane's new book was disappointing," when they haven't even read it, or "Jane Eyre is my favorite book of all time."

True, some parts of What to Expect can be alarming. It's organized by month, and each month has a section called "What You May Be Concerned About." Topics for concern include some fairly hardcore concerns, like Venus Changes, Foot Problems, Skin Discoloration, Dental Problems (Bleeding Gums), Faintness and Dizziness, Pain and Numbness in the Hands, Rectal Bleeding and Hemorrhoids, Clogged Milk Duct, and my personal favorite concern, The Reality of Pregnancy. Sure, there is a lot to be concerned about. But I just skipped all the parts that didn't apply to me, which made this 500+ page book a real breeze. In any event, What to Expect has the same reassuring answer for every concern: every woman is different, and what you are experiencing is normal. These mothers are unflappable. They tell stories of doing belly plants at eight months, getting drunk and taking oral contraceptives during those early weeks before you know you're pregnant, and hey, their babies turned out fine.

Actually, what's alarming to me is how nothing seems to alarm these authors. They talk about truly frightening medical interventions in such a blase I'm Okay You're Okay tone that the reader really starts to wonder, "does anything get to them?" It's like how chronically calm people really start to get on your nerves after a while, and you start looking for ways to provoke them. I hope to someday come up with a Concern that makes Heidi, Arlene, and Sandee gasp in unison.

Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, edited by Roger W. Harms, M.D.
My husband bought this book as a medical companion to What to Expect, but actually, it's not as medical as I had hoped. Really, I was hoping for lots of text book-like illustrations of internal organs, and where they go as the baby bullies them out of the way (I'm still not clear on that). This book is also broken down by month, and within that, by week, but the week-by-week information is really skimpy. The most interesting parts are the baby sketches that open each section and are labeled "thirty percent of actual size" or whatever, so if you wanted to spend way too much time teaching your photocopier percentages you could copy it, cut it out, and tape it to your stomach and feel like you know what's going on in there. But even so, I mean seriously Mayo Clinic, sketches? Disappointingly non-medical. I was hoping for real ultrasound photos, or those hideous 3-D photos.

There are other chapters in the Mayo Clinic book that prepare you for Your Newborn, Taking Your Baby Home, and Postpartum Care. There is also 100 pages devoted to Complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The whole tone of the book is very clinical and detached, which makes you think you're reading a text book, but without any of the illustrations. I would skip this one.

The Thinking Woman's Guide to a Better Birth, by Henci Goer.
Finally, we've got a handle on the basics and are getting to the good stuff. The Thinking Woman - that's me! When I first saw this book I sensed that Henci and I had a lot in common. Take the cover art - I could immediately see how the Thinking Woman would need to cut loose every now and then, get naked, wrap herself in toilet paper, and take some profile shots. I mean, I could write an entire post about this cover art, but I'll control myself and stick to the point.

I read this book on the heels of watching the documentary The Business of Being Born, or, as my husband refers to the experience: Watching Ricki Lake Give Birth in her Bathtub. It was an affecting documentary for me - overwrought and Michael Mooreish in places - but I knew I needed to get educated about all the drugs and procedures used on women in labor. And I sensed that Henci was seriously pissed off about them, which was a welcome change from Heidi, Arlene, and Sandee's complacency.

Henci has a serious axe to grind with the medical establishment, and western medicine in general. She, like Ricki Lake, wants to know why women give birth attended by surgeons, when the vast majority of births require no surgical intervention. The problem, as Henci sees it, is that "the typical obstetrician is trained to view pregnant and laboring women as a series of potential problems.... Obstetric belief tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has been said that a healthy person is someone who hasn't undergone enough testing by specialists." As someone who avoids doctors and hospitals at all costs, I see her point. Whenever I enter a doctor's office or hospital, I'm driven by one simple goal - to get out as soon as possible, at whatever cost. 

But Henci takes things a bit too far, even for me. The book is organized by issue, with chapter headings like "The Cesarean Epidemic: Obstetrics on the Cutting Edge," "Induction of Labor: Mother Nature Knows Best," and "Episiotomy: The Unkindest Cut." I learned a lot from reading this book, but I could have done without all the mistrust she has for doctors, which sets up a very us-against-them type of dichotomy. At one point, she warns readers to keep a sharp eye on their doctor, who may perform an Amniotomy (breaking the water with this long crochet hook like thing) without even consulting the patient! Lets picture this one - you're in labor, and the doctor's there, you look the other way for a moment (or maybe the doctor distracts you with one of those, "hey, what's that behind you?!") and before you can protest he swoops in with a sneak-Amniotomy!

In Henci's defense, she is very upfront about her prejudices. Also, she's great at citing her sources and backing up her arguments - she makes a very persuasive case for having a low tech birth.

Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay, and Other Things I Had To Learn as a New Mom, by Stefanie Wilder-Taylor.
My friend Maria sent me this book. She's not pregnant or a mom, she's just a voracious reader of chick lit, and when she can't find any she grabs up hen lit, grief lit, and mom lit. I don't know what inspired her to read this, but I'm glad she sent it to me when she did, because it provided an excellent counterbalance to The Thinking Woman's Guide. This book is light and fun and humorous and about half as thick. And Stefanie breaks all The Thinking Woman's rules. She has a C-section. She's a bottle-feeder, and describes some very awkward and funny confrontation with "lactivists," - "if these people could breast-feed other people's babies, believe me, they would," and "stopping breast-feeding is like getting out of your Columbia Record and Tape Club membership; there are sinister forces at work that don't want to let this happen." She makes fun of all the questions you're supposed to ask when interviewing possible pediatricians (and you are supposed to interview dozens). I especially liked what she had to say about postpartum depression:

"Women experience postpartum depression in varying degrees. Mine was a pretty rough experience. A percentage of new moms don't get any depression at all. These are the same women who never suffer cramps with their periods, never experience the blinding pain of a migraine, and never had someone break up with them through e-mail. These are the sort of women who enjoyed junior high school. Feel free to resent them, everyone else does."

Another highlight was when Stefanie classified all the different kinds of moms that you will meet in the park while strollering your baby around: "Gossipy Mom," "Safety Patrol Mom," "Crunchy Mom," and "Burnout Mom" are among the categories. I also enjoyed the chapter on babysitter poaching. I didn't learn much from this book, but it was very entertaining, and just what I needed at the time.

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, by Ina May Gaskin.
This was my favorite pregnancy read.  It's pretty crunchy (which I'm sort of into), but not as angry or combative as The Thinking Woman's Guide.  Ina May is a midwife who lives on a farm in Tennessee called The Farm, and has been catching babies with her fellow midwives for 20 plus years.  The first half of the book is all birth stories.  I loved reading these, and probably went through this part of the book three or four times.  It's annoying how non-specific everyone seems to be about their labor, like they can't really remember it, or don't want to tell you - and every woman begins or ends their labor stories with the ubiquitous Every Woman is Different mantra, so it's hard to get a handle on what really goes on.  That's probably why I latched onto these stories, especially the really long and detailed ones.  Some are recent, but others are from the 70s and 80s, and it seemed like whenever any of  these women go into labor the first thing they do is go on a hike with their husbands.  Seriously.  They walk through the woods and see trees and hills and animals rutting and their contractions (which are called "rushes") get stronger.  The hiking phase of labor must have really made an impression on me, because at some point during my own labor I made my husband take a walk down 23rd Street with me.  Like the women on The Farm, my "rushes" got so out of control that I started freaking out the homeless people - and I didn't even see a rat or squirrel.

The second half of the book talks about the phases of labor, and how your surroundings and emotional and psychological factors affect your progress.  Ina May also addresses hospital procedure, and all the devices you're likely to encounter; close to 99% of American women deliver their babies in hospitals, and the vast majority of these babies are caught by obstetricians instead of the midwives.  Henci had already done a thorough job of preparing me for all the nefarious hospital devices, so what I got out of this chapter was how to make myself as comfortable as possible in the hospital setting.  She makes an excellent point:  the cervix, like the anus, is a spincter muscle, and you have to be relaxed for it to open.  Case in point - people like their privacy when they take a dump.  So why are pregnant women expected to give birth in such brightly lit public places, surrounded by and hooked up to beeping machines, with nurses and doctors (and in some cases, survey takers) coming in and out?

Ina May is absolutely a proponent of natural birth ("natural" meaning unmedicated), but she's practical enough to know that most women in this country don't have that kind of birth experience, and so tailors her advice to a wider audience.

Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way, by Susan McCutcheon.
This is one of those books that's so bad it's good.  Every time the word "Bradley" appears on the page (approximately 100 times per page), there's a registered trademark after it, like this: Bradley(R), or this:  Bradley Method(R), which I found really amusing, and eventually really annoying.  The author is adamant that childbirth doesn't have to be painful, and that for some women, herself included, it is orgasmic.  (Which makes you wonder what exactly constitutes an orgasm for these women...).  The primary way to have an orgasmic labor is to get your husband to massage your back just so.  This is what I love about this book: it takes all the pressure off you and puts it on your husband.  If he can only master the Bradley(R) massage technique, you'll climax your way through childbirth.  No pressure honey!

Here's some typical advice for husbands which I'm guessing hints at Susan's husband's learning curve, and gives you an idea of the tone of  the book:

"Have your hand in place before the contraction starts.  Don't wait for her to tell you the contraction is under way and then try to put your hand on her back.  That's sloppy.  It is exactly what the untrained husband does when trying to help his wife, and it's exactly why she tells him to leave her alone."

I'm not recommending this book, but if you see it in the bookstore, you should flip through and check out the illustrations, which sketch out the Bradley(R) exercises you should be doing with your husband.  Notice that the pregnant partner always performs these excises naked, while the non-pregnant partner always wears 70s style athletic shorts.

From the Hips: a Comprehensive, Open-minded, Uncensored, Totally Honest Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, and Becoming a Parent, by Rebecca Odes and Ceridwen Morris.
My neighbor lent me this book pretty late in the game, when I was pretty burned out on Baby Books and pretty much thought I knew everything there was to know.  But I had fun skimming through it and reading the belly shaped bubbles that have quotes from "anonymoms".  I'm very glad I read it, because it was the only book of the bunch that talked about postpartum physical stuff.  Like, it's normal for women to lose a lot of hair after they give birth, so much that their hairline might recede.  And you bleed for six weeks and can't take a bath.  And most women still look pregnant for the first couple of weeks, so don't lose your shit when the delivery guy smiles and wants to know when you are due.  

I wish I had read this book earlier.  When it comes to pregnancy, it's almost as comprehensive as What to Expect, and more fun to read.  It feels more current and fresh.  The authors address all the big controversies without pushing any side too hard (which is nice, but at that point I wanted to read someone with an opinion, and I wished the authors would have told their birth stories).  What else can I say?  The subtitle pretty much has it covered.

Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads,  by Gary Greenberg and Jeannie Hayden.
I shouldn't admit this, but this is the only book I read during my pregnancy about what to do once the pregnancy is over, i.e., what to do with the resulting baby.  I had been given Dr. Sears' Baby Book, (aka the attachment parenting bible), and the American Academy of Pediatrics' Your Baby's First Year, but for some reason I never made it very far into these books.  I blame this on the one lesson I took away from my birthing class - that early labor would be very long, and I should STAY HOME DURING EARLY LABOR.  I had big plans for Early Labor, which I'd heard could last around 18 hours.  In addition to taking my nature walk down 23rd Street, I was going to pack my bag, make a Labor Mix for my iPod, call my Mom, compose an Out Of the Office Autoreply and set a Maternity Leave message on my work phone, and oh, I don't know, power through some books about what it's like to have a baby around.  I don't know what was wrong with me.  Perhaps, as the ladies from What To Expect might have suggested, I was still coming to grips with The Reality of Pregnancy, or at least the reality of how pregnancy generally leads to an infant.

This book is great.  Since it's written for Dads, it assumes that the reader knows nothing about babies, lacks the elusive maternal instinct, bores easily, and needs accompanying illustrations.  The back of the book promises to help you MacGyver your way through your baby's first year, by teaching you how to turn old socks into a diapers, and "create a decoy drawer full of old wallets, remote controls, and cell phones to throw  baby off the scent of your real gear."  There are some really helpful suggestions and DIY tips, all told succinctly and with humor.  For example:

"If you have an aversion to the breast pump, it's completely understandable.  After all, it's a bit unnerving watching a mechanical device mercilessly slurping at your partner's bare chest.  You can't help but think, "If robots made pornography, this is what it would look like.""


" Never, ever wake your partner for sex.  It's like taking food away from a wild animal."

I've learned why babies are so impressed with Peek-A-Boo (they think your head literally disappears when you hide it), to prolong the life of pajamas that baby's grown out of by cutting off the feet, and the delicate art of transferring a sleeping baby from your arms to a crib (allowing me to finish off this post with two hands).  To celebrate my increased typing speed, let's have another quote, on the necessity of babyproofing:

"As soon as your baby becomes mobile, you come to realization that she doesn't possess the greatest survival instincts.  If anything, it seems like she's bent on self-destruction.  If there is a staircase, she will attempt to fling herself down it; if there is an outlet, she will try to stick something into it; and if there's an inch of water anywhere, she will try to lie in it, facedown.  It's like she's auditioning for some baby version of Jackass."

This is where I'll call it quits.  There are only eight books reviewed here, which isn't anywhere near the number of books I originally wanted to write about, but when you have a baby around, you learn very quickly to set such  grandiose goals aside, and take a damn nap.


Anita said...

I have four kiddos and have read most of these books...I thank God I read the Bradley second child was completely painless and totally surprised us (it was a 911 birth)...if I hadn't read Bradley, I would've panicked those last ten minutes, but when I realized what was happening, my husband and I just followed everything we learned from the was the best birth of the four.

Anonymous said...

I'm not even pregnant, but some of these books sound strangely alluring...

Bitterly Indifferent said...

My wife and I alternated between the Mayo clinic book and What to Expect, but we found What to Expect to be more comforting.

What about the books you didn't review? Were you going to talk about Frederick Leboyer's Birth Without Violence, where he calls newborns ugly and tells you to give birth in the dark?

Tana said...

As a mom of four, that brought back some youngest is seven. I had seen most of those.

I found the guide for dads comical, not sure if it was trying to be. That says a lot.

Donna said...

Does everyone who comments on your blog have four kids? I have four as well, so I've pretty much read all the books. You left out the Girlfriend's Guide, by Vicki Iovine, which is another good read.

My fourth child, born here in China, is currently in the "Baby Jackass" phase. I'll be laughing about that particular quote all day today, as I yank coins from her mouth and pull her down from the stairs. I'm trying very hard to cultivate that zen-calm thing that the What To Expect authors have, but so far, no luck.

The Mother Tongue said...

I'll tell you one thing the What to Expect authors freak out over: food. Belly-flops at 8 months don't faze them, but God forbid you have a Diet Coke.

My favorite parenting book of all time is "Hello, My Name is Mommy" by Sheri Lynch (she of the Bob & Sheri radio show).

It is hands down the funniest baby book I've ever read. I was laughing so hard at it that my husband got curious and picked it up too, then burned through it in only a few hours.

Some of it is really poignant, too: turns out that Lynch comes from a really crazy family background (the book opens up with her visiting her dad in prison) and is terrified that she'll screw up her own kids. So it's funny, but also very vulnerable. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Bunny Hills said...

Why hasn't anyone ever done this before?? Wish I saw this over a year ago...

Unknown said...

Congratulations on your little one! Your comment about the Bradley book brought back memories (I only have one child, a two-year-old), because I laughed hilariously every time I saw the guy in short-shorts, supporting his naked wife. I think I kept that book around for comic relief.

Enjoy this first year! I'm sure I'm not the first to mention how quickly it will fly by. My boss (a man) used to tell me that the nights drag on forever, but the months pass in an instant. He was so right. I was just crying on the playground as I watched my 35 pound toddler go scurrying up a jungle gym, and I wondered what happened to the five pound NICU nugget who had his first meals through a tube!

But again, congratulations. Thanks for this list; I'll be passing it on to pregnant friends. What a great entry.

Alyson said...

I don't know if it is in your list that we didn't see but my all time favorite baby book is The Baby Book by Dr. Sears. It covers everything from birth (and actually some pregnancy) to age 2. It is the bible of babies. And it is a nice balance between crunchy and mainstream.

I love Ina May and Henci Goer, those are great books.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your reviews of these books. Seldom have I heard anyone who has read the Bradley Method talk about it so irreverently. Thanks for that, truly it was refreshing. The New Dad book quotes made me lol. I'll be sharing those with my husband for sure. Enjoy those tiny toes and your naps whenever you are so blessed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful review. It has been about six years now since Be Prepared was published, but now and again we still look up what new parents are saying about the book. We enjoyed this review a lot and hardly believe you had the energy to type at all in those early months with a newborn! All the best to you with the new baby!
Jeannie Hayden
Co- author Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads

Kirsty said...

If you're looking for maternity clothes, my best suggestion is My Tummy, a European company which was suggested to me by a friend. Their clothes are so comfy and flattering but they also have cute designs which are great for a range of body sizes and shapes. My favourite item is the maternity skirts, but they also have pregnancy tops and breastfeeding dresses too.