Back in the early '80s, when Heidi Murkoff was a pregnant 23-year-old looking for books to help guide her through her months-long journey, she was dismayed at what she found on bookstore shelves.
"There were only a handful of books, I don't even think they're around anymore," she said recently. "I had hundreds of questions, thousands of worries—I'd had drinks, I was drinking coffee, I wasn't eating particularly well—but instead of reassuring me and answering my questions in a way that talked me off the ledge, the books instead made me more panicked. They'd say, 'Alcohol is poison, you've killed your baby!' "
The situation inspired Murkoff to pen her own pregnancy manual in 1984, the accessibly titled, vaguely Raymond Carver-esque-sounding What to Expect When You're Expecting, which, in the nearly 30 years since it was first published, has sold 34 million copies, making it one of the most recognized and ubiquitous accoutrements of American pregnancy. The book, which traipses through the ups and downs of pre-motherhood with the jaunty, wink-wink tone of a coffeeklatch session, tends to inspire either adoration or severe loathing among women. But either way, it can't be ignored. Nor can the fact that it revolutionized parenting books—at the time, most were written by didactic, male doctors—and began the commodification of parenthood in general. Think of it as the Ur moment that led us to a world of Baby Bjorn baby carriers and Happiest Baby on the Block DVDs. The book has also played a part in the fear and drama that has come to define pregnancy in this country—long gone are the days of smoking and drinking your way through pregnancy à la Betty Draper—though Murkoff is hardly the only one responsible for this.
It's this inherent stürm und drang of New Age child-bearing that made a What to Expect When You're Expecting movie, due out Friday, an inevitable development. Indeed, if there is any surprise it's that it took this long to bring the book (so what that it's really more of a mini encyclopedia sans any plot or characters?) to the big screen and turn it into an ensemble vehicle for the likes of Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, and Elizabeth Banks.
Like its source, the movie casts pregnancy as a living hell that is nonetheless the most desirable predicament a woman could possibly find herself in. For all the jokes about "cankles" and atomic-level flatulence, TV exercise guru Jules (Diaz) flashes her new, perfectly shaped bump proudly, and sees no need to trade in her spandex shorts and tank tops for more modest maternity garb. And when Wendy (Banks), a preppy Southern belle who owns a baby shop, finds out she's finally preggers after years of trying, she and her husband (the subtly hilarious Ben Falcone) react as though they've just won an all-expenses-paid, yearlong trip around the world.
Murkoff said this giddy pride in pregnancy was not in evidence when she first wrote What to Expect.
"A lot of things about pregnancy don't change—it will always be nine months," she said. "But a lot of things do change, and those are not just changes in OB-GYN practices, but changes in the way we are as pregnant women.
"The first edition cover showed a woman in a rocking chair wearing a frumpy, potato-sack dress. She was sitting down and she looked kind of ambivalent about the whole thing. Or constipated. Now there's a woman who is proud to be pregnant; happy to be pregnant. Maybe constipated but still proud of her body and showing it off."
Something else that has changed over the past few decades, of course, is that the average age of pregnant women has gone up, meaning that pregnancy is often riskier than it was three decades ago. A recent report by the World Health Organization revealed that the U.S. is on par with developing countries when it comes to the number of premature births each year, largely because there are so many more women over 35 having babies.
This shift is reflected in Murkoff's book, which includes sections on "Bleeding in Mid- or Late Pregnancy" and "When Something Just Doesn't Feel Right," as well as a 20-page chapter on "Managing a Complicated Pregnancy." Meanwhile, scattered throughout are alarmist red flags warning against drinking seemingly benign beverages like nonpasteurized juice or certain herbal teas. Murkoff also urges readers to never start a car in the garage with the garage door closed, lest noxious fumes be inhaled, and says that cell phone usage is not "completely risk free." Earlier editions of the book included even more terrifying details (of the same sort, ironically, that inspired Murkoff to write her book in the first place), causing some women to revolt against the pregnancy bible. Murkoff conceded that older editions of the book “did sometimes cross the very fine line from empowering information to paranoia-inducing information, or just plan too much information."
Still, she said, "I don't make up the pregnancy rules, I only pass them along, tempering them as much as possible to avoid pushing those alarm buttons.
"It's a fine, fine line. And probably better to err on the side of caution when it comes to pregnancy than during any other time in our lives, right?"
The film version, naturally, relishes the fear-driven pregnancy narrative, for it provides natural comic fodder. But underneath all the jokes about what might happen lest you not go all-organic, today's graver reality about pregnancy rings loud and clear. Only two lead actresses, Anna Kendrick and Brooklyn Decker, are in their 20s. (Diaz will be 40 this year; Lopez is 42 and Banks is 37.) So when Wendy says she's been doing IVF for several years, and Holly (Lopez) has to adopt because she can't have a child, there is really nothing to laugh about. Nor does it seem merely convenient for the sake of plot that Kendrick is the only one whose character has what Murkoff calls an "oops" pregnancy (though, it, too, is wrought with complications).
"As women, our prime baby-making years are over by the time we reach our mid-20s, well before most of us are anywhere close to being ready," Murkoff said. "Mother Nature's timetable just isn't realistic in our times—and that's the new reality."
Another reality is that today Murkoff, whose franchise has grown to include What to Expect books for a baby’s first few years, is her own multimedia empire—one of the most recognized brands amongst a cluttered industry of Harvey Karps and Dr. Sears and any number of pregnancy and parenthood blogs and websites.
Looking back on it all, she is more dumbfounded than anyone.
“The advance order on What to Expect was so pathetic it was almost unheard of,” Murkoff said. “None of the major chains ordered it. The feeling was, ‘What do moms know about pregnancy?’ ”
Quite a bit, it turns out.