How I decided what to read when preparing to conceive

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Melissa
Photo by instantvintage.
When I became a vegetarian I devoured books on meatless cooking and nutrition. When I got my first apartment, I dog-eared books on house-cleaning and maintenance. When my husband and I adopted our cocker-spaniel, I read every book Cesar Millan wrote about dog training and then some. Of course, when we got engaged, I collected a shelf's worth of titles on wedding planning from just-married friends, and when I started writing my dissertation, you guessed it, I ordered book after book with advice on making it to completion.

So, when the hubs and I first got serious about going off the pill, I did what I always do when I am facing a new and exciting challenge: I started reading. As fast as I could download them onto my e-reader, I snatched them up: books on pre-conception health, on the challenge of balancing work and family life, and on maintaining a happy marriage after having a child. I couldn't wait to begin thinking through what it would mean to have a baby in concrete terms. I thought reading about conception health, birth, and parenting would add to my excitement and anticipation and make me feel more ready to bring another person into our family. Instead as the pages added up I felt myself spinning further and further downward in a never-ending loop of anxieties.

After reading The Impatient Woman's Guide to Getting Pregnant and Expect the Best: Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy I worried that if I was even able to get pregnant I would likely ingest some food that would cause my baby unforeseeable harm.

In addition, I became increasingly concerned that a baby would re-direct all my personal ambitions toward parenting and leave me with little energy left to spend on my shifting career path, side-railing my chances of landing a fulfilling job in the future. And, maybe most frighteningly for me, books like Babyproofing Your Marriage and And Baby Makes Three brought about the worry that having a baby might drive a rift between me and my husband, my greatest stronghold of love and support.

Where I had felt most confident about myself, I began to feel fragile and under-prepared. I began to wonder if I had the emotional stability to be thinking of raising a child at all. Talking with friends didn't seem to help much, as most people responded with canned phrases: "You worry too much!" and "But you'll be a great mom!" Ultimately, I decided to hang on to my pills a while longer. It seemed to me that to let go would mean risking every part of the life that I had built for myself up until now.

This time keeping up with the pill had a wonderful side effect: it gave me a reason to put aside my pregnancy books for a while. I didn't experience immediate relief, though. I still wanted to have a baby and my uncertainty about it left me floundering at the bottom of some deep personal wells. Luckily, while I was down there I turned to the poets who have long served as my most trusted advisors. Walt Whitman's confident lilting verse offering his comrade "rough new prizes" in lieu of the "old smooth prizes" in his poem "The Song of the Open Road" and Rainer Maria Rilke's admonition to a young poet to "Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves," reminded me of my own long-standing commitment toward embracing the unknown — the real reason I had become an avid reader in the first place.

As a child books allowed me to visit places and have experiences I couldn't yet have on my own. But somehow now, instead of experiencing books as a way to peak my curiosity and sense of adventure, I had begun using them to guard my priorities and to control my situation. To a point, these are reasonable goals, just as the advice books I read on parenting offer reasonable and helpful suggestions, but in reading about the practical logistics of pregnancy I had forgotten the underlying more ambiguous reasons for having a baby that (I expect) make all the struggle worth while.

After a few months of meditating with lines from my favorite poets in mind, I finally felt my anxiety around having children begin to ebb away.

One night I surprised my husband with a framed copy of Emily Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility" that I had written out for him. The poem is about Dickinson's preference for writing poetry rather than prose, but I felt it also spoke to my reasons for doing a turn-about (again) and deciding I was ready, after all, to ditch the prosaic pill. Dickinson's poem serves as a reminder to resist the impulse to control and understand everything (an impulse that often manifests in the writing and reading of books), as she advocates for the ambivalence of poetry, which offers room for growth and the chance to dig for deeper truths.

If I find myself expecting in the next year, I probably won't cut out all reading on the latest pregnancy/parenting advice, (I still value the information), but I've found it's critical to balance this with a little poetry. When worries threaten to creep back in, I remember the joy of unknowing that my favorite poets rekindled for me and feel my strength and excitement for new challenges returning. Whatever happens, I'll be "spreading wide my narrow Hands — to gather Paradise."

  1. Beautifully written! I have an 11month old and I am still picky about what information I "ingest." I usually like some information, but I can quickly feel overwhelmed—unless it's an instruction manual. Which of course parenting/pregnancy books cannot be manuals, even when purported to be so. When I was newly pregnant (and surprised) I thought I would want to read so much, but I found that like a lot of food/scents, I just didn't have the stomach for most of the information out there. Most of actually increased my feeling of nausea if it didn't fit for me. So I read very little. However, I think poetry would have been a nice compliment to my plain, plain food.

    • You are so right — reading is a form of 'ingesting!' More and more I'm finding that best things to have on hand are those that make me feel most balanced. Thanks for the comment!

    • Yes!
      I found that reading *anything* early in my pregnancy about babies (or even the pregnancy itself) made me cry. So, that became my litmus test: If it didn't make me want to cry, it was worth continuing to read.
      I now have two parenting books on my bookshelf: one serious and practical (which I've learnt a lot from that I had no real idea about – like newborns sleep up to 20 hours a day. I just had no idea!), and the other rediculous and a reminder to relax.

      And I think, for me, that those two, plus sites like this, is enough.I dont need to freak myself out with excessive information!

  2. Good for you. I started doing the same thing, and it drove me crazy. I used to work in an ER and I worried my x-ray and drug exposures nuked my ovaries. When I did get pregnant, I read websites all of the time stressing about complications. I had cramps and back pain. The websites said I could have severe complications. I had a little spotting. The websites said I had an ectopic pregnancy or was miscarrying. I was so stressed out that I was simultaneously afraid of not doing enough (exercise, eating, planning!!) and doing the wrong things (exercise, eating, pedicures, hair dye!!) Finally, I stopped. It's the best decision I have made this far. I finally feel like I can breathe.

    • The spotting! Oh my goodness. Nothing strikes more fear into the heart. I've had a lot of bleeding and spotting that has turned out to be NOTHING. I had a mild, benign hemorrhage, spotting from constipation, and a fair amount of bleeding after sex. A lot of books tell you to go to the emergency room every time! Terrifying, especially after you've had a miscarriage like I had.

    • Oh, firtst trimester spotting struck terror in mt heart, and 9 hour long visits to the local ER that accepted uninsured folks. I was told I had what is called a threatened abortion, which meant my cervix opened slightly. With a 50% chance of miscarrying, all I could do was go home and wait. I checked for blood every time I peed, and lived in fear. As I type this I am nursing my very healthy three month son. He showed us that he is strong and a surviver.

      I have avoided parenting books, and the only books I read related to pregnancy was one to get pregnant (Taking Charge of Your Fertility, can't recommend it highly enough) and one to prepare for labor (Birthing From Within). Every book claims they contain the right way to parent, but my husband and I know our son best. And our marriage is stronger than ever. Good luck!

      • It is so good to hear positive stories like yours instead of the fearful anecdotes that many books use to try and prove their 'claims' are important/valid. Congratulations to you and your husband on your happy transition to parenthood!

    • We have a minor complication (Single Umbilical Artery), and after an hour or so reading up on the risks that it causes, I decided that was more than enough freaking-myself-out and that there was nothing I could do but wait and see.
      Can be hard, but is so much easier generally.

  3. When I first got pregnant I was reading everything I could get my hands on. After a few months I was completely overwhelmed and freaked out. I felt like everything I was doing was wrong. I did not have a comfortable relationship with my ob and was too nervous to really ask quetions. After I had a miscarriage, and I put all of the books away. I am now 6 months pregnant and just beginning to read a few books again. I am being much more selective with what I read and how seriouslIy I take any of it.
    I also talk to my midwives about my concerns and questions instead of researching on the internet. I am much happier for it.
    I will add that I loved reading special delivery by Rahima Baldwin

  4. I had exactly the same reaction to the pregnancy books. The websites are even worse, and I gave up on them when they started lecturing me about going back to work post-birth. The most hilarious suggestions to me were about food. It turns out, babies thrive in the first trimester whether you eat or not. I did not. Too sick to keep much down, my babies survived on white toast and string cheese and did beautifully. During my second trimester, I had to accept the fact that I would have to eat whatever sounded and tasted good (my morning sickness reduced by only 50%). This led to more meals of french fries than I could ever count, and enough garlic bread sticks to span miles if placed end-to-end. Occasionally the babies want a salad, and I'm grateful. Being pregnant has taught me that it isn't the end of the world when things don't go my way (though I've often felt like it is, and thrown tantrums to match). But I'm better now at staying calm when I feel out of control and I'm grateful for that.

  5. I am also someone whose first instinct is to turn to books. I didn't read much pre-conception other than Taking Charge of Your Fertility, but when I got pregnant, I started reading pregnancy/parenting books. I think Magda of Ask Moxie gives the best advice – when it comes to parenting books, either read everything or read nothing. If you read nothing, you'll just do what seems right to you. If you read everything, you'll learn that they all disagree with each other, and you'll figure out how to pick and choose the advice that seems right to you. The only problem is if you just read one or two, assume they represent THE TRUTH about children, and then freak out when it doesn't match your reality. So I read everything, and was happy to just ignore the ones I didn't like!

    • You must have been very busy! I definitely agree that you have to be able to take all advice with a grain of salt. Like consulting resources on how to choose a spouse or career, notions about how to be a parent do not come in one-size-fits-all patterns!

  6. My wife and I have had some very similar experiences with pregnancy books, apps and websites, from the "1001 foods that you should ABSOLUTELY NEVER EAT" to the billion blithe assumptions about your relationship circumstances ("your husband" is an assumed constant … not that he's assumed to be doing much parenting or support work) and your plans for pregnancy, birth, feeding, work, schooling and probably freaking grandkids. I think our issue with the guides can ultimately be summed up as "frequently patronising, make a bucket of annoying assumptions and aren't shy about giving you a direct order."

    I would be really interested in a "What resources have you found useful?" post. Obviously not the same things will suit everyone, but it would be really great to share books, blogs, etc. that offbeatfamilies.com people have found helpful, supportive, and generally non-sucky. Especially for those of us in specific circumstances that don't tend to get covered or discussed by the regular guides, e.g. single parents, gay and trans parents, parents adopting, etc. etc.

    • I agree, an on-going list of user-vetted texts would be very helpful. One book that isn't really a pregnancy book, but inspired me alongside my poets, was Priscilla Gilman's The Anti-Romantic Child. It's about the author's transition into parenthood with her first child, who was born with a developmental disorder. Learning about her strength and determination to do what is best for her son, while resisting outside attempts to label and categorize him, helped me to imagine letting go of expectations about parenthood and opening myself up to its unforeseen challenges and rewards instead.

  7. I enjoyed reading pregnancy and parenting books in the very early pre-conception stages, when I wanted to be pregnant but wasn't financially/logistically ready. Then, when I was actually ready to get pregnant, I became much more selective in my reading. It definitely became my priority to read things that made me feel less stressed, rather than more stressed, and the information provided became almost secondary to that.

  8. I'm with you! I used to read parenting books like crazy and all they did was make me feel like I wasn't doing enough. With my first son I read all the books and worried about everything. With my 2nd I relaxed and it was wonderful. If you do get pregnant and want to read I recommend Pam England's book Birthing from Within and Ina May Gaskin's Guide to Childbirth. They both give women a sense of trust in their bodies.

  9. Love the Dickinson! I also like this Rumi poem–I'm incorporating it into my upcoming wedding, but I think it speaks beautifully to most aspects of human relationships, from friends to lovers to children.

    I used to be shy.
    You made me sing.

    I used to refuse things at table.
    Now I shout for more wine.

    In somber dignity, I used to sit
    on my mat and pray.

    Now children run through
    and make faces at me.

  10. Here here on not reading *all* of the books. I too read voraciously when I was thinking about pregnancy/first pregnant, but ultimately I decided that it was really important that I trust myself to be able to do this, and became a lot more selective. That approach actually wound up translating into childbirth prep as well, which I didn't expect. I really stuck to "what information do I need to know, and what's a reliable source?" rather than reading everything. And I was a lot more relaxed/happy for it.

    Having a midwife that I liked and trusted helped a lot too. A reliable expert who I could have frank discussions with was a *great* resource, and kept me from obsessing too much on my own.

  11. As an anxiety sufferer, pregnancy was absolutely horrifying to me. The first timer worries were multiplied in ways i never would have imagined. All the books struck fear in my heart, until my greatest friend gifted me the miracle book. Lets Panic about babies! by Alice Bradley and Eden Kennedy had me laughing so hard i had no time to freak. I put every other book away and just giggled through the whole thing, twice. Seriously recommend this book, i believe it was a thinkgeek.com purchase.

  12. Most pregnancy books/sites terrify me. Luckily, I have plenty of time before my husband and I plan on having children, so I can research specific baby-related topics one at a time. Generally, I try to remove my emotions from my reading, and I act like I'm an anthropologist of some sort, studying a new and confusing society.

    "Humans have designed various products to easily transport their offspring between destinations, and many find their personal method of infant transit to be superior to the methods chosen by others…"

    "The offspring's designated place of rest is often a source of contention between human societies, as caregivers often cannot agree whether the child should be housed in independent quarters or within close vicinity of their caregiver/s."

    It's not a perfect solution, but sometimes it helps to try to take a step back and look at child-planning objectively. I feel like these resources like to tell parents what to think, instead of helping parents find out what is right for their situation.

  13. YES! I'm pregnant and at the beginning I read tons of pregnancy and parenting books. After a month or two I felt like I needed a break and went back to fiction and it's been so relaxing! Before I was pregnant I probably read a book a month, but I can't get enough right now. It eases my pregnancy anxiety, makes me feel snuggly, and taps into my thoughtful creative side.

  14. I quit reading parenting books because they were freaking me out. I am already pregnant, and at one point I was pursuing a doctorate in sociology. I got how tough it is to exist as a mother in this society, but parenting books seem to add a layer of fear and moralizing and… honestly, I started to feel like I was better left with my gut and my trusted family members to get ideas from.

    This was such a different experience for me – I've always turned to books.

  15. I LOVED From the Hips and Birthing from Within. Are there parenting books that are similarly not-terrifying? My baby is 13 months and I'm struggling to find books.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.