What to Read When You’re Expecting

The moment I learned I was pregnant, advice began pouring in from all directions. Much was unsolicited and came from well-meaning friends, relatives, or strangers in the endless flow of comments on internet forums. Meanwhile, guidebooks and articles filled my head with warnings. Following in the footsteps of millions of people before me, I dutifully purchased a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and jotted down notes on the perils of cold cuts and various medications.

Amid the onslaught of rules and restrictions, what I found myself craving—along with a tall glass of cold ale—was less dogma and more solidarity around this strange new state of being. I looked for a wide range of books that would help me holistically understand what would happen to me and my family. I also hoped to learn more about the cultural context of bearing and rearing children, so that I could understand how I now fit into it.

When I put down What to Expect, I found titles that offered maps for navigating, emotionally and physically, what was to come. The authors have drawn them by exploring their own psyche and experiences, and by researching the perspectives of others. For those in the midst of the great transition into parenthood who may also be seeking reassurance, these writers offer up generous insight without judgment.

The cover of Great With Child
W. W. Norton and Company

Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother, by Beth Ann Fennelly

“Of course there will be Required Reading, the baby books and magazines,” Beth Ann Fennelly, a mother, professor, and former poet laureate of Mississippi, advises her newly pregnant friend in a letter. “But find time to read good literature, too, even if a novel takes a month”—substantive books, she argues, nourish and counsel us in ways that straightforward guidance cannot. The letter is one of many that she wrote and later compiled into a book; it’s an odd form, in a way, because it encourages the reader to encroach on someone’s deeply personal correspondence. Yet Fennelly pulls this off, and her words of wisdom are deeply sweet without being cloying. She acknowledges the hardships of motherhood, warning that giving birth can be excruciating, that personal pursuits can suffer, that working can come with feelings of guilt. Still, the portrait she paints of parenting in her warmly chaotic household is sun-kissed and soothing. To her, raising children is akin to writing poetry: “Both cost you more than you think you can bear. Repay you more than you deserve.”

The cover of Nurture
Chronicle Books

Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood—And Trusting Yourself and Your Body, by Erica Chidi

The title of this interactive, illustrated guide feels apt, with its focus on nurturing parents-to-be. Inside are many pages devoted to their physical and mental health. Chidi intersperses straightforward medical explanations—including a month-by-month breakdown of pregnancy and overview of childbirth options—with advice that draws from her expertise as a doula, chef, and reproductive health educator, such as recipes, checklists, reflection exercises, and best ways to vet practitioners. She references mainstream medical advice, but discusses less common options such as home birth without judgment. Those anxious about leaving the hospital with a baby will also appreciate the thorough section on newborn care. The comforting tone and emphasis on maternal well-being give the sense of someone holding your hand through what can otherwise feel like an overly clinical or frightening experience.

[Read: Parenting looks nothing like what the experts say]

The cover of Linea Nigra
Two Lines Press

Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes, by Jazmina Barrera, translated by Christina MacSweeney

When interpreting pregnancy through art, no starting point is better than the musings of the Mexican writer Jazmina Barrera. Linea Nigra, named after the line that appears on the abdomen of many expecting people, chronicles the author’s life in the months before and after having her first child. To call it a memoir would be reductive—it includes so many references to fine art, literature, and history that it functions almost as an anthology or a masterfully curated museum of child-rearing. Influenced by her own mother’s career as a painter, Barrera meditates on art constantly, at one point comparing Mark Rothko’s black-on-black paintings to the way the world might appear from within the uterus, and at another mulling the final scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when a fetus observes the Earth from some unknown vantage. She weaves in thoughts from writers such as Maggie Nelson, Sylvia Plath, and Rosario Castellanos. When an earthquake buries her mother’s paintings, it serves as an apt metaphor for the way she’s preparing for her child to irrevocably alter her life. Her writing gives this change the gravity it deserves. If nothing else, Linea Nigra reminds readers that many deep and abstract thinkers have trodden this road before them.

The cover of Like a Mother
Harper Wave

Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, by Angela Garbes

Readers of Garbes’s more recent book, Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, will find her first book no less insightful. Drawing on her background as a journalist, she breaks down complex biological processes such as placenta growth and milk production with the enthusiasm and clarity of a high-school science teacher. At the same time, she relates them to her own experience as a mom, and critiques the ways America both judges and neglects new parents. Refreshingly, she doesn’t shy away from darker elements. In one chapter, she walks the reader through the facts and figures of pregnancy loss, and recounts having had miscarriages and an abortion before giving birth to her daughter. She marvels at the healing properties of breast milk while recalling how all-consuming it was to pump around the clock. She laments how ill-supported women in the U.S. are when recovering from labor (unlike in France, where, she notes, everyone who gives birth is referred to treatment to help strengthen their pelvic floor), but celebrates how dance workouts eventually helped her rebuild her muscles. Any reader, pregnant or not, could come away with a greater appreciation for the processes by which humans are conceived, delivered, and raised.

[Read: What happens to your body after giving birth?]

The cover of The Natural Mother of the Child

The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, by Krys Malcolm Belc

For Belc, who is nonbinary and transmasculine, carrying a child meant grappling with a host of questions about identity. “Nothing about being pregnant made me feel feminine,” he writes. “This body is what it is: not quite man, not quite woman, but with the parts to create and shape life.” In order to properly take stock of that experience, he grafts legal documents, photographs, and other ephemera into his memoir; the result feels less like a parent’s sentimental scrapbook than a carefully researched thesis. Many of these documents are vestiges from the process of Belc’s partner adopting their second son. These forms listed Belc as “the natural mother of the child,” a label that caused him great discomfort and even rage; the book details how his desire to legally sanction his family’s relationships forced him to accept labels that felt dismissive and inaccurate. Regardless of the extent to which a reader relates to Belc’s position, his meditation on how babies can simultaneously upend, compromise, and enrich a person in every sense invites readers to reflect on the limitations of gender roles, as well as on the contradictions and complexities of their own inner lives.

The cover of Motherhood So White
Source Books

Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America, by Nefertiti Austin

Austin can recall the exact day in 2006 when, at 36, she felt gripped with “full-fledged mommie-jones” and decided to adopt. As a Black woman without a partner, she understood that her decision would “raise eyebrows,” but she cherished her independent, single life, and she had a positive view of non-nuclear family structures; she herself had been raised by her grandparents. When a social worker told her that Black boys in the foster system are most likely to be overlooked, she realized that bringing up “a baby boy would allow me to lift as I climbed.” Her sense of responsibility—to not only be a good parent, but to challenge injustice—serves as the focal point of the book. Hungry for healthy, relatable models of Black parenting, she scoured the library for stories like hers and came up short. She describes to readers what she did find, along with a discussion of every TV show, podcast, political event, and song that made her feel less alone. Her writing lays bare how U.S. culture influences, excludes, and undermines Black families. Meanwhile, her frank account of the adoption process illuminates an alternative path to parenthood through the eyes of someone who’s as wary of the world’s prejudice as she is hopeful that she can help change it.

[Read: Parenting like an economist is a lot less stressful]

The cover of The Birth Partner
Harvard Common Press

The Birth Partner: A Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Partners, Doulas, and All Other Labor Companion, by Penny Simkin

When preparing for childbirth—an experience equally high-stakes and unpredictable—the mere knowledge that someone close to you has enlightened themselves on the process can be a powerful emotional balm. In fact, the World Health Organization recommends that women have a trusted companion to support them throughout labor, and says that their health outcomes can improve when they do. Yet playing a supportive role can be challenging without sufficient knowledge of what happens—and where you fit in. In The Birth Partner, Simkin, a physical therapist, childbirth educator, doula, and birth counselor, helps anyone who wants to help: Her book doesn’t discriminate among partners, relatives, friends, and professionals. Originally published in 1989, the handbook has earned thousands of fans and been updated numerous times, most recently in 2018. By giving readers concrete strategies for comforting and accommodating someone during labor, in addition to preparing them for what they might feel in the moment, Simkin reminds us that labor, like parenting, can be easier and more meaningful when treated as a collective effort.

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