My Short List of Must-Read Books on Pregnancy, Parenting, and Childbirth
Before pregnancy, I had no interest in reading about pregnancy or thinking about what was happening. Now it seems I have a PhD in parenting.
Parenting is kind of funny. You have no idea how much you don’t know until you’re thrust in the thick of it, and suddenly, it’s like … “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
And also:“holy shit, I have so much to learn.”
I never realized how much thinking and analysis there is on kids, growth, and development until I had my own kid. The challenge, however, is that your “personal PhD” project is non-stop, ever-changing, and your time to study outside of your hands-on practicum is quite limited.
What’s true is this: you definitely cannot read all of the books.
And it’s really important to notice if (1) the book makes you feel more calm while reading, (2) the book makes you feel thoughtful or curiously excited, or (3) if it makes you feel slightly nutty and like you’re about to go insane. If a book makes you gasp with panic that you’re doing something wildly wrong, or fear for your parenting life, put the book down and heading out to the part instead. The only right book is the book that helps.
My book recommendations come solely from books that made me feel calmer, more sane, or more curious about my new life with kids.
How I organized the following recommendations
As such, I’ve organized my book recommendations into similar categories: books that might be interesting to you as a non-parent and not-yet-family person (or even as someone who doesn’t know yet if you want to have kids); books on pregnancy, science, and birthing for when you have an insatiable need to read everything you can find about the subject, and books on infants, newborns, and early parenting that aren’t too scary and I’ve enjoyed reading and I like to have around to reference with my newborn.
Also, I’ve grouped them into “definitely read” and bonus lists to read if you have more time to study this subject.
A. Books to Read Before You Have a Kid:
If you’re in the same boat or you’re thinking about your own future, this is my favorite book on parenting and staying sane so far:
- Bringing Up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman. The wisdom of French parenting. Alex and I read this several years ago when we were just talking about having children.
Bonus: If you want additional books to think about, toss in one of these non-traditional narrative stories:
- A Life’s Work, by Rachel Cusk. “The experience of motherhood is an experience in contradiction. It is commonplace and it is impossible to imagine. It is prosaic and it is mysterious.”
- Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood, by Anne Enright.
B. Books to Prepare You for Pregnancy and Birth:
I prefer facts and information. When in doubt, tell me more — don’t sugar coat it, don’t avoid topics, don’t tell me what to do blindly. Tell me exactly what’s going to happen, where it’s going to happen, what the risks are, and guide me towards a decision — but don’t decide for me.
There are four books I used in my “reference library.” However, they’re like 600 and 900 pages each. My recommendation for not getting overwhelmed is this: read only the part that you’re currently in, and don’t read ahead too far. In What to Expect, for example, a 900-page book, I read only the chapter for each month of my pregnancy during the month I was in. It was like a reference bible for what was happening in my body and where, without getting mired in the future.
- Expecting Better, by Emily Oster — A data scientist takes on all of those confusing myths (and taboo topics) of what’s really good & bad during pregnancy.
- What to Expect When You’re Expecting, by Heidi Murkoff. A classic, 800 pages deep, a dictionary. Read only the chapter you’re currently experiencing or terrify yourself out of pregnancy.
- Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup. 960 pages thick, I read the chapters on pregnancy & birthing (about 80 pages or so). This and Ina May’s book helped us decide to work with a Doula in my birth experience.
- Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, by Ina May Gaskin. A beautiful, non-Western approach to bringing children into the world. Did you know that 30% of women can experience orgasms while birthing? Yeah, read this one if that surprises you.
C. Books on Parenting and Newborns:
Here’s the thing: no book is ever really going to tell you how to parent, or make becoming responsible for a newborn any easier. Newborns are cute, but they’re also kind of alien like, they don’t come with instructions, and figuring out how to parent can be terrifying.
To make matters worse, there is so much information out there. What I can add is this: every baby, and every family, is different. There is no universal one “right” way, and you’re going to kill yourself with googling if you try to research everything or do all of the things in your one family.
Instead, I picked a few resources and people whose opinions I trusted and respected, and that included my pediatrician, the wisdom of science, and the somewhat laissez-faire approach I enjoyed in books on French parenting. These (hopefully) will influence my parenting styles, although I’ll blend it with my own version of “trial and error” and “eh, I guess that works?” as we figure it out as we go.
- The Science of Mom, by Alice Callahan. Evidence-based approaches to challenging questions, and when we can lean on science, and what we still don’t know much about. This focuses on the first few hours of a newborn’s life, the first few weeks, and challenges like newborn sleep and newborn eating.
- Bébé Day By Day, by Pamela Druckerman. She brings the wisdom of French Parenting into bite-sized nuggets to remember throughout pregnancy and your baby’s early years. My favorite: remember that you and your partner are as important in this family, too.
- The New Basics: A-to-Z Baby & Child Care for the Modern Parent, by Michel Cohen. A French Pediatrician’s view on keeping it simple, and it’s alphabetized! So you can look up “ear infection” if that’s your trouble! They tend to have what I call a more “hands off” approach, so when he says to pay attention to something, I know to pay attention.
- Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life With Kids, by Asha Dornfest. Amazing, amazing ways to use your everyday household items to deal with the insanity of raising children. (Who knew a laundry bucket could do so much, like be a baby’s bathtub?)
Bonus: If you want more (which I did, I started nerding out on books), try these as well:
- What To Expect The First Year, by Heidi Murkoff. A good guide and reference to have on hand for when you freak out and ask “wait, is THIS normal?”
- The Happiest Baby On The Block, by Harvey Karp. All about what the baby’s “fourth trimester” is and what they need the first few months of life. My mantra from this was “you can’t spoil a newborn,” which helped me cuddle and feed my little guy a ton in the beginning while I got used to it all.
D. Going Back to Work, Motherhood, and Careers:
Pick one of the following books to read in order to regain your sanity. It’s like having a wise older sister in your pocket when you feel like you’re scrambling and there’s no way you’ll be able to put yourself back together. (You can.)
- I Know How She Does It. From the description: “Everyone has an opinion, anecdote, or horror story about women and work. Now the acclaimed author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast shows how real working women with families are actually making the most of their time.”
- Work. Pump. Repeat. A step-by-step practical guide for how to manage pumping and your babies early months with all of your career ambitions.
- Here’s The Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy And Parenthood. Again, a career woman lays it all out and explains how to make pregnancy, parenting, and work — well, work.
E. And Some Just For Fun:
Because you must, must continue to have fun while parenting. When you start to take yourself to seriously, and wind into the sobs of despair and wonder if you’re any good at this — you’ll need to take a step back and laugh. And cry. And laugh. Because we all, collectively, don’t know what we’re doing, and it’s going to be okay.
- Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, by Michael Lewis. From the description: “When Michael Lewis became a father, he decided to keep a written record of what actually happened immediately after the birth of each of his three children. This book is that record.”
- Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott. Her account of raising her child and what it takes.
- The Shit No One Tells You, by Dawn Dais. There’s a lot of stuff that no one talks about, and once you’re in it, you think you might be crazy. Until you meet another parent, and hear their accounts, and you smile knowingly and say — oh yes. This. We’re IN IT.
Short on Time? Start With These:
If you can only have three of the books that I listed above, I’d say: Bringing Up Bebe, Expecting Better, and The New Basics got me through a lot of the questions and fears I had about parenting (and reminded me that one coffee wasn’t going to make or break my child), and quickly made me feel like maybe, just maybe, I could do this.