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Best-selling L.A. pregnancy guru Heidi Murkoff scrambles for relevance in the Age of Relentless Advice

July 29, 2007|Hilary MacGregor | Hilary MacGregor is a freelance writer based in Hollywood.

A prospective L.A. mother looking for advice recently shot off an e-mail to some friends.

Hello recent moms,

I had my first appointment with Dr. Dwight yesterday . . . He did my first ultrasound--the size and texture of a large kidney bean! . . . At this point I feel like I should be reading up on this child raising business! Any books you found helpful or essential? Any you strongly disagreed with? I've read nothing, and the selection on Amazon is too vast to interpret. Ladies, my mind is a sponge . . .

What followed was, well, unexpected:

Pls avoid "What to Expect When You're Expecting." This is negative propaganda. I loved "The Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy" . . .

And then:

Oh . . . how exciting!! I'm afraid that the only book that I haven't given away is the dreaded "What to Expect"--if you keep [above] caveat in mind, you might still find a few pieces of useful information . . .

Who'd have thought a question about pregnancy guidebooks could hint at an emerging cultural divide? In her continuously evolving book, pregnancy guru Heidi Murkoff delivers an encyclopedic run-down of everything you ever wanted to know about having a child--from weight gain to hemorrhoids to fluctuations in sex drive. Although some women credit it with helping them diagnose dangerous medical conditions their doctors had missed, others now say that they're overwhelmed by the sheer exhaustiveness of the book, that it makes them feel as if the road to pregnancy is a minefield with the baby a test at the end. There's also this: At a time when having a baby and becoming a mom is yet another chance for women to assert their styles, "What to Expect" is written in a straightforward manner, without attitude or any discernible sensibility. And that makes some women dismiss it as outdated.

At the eye of that unanticipated storm is a woman struggling to keep her once-groundbreaking franchise relevant in this Age of Relentless Advice.

Virtually every woman of childbearing age in America is familiar with "What to Expect When You're Expecting." For pregnant women, reading it is a rite of passage. When you spot the pastel-toned cover peeking out from under a stack of magazines in a friend's living room or stashed under the bed, you know she is with child, or plans to be soon.

Since it hit stores in 1985, Murkoff's book has sold more than 14 million copies, and as of July 8 the guide will have been on the New York Times bestseller list for 319 weeks. Its success has spawned a fantastically lucrative franchise made up of nearly a half-dozen pregnancy and parenting books, many of which also have sold millions of copies.

A 1998 USA Today survey found that 93% of pregnant women who read a book about pregnancy will read "What to Expect When You're Expecting." The book is handed out by doctors and studied in medical schools. It shifted the paradigm in pregnancy publishing so completely that it has been imitated in some way by nearly every pregnancy book that has followed.

The book also has been featured in the films "Nine Months," "The Next Best Thing," "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and "A Mighty Heart," as well as in the TV shows "The Practice" and "Friends." It recently made a prominent cameo in "Knocked Up." In one scene, the father-to-be recounts a list of the book's can't-dos, which bugs those who rail against this pregnancy bible: "Can't eat sushi. Can't drink. Can't smoke. Can't smoke pot."

But in a splintering culture, "What to Expect" appears to be one of the few things that actually bridge class, race and income gaps. From prison moms to PhDs, women devour what has become a cultural touchstone.

The woman behind this sprawling empire lives in a Mediterranean mansion in Hancock Park. When the door swings open, there stands the reigning queen of American pregnancy.

At 48, Murkoff is petite and stylish, dressed in a loose-fitting Indian cotton tunic and low-cut jeans. Her kitchen is the spotless domain of a Type A personality. She says she works seven days a week on her "What to Expect" franchise and its charitable foundation from a corner of this room, surrounded by dozens of pictures of her two children and other members of her family.

Murkoff credits her free-spirited parents, both freelance journalists, with nurturing her creativity and passing on their facility with words. But from an early age, she says, she knew she was different from the rest of her "disorganized, clutter-embracing, always late, schedule-phobic" family. Murkoff found disorder discombobulating and imposed her own rules and deadlines. She was neat, making her bed even when she didn't have to. She craved routines and gave herself a bedtime in fourth grade because she felt she needed one to do well in school. And she always turned her assignments in on time.

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