Books I’ve enjoyed reading during my pregnancy

Madelyn's nursery is full of books. This past weekend, I bought her a doll (her first one!) and found a spot for her on one of the bookshelves.
Madelyn’s nursery is full of books. Earlier this month, I bought her a doll (her first one!) and found a spot for her on one of the bookshelves.

For the past nine months, I’ve been drawn to pregnancy literature of all sorts — books, newsletters, birthing class handouts, and more. Sometimes it feels like information overload, but in general, I would rather have more information than not enough.

I’ve bought a lot of pregnancy and childbirth books in hopes of learning more about Madelyn’s development in the womb and what to expect when she finally arrives. Some of the books have been hard to put down. Others have struck me as too preachy, dated, or one-sided.

That said, here are six books I enjoyed reading and would recommend to other pregnant women:

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 6.57.24 PMPregnancy Day By Day,” edited by Maggie Blott: I bought this book just a few days after I found out I was pregnant. I stumbled upon it in a bookstore and was drawn to the idea of reading daily updates about my pregnancy. Every night, Troy and I take turns reading the updates, which start off with a countdown to Madelyn’s due date. (We’re down to four days!) Troy’s already familiar with a lot of information in the book because of his medical background, but we still enjoy reading it together. It’s a shared experience that I’ve come to love.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.47.05 PMBaby Bargains,” by Denise and Alan Fields: Creating a baby registry is fun, but it can also be overwhelming. There are so many brands and products at various price points. Should you get a Boppy or a My ‘Brest’ Friend nursing pillow? A bumbo seat or a high chair? An Ergobaby or a Baby Bjorn? (I could go on and on…!) It’s hard to know which products are the best, and whether the more expensive ones are really any better than the cheaper ones. The Fields’ book, which offers reviews of thousands of baby products, was a lifesaver. A book about product reviews doesn’t sound all that compelling, but it’s a worthwhile guide that’ll save you money (and lots of headaches)!

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.46.34 PMExpecting Better,” by Emily Oster: I’ve written before about this book, which I found to be especially helpful in my first trimester. Early on, I was so worried about doing anything that could potentially harm Madelyn. I wouldn’t eat certain “off-limit foods” like soft cheeses, and I stopped doing things that relaxed me because I read about the possible side effects they could have on fetuses. This included painting my nails, taking a bath, lying on my back, using essential oils, and lighting candles. Oster, an economist, debunks a lot of the myths surrounding what women should and shouldn’t do during pregnancy. Her book helped put me at ease and made me realize that most of the “rules” you read about aren’t as black and white as they’re made out to be. (The majority of soft cheeses in the U.S., for instance, are pasteurized and perfectly fine to eat.) I didn’t follow all the information in Oster’s book, but it helped me make more informed decisions about what I did and didn’t want to do. Sometimes it just comes down to what feels right to you.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.51.57 PMWhat To Expect When You’re Expecting,” by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel: I couldn’t help but buy this classic. The cliches in the book made the writer and editor in me cringe, but I found it to be a helpful guide nonetheless. It’s broken down by pregnancy months, and it’s formatted as a series of questions and answers, making it an easy read. When I was trying to get pregnant, I read “What To Expect Before You’re Expecting,” and waited for the day when I could buy the follow-up. When that day came, I bought the book soon after and thought about how grateful I was to be pregnant.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 10.03.40 AMBrain Rules for Baby,” by John Medina. This book is a fascinating read filled with scientific research and practical advice about how to provide the best environment for your baby’s brain development, inside the womb and after birth. (Here is a roundup of related tips.) Medina explains why praising your children’s efforts is better than praising their intelligence, and why self control — not IQ — is a better predictor of your child’s academic performance. Medina offers insights with a dash of humor and without sounding too didactic. I learned a lot from his research.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 6.59.20 PMIna May’s Guide to Childbirth,” by Ina May Gaskin: I’ve found this earthy-crunchy book to be a good pick-me-up whenever I’m worried about labor and delivery. I’ve heard so many stories about how painful childbirth is. One woman told me it was like a scene out of “The Exorcist.” My OB said it felt like “a knife was being stabbed” into her bladder. Others have claimed there’s “no way” you can get through the pain without an epidural. I don’t let these comments worry me too much; I know every labor is different and that a lot of factors go into it, including the size of your pelvis, the size of your baby, and the duration of your labor. Gaskin’s book features dozens of empowering stories from women who gave birth naturally and who chose to focus on the beauty of the experience rather than the pain. I’m hoping to give birth naturally, so I’ve found these women’s stories to be comforting. I know anything can happen in labor and delivery, so I’m open to an epidural or a C-section if I truly need one. I’ve told myself, though, that as long as Madelyn is ok, I’m going to try to push through the pain. I’m going to remind myself that it’s pain with a purpose and that each passing contraction means Troy and I are one step closer to meeting Madelyn.

*****

I have another stack of books I’m planning to read once Madelyn gets here: “Whole Child/Whole Parent,” “Touchpoints,” “The Gift of Failure,” and “Caring For Your Baby and Young Child.” (Tip: If you live near a Publix and join the store’s Baby Club, you’ll receive a free copy of this last book; it’s a 960-page tome!)

I also have a few “me” books that I’m hoping to delve into while I’m on maternity leave: Mindy Kaling’s “Why Not Me?“; Sara Bareilles’ “Sounds Like Me“; Drew Barrymore’s “Wildflower,” and Brigid Schulte’s “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” (We’ll see how much reading time I actually have once Madelyn’s here!)

What pregnancy/childbirth/parenting books would you recommend? You can make recommendations in the comments section below. 

 

 

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How the last few weeks of pregnancy are teaching me to embrace unpredictability

I’ve found the last few weeks of my pregnancy to be the hardest.

Physically, I’m feeling pretty good. I have some aches and pains, and sleep is getting harder to come by, but I still have energy to go on walks every afternoon and work full days. I’ve found it really difficult, though, to come to terms with the fact that I don’t have any say over when Madelyn arrives.

Troy and I at a wedding last weekend. At 37.5 weeks, I still managed to dance for a couple hours!
Troy and I at a wedding last weekend. At 37.5 weeks, I still managed to do a lot of dancing!

Every morning, I wake up wondering, Will I go into labor today? … What will it feel like? … When will Madelyn arrive?  Every cramp, every tiny change in my body, leaves me wondering if today will be the day.

People like peering into the proverbial crystal ball and sharing predictions. “February babies are the best, so I think she’s going to wait until then.” … “I have a feeling you’re going to deliver early.” … “Statistically, first babies arrive late, so you won’t give birth until at least the second week of February…” Others have asked: What was your mom’s pregnancy and labor like? And when do the women in your family typically deliver? The truth is, I don’t know. My mom died when I was 11, and I never got to ask her these questions. I never got to ask my Gramz, either.

Madelyn is due in exactly two weeks — on Wednesday, February 3. Only about 5% of babies are actually born on their due date, so “the big day” is more or less a guesstimate. Madelyn could be here tomorrow or three weeks from now. Three weeks is such a short amount of time, but to me it feels like an eternity.

I’m a planner. I plan a lot for work and like knowing when and where big events are going to take place. I’ve done as much planning as I can leading up to Madelyn’s birth. I finished her nursery three months before her due date, and my hospital bag has been packed since early December. I’ve washed all of her clothes and organized them by size; I’ve read pregnancy books galore; I’ve taken childbirth, carseat, and infant CPR classes; I’ve created detailed plans outlining how work will get taken care of while I’m on maternity leave; and I had even found a nanny to take care of Madelyn once I return to work. My plans haven’t worked out lately, though, and I’ve been reminded that sometimes life tests our ability to figure out a Plan B, to surrender control.

Surrendering control has been especially hard professionally, as I get ready to take my maternity leave. Work is such a big part of my identity. Thinking about letting go of that for 11 weeks and taking on a new identity as a mom is both exciting and scary. There’s a certain sense of loss that comes with handing over something you’ve overseen and nurtured, even if it’s a temporary hand-off. You can’t help but wonder: Will those projects and labors of love still be there when I get back? What will change while I’m gone? What will these changes mean for me once I return? Fortunately, the work will be in good hands while I’m away. It’ll get done, and what doesn’t get done can wait.

I’m grateful to have nearly three months to care for Madelyn — to get to know this little being that Troy and I have created. I realize that being a mom is going to be the ultimate lesson in learning how to let go. Madelyn is going to sleep when she wants to sleep and wake up when she wants to wake up. Some nights, she’s going to start crying just as my head hits the pillow after a long day. She’s going to poop her pants and throw a tantrum right when we’re about to meet a friend for lunch, or in the middle of church.

But she’s also going to make me giggly and giddy when she looks up at me and smiles. She’s going to warm my heart when her tiny hand grabs mine. She’s going to remind me that motherhood — with all of its unpredictabilities — is going to be the most rewarding and challenging role I’ll ever take on.

My dad recently sent me this photo, which I had never seen before. It was taken at my Gramz's house in the late 80s. I love how playful my mom and I look.
My dad recently sent me this photo, which I had never seen before. It was taken at my Gramz’s house in the late 80s. I don’t know what Mom and I were doing, but I love how playful we look.

I suspect motherhood will remind me that unplanned moments often end up being the most beautiful ones. When you try to follow a detailed schedule, you can develop preconceived notions and set yourself up for disappointment when things don’t go according to plan. Unplanned moments allow room for serendipity, laughter, and new discoveries. And they make for the best stories and life lessons.

Ever since my mom died, I’ve tried to avoid unplanned moments. My mom had a long battle with breast cancer, which spread to her bone-marrow, her liver, and her brain. As a little girl, I didn’t realize how sick she really was. I believed what my mom and everyone else told me — that she was going to survive and everything was going to be ok. Until it wasn’t. When my mom passed away, I felt like I had lost all control. I sought it in other ways — by controlling what I ate and how much I weighed. This yearning for control led to a long struggle with anorexia and disordered eating. Ironically, the more I tried to control my food intake, the more out of control I felt.

I love this photo, which I recently came across. This was my mom's last Christmas, two months before she died. I look so happy to be in her arms!
This was my mom’s last Christmas, two months before she died. She hugged me after opening a gift I gave her. I look so happy to be in her arms!

Births and deaths are two life events that we can’t ever really control. We may know they’re coming, but we don’t know exactly when. As I think about my mom and my own entrance into motherhood, I can’t help but think about the fact that Madelyn’s due date is just a few days before the 19th anniversary of my mom’s death. I’ve found that when one life ends, another often emerges to help ease the pain and fill the void. Any day now, I’m going to give birth to my very own daughter, my mother’s granddaughter. When I do, I’ll remember my own mom and grandmothers — the women who made me who I am today.

There’s an array of feelings that come with knowing you’re about to bring a child into this world — a tiny being who will be totally dependent on you for its care and well-being. This reality seems simultaneously real and surreal. I can’t control what day Madelyn will arrive, hard as I try. What I can do is find comfort in knowing that life will be infinitely more beautiful with her in it.

 

Learning to develop the ’empathy reflex’ as a parent

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When you’re pregnant, your brain plays tricks on you. I’ve had my fair share of “pregnancy brain” moments and have been curious as to why pregnancy causes women to be more forgetful and absentminded than usual. The related research I’ve read has helped me realize that pregnancy brain is a real (and normal) symptom. It has also taught me the importance of empathy in parenthood.

When you’re pregnant, a surge in hormones affects neurons in the brain, grey matter increases, and your spatial memory gets altered. As a result, you become more forgetful and distracted.

“It’s not reasonable to think that a woman could go through all the hormonal and physical changes of pregnancy and not have it affect her brain just as it affects her body,” neurologist Louann Brizendine and author of “The Female Brainrecently told TIME Magazine. The article went on to make another important point: “At the same time … a pregnant woman’s brain doesn’t become somehow deficient or less capable.”

Despite the less appealing neurological changes, the brain also undergoes changes that better prepare women for motherhood. Regions of the brain that control empathy, for instance, experience an increase in activity during pregnancy.

I tend to experience empathy the most when I’m with my husband Troy. Earlier this year when we were on a trip in North Carolina, Troy thought it would be fun to touch an electric fence at a goat farm we were visiting. The inquisitive daredevil that he is, he wanted to see what would happen. As he touched it, I experienced what felt like a shock run through my body. Troy didn’t get shocked, but my body nonetheless reacted as though he had. When he’s ostensibly in pain, I feel that pain. When he’s happy, angry, frustrated, I feel those emotions too.

I have no doubt this empathy will carry over into my role as a mom. In the book, “Brain Rules for Baby,” author John Medina encourages parents to embrace what he calls the “empathy reflex.” Rather than jumping to conclusions about why someone is doing something, he says, try to imagine what they must be feeling in that moment. Medina encourages couples to develop the empathy reflex amongst themselves so that they can embrace it once they’re parents.

“The most common source of conflicts is the gap between a person’s unknowable intentions and observable behavior,” Medina writes. “That gap can be bridged by empathy.”

So how do you develop an empathy reflex as a parent? It takes practice. One way to start (so I’m told) is to try to understand what your child must be thinking and experiencing so that you can better understand her actions. Kids often throw tantrums because they’re feeling a certain way and they don’t know how to verbalize it. As parents, you can label the feeling for your children and, in doing so, teach them to acknowledge their feelings.

So, say for instance your 2-year-old daughter is sobbing because she wants her favorite teddy bear but can’t have him because you’re out running errands. Instead of yelling at her to stop crying, it’s better to say something like: “I know you must really want your Teddy, and you’re probably feeling frustrated that you can’t play with him. I wish I could give you Teddy right now, but I can’t. We’ll be home soon enough and you can cuddle with him then.”

Empathizing with your child calms them down, Medina says, because it signals that you understand and that you care. Medina has found that parents who empathize with their children and who have a “demanding but warm” parenting style raise happier kids.

You don’t need to have all the answers to empathize with your child; you just have to try to understand them. I’m guessing you need a fair dose of patience, too.

I’m sure there will be times when I lose my patience and when the empathy reflex will be the last thing on my mind. I’m going to try my best, though, to embrace empathy and equanimity — and to approach motherhood as an invitation to me my best, imperfect self.

10 things I’ve learned during my pregnancy

Troy and I on our recent BabyMoon -- a honeymoon of sorts before Madelyn arrives.
Troy and I on our recent Babymoon — a weekend getaway trip before Madelyn arrives. It was one of our only free weekends before Madelyn’s due date, so we took advantage of our time together. We stayed at an adorable B&B, explored the various historic sites in St. Augustine, had good convos, and ate lots of tasty food. 

Pregnancy has taught me a lot — about my body, self-care, and the early stages of mother-daughter bonds. I could easily think of 50+ pregnancy lessons, but I’ve narrowed it down to a Top 10 list…

1. The human body is pretty remarkable.

Pregnancy is so common, and yet it seems so miraculous. I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the changes that are happening in my body, and I love reading about Madelyn’s ongoing development. Over the past 18 weeks since finding out I was pregnant, Madelyn has grown from the size of a peppercorn to the size of a cantaloupe! In thinking about my baby’s development, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for what it takes to grow a baby inside of you. You realize that every choice you make about how you treat your body and what you put in it is not just a choice for you but a choice for two.

2. Babies are a beautiful motivator to listen to your body.

Just months after my mom died of breast cancer when I was 11, I developed anorexia. I underwent hospitalizations, residential treatment, and years of therapy, and I made tremendous progress throughout the years. But for all of my adult life, I continued to struggle with disordered eating habits, often yo-yoing between restricting, binging, and exercising obsessively. At various times, I would temporarily split up with my eating disorder – most recently while training for my first marathon earlier this year. It wasn’t until I realized that I was going to become a mom that I finally decided to sign the divorce papers. The fear of passing on disordered eating habits to Madelyn was enough to scare me into healthier eating behaviors – for both Madelyn and myself. It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had a few slip-up days, and the weight gain sometimes gets to me, but I’m making meaningful progress. All those baby steps I’ve taken throughout the years have mattered.

One night after a long day away from home without access to good food, I got back to my hotel and ordered a whole pizza for myself. (I ate it all.)
One night after a long day away from home without access to good food, I got back to my hotel and ordered a whole pizza for myself. (I ate it all and I’m ok with that.)

3. The word “hangry” is suddenly a lot more relatable.

I used to think “hangry” was simply a fun word to say. Since becoming pregnant, it has taken on a whole new meaning.  To fend off nausea in the first trimester, I started eating every three to four hours – a schedule I’ve maintained throughout my pregnancy. When I don’t eat enough, because I’m traveling or in a situation where I don’t have easy access to food, I get irritable, agitated, and cranky.  Now, I bring lots of snacks with me wherever I go.  (Granola bars and individual packets of Trader Joe’s trail mix are key!)

4. Pregnancy can make you really clumsy. 

It’s not a myth. Pregnancy hormones loosen your ligaments and joints and can cause you to retain extra fluids, making you more apt to drop things. I’ve dropped a lot, including my phone. The screen shattered in dozens of pieces, to the point where I was getting shards of glass in my finger when I tried to swipe it. I ended up having to get a new phone. I’ve also dropped a lot of food – on my shirt. Stain removals have come in very handy lately.

5. Pregnancy can make you a lot more nurturing.

I seem to see babies and children everywhere these days. Of course, they were always there, but I didn’t pay as much attention to them before. When I hear a baby cry, my ears perk up. Even when my cat meows, I want to pick her up — something I didn’t do as much in the past. When I see a child ostensibly in need of something, my nurturing tendencies kick into high gear. While in Portland, Oregon, recently, I saw a little boy walking around the street shirtless in 55-degree weather and immediately thought about how cold he must have been. He needs a sweater! Where is his mom? Is he ok? He soon after went into a store, where I hoped he’d find warmth.

Here I am trying to take a nap after some encouragement from Troy (and Clara).
Here I am trying (emphasis on trying) to take a nap after some encouragement from Troy (and Clara the cat). I’m not a very good napper…

6. You’ll never again take a good night’s sleep for granted.

The majority of pregnant women have trouble sleeping. I can’t help but think it’s the body’s way of preparing us for life with a newborn. I’ve always slept on my back, which is unfortunately discouraged during pregnancy. You’re supposed to sleep on your side to help increase blood flow to your baby, so I’ve been trying to fall — and stay — asleep in the fetal position. I inevitably end up tossing and turning a lot, and I always have to get up to go to the bathroom. I seem to wake up even more throughout the night when I’m traveling, which I’ve done a lot lately. I always look forward to returning to my own bed — and my funny-looking but oh-so-comfy Snoogle pillow.

7. You’ve got to make time for self-care.

I realize that once Madelyn is born, I won’t have much, if any, time for myself. So I’ve tried to carve out time for guilt-free pampering. I recently got a manicure (with natural nail polish, to ease my fears about the chemicals in regular nail polish); and I got a haircut (with highlights, after my OB convinced me that getting highlights is ok). I also treat myself each week to prenatal yoga – a class that helps me maintain my physical strength and gives me an opportunity to meditate in the company of other moms-to-be. I’ve been wanting to get a prenatal massage for months but keep putting it off. Sometime in the next month, I’ll get one. It’s hard to make self-care a priority; I’m at least trying to make it less of an afterthought.

I think it's important to challenge yourself, too. During our Babymoon, Troy and I climbed one of the tallest lighthouses in the U.S. 216 steps up a winding staircase, I started to worry about falling and became really emotional. Pregnancy hormones are weird little buggers. I pushed through the tears and fears and kept climbing. Here we are, together at the top.
I think it’s important to challenge yourself, too. During our babymoon in St. Augustine, Troy and I climbed one of the tallest lighthouses in the U.S. As we ascended 216 steps up a winding staircase, I started to worry about falling and became really emotional. Pregnancy hormones are weird little buggers. With Troy’s support, I pushed through the tears and fears and kept climbing. I’m glad I did. Here we are, together at the top.

8. You develop a secret language of sorts.

A couple years ago, I was in charge of writing down all the gifts that my friend got during her baby shower. Several times, I had to ask the mom next to me: “What was that thing called again?! A boopie? A snoopie?”

I now know about all sorts of baby products: Boppies. Snoogles. The Bob Revolution Flex. ErgoBaby. Moby Wraps. Boba WrapsDiaper Genies. Snotsuckers. I can casually mention these words in conversation with other pregnant women and they won’t flinch. We’re part of a “discourse community,” a fancy scholarly term for language clubs. I’ve found that I increasingly gravitate toward women who speak my newfound language – other moms and moms-to-be who understand and share my interest in talking about pregnancy and parenting.

Shorter hair, growing belly at 24 weeks.
Shorter hair, growing belly at 24 weeks.

9. From the moment you find out you’re pregnant, you form a bond with your unborn baby.

I find myself talking to Madelyn at various points throughout the day. Since she can now hear sounds in the womb, I play baby lullabies for her and read her books. (I love having an excuse to buy and read children’s books!) Studies have shown that babies who are read a specific book while in the womb will suck their pacifiers harder when they’re read the same book as a newborn. It’s a clear sign of recognition, researchers say.

Every night I read Madelyn the same book, “The Wonderful Things You Will Be,” by Emily Winfield Martin. The narrator is a parent telling a child that she will love and support her no matter where life takes her. “I’ll look at you and you’ll look at me, and I’ll love you, whoever you’ve grown up to be,” the narrator says in the book’s closing line. 

With every song I play and every book I read to Madelyn, I feel like I’m strengthening my bond with her. I like “introducing” her to others, too, especially when giving work-related talks. “I’m Mallary, and this is Baby Madelyn,” I’ll say, cupping my belly. The audience usually smiles and laughs, and I immediately feel more at ease. I silently tell myself and Madelyn, (“we can do this!”) and that confidence carries me through. 

10. Even when you’re by yourself, you’re never really alone.

As much as I love traveling and having time to myself, I don’t like being away from Troy. I get lonely when flying solo and hanging out in hotel rooms by myself at night. When it’s late and it seems like the whole world is asleep, I divert my attention to Madelyn. I’ll look down at my bulging belly and remember the life that’s emerging inside. Sometimes when I need it most, I’ll feel a kick from within. I pretend the kicks are Madelyn’s silent way of saying, “Hello! I’m still here! Love you!”

I didn’t think you could love someone you never met, but above all else pregnancy has taught me it’s possible.