The Paris Review

The Baby, the Book, and the Bathwater

On female ambition and what gets thrown out.

Around halfway through writing my novel, I read a book that nearly derailed me. As any writer knows, reading while writing is always a risky pursuit. Cadences are easily stolen; we find ourselves singing a lullaby we don’t remember being sung to us. But there’s something worse than a book that turns us into magpies and mimics: one that squelches our very desire to write.

The book that had this censoring effect on me was called, both innocuously and officially, The Baby Book. It was the first book I read after giving birth for the first time, as sleep-deprived and receptive as any cult joiner.

I had not read about baby care during my first pregnancy, which ended after eleven weeks, or during the second. Due to an autoimmune illness that could compromise my ability to carry a baby to term, as well as my family’s Judeo-magical thinking that links stillbirths to positive thoughts, I refused to imagine anything beyond the birth. But once my own child emerged, gorgeous and awake, a heart beating beneath her thin skin, I was at a loss. I turned to the book all my friends recommended.

Two inches thick, with four naked babies of varying skin tones on the cover, along with the brag MORE THAN 1,000,000 COPIES SOLDThe Baby Book, written by Dr. William Sears and his wife, Martha, a nurse, claims to be “the baby bible of the post–Dr. Spock Generation.” And indeed, it offers indispensable advice about every aspect of baby care. Yet I quickly came to fear this book. Although it was pretty much the only book I read at the time, I felt anxious whenever I read it. Even now, ten years later, I still hate being in the same room as this book.

It’s not simply a baby manual.

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