Queen of the baby bibles

MY first encounter with Heidi Murkoff is a real icebreaker.

She is practically starkers, in a pair of bright purple lace pants and black bra, bent over, with her pert little tattooed bottom in the air (“Erik”, it reads, a tribute to her adored husband of 30 years). “Oh come in, come in,” she cries, straightening up and seeing my mortified expression at the untimely intrusion. “Let me give you a hug.”

So here I am, in a make-do changing room in a photographer’s studio, hugging the buff LA body of the author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. She is quite possibly the most globally influential, economically successful and revered pregnancy and babycare expert since Dr Spock. What to expect from a babycare expert? Not this tiny package of glossy, toned fabulousness. Back in the day, babycare gurus looked like, well, babycare gurus, or they weren’t women at all but were — the shock of it — men (Truby King, John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott, Benjamin Spock. The males continue to pile up: Robert Winston has his own guide out this month).

“Look at her,” Murkoff later guffaws when she sees I’m holding a very early edition of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, with a serene woman relaxing in a rocking chair on the front. “She’s in a shapeless potato sack. You can smell the potpourri. Look at her ugly shoes and mess of hair, plus she looks constipated — which is appropriate — but on the latest edition she’s on her feet, she’s holding her belly, she’s proud to be pregnant and she’s not hiding under a polyester tent you could sleep a family of four in.”

It’s just as well that the woman with the ugly shoes and polyester tent has gone, since what A-lister would have looked the part playing such a minger in the movie? For, curiously, What to Expect When You’re Expecting is about to come out as a film starring Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez, with Murkoff and her husband acting as executive producers. There is no “story” to Murkoff’s book — it’s a guidebook about pregnancy, for heaven’s sake — and even Murkoff admits to finding the concept bizarre. “It does seem a little random. We’ve been resisting it for years, but this time it felt right.”

Murkoff had a big say over the script. She wanted a romantic comedy just like Love Actually, telling the “universal experience of pregnancy” through the stories of five couples. One might ask why the $30 million (£19 million) film needed Murkoff’s backing at all, but then that would be missing the point. Murkoff is now a global brand, with millions of mums all over the world buying her books and talking to her on the internet, through her website as well as Facebook and Twitter; the studio must have got her on board for the title alone.

Since the first edition in 1985 — complete with lady in the rocking chair — the Murkoff empire has grown exponentially. There are now follow-up What to Expect books (The First Year, The Second Year, Eating Well When You’re Expecting and so on); a US website (launching in the UK and in Australia by the end of the year); four iPhone apps; a charitable foundation set up to ensure that semi-literate women around the world receive proper prenatal care and advice. The books have sold some 35 million copies (“My best friend during my pregnancy,” Mariella Frostrup attests on the cover of the UK edition) — placing Murkoff in the top five of UK parenting books, alongside Gina Ford and Annabel Karmel, netting £5,260,965 in sales since 2000 in the UK alone.

In America, 93% of all book-buying pregnant American women read What to Expect When You’re Expecting (17 million copies currently in print throughout the world), which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for more than 10 years. Last year, Murkoff herself made it onto Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. She vows that she is not a celebrity “in the real world“, but J-Lo (great with the film’s babies, apparently — “Not a diva at all”) knew exactly who she was.

“People call it a brand,” Murkoff says. “But it’s a family for me. I think of it more as ‘family planning’. My mission has never changed. The idea was simply that if a couple of parents slept better at night than Erik and I did when I was pregnant, then I would have accomplished what I set out to do. That’s all it was and, although it has grown, it hasn’t changed at all.” Apart from the regular updated editions and the covers, that is.

“It is a brand, Heidi,” says Erik Murkoff matter-of-factly as he watches her change into different outfits. Erik travels with her always and is a quiet and watchful foil to her front-of-house exuberance. He has a cool, intelligent New York vibe about him and has been her business partner since giving up his job as a theatre manager in 1990, when the book started to take off. “I call it a brand,” he says. No wonder she feels safe having him around. He knows a brand when he sees one.

Murkoff turned in the proposal for What to Expect 30 years ago, shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Emma, when she was just 23. The pregnancy had been an accident. She’d only known Erik seven months when they married and, because of a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis at 17, Murkoff had been forced to contemplate infertility. She wasn’t ovulating, nor was she using birth control. She got pregnant on her honeymoon, when she’d been knocking back cocktails. She calls it a “happy surprise”, but one can almost detect her shock at the memory even now: “Nobody was having a baby in New York City at that age.”

The book was born out of her frustration at not finding anything that would answer her own concerns. She was, she admits, “young, dumb, naive and clueless” when Emma was born. She was living in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village; Erik worked nights, while she dealt with a screaming baby with colic. After initially taking to her bed, weeping with lack of confidence, Murkoff dusted herself off and began to research the book with her mother (who died 11 years ago from breast cancer) and sister, leaving questionnaires for women in doctor’s surgeries and writing up their questions and answers while breastfeeding. Now she relies on her cyber-family of mums to speed up this winning formula of including, month-by-month, the weirdest and frankest of questions, such as: “I hardly recognise my breasts any more, they’re so huge. And they’re tender, too. Will they stay that way, and will they sag after I give birth?”

As the 53-year-old Murkoff is the first to point out, it’s a different world out there these days for pregnant women. When she was heavily pregnant with her second child 26 years ago, she brought bathers at a little community pool in Buffalo, New York, to a stunned silence by wearing a one-piece bathing suit. “It was as if I was wearing something obscene,” she says. “Now everyone celebrates their bumps and bellies. I’m sorry I missed that.”

She describes herself as “female friendly rather than a feminist”. She says she is “pro-empowered women, but women have different ways they feel comfortable expressing empowerment”, and that power “is what feels right in your heart”. It is at moments like this when I’m acutely aware that Murkoff is an American living on the West Coast. She translates across continents well, with the help of experts, but often she’ll strike a red pen through their tweaks, saying that they’ve struck the wrong tone entirely and missed her “voice”. Perhaps this is why, for example, the What to Expect iPhone app will advise that now is the time to stop getting your fillers. “Day 157: Thinking of stopping by your dermatologist’s office for a fill (or refill) of collagen, Restylane or Perlane?… You’re better off staying unfilled for now.” What normal middle-class English woman of child-bearing age gets fillers in her face? Or even worries about wrinkles when she’s pregnant?

Murkoff is keen to stress that the LA lifestyle is not what she’s about; her life-work balance is possible, she says, because there is nothing more in her life than Erik, her children, her books and the “family of mums”. She’s no great socialite either, but still, she looks just as polished as the celebrities who live in her neighbourhood. She has a treadmill at home, follows a wholefood diet (she brings her own lunch when we meet, a sort of birdseed-type energy bar washed down with Diet Coke), uses “a lot of products” and, one suspects, those age-defining fillers that made it onto the app, although “never the knife”.

Despite how it looks from the outside, there is no structured Murkoff workforce beavering away in Heidi Towers. She still writes the books herself. I tell her I find this amazing. “I’m a control freak,” she says, although she is helped by her “other partner”, Sharon Mazel, the co-author who does the lion’s share of the medical research. Each book is checked by a member of the medical profession, and the website and foundation have their own staff.

“But I can’t begin to tell you how it’s not about the money,” she stresses. “It has been incredible; I make a very, very nice living and we get to travel through the foundation, which is probably the most important part, but I would never make my next decision based on the financial value. We could sell out big time and own an island somewhere, but it’s just not going to happen.” She won’t let formula companies or junk-food manufacturers advertise on her website and she had a product placement for a formula taken out of the film: “I’m not against bottle-feeding, but I don’t like the way they prey on Third World countries where there is no clean drinking water.”

Although What to Expect When You’re Expecting has for many years contained a chapter for fathers, Murkoff has stayed away from writing books specifically for men. “I’m sure my publishers would love me to do that, but I’m not a dad and I don’t want them to feel like I’m talking down to them.” She is, however, what she calls a “dadvocate”, and has understood the power of fathers ever since she walked into the New York apartment holding Emma, dissolved into tears and was ushered into bed by Erik. “It started way back then. Erik just took over, even though he’d never held a baby either. I believe there’s nothing a mother can do that a father can’t do just as well.”

IN HER book Dream Babies, Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford, the writer Christina Hardyment writes, “Never in the whole of written history have so many different experts dictated to new parents in such detail. Most confusingly of all, their advice is infinitely varied. There is no doubt that parents do need advice, and now more than ever. The small families of the late 20th century have meant that it is unusual to have cared for a small baby morning, noon and night until you have one of your own. Hospitals chuck new mothers out after 48 or even 24 hours. Summoning a health visitor seems like an admission of failure. Moreover, now that so many women work for a decade or more before having a baby, you are not likely to have a peer group of friends approaching parenthood together. If granny lives nearby and you get on with her, that’s great. But even granny’s nerve has been shaken by the dramatic swings in baby-raising fashions in the past 50 years.”

Hardyment is clear on why contemporary childcare writers such as Murkoff, Ford and the late “baby whisperer” Tracy Hogg are doing so well. They give us what we crave: information on sleep training, pre-conception, eating well, potty training, the importance of brushing our hair and wearing lipstick… You name it, there’s a book for it. But let’s not forget that, in so doing, they also become very wealthy.

These days we learn to cook from a book and to clean our house from a book, so it feels natural that — often separated from older generations by distance — we turn to a book or the internet for advice. And often this advice is not only conflicting but even demoralising when our babies don’t perform on cue. (As one wise older lady said, “The problem with baby books is that the babies don’t read them.”)

Last month, Dr Angela Davis, a researcher at the University of Warwick, published evidence on the confusing and inconsistent nature of baby books. Of a sample of 150 baby-book readers, spanning the past 50 years, not one had a good word to say about them. Whether the books were by Spock, Ford or Penelope Leach — all of whom have wildly differing messages — the outcome was the same: the books made the women feel inadequate and it was always felt that the advice given was delivered “as a threat”.

In my straw poll of mothers, many echoed this sentiment (one mother said the books actively contributed to her postnatal depression). While mothers generally thought that Murkoff’s books were fairly common sense and health-based, there were dissenters. A regular gripe was the “milestone” format of the books that deal with older infants, with many mums saying they ended up worried about the progress of their child’s development. One mother told me that the What to Expect series was, in her view, “not good” and “pro-intervention”.

“It is the book that dads are most likely to read,” this mother continued, “and possibly one that would encourage men to go to the doctors and encourage their wives to have a drip or lie on their backs. It’s far too worrying.” On the other hand, she said, Gina Ford had been a godsend (for other mothers, Ford was public enemy No 1). There was absolutely no consistent line, except that, bar one or two exceptions, everybody had bought at least one book.

Ironically, Murkoff herself admits to placing too much importance on what the guidebooks said. ‘I remember being in labour and Erik wanting to take me to the hospital and me saying to him, ‘But the books say that it should be different from this.’ By the time I got there, I was 10cm dilated.

“We’ve had pendulum swings in just about everything from generation to generation and now women want control of everything in their lives,” she says. “Girls aren’t raised to be mothers these days. It didn’t used to be something you took classes for or read about; you just did it and the wisdom was passed on. These days, there is too much parenting information, as well as conflicting information. We women are used to controlling or micromanaging everything in our lives, then we find out that the one thing we can’t truly control or predict is our baby.”

But aren’t you contributing to that? “I’m sure there are women who have become crazy and neurotic from my books, but I really hope not,” she answers. “My goal is to soothe and relax and have fun. I have always tried to write with empathy and have made a very conscious decision never to be didactic.” Annoyingly, I can’t entice her into criticising any one guru, although when I tell her that, in the UK, child-rearing seems to have become about how well you get your baby to sleep, she says, “Oh, that’s so funny.”

What Murkoff will say in her defence is this: “I’ve worried about everything you’ve worried about, but since every pregnancy is different, every woman is different, every baby is different, even with the same mother, I can write from a place of experience, but I don’t write from my own experience. I hope what I write is intuitive, because so much of it is based on the questions that come from my mums.”

Murkoff, who calls herself “a mum on a mission”, is almost compulsively in touch with her family of mothers. “I have to drag her off Facebook at night,” Erik says.

“It gets to 10pm and she’s showing me photographs of one of her mums’ babies or another one is having a crisis, and I have to pick her up and carry her upstairs to bed.”

“He does that most nights, actually,” Murkoff says.

He carries you to bed in his arms? “Yes, it helps that I’m so light, and our little dog trots up behind us, carrying his toy.”

The couple are en route to Morocco to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.

“I love him more and more,” she says, gazing at Erik. “Marrying him was the best thing I ever did — that, and becoming a mother. Who’d have thought it? Motherhood was the mother of all invention for me. It was all so unexpected.”

* What to Expect When You’re Expecting is out in cinemas on May 23.

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