Four decades ago, Mrs. Parsons was busy raising her three children when her neighbor Marguerite Kelly came to her with a proposition: to co-write a simple, from-the-heart manual for young mothers such as themselves.
The problem was not that there were too few advice books on the shelves. By the turn of the 20th century, motherhood had been made into a “professional undertaking,” said Ann Hulbert, the author of “Raising America,” which analyzes the history of the country’s parenting advice. Scientific inquiry had led to dogmas, she said, as psychologists offered up definitive approaches to “healthier, smarter, better children.”
The gentlest of all the professionals was Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician who wrote the landmark tome “Baby and Child Care,” first published in 1946. Unlike many other experts, he wrote to mothers in an intimate, sympathetic way and told them not to worry. But even he was a doctor — and a man, not a mom.
Mrs. Parsons and Kelly wanted to write a book that would “de-escalate the idea that you have to be an expert to raise a child,” Mrs. Parsons once said.
The guide would begin with pregnancy and end around the child’s sixth birthday. It would be stocked with reassurances about the day-to-day problems of motherhood, from tantrums to fevers, and insightful counsel about greater difficulties, such as divorce and death.
Katharine E. Zadravec, author of The Washington Post’s longtime column Anne’s Reader Exchange, wrote of “The Mother’s Almanac” when it first appeared: “If motherhood is an art that can be mastered, Marguerite Kelly and Elia Parsons have produced a good ‘how, when and why’ guide to that art. You supply the patience and talent, and you’re all set.”
The two women never could have expected that their almanac would sell more than 800,000 copies, or that it would signal a fundamental shift in the publishing industry. “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” — one of the most popular of all the by-moms-for-moms books that followed “The Mother’s Almanac” — has sold 17 million copies since its release in 1984. Kelly writes a parenting column for The Washington Post and has authored sequels to the almanac.
Back in the early 1970s, even publishers apparently didn’t grasp the market for a book such as “The Mother’s Almanac.” When Kelly sent an early outline to Doubleday, an editor told her that she and Mrs. Parsons weren’t qualified to write a guide to child care.
“You have to be a doctor in some field or some kind of expert to do that,” the editor said, according to an account published in The Post in 1975. “You can’t be just a mother.”