SO YOU'RE GOING to have a baby. And you reason, quite sensibly, that since everyone comes into the world the same way, there is probably a universal method of going about the business of pregnancy and childbirth. So you go out and buy a book . . .

The first thing you learn is that there is no one book, but a thousand; a thousand thousand. There are so many books you don't know where to begin. They smile at you in the supermarket. They well out of multiple bookstore shelves. There is even one bookstore (in Seattle) which sells nothing else.

The career woman's baby boom is an easily noticed phenomenon -- women who have devoted their twenties to careers are now gearing up with the same earnest attention to the job of getting themselves with child. Success and the best advice is what they want. And publishers are jumping hoops to cash in on this group of educated, studious, motivated and easily terrified women.

Open any book with the word "birth" in the title, and the chances are that every page will announce a new peril, another danger to the unborn child and its host -- you. The traps lie everywhere. There are toxins in the kitty litter, the air swarms with pollutant chemicals. Contaminants seep through every semi-permeable membrane of your slowly swelling body; not to mention the well known dangers of cigarettes, drugs and alcohol. The books deal a one-two punch: first they reassure, then they allude to the dangers which reading the book will help you avoid.

After four months, I began to dread the volumes that had come into my house and lay heaped on my desk and in the living room. The covers bore pictures of glamorous mothers, or chubby angelic children. The titles were all uplift, but to me they had become a library of fear.

But still I could not pass a store without checking the rack, finding another subject, another angle I had not read about: diet, exercise, sex, vitamins, beauty, childbirth methods, clothes, psychology, the father's role, chemicals, emotions. I shuddered, and read on.

Others in my office, no longer content with sidelong glances at my condition and murmured words of congratulations, bought more books, or gave me their own. Such is the sisterhood of mothers. My workspace overflowed with the volumes and their pictures of joyous mothers grinning, stretching, eating, swimming, wearing fashion tents.

I worried about Oriental massage, the Bradley method, Dr. Lamaze. As the information overload became intolerable I shied at shadows. Was a wine spritzer harmful? Or was it written that it was actually good for you? Should I cross my legs at the ankles -- or at the knees? How could I be sure no salt had been added to the salad dressing? Were there nitrates in the hamburger? Was I squatting too much? Or not enough? Had my ankles begun to swell? Was I wearing the right kind of underwear and playing enough classical music to my fetus?

And, of course, was I fit enough? One volume, at $14.95, recommended a full course of Nautilus exercise and spoke of the "unique muscular needs of the pregnant body." It was my staff sergeant, urging me to "initiate a properly planned developmental program as soon as possible."

Was I eating enough? The consensus recommended Falstaffian meals of leafy green and yellow vegetables, citrus fruits, tomatoes and raw cabbage, potatoes, fruits and other vegetables, milk and cheese, meat and fish, poultry, eggs, cereals and bread. There was no way that I could eat half of the recommended diet without becoming a blimp. And every book carried dire warnings for those foolish enough to exceed their recommended weight. Was I eating too much?

But the questions raised by the books paled beside the horrors. As the pregnancy progressed, I read, I might expect to be visited by a battalion of unattractive ailments.

With my ripening bundle of joy, I might expect hemorrhoids, constipation, splotchy skin, varicose veins, stretch marks, fallen arches, dark patches on the face, softened muscles, body hair growth, a dropped womb, anemia, post-partum depression, loss of hair and circles under the eyes. And of course the authors prepared me for the possibility of being split open like a peach in the most fun peril of all: Ceasarean section.

The pictures showed cuddly newborns "bonding" with mom; the text told me that my body was headed for sure shipwreck.

By the sixth month I began to wish for simpler times, perhaps the Middle Ages or the Paleolithic, when expectant mothers simply did it or perished in the attempt. As my mood swings became wilder (at least a dozen volumes had warned of this), I began to feel taken, abused and angered by the mountain of repetitions spiced with a special "angle" and peppered with fearful possibilities.

Meanwhile, my mother told me at regular intervals, "I smoked and drank like a fish through four pregnancies and everything turned out just fine," and my husband lost no opportunity to point out that childbirth takes up only one page in Reed's Nautical Almanac. (According to Reed all you have to do is boil three pieces of string and serve the mother tea after she delivers.)

I began to see that the books contained the same general information, and that what they had to say could be said in a single paragraph: Eat sensibly, get plenty of rest, take light exercise, use common sense and consult your doctor. But the pregnancy and birth authors know better. They seem written for upscale idiots. Did I really need to be told not to go skydiving? Or to hire a limousine to take me home from the hospital?

I began to see a new way: BIRTH WITHOUT BOOKS. I began to see that it might be possible to have a baby without reading a chapter a day, or to run searching through indexes every time I felt an unfamiliar twinge.

And I was right. We got through the labor and delivery without turning a page. Our baby boy is chemical free and perfect. The labor was long and hard. Birth is a bloodbath, but when you're into it, that doesn't matter as much as getting it over. And that is what the books don't tell you.