Forget the Kennedy Center Honors. In my book, the better award is one to be delivered Tuesday to a woman who has been at the bedside of more pregnant women than it’s possible to count.
Heidi Murkoff will receive the John P. McGovern Award from the Smithsonian Associates on Dec. 11. It’s an honor bestowed annually on a person “whose work has made outstanding contributions to the understanding of the family in America.”
Murkoff is the author of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” a title that really doesn’t need any introduction. She created it in 1983 and, with constant updates and tweaks, it remains the go-to pregnancy handbook. She’s also built a mini-empire that includes a packed Web site and spin-off guides on babysitting, parenting older children and even how to prepare a child for the dentist.
I caught up with Murkoff before the awards ceremony to ask her about her perspective on the changes in parenting in the last 30 years.
Below is the first part of edited excerpts from our Q&A:
JD: What are some of the major differences you’ve seen in parenting since you first wrote “What to expect”?
HM: Well, some things about pregnancy and parenting never change and never will. Pregnancy is still nine months (and the tenth is still the longest), you’re still queasy and bloated and constipated. Babies are still bewildering, they still don’t come with instructions, they still cry ... a lot, they still smell amazing. Being a parent is still the toughest job you’ll ever love — by far the most exhausting and the most exhilarating.
But many things have changed. Among the top changes since I first wrote WTE is how much parenting information there is at our fingertips. Knowledge is power, and it’s especially empowering when you’re pregnant or a new parent — but there’s also such a thing as too much information or conflicting information that confuses instead of empowers.
There’s also more pressure on parents than there used to be, pressure to be the best parent possible, pressure to raise your little ones in a certain way, pressure to adopt certain parenting philosophies (and to reject others). Pregnancy and parenting have also become big business — and while that consumer focus has helped in many ways (even when it comes to health care — more choices are a family’s to make), it can also step up performance pressure, overwhelm, make your head spin, and sometimes even take some of the simple pleasures out of being pregnant and having a baby.
JD: What are the repercussions of these trends?
HM: Too much pressure on parents inevitably translates to too much pressure on kids — since even the youngest baby has uncannily keen stress radar. So what happens when you’ve got to buy this…do that…follow trends instead of instincts, is that everyone starts to feel the pressure, kids included. Yes, by all means it’s great to encourage your child to be active — but you can do that by going for a family walk after dinner, you don’t necessarily have to sign him up for toddler soccer classes. It’s wonderful to nurture a love for reading, but best way to do that is to read to him (think a soft lap, not software). Kids learn best by doing, and parents do their job best sometimes just by stepping back and letting it (safely) happen.
One trend I definitely embrace — and wish I’d had access to when I was first pregnant — is mom social media. I was the first among our friends to become pregnant — by far — so I had no one besides my husband Erik to share it with (as supportive and awesome as he was, he’d never been pregnant before). Today, moms can turn to social media to find pregnant company, new parent company to share their experiences with, to vent to, to swap insights with. Just knowing that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling doesn’t necessarily make those feelings go away, but it helps you cope with them so much more effectively.
Misery of heartburn, of morning sickness, or sleeplessness, of colic and tantrums loves company and so do triumphs and joys. So, I didn’t get to share this company when I was pregnant or a new mom, but I get to share it now on Facebook, twitter, and on WTE.com, which is really the best part of every day for me.
JD: Do you think parents now are more or less confident than they were when you first set out to write the book?
HM: I think they are more and less confident than they were. I’m not sure anyone could have been less confident than I was — clueless, either. But as I said earlier, all the extra knowledge we can now tap into as parents is empowering, and that can be a confidence booster, but it can also sometimes shake your confidence, particularly when you’re always getting the sense that there’s always someone out there who’s doing your job better than you are, when you’re constantly doubting your instincts, constantly dismissing that little voice within because it conflicts with someone else’s voice online.
I’ll post more from our interview later today. The Dec. 11 evening award ceremony at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art includes a presentation from Murkoff and is free and open to the public. Tickets must be reserved to attend. For tickets and information, the public may call (202) 633-3030 or visit www.smithsonianassociates.org.