The Perils of Reading Pregnant

May 20, 2011 | 8 books mentioned 27 5 min read

When I was engaged to be married, I lost my mind.  I’m aware that sounds hyperbolic,  but that’s really how it felt: as if my mind had abandoned me,  slipped through my ears when I wasn’t looking, to be replaced with something that I didn’t recognize or trust.  I was so nervous all the time, my mind skipping from one terrible and scary thought to the next, that reading became almost impossible.  Do you know how many stories there are about bad marriages?

During this fraught time, I tried to read an Alice Munro story in the bath.  What story, I have no idea (clearly, I blocked it out), but it was about a woman who kills her husband.  I couldn’t finish it because I began to fear–to believe, actually–that I was in danger of killing my own future husband.  Oh, how my Intended laughed when I voiced these fears!  He wasn’t afraid of me and my murderous capabilities!  He eventually talked me down from my nonsense ledge, and got me laughing along with him.  But I was still too afraid to finish the story.

That was five years ago.  I’ve since retrieved my mind, gotten and stayed married, and returned to reading.   Thank goodness.  Sometimes, I imagine all the great and beautiful books I must have missed during my engagement, and the loss sends a shiver of regret through me.

Last fall, when I found out I was pregnant, I waited for the mind-losing anxiety to descend on me once more.  It didn’t.  (Or, I should say, it hasn’t yet.  I do have five more weeks to lose my mind for old time’s sake!)  Because I feel as normal as can be expected when you’re growing a human being inside of you, I’ve noticed that other people experience anxiety for me.  They don’t want me to carry anything, not even a carton of orange juice.  They want me to sit down already!  They want to give me more water, a glass of milk, a pint of ice cream.  And they don’t want  me to read just anything.  More than once I’ve had a person recommend a book to me, and then say, “Oh, but don’t read it now.  Not while you’re pregnant!”   Apparently, people’s protective urges extend beyond the body of the mother-to-be, and into her reading life.  If literature is clogged with unhappy marriages, it’s certainly also darkened with dead babies and the complex melancholy of mothers.

So, as either a warning to other mothers-to-be, or as great “Fuck you!” to all the people who keep telling me to keep things light as I carry my child to term, here’s a list of non-friendly pregnancy books.  Read at your own risk…

coverRosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin: I admit, I haven’t read the novel, but I love the movie, starring the bewitching Mia Farrow.  I have purposely kept my blonde hair very short these last 8 and a half months because I appreciate the cinematic allusion, though I have one friend in particular who urged me, early on, to grow out my locks.  “It’s not funny!” she said. “What kind of message are  you sending?”  How about this: Every pregnant woman wonders, at least once, if she’s got the devil’s spawn growing inside of her.

coverThe Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell: This is the next novel I’m going to read, despite my sister Heidi’s warnings that I should wait until after my baby’s born. O’Farrell’s novel, which my sister could not put down, and which made her sob at its ending, follows two stories–one about a woman in post-war London, and one about contemporary parents in that same city.  There’s apparently some childbirth trauma.  Lots of blood, my sister said.  She also told me to avoid Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks.  The deaths–deaths, plural--in this novel still haunt her.

coverAn Exact Replica of a Figure of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken: Every morning I awake to the spine of this powerful and painful memoir, which I chose as one of my favorite books of 2008.  It sits on the shelf by my bed, right next to Nox by Anne Carson and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.  (That’s a lot of death to wake up to, I realize).   McCracken’s story of raising a child after the stillbirth of her first is all the more terrifying and moving because it’s true, and because she speaks of trauma and grief in a distinct, unflinching, and sometimes even funny way.  I keep wondering if this book might mean more to me on a second read, now that I am pregnant, now that I know firsthand what I could lose, what and whom I would mourn.  Such a book reminds me not to take this time in my life lightly; it reminds me that I’m already a mother.

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk: This novel is about one day (a la Mrs. Dalloway) in the posh lives of British mothers.   The unhappiness of its characters is so delicately and expertly rendered that it, at times, grows oppressive.  These are women who feel unconnected to their husbands, their kids, their lives. Such a book makes me fear the very phrase Sippy Cup.

coverWe Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Shriver’s brilliant and dark novel is narrated by Eva, whose son Kevin is guilty of carrying out a Columbine-style high school killing.  It’s a grim but often very funny narrative of maternal ambivalence, and it’s certainly a mind-fuck for any mom-to-be.  Eva articulates every single dark thought a pregnant woman would be wise to avoid (For instance:  “What if my child grows up to be a murderer?” And, “What if I don’t love him?”).  Here’s a taste of the sharp prose, most likely to be left out of the highly-anticipated film adaptation with Tilda Swinton, due out this fall:

Meanwhile, I came to regard my body in a new light. For the first time I apprehended the little mounds on my chest as teats for the suckling of young, and their physical resemblance to udders on cows or the swinging distentions on lactating hounds was suddenly unavoidable. Funny how even women forget what breasts are for.

The cleft between my legs transformed as well. It lost a certain outrageousness, an obscenity, or achieved an obscenity of a different sort. The flaps seemed to open not to a narrow, snug dead end, but to something yawning. The passageway itself became a route to somewhere else, a real place, and not merely to a darkness of my mind. The twist of flesh in front took on a devious aspect, its inclusion overtly ulterior, a tempter, a sweetener for doing the species’ heavy lifting, like the lollipops I once got at the dentist.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is so far my favorite book of the year.  I read it when I was about four months pregnant, and as I did so, I prayed I was having a girl (She might be anorexic, I thought, but she probably won’t be a serial killer.)  Turns out, I’m having a boy.  Ha!   Shriver’s novel is the most memorable book I’ve read in a while. And also, um, the most frightening.

What novels do you recommend a pregnant woman avoid?  Tempt me…

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. here’s one but it’s not necessarily one to avoid, Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas by James Patterson. A heartwarming story of a pregnant woman’s diary to her unborn son. It’s a departure from the genre that Patterson usually writes.

    It is a VERY good book and not just about the story itself, but life too in how we’re juggling so many balls hoping not to let one drop.


  2. I had the same experience last year when I was pregnant with my son. I defiantly read PURGE by Sofi Oksanen after several people told me I just couldn’t read it while pregnant. And I found it profoundly unsettling in a very unpleasant way, just as they’d feared. So I made quite a reading list after that of “books I’ll read when I’m no longer pregnant.”

    What everyone failed to mention to me was that if a book is too disturbing for a pregnant woman to read, it will almost certainly be too disturbing for the mother of a newborn (who has very little time for reading anyway). I read THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE shortly after my son’s birth, and O’Farrell’s decription of the frighenting, drug-addled days following a traumatic birth is spot on. It’s a tremendous book that, while devastatingly sad, never made me feel anxious about my new status as a mother. Much like ROOM (which I read when I was 39 weeks pregnant), It made me feel invigorated, determined to be as strong and resilient as the mothers in it. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever read WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN now. I just can’t bring myself to pick it up.

  3. I reread Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child periodically, and although I’ve never conceived, it never fails to terrify me.

  4. My baby is six weeks old, and while pregnant, I read the McCracken, the O’Farrell, and the Cusk you mention above. Ha! I also read the Shriver about six months before I got pregnant; that one stays with you, every time you get a bad blow to the ribs.

    I also read: War and Peace (the charming mustachioed princess dies in childbirth!); Half Baked (one baby dies, one is born at 24 weeks and struggles for life in the NICU); Every Last One (almost all her babies die!) and Jacob de Zoet (some pretty horrifying childbirth/child sacrifice material). Soon after giving birth I read Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, and right now I’m deeply in the midst of Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field, both of which are heavy lifting.

    I say pooh to Little Earthquakes and all the light fuzzy chicky mom lit. You’re already in deep. You may as well read your way through the worst of it.

  5. Fay Weldon’s She May Not Leave broke me. Eastern European nanny seduces away father in slinky, insidious way with an awful, awful, bleach-my-brain-please scene in last 20 pages.

  6. I read The Road when I was nine months pregnant. BIG mistake. I love Rachel Cusk–glad you mentioned her. Her “A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother” is one I would suggest for after the baby is born.

  7. I would stay from Joy William’s “The Changeling.” It’s a horrifying book, Pearl, a young mother drinking gin and tonic after gin and tonic, after her failed attempt at escape from a sinister island. And her baby, who turns out to be a mother’s greatest nightmare. A scary, scary child. It’s also a remarkable, wonderful book, and I’m really happy that the Fairy Tale Review Press put it back into print.

  8. Agree completely about WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. I read it in January, way behind the curve, and it blew my mind. Lionel Shriver is so brilliant I don’t care how disturbing the book is. (Although I can’t say I wish I’d been pregnant while reading it…)

  9. I remember being pregnant with my second son and my husband rented the movie Gallipoli (which PJ Harvey sings about in her beautiful, haunting new record about WW1) and I was TRAUMATIZED. But I was not a tough pregnant lady in general- I was super delicate emotionally. Oddly, I don’t remember books being a problem, but I also don’t remember many things. I remember reading Map Of The World (Jane Hamiltion?) when my sons were babies and it didn’t bother me -the dead child part–but it did bother me “politically”. That said, it was deeply engrossing.

  10. I love this post Edan! The other-people-worried-for-you during pregnancy is so true. But really, I could have gotten used to all those pints of ice cream…

    Soon after August was born I read Skippy Dies. I felt worse about the title than any other aspect of the book and it definitely drew some funny looks from people.

    5 weeks left for you and Patrick? How exciting, enjoy them (but only from a sitting down, legs up position with a pint of ice cream in your hand)!

  11. Totally second the Joy Williams comment. Same for State of Grace. She is so, so, so good, though.

  12. Thanks for all these great suggestions–there’s a lot to dig into here..

    Yep, Lauren, now I only have 4 more weeks..!

  13. I didn’t read it while pregnant, but I think if I attempted White Oleander while pregnant, there might be dire consequences!

  14. Oh thank you thank you thank you for this! I am due next week, and while I’ve stuck mostly to sci-fi and other lighter fiction throughout my pregnancy, I very much appreciate the spirit in which your article was written.

    In fact this might be my new mantra: “Because I feel as normal as can be expected when you’re growing a human being inside of you, I’ve noticed that other people experience anxiety for me.” So true! And SO much worse this close to my due date… no wonder all I’ve been doing is reading as the big day gets closer! Thank goodness for escapism.

  15. You may also want to stay away from Joanna Kavenna’s “The Birth of Love,” although it’s fantastic. The long description of the beginnings of labor might be a bit much for you.
    And don’t even go near the nonfiction. I read the title “Pushed” while I was pregnant and it got me all worked up–mostly with righteous indignation toward doctors. And, arguably, you need doctors while you’re pregnant, so that’s no time to be feeling crankypants toward them.

  16. I second Doris Lessing’s Fith Child – it should right up there in the list. Also, Chuck Palahniuk’s books must not be fun to read if you’re battling morning sickness…

  17. Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian

    It’s a good book, and I would recommend it to anyone who is NOT pregnant. The night before I went to the hospital to have an induced labor for my 13-day-late firstborn, I read this book. I knew it would be disturbing, and it was, yet I could not put it down.
    It was a very long, tough labor – overseen by my least favorite of the three nurse-midwives whom I had seen throughout the pregnancy. My delivery had a better outcome than the one described in the book, but I still haven’t been able to read it again, even 11 years later.

  18. What I Thought I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen. Memoir of an unexpected and traumatic pregnancy with extreme medical complications, the contemplation of late-stage abortion, and the outcome of all this.

  19. I’m coming a bit late to this, but THE HOTTEST DISHES OF THE TARTAR CUISINE is one that you might consider avoiding. I heard a reading of it by the translator, in which the narrator tries several gruesome methods of inducing miscarriage in her simple-minded daughter. (I’d just found out I was pregnant and had to excuse myself to get the nausea under control.)

    Other than that though, I salute the act of the freedom to read whatever you want when you’re pregnant. It’s easy to be superstitious about this stuff (I’m susceptible!), but there’s no reason we shouldn’t have deep literary experiences even while being a bit delicate with our bodies. Thanks for this piece!

  20. I wasn’t pregnant when i read it, but The Obscene Bird of Night is the most horrific book i’ve ever read and i never want to read it again, but i’ll never forget it. Rosemary’s Baby is actually a novel i have at home but haven’t read yet! i’m almost 20 weeks :)

  21. Don’t read The Time travellers Wife. I read it in early pregnancy and there seemed to be endless miscarriages with lots of descriptions of blood

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