Point being, we all like to sneak a gawk at a big-bellied woman now and again. That huge, taut stomach is just so ... freaky. Plus, it's a sign that sex probably occurred somewhere along the line. Now that I'm visibly knocked up, I can testify that I get way more up-and-down looks on the bus -- not to mention smiles from strangers and random comments from passers-by -- than I ever did when wearing, say, skimpy summertime clothes.
This may just be because I am, shall we say, singularly focused, but San Francisco seems obsessed with babies. You can't avoid them in some neighborhoods -- not only the apparently fertile Noe Valley, but also Bernal Heights and Laurel Heights and the formerly coed-saturated Marina. Even Mission Bay, down by the ballpark, has welcomed the Bugaboo Brigade (if you're blessedly ignorant about what a Bugaboo is, it's a laughably expensive, très chic stroller). Residents of this town spit out more than 8,000 babies each year (of 4 million plus per year across the country), and we deliver a lot of baby books, by which I mean titles about pregnancy and raising kids. Outside New York City, the Baby Area -- sorry, Bay Area -- may be the most fruitful breeder-book-generating region in the country. Fortunately, we seem to produce volumes that won't make you gag, unlike the vast majority of crap on bookstore shelves.
Stand in the "childbearing" section of any bookstore and you'll find yourself fearing burial and suffocation should an earthquake hit. Most of these titles fall into a few categories: saccharine (Life Messages for Moms: Inspiration for a Mother's Spirit), scary (the so-called "bible" of pregnancy, What to Expect When You're Expecting, which frightens the bejesus out of you by highlighting a bunch of things that will probably never happen), and scientific (all those Sears tomes and how-to manuals and baby-naming guides). There's even a Pregnancy for Dummies, which makes me think that if you need it you probably shouldn't be reproducing.
Some local authors and publishers, however, have put out books that are funny, personal, and genuinely helpful. Even before I was in the family way, I'd had experience with two of them (beyond buying gifts for friends). One was a volume I edited called The Pregnancy Journal -- a combination of quick facts, friendly trivia, and open space to write in -- which remains in print from S.F.'s Chronicle Books 10 years later, has sold more than a million copies, and has generated two sequels and some non-English editions. It neither crushes you with information nor pretends that because you're pregnant you must be an idiot. I'm still proud to have worked on it.
Back when I was in my early 20s, a fellow editor -- a dashing older single man -- handed me the manuscript of a kid-related memoir by a female friend of his. "Here, you read this," he said. "You're a girl." I was years away from even contemplating conception, but I took the pages home and read them over the weekend -- and laughed my ass off. The book was Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year by Anne Lamott, published (not by my company, though we tried to buy it) in 1993, and not only still in print but also a continuous seller. It's one of the most honest books ever written about having a kid -- brutally frank, appealingly unsentimental, and deeply loving.
I saw Lamott, who lives in Marin, speak at the Herbst Theatre a month ago and got a chance to ask her why she hadn't yet done a follow-up. After all, even her now-15-year-old son Sam had urged her to do so: "You should write Operating Instructions for teenagers. We're hilarious. You'd make a million dollars." Lamott was clear: At least until he turns 18 "and has his own legal representation," she joked, "it's sacred space. I don't want to do anything that would hurt Sam -- for the time being." She'd published other memoirs that caused family rifts, she explained.
That combination of sensitivity and candor is what makes Operating Instructions so good, and it's also what makes all the dad-focused books by Oakland-based Armin A. Brott appealing. Brott, who calls himself Mr. Dad (and has the Web site, www.mrdad.com, to prove it), has made an industry out of focusing on the male half of the conception equation by publishing six titles on the topic, all of them best sellers; his first, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-to-Be, is terrific. Even though it's ostensibly for my husband, I've enjoyed reading it because it doesn't have that tone that so many similar books for women have. You know it: It's the same tone you'll see on the cover of any women's magazine (You're fat! You're stupid! You must be improved!), the one that, I'm afraid, pervades the immensely popular Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy. Brott, in contrast, explains that yes, in fact, the pregnant brain does shrink by 3 to 5 percent, but then he recommends that the guy not tell his wife this. Father even lays out, in surprising detail, how to deliver your own baby, should you find yourself trapped in a snowbound cabin without access to a helipad.
Two local guidebooks are also strong. I liked the look of the Lilaguide the first time I saw it (in a South of Market shop called Embellish, which has great baby gifts, by the way) three years ago. It is, as this paper said in a review at the time, "a sort of 'Best of' listing for goods and services related to babies and toddlers," written by two San Francisco parents (and more than 15,000 survey answerers) in a no-nonsense manner. Now the original Bay Area volume has a sibling, Baby Gear Buyer's Guide, and companion Baby-Friendly guides to nine other cities (all of them updated every year). Babies by the Bay, by a San Francisco- and a Marin-based mom, isn't as up-to-date (my recently purchased edition was published three years ago), but its list of doctors, stores, classes, and other local resources is still useful.
Finally, I'm really enjoying a new book called Crib Notes: A Random Reference for the Modern Parent by S.F. mothers Amy Maniatis and Elizabeth Weil. It's a little like Schott's Original Miscellany (or Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, which I wrote about last month) -- an offbeat, oddly insightful, and strangely reassuring collection of lists, charts, and graphs, in this case on such subjects as "Mean Duration of Coitus in Various Species," "Old Wives' Tales for Predicting the Sex of an Unborn Baby," "Maternity Benefits Around the World," and "Clinical Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation." I can't say it's helpful, but it's certainly entertaining, and given how badly I'm sleeping, I can sure use a good laugh.
Plenty of good baby books have been published outside the Bay Area -- and plenty of lousy ones inside it -- but we seem to have a handle here on this whole bun-in-the-oven thing. I'm not sure if that's because we have kids at an older age than in many other parts of the country, or because we produce so many titles that there are just more good ones to choose from, or because we're simply funnier and better than everyone else. Doesn't matter. When it comes to baby books, what your mom told you is still true: Stay close to home.
Karen's mom would like to remind you that Mother's Day is May 8.