May 2012

Q+LA Heidi Murkoff

The author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting—and its many siblings—delivers a Hollywood romcom into her multimedia brood  by ERIC ESTRIN

Heidi MurkoffPHOTO: ALEX HOERNER

Back in 1982, Heidi Murkoff was young, newly married and terrified. A budding ad copywriter, she was toasting life with her new husband when she learned she was several weeks pregnant.

Wracked by fear she had harmed her unborn, she hightailed it to the store for advice tomes, only to fall smack into a void in the marketplace for the definitive, how-to-deal-with-anything pregnancy guide. And so she decided to write one.

In April 1983, she finished a book proposal on the trusty Selectric in her tiny New York apartment kitchen, then drank some raspberry-leaf tea in the hopes of inducing labor. (It worked.)

That book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, would go on to spawn a publishing empire that includes titles such as Eating Well When You’re Expecting and What to Expect the First Year, amassing some 40 million copies in more than 30 languages.

With the help of husband and partner Erik, a onetime off-Broadway theater manager, Murkoff still works from her kitchen, which is now in Hancock Park and presumably somewhat larger. The two oversee, among other things, an active website (whattoexpect.com) and the What to Expect Foundation, which provides clinics for low-income expectant mothers with Baby Basics, a simple month-by-month pregnancy guide.

They’re also involved with Lionsgate’s star-studded—Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Chace Crawford, Chris Rock, Anna Kendrick, to name a few—big-screen romcom named after the original book.

Murkoff, known as Aunt Heidi to the children of the parents she interacts with daily on an ever-expanding array of platforms, exhibits a global connection to pregnant women that in 2011 helped land her on Time’s annual list of the 100 Most Influential People.

Trim and exuberant, she’s the epitome of media ready, promptly answering follow-up emails for this story from Heathrow Airport and then Morocco on her and Erik’s 30th-anniversary trip. We met in Larchmont Village, where she hugged me like an old friend and settled in for a glass of sparkling water.

Do you tend to be someone who always needs to know what to expect?
No, not at all. I mean, I am something of a perfectionist, just generally more professionally than personally. I think Erik and I are both solid type A-pluses, but I don’t think I have to control things that are out of my control, unless they have to do with my work.

How did the idea for the movie come about?
My manager, who works in the same offices as Phoenix Pictures, got us a meeting. We’d had requests to do films, but I was always like, “Huh? Turning this into a movie—say what?” But Erik dragged me kicking and screaming, and when we got there, it just felt right. The idea of doing a romantic comedy—really, what’s more romantic than starting a family, and what’s more funny than crazy pregnancy symptoms? If you don’t have a sense of humor as a parent, you are so screwed. [Laughs.]

Will this be like that other film from a popular advice book—Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex?
No, no, no. There are no sperm costumes.

What was it like on set?
Well, the first thing they did after I met [the cast and crew]—after their hugs, of course; everybody has to get a hug—is pull out their iPhones and show me their babies. So I think they really got it.

Did you get to talk pregnancy with J.Lo?
Not with her so much. I talked pregnancy with Cameron, because she was very, very excited about the belly and breasts she got to wear.

I guess men have been excited about Cameron’s breasts for quite some time now.
Yes, but these were prosthetic—and we’re not showing them. They got cut out because there was a PG-13 issue.

How, culturally, has pregnancy changed over the years?
When I was first pregnant, which was, let’s see, in nineteen-aught-eighty-three—I remember wearing a regular bathing suit to my in-laws’ pool. It was just like a spandex one-piece, completely modest, and yet people were looking at me like it was obscene. You had to wear one of those pup-tent suits, you know, the ones you could hide a family of four under.

What were you doing before you wrote the first book?
I was barely an adult. I was in advertising for, like, two minutes. I’d always dreamed of being a copywriter. No idea why—I used to think in slogans.

So you left?
Well, I met Erik—in a bar. And we were sort of on the fast track. One year later, we had Emma. So, three months into being married, it was like, oops! I didn’t even know I was pregnant at first. In fact, the doctor said I wasn’t and gave me hormones to bring on my period. Then when I found out, I panicked.

What did you do?
I went to the bookstore. There were maybe three books on the market, and one was written by a woman who had never been pregnant. I have no bias against that, but it’s really hard to sort of put yourself in a pregnant woman’s shoes—and know that the reason her shoes don’t fit is because she’s got cankles! [Laughs.] She had written things like, “Alcohol is poison during pregnancy. If you had any alcohol during pregnancy, your baby’s probably brain dead.” Mind you, brain development doesn’t happen till later, but whatever. And I had enjoyed cocktails in New York with friends before I knew I was pregnant, so you do the math.

Then that really is why you decided to write your own book?
My husband and I were both nervous wrecks. Just clueless. I mean, talk about not knowing what to expect. I decided, literally at the very end of pregnancy, to write this book. And this is absolutely true; you can’t make this stuff up: Two hours before I went into labor with Emma, I delivered the book proposal. So all in the same day, two babies delivered.

It’s amazing how you tapped into the zeitgeist in a major way.
Yeah, go figure. When the book first came out, there were 4,500 copies advanced. None of the chains bought into it. It was pathetic. Basically, the feeling out there was it wasn’t written by doctors. In fact, I remember the first time I went to the ACOG conference—the American Congress of Ob-Gyns. Back then, the majority of OBs were men, and there was a paternalistic sense. And when we gave out copies of What to Expect, I actually heard two doctors walking down the aisle after they had gotten the book, and they were like, “What do women know about pregnancy?” Seriously—I swear to God.

I see you answering questions on Facebook constantly, Twitter constantly, the website constantly. That can’t all be you.
That’s me—that’s a hundred percent me, and it goes into the late hours. It’s my favorite thing to do. I get to interact with moms and dads and see their babies. It allows me to keep my finger on the pregnant pulse.

What are they asking about?
Well, there are things in teething, like the amber necklaces that all the cool kids are wearing. Being against your skin, the amber is said to reduce inflammation. And there are all the different schools of thought about co-sleeping and attachment parenting...It goes on and on and on.

How does your husband feel about all the late hours?
For a while, Erik was like, “Heidi, come on, enough already,” and then I started doing it on my iPad instead of my computer, and I could be right there next to him. So now it’s okay—he’s fine with it.

Have you ever given anybody bad advice?
I don’t think so. Well, not that I know of. Why did you just say that to me? Now I’m not gonna sleep tonight!


HAIR: Anton David
MAKEUP: Kerry Malouf