They're Experts on 'What to Expect' : Books: Arlene Eisenberg and her daughters use their collective experience to help others deal with pregnancy and toddlers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elizabeth Hathaway was having an ordinary 3-year-old day. No, she did not want to change out of her pajamas. No, she did not want to watch a video. No, she did not want a nice slice of fresh mango.

"No mango?" her mother asked pleasantly. "You must be sick."

Elizabeth tightened her grip on her mother. Her knees locked around her mother's waist; her arms formed a magnificent headlock. No , she insisted, she did not want to let grandma hold her.

For most adults at this juncture, screaming, crying, groaning or growling would have been understandable reactions. But far from frustrated, Sandee E. Hathaway and her mother, Arlene Eisenberg, looked modestly pleased with themselves. Once again, their live-in case-study had validated their theory that the folks who dreamed up medieval torture took their cues from toddlers.

In reassuring tones, they join with co-author Heidi E. Murkoff (sister of Hathaway, younger daughter of Eisenberg) in contending that children and even parents have a way of surviving these horrors. But for several interminable years, they report in their newest bestseller, "What to Expect the Toddler Years" (Workman, 1994), there are moments when the arrival of the age of reason, 4, seems eternally distant.

Starting when your sweet, adorable baby secretly takes monster lessons, the second and third years of a child's life constitute "the first adolescence," Eisenberg said.

In toddlerhood, as in adolescence, "a kid has to break away, find some autonomy," said Eisenberg, who at 60 is in a position to look serene about such pronouncements.

"Some do it more vociferously than others. But they're all learning to say 'no' to their parents." It's an inevitable, time-honored part of childhood, she continued, "and it's necessary."

Fine. Tell that to the mother whose 2-year-old has just asserted his independence through the time-dishonored practice of pulling out every single toy in the playroom. Or the parents of the 3-year-old who has discovered the spectacular power of a good tantrum. Try sending valentines for reasonableness when parents and child are all down there on the floor, red-faced, yelling "NO!" at each other.

By telephone from Phoenix, where she was on tour to promote "Toddler Years," Murkoff explained that "The first thing . . . is to understand why they are behaving the way they are." Put simply, Murkoff said, toddlers are vying for control over a world that is vastly larger than they are.

"Everyone else is so big, and they're so little," she said. With their limited verbal skills, "they can't say what's on their mind half the time. They can't reach things. Everything's too tall for them. Their motor skills can't keep up with what they want to do. They want to put their shoes on, but they always go on backward."

For Murkoff, 36, the "glaring similarity" between how these control-and-rebellion issues manifest themselves in toddlerhood and again in adolescence has begun to strike home. Her daughter Emma is 12, and on the brink of hormone hell.

"It certainly hasn't been heaven in our house recently," Murkoff conceded.

It was Murkoff's pregnancy with Emma, eldest of Arlene and Howard Eisenberg's five grandchildren, that inspired the first collaboration by this mother and two daughters, "What to Expect When You're Expecting" (Workman, 1984). Far from nine months of nonstop joy and giddy anticipation, Murkoff found pregnancy to be a jittery experience. The books she consulted kept hammering her over the head with how happy she should be, while what she wanted was straight, unvarnished information.

But their literary agent balked when the three women submitted a proposal for a true-facts pregnancy book. Eisenberg had a strong track record as a free-lance writer and textbook author, and Murkoff had dabbled in free-lancing as well. Hathaway had a degree in nursing. But none boasted the medical credentials traditionally associated with pregnancy books.

The manuscript for the first "What to Expect" book brought a small advance, and Workman initially shipped a scant 6,400 copies. More than a decade later, with almost 4 1/2 million copies sold, the book still roosts on bestseller lists and sells 75,000 copies each month. "What to Expect When You're Expecting" has been translated into 21 languages, including Polish, Hungarian, Hebrew and Chinese. Even Murphy Brown was shown using the book during her television pregnancy.

"We thought we were just writing one little pregnancy book to reassure people, to give them some accurate information," Eisenberg said. "And we thought that would be that."

But the three co-authors quickly followed with "What to Eat When You're Expecting" (Workman, 1986; 478,000 copies) and "What to Expect the First Year" (Workman, 1989; 2,385,000 copies).

"What to Expect the Toddler Years," a 928-page behemoth, was inspired by readers who flooded the authors with letters demanding a manual for the terrible twos and thorny threes. Published in November, the book has burned through seven printings, with "way over" half a million copies in print, its authors said.

In characteristic fashion, the threesome attacked their newest project with archeological attention to detail. Murkoff did most of the writing, passing each section on to her mother for revision. Hathaway acted as editor.

Their literary partnership flourishes in spite of geography. Murkoff lives with her husband and two children in Santa Fe; Eisenberg lives in New York City, and Hathaway resides in this Boston suburb with her husband and three children.

All three authors admit to major computer illiteracy, and say they are terrified to even think about communicating by modem. So the entire 2,500-page manuscript was transmitted by fax, with gargantuan telephone bills to vouch for their long-distance editorial conferences.

They shrug off questions about how they have managed to shelve sibling or mother-daughter differences in the course of their professional relationship.

"We all have our own talents, and we're all equals when we write," said Hathaway, 40.

"If you start bringing in the mother-daughter stuff, you'll never get anything done," her mother agreed.

Although the collaboration is down to "a formula," Murkoff said it would be impossible to work together without "putting away the family baggage." For example, she addresses her mother as "Arlene" in business discussions. "If I started saying 'Mom,' it would be very weird," Murkoff said.

One advantage they have in writing about pregnancy and parenthood is great experience with their subject. Among them, they have borne eight children. Their motherhood styles are all slightly different, "making it easier for us to recognize that everyone is not the same" when it comes to raising children, Eisenberg said.

The presence of Elizabeth Hathaway, whose toddlerhood paralleled the production of the newest volume, was another literary boon, the authors concurred. At one point, Eisenberg recalled, "Heidi sent me some questions about bad language in 2-year-olds. I said I thought that was a little early." Then she came up to visit the Hathaways, "and of course, little Elizabeth is saying to her brother, 'you idiot.' "

With her 30-plus-pound daughter still clutching her, simian-style, Hathaway marveled that "Elizabeth was always the right age at the right time." As she spoke, she performed the one-armed gymnastics that only mothers of clingy 3-year-olds--the authors say that notion is redundant--are capable of. She washed dishes, brewed coffee and whipped up a peanut-butter-on-nine-grain (no crusts)--the only thing Elizabeth would finally deign to consume.

Since no parent on Earth will ever be able to outsmart a toddler, the best they can hope for is to understand one, Eisenberg said. "Much of what you assume to be naughty behavior is really exploratory," she said.

"If you are child scientists, which all of them are, pouring the milk onto the table, not into the cup--then watching it drip, drip, drip onto the floor--is a real experiment.

"You have to teach them that it's wrong, and not to do it," she advised, admitting that it's hard not to overreact when a 2-year-old tests her decorating skills by smearing mom's blusher across the living room walls. "But you also need to understand that it's their way of learning about the world."

In the fall, a "What to Expect" pregnancy planner will be published, also by Workman. The three authors have already turned their attention to what they hope will be their next volume, a "What to Expect" pregnancy book geared to low-income women. The trio was moved to launch this project by a symposium they conducted at Rikers Island, a New York prison.

"All the women there had exactly the same concerns about their children that we had," Eisenberg said. "But they didn't have the same information."

Eisenberg, meanwhile, continues to run weekly parenting groups at a New York synagogue. "Unlike my co-authors, who have children at home, I don't," she said. "This gives me my parenting fix."

The three express collective astonishment that their little pregnancy project has turned into something between a career, a crusade and an obsession for each of them.

"It's become all-consuming," Murkoff said. "There's no time for much of anything else in our lives."

For the first time, they are negotiating about possibly taking a brief vacation--maybe a few weeks off, they say, to recharge all their batteries, and to allow Hathaway, who moved into a new home a year and a half ago, time to buy furniture for her still-barren living room.

Scrunched on the sole piece of furniture in the family room, a functional floral-print love seat, Elizabeth, suddenly cuddly, sidled over to her grandmother's welcoming arms.

All the madness of toddlerhood seemed to vanish with a single, tender embrace. "Doesn't it feel good?" Eisenberg mused as she gave the child a long, hearty hug.

Hathaway watched the scene with a beatific smile.

"There's nothing better," she said.

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