NEW YORK – Heidi Murkoff, the woman behind the “What to Expect” parenting phenomenon, had absolutely no idea what to expect when she, her mother and her sister wrote their first book 20 years ago.

At the time, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” was Murkoff’s postpartum response to questions she had when she was pregnant with her first child – and couldn’t find answers for. Some examples from the book:

• I eat chicken and fish but no red meat. Can I supply my baby with all the nutrients he needs without meat?

Fish and poultry, in fact, give you more protein and less fat for your calories than beef, pork, lamb and other organ meats.

• I feel so warm most of the time and I sweat a lot. Is this normal?

With your basal metabolic rate (the rate at which your body expends energy at total rest) up about 20 percent during pregnancy, the heat is on.

• My palms seem to be red all the time. Is it my imagination?

No, and it isn’t your dishwashing liquid either. It’s your hormones. Increased levels of pregnancy hormones cause red, itchy palms (and sometimes red, itchy soles of the feet) in two-thirds of white and one-third of black pregnant women.

“I had bought all the books on the market, and there weren’t that many. I found them uniformly terrifying and they didn’t answer my questions, and I didn’t think my obstetrician would want me to ask all of these questions,” Murkoff says.

“So I decided to write the book I wanted myself. Two hours before I went into labor with Emma, I delivered a book proposal. It was a busy day.”

Murkoff figured if she had these same questions, fears and anxieties, so did other new parents-to-be. “I wanted other people to sleep better,” she says.

She adds: “Obstetricians and pediatricians thank me for significantly cutting down on their phone calls. I won’t hesitate to say, “This is a question for a doctor,’ but the books are a good resource for questions that are more parenting than medical.”

But Murkoff didn’t realize that questions about children extend into at least two decades, and she definitely didn’t know that she’d become the reassuring voice to guidance-hungry parents for many years to come in “What to Expect the First Year,” “What to Expect the Toddler Years” and even the new “What to Expect Baby-Sitters Handbook.”

“We’ve always gotten letters from people – that’s where the ideas for the secondary books have come from,” she explains.

Possible future topics include the teenage years, special needs children, and twins. One reader suggested Murkoff write a book about menopause and call it “What to Expect When You’re No Longer Expecting.”

The audience for the “What to Expect” series, published by Workman, also has expanded to include grandparents, caregivers and even the kids.

Murkoff also notes a cultural evolution: While the first edition of the books mostly give advice to the mother, the new ones are gender-neutral, except for the pregnancy and breast-feeding sections, because fathers are taking a much more active role in child-rearing.

“I have felt increasing pressure to always have the answer and always give the right advice,” Murkoff, now the mother of 21-year-old aspiring actress Emma and college freshman Wyatt, says in a telephone interview. “But it’s also so gratifying to know I’ve helped millions of parents. The responsibility is a big one, though, and I take it very seriously.”

Her mother, Arlene Eisenberg, was Murkoff’s “What to Expect” partner until Eisenberg’s death in 2001; her sister, Sandee Hathaway, a registered nurse, also is a collaborator.

The three shared similar parenting principals but not always the same approach, Murkoff says, which is exactly the driving message behind their books. “The philosophy of “What to Expect’ is that there are lots of ways to be a good parent.”

“It wouldn’t be very helpful for me to write these books from personal experience because no one is going to have the same experiences, but the experience did give me an empathetic voice,” she explains.

Murkoff attributes the series’ success to its matter-of-fact style (knowing that your seemingly bizarre pregnancy behaviors or your child’s seemingly weird toddler habits are common can do wonders for your confidence, she says) – and the underlying belief that parents have naturally good instincts.

Those instincts, according to Murkoff, are parents’ most valuable resources.

“Information can be empowering, but too much information or conflicting information can leave you feeling insecure, and it makes you reluctant to use your own judgment.”

The increased reliance on “expert advice” probably came about as more mothers began to doubt their own natural abilities, Murkoff says.

“Before the landslide of parenting books, before there even were parenting books, women were raised to be moms. So they got to practice their parenting skills long before they became parents.”

“These days, women aren’t raised to be moms – men were never raised to be dads,” she says, “so for a lot of parents, me included, the first time in their lives that they hold a newborn is the first time that they hold their own newborn.”

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