A Tongue-in-Cheek History of Infertility

a tongue in cheek history of fertility photo of pregnancy test in sink momcave

Infertility and its struggles are more common than we like to admit. Of every 10 American couples, 12-13 will have trouble becoming pregnant. The writers of the new book, You’re Doing it Wrong!, have prepared this (slightly silly) history of infertility for us.

You’re Doing it Wrong! is a new book that investigates the storied history of expertise around mothering in the media, from the newspapers, magazines, doctors’ records and personal papers of the nineteenth century to today’s websites, Facebook groups, and Instagram feeds. The authors find surprising parallels between today’s mothering experts and their Victorian counterparts, but they also explore how social media has placed unprecedented pressures on new mothers wrestling with familiar concerns and crises from pre-conception through early toddlerhood.

history of infertility momcave you're doing it wrong

In You’re Doing it Wrong!, the authors provide a much more serious account of the crisis of infertility and trace the historical progression of (in)fertility treatments while focusing on the long history of mental or “psychosomatic” infertility.  Central to their analysis is the question of infertility patients are continually asked to discipline themselves (mentally) to achieve pregnancy.

They trace language and ideologies popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, now peddled in the 21 st -century through online eCourses and disseminated on social media platforms.

***Please note, the below is tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately, many of the overarching messages are what women still hear today. What are YOU doing? How have YOU tried to fix YOUR infertility?! Why can’t you just relax?? You’re doing it wrong!

Prior to 1700God smote you and your womb is now a barren wasteland. You did something wrong and will suffer a lifetime of shame. Repenting. Good luck! 

*Midwives and other healers used herbal medicines, including salves and tinctures.
Treatments were rarely successful, particularly in cases with structural issues or male factor infertility, which was not thought to exist during this time.
God is trying you; your womb is a barren wasteland. You are to be pitied. If you are rich maybe you can volunteer your time. Or paint things! More painting. Have you thought of singing? Pianoforte? You will be a little sad forever, but at least you can be pious and accomplished in the arts!  
1850-1920ish You want to get an education but your brilliant mind is making you infertile.

Want to vote?! Your political urges and activism are unwomanly (unless you are working with children, we see you, Jane Addams!) 

Your goals are stealing energy from your reproductive system!

Stop reading and studying, it shrivels up your ovaries and your uterus.*

*There were actually books arguing this, and doctors on the lecture circuit (1860-1880s) who gave public talks on the evils of higher education, particularly in the hard sciences or medicine, for the female reproduction system. Thankfully, female doctors like Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi set out to prove them wrong.
1920ish-1980s Do you have a career? Your subconscious is denying you a child because you refuse to embrace your feminine role. (Variations of this hung on into the present and were well-represented in literature up through the height of the second-wave women’s movement in the 1970s. How surprising.)

1980s: you should think about environmental toxins*

*potential parent looks around at everyone smoking, everywhere. Sees pregnant people smoking. Falls into a black hole of existential crisis.

Quit your job!

Get psychotherapy!

Adopt! (This is likely where this “you’ll get pregnant if you adopt” thing started. It doesn’t happen 95% of the time, but so many people say it! In the 1950s Freudians claimed that if you adopted it would “redirect your energy” to feminine pursuits, removing the “psychogenic block” keep you infertile.)

See a fertility doctor! [Success ranged from 5-30% until the first successful IVF birth in 1978. Early IVF cycles were successful less than 35% of the time. Today they are closer to 50-53% depending on a variety of factors.]
1980s-PresentIt’s probably stress! Are you working too much? Are you taking care of yourself? 

1 in 8 couples experiences infertility, LBGTQIA+ couples might need a gamete, hormonal treatments or other assistance to conceive. A full 30% of the time the cause is unknown. Male-factor infertility is responsible for between 30-40% of cases but often goes undiagnosed because some folks out there won’t even get tested. 

HAVE YOU TRIED IT? HOW CAN YOU SAY YOU’VE REALLY TRIED IF YOU HAVEN’T TRIED: yoga, acupuncture, Clomid, quitting your job, essential oils, paleo, Whole30, Keto, low-sugar, no caffeine, no alcohol, meditation, hypnosis, Pilates, running, not running, eCourses, counseling, abdominal molasses, OBGYN visits, new sexual positions, take home fertility test kits, apps (for ovulation, cycle tracking) and have you read Taking Control of Your Fertility?*

*We aren’t saying that none of these things work, in fact they might be GREAT for you. The problem is the actual avalanche of expertise and/or advice people receive, whether or not they asked for it, despite how little people really know about their diagnosis*

Get your copy of You’re Doing it Wrong here and use Promo Code 02AAAA17 to get $9 off.

About the authors:

Bethany L. Johnson (MPhil, M.A.) is an instructor in history and an associate member to the
graduate faculty and research affiliate faculty in the department of communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She studies how science, medicine, and health discourses are framed and reproduced by institutions and individuals from the 19th century to the present. She has published in interdisciplinary journals such as Health Communication, Women & Language, Departures in Critical Qualitative Research and Women’s Reproductive Health. 

Margaret M. Quinlan is an associate professor in the department of communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She explores how communication creates, resists and transforms knowledge about bodies. She critiques power structures in order to empower individuals who are marginalized inside and outside of healthcare systems. She authored approximately 40 journal articles, 17 book chapters and co-produced documentaries in a regional Emmy award-winning series.

a tongue in cheek history of fertility photo of pregnancy test in sink momcave


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