Book review: a maternal vein of images and information

By Jacqueline Houton

This revealing collection of photographic essays, essays and interviews offers a kaleidoscopic view of an all too often hidden subject, treated as a private concern rather than a vital public interest.

Conceiving motherhood: the things that make and break our births by Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick. The MIT Press, 344 pages, $ 44.95.

For the past six months I have dutifully chewed my prenatal gummy vitamins every morning, but it wasn’t until recently that I found out that I should raise my glass of OJ to Lucy Wills, the young British doctor who gave Marmite to a malnourished monkey. a century ago and I discovered that the folate it contained was also beneficial for pregnant women.

Wills’ story is one of many in the revealing new book Conceiving motherhood: the things that make and break our births. Birth may be one of the few experiences shared by every person on the planet, but the material culture of human reproduction has often been overlooked. Michelle Millar Fisher, Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Amber Winick, writer, design historian, and mother of three, offer a fix with this collection of essays, photo-essays, and interviews. Like the Instagram account the authors have used to share their research for the past few years, it’s very visual, filled with many striking images over the top, but it’s not a tabletop book – it’s a thick tome. with footnotes, dealing with life and death issues, fascinating and disturbing in equal measure.

Divided into four sections – reproduction, pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum – the book explores more than eighty conceptions. It probes the hidden stories of familiar products, like the menstrual cup (the first commercial model of which was patented by a Broadway actress), the baby monitor (developed in the aftermath of Lindbergh’s kidnapping), and the umbrella stroller (dreamed of by one. designer for his grandchildren). There are looks on maternity clothes, from Indian sarees that have welcomed changing bodies for centuries to the skirt to tie. I love lucy during Lucille Ball’s unprecedented public pregnancy. There is graphic design and print media – advertisements, magazine covers, activist signage, propaganda posters and early incarnations of Our bodies, ourselves, which began as a handwritten fanzine that faded away after a women’s liberation conference in Boston in 1969; today, it’s a 900-page document printed in over 30 languages. And there are deep dives in a myriad of medical devices (forceps, specula, calipers, incubators) and drugs (including Clomid, a boon for couples struggling with infertility, and thalidomide, a cause of deformities. devastating congenital diseases marketed as a remedy for morning sickness by the same pharmaceutical company less than a decade earlier).

Indeed, much of the medical content is heartbreaking. Many innovations have been developed without the consent of the people they were tested on. The speculum as we know it today was refined by Dr. J. Marion Sims, dubbed the father of modern gynecology, who performed experimental fistula surgeries on slave black women without anesthesia. More than a century later, the revolutionary contraceptive Enovid was tested on psychiatric patients at Worcester State Hospital, as well as female medical students in Puerto Rico who were told that participation in the clinical trial and taking pelvic exams were part of their courses. Too often, designs favored the convenience of physicians (mostly men) over the well-being of patients, as in the case of the Dalkon Shield, a contraceptive device implanted in 2.5 million American women in the 1970s before it became known. ‘An uproar does lead the FDA. suspend sales and start monitoring medical devices. Its multifilament wick, while handy for the doctor who removes it, has introduced bacteria into the uterus and caused pelvic inflammatory disease in many cases, including Loretta J. Ross, pioneering reproductive justice activist and interviewee, who fell into a coma and woke up to learn that she had had a total hysterectomy at the age of 23. The appalling facts are not limited to history: Maternal mortality in the United States has doubled since 1991 and, as law professor Khiara Bridges points out in another interview, black women are three to four times more likely to to die. during pregnancy or childbirth than white women, a disparity that persists across income levels.

Maternity Care Coalition staff serving clients in Philadelphia in the 1980s. Courtesy of MCC and the University of Pennsylvania Library Archives.

Corn Design motherhood highlights many examples of ingenuity, possibility and fun too. An interview with Stephanie Tillman, a Chicago midwife who avoids the use of stirrups in her practice, is accompanied by illustrations of Table manners, a guide to comfortable pelvic exam positions for patients with disabilities – a reminder that products and practices that accommodate the needs of diverse bodies mean better designs for everyone. An essay on Grace Jones’ avant-garde maternity costumes – including a geometric mega-dress that could be the most flamboyant form of camouflage in fashion history – offers a burst of joy (and left me wish you could travel back in time to mark an invitation to her baby shower, co-hosted by Debbie Harry and Andy Warhol at Paradise Garage nightclub). And I wanted to clap while reading the moxie of downtrodden innovator Meg Crane, the graphic designer who pushed her reluctant employers to develop a homemade version of the pregnancy test they sold to doctors. Left out of the design process, she created her own prototype and filed it alongside the official frilly prototypes from an outside agency hired by the pharmaceutical company. The agency manager, arriving late for the meeting, said Crane’s sleek design was the obvious choice (and later became her studio partner and husband).

Throughout the book, the book argues for the importance of designing better things for menstruation, pregnant women, and babies, but it also recognizes that design is not enough; we also desperately need a better policy. Consider the breast pump, an early prototype of which was adapted from a bleeding device in the 1840s. Eighty years later, an improved model designed by dairy engineer Edward Lasker and pediatrician Isaac Abt was still noisy. , unwieldy and painful to use. Progress took place in the 1950s, when civil engineer Einar Egnell had the brilliant idea of ​​creating a design based on observations of human anatomy – rather than bovine, working closely with the nurse Sister. Maja Kindberg, who became the model’s namesake, to test designs with new mothers at a Stockholm maternity hospital. But by 2014, the year of the first breast pump is not zero! Hackathon at MIT, the options in the market still left a lot to be desired. Yet, as MIT Media Lab designer and researcher Alexis Hope writes in her essay, the founders of the Hackathon ultimately concluded that no technological innovation can make up for the fact that we live in a country that pushes back postpartum people. at work too early. The United States remains the only industrialized country without mandatory paid family leave, and a quarter of American women who give birth return to work within two weeks. We can and should expect better from our systems – a truth evidenced by Gordon Parks’ series of photographs documenting the federally funded child care program that operated during World War II. a time when the US government briefly decided that supporting working mothers was a matter of domestic importation.

Dalkon Shield intrauterine device (far left) used in the early 1970s and 1980s and produced by the AH Robins Company in the United States. It has caused a range of serious injuries, including pelvic infection, infertility, unwanted pregnancy and death. Eventually, the United States Food and Drug Administration banned the device. Image courtesy of the Mütter Museum.

Fisher and Winick, two white women in their late 30s, incorporate the ideas of nearly sixty other contributors whose diverse perspectives support the book. The end result is a kaleidoscopic view of an all too often hidden subject, treated as a private matter rather than of vital public interest. Broad in its definition of design and dense in information, Conceive motherhood is the kind of resource that most won’t read cover to cover, but tap here and there and then suddenly find themselves drawn to a story or picture. It is a reading that is relevant to anyone born.


Jacqueline Houton is a Cambridge-based editor and writer. A former editor-in-chief of The incorrect Bostonian and editor-in-chief of The Phoenix and THING magazine (RIP x3), she currently writes books for children and adolescents and is editor-in-chief at Boston Art Review. His writing appeared in Big Red & Brilliant, Female dog magazine, Boston magazine, Pangyrus, Editors Weekly, and other publications.



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