99 Problems

Published on June 22nd, 2020 | by Rachel Berger

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“You’re Doing It Wrong!”: An Interview with Margaret M. Quinlan & Bethany Johnson

Now months into lockdown, one thing has increased for sure: my social media use. Over the past few weeks friends who had migrated to private Instagram feeds, occasional sub-tweets, and Facebook lurking are now back with a bang: sharing iconic articles in parent groups that had become mostly dormant, posting funny/desperate anecdotes onto revived personal feeds, spawning new groups to complain about homeschooling and figure out how to survive these times in quarantine. A post about a schedule that looks fairly ambitious is shared; some mama somewhere fixes it to reflect what her kids can actually do; another neighbor takes it apart completely and mostly just alludes to screentime and wine. Along the way, thousands animate the dynamic discourse of parenting that happens collectively, remotely and virtually, as we parent together apart.  Our anxieties are showing—and so are our cultural mores. We all want to do best by our kids, and by ourselves—and we are using social media in ways we haven’t in a while to figure how to parent through pandemic.

As parents in the 21st century, we consider ourselves unbelievably lucky to be able to have the world of information and connection at our fingertips—though we acknowledge the way in which the vast flow and ad hoc moderation can be, like a circumcision convo in any parenting group, enraged, embattled and incredibly stuck in. The mediation of motherhood, however, is not new—nor is it even recent. You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise, co-authored by Bethany Johnson and Margaret M. Quinlan, traces a century of the collective mediation of motherhood, framed around a series of debates that have shaped the way in which we encounter the challenges of parenthood in both extremely personal and entirely communal ways.  What remains consistent is that everyone has an opinion, and the media has provided a form for advice-giving for well over 100 years.

This book uses two different kinds of timeframes to explore the worlds of parenting advice: on the one hand, it shifts from a late nineteenth to the twentieth century to see what has changed as our mediated worlds have evolved from newspapers and advice columns to smartphone apps and social media platforms; at the same time, it moves through the timeline of parenting from conception to well into the toddler years, covering that tricky terrain that ranges from what to do to get pregnant, what to do once you are, and what to do with baby when they arrive. The authors use their own experience of gestating and birthing babies to fuel an inquiry into the sociological, historical and medical literature around the big debates, and ultimately make the case that there is no one sphere of parenting—the personal is inherently political, and the debates that circulate in our public sphere shape the extremely intimate of conceiving, birthing and raising babies.

I had a chance to ask them a few questions about the motivation for the book and their process around writing it together. – Rachel Berger

MUTHA: As an academic mama, I have thought of about 35 different academic books I’d like to research on all of the aspects of motherhood that ping my intellectual curiosity (or scholarly rage!). What inspired you to write this book, and how is writing about your parenting different from other things you’ve written?

Margaret & Bethany: I think we definitely relate to scholarly rage. I (Bethany) read a news article by a female reproductive endocrinology and infertility (REI) doctor in 2008 suggesting women should consider “going part-time” so the stress didn’t lessen their fertility and I basically turned into a bonfire. So, the rage piece or the “oh my goodness WHY are we still saying this?!” aspect was huge. As Maggie and I talk about a lot (in text messages, articles and now this book), whiteness and heteronormativity, cisness and all the “right” ways to be and move through American society just make the target of “doing it right” so narrow that not even the very minuscule number of people who fit that target are meeting its goals of perfection. So that is both crushing and liberating. If the target is based on a mythical reality, then trying to match it is a waste of time. The enraging thing for me is, why do we construct a mythical target and then shame people for not reaching it? As I always say, there is a particular political project at stake here—if the individual takes on the responsibility for failure, then changing systems, structures and institutions becomes unnecessary. Challenging power is something those in power have to worry about. For me that is what is different about this project as well. We really get to focus on the mythical target and engage the ways that individuals are blamed for what can only be changed by deconstructing systems and building new ones. But that work is hard and historically, was generally dangerous. Having 100 million people feel like garbage when they look at Instagram pictures of someone sewing a quilt on an elliptical while glowing with an organic spray-on tan while their baby takes a three-hour nap is far easier than achieving meaningful parental leave. For me (Bethany) this book is about moving in two directions—closer in that we do a deep dive on the crises we examine, and further out in that we continually conclude that these are individual problems; these are systems problems. And if it sounds like I’m repeating myself here it’s just because I’m relieved to not be giving parenting advice; this is the message we’ve been so hungry to share. We get asked about parenting and medical concerns for babies and children all the time— we simply aren’t qualified. We are qualified to tell the story of how we got here and to assess the discourse of the present, and that is what we do in this book.

MUTHA:  Your book provides a fascinating overview of the historical evolution of medical ‘problems’ and the slew of solutions that experts have concocted over the years. Which popular myths from the late 19th and early 20th century do you still see on social media today, and why do you think these particular ones persist? 

Margaret & Bethany: As a communication scholar, I (Maggie) am fascinated with the messages individuals undergoing infertility treatment receive. During our research for the infertility chapter, and our experiences in our friendship, we realized that the damaging capacity of this message is its ability to be morphed and reshaped to every cultural moment. Whether this was called “hysteria” or “energy exhaustion,” “frigidity” or “psychosomatic infertility,” “too much stress,” “the career problem,” “taking on masculinity,” or “failing to embrace femininity,” the message has always been the same. You are the problem, your perspective is the issue, if you just “get your mind right” (a quote from a e-Course available online right now) you will heal your own infertility and get pregnant. These messages fail to take into account any of the numerous factors involved in this issue—including environmental pollution, social construction, economic and social oppression, access to diagnostic medical care, treatments and medicines that could make a difference. The issue of doctors trained to find “malingering” in cisfemales, etc. etc., etc. There are so many aspects to the embodied experience of infertility and infertility treatment that cannot be captured, fixed or even ameliorated by “just” relaxing. We do not deny that lowered stress can have a positive impact on treatments of all kinds! However, this is not quantifiable, though we treat it as if it is. How much should one lower their stress to increase their chances of conception? 30%? 45%? How would one do that? Why do individuals in stressful situations still find themselves conceiving? There are too many questions to offer pat answers. This is the conundrum we wrestle with in our book.

Bethany wrote about her own experiences in treatment  and how this impacted her life here. For more ideas about how to support people in treatment in your life without telling them to “just relax” click here. Would you like some free cards to give out to support someone in treatment or with the news that they may not conceive without additional support? Our research-created cards are ready for you to print at home.

As a historian, it is always interesting for me to watch public conversations in which folks not trained in history (hey, we can’t all be, so no judgment there) talk about “what historians say.” One of the things that was coming up a lot in online archives and in places like Pinterest, and Buzzfeed and Medium articles getting reposted thousands of times on Facebook was the practice of Memento Mori during the Victorian Era, and well into the 20th century in some communities, like in Harlem. We kept reading that “historians said” people didn’t love their babies as much because they were used to losing them, and we noted folks found these images “creepy,” so we wanted to contextualize them. Grief has always accompanied child loss. Always. We found the archive overflowing with it. The record of grief was so intense we had to take breaks from reading. We also found (as I expected to) rich and nuanced historiography about loss, notions of infancy and childhood as cultural concepts over the last three centuries, and about the intersection of photographic technology, print technology and the costs of death in the 19th century. What really struck me though, is that people we knew who lost babies and posted their pictures on Facebook shared images that looked almost identical to the daguerreotypes of the 19th-century—down to the lighting and the positioning of their babies. I wanted to know why, and it answered a lot of questions for me about how we want to capture and remember childhood innocence, particularly when we are dealing with grief. In part, I think the style of these images persist because they serve a unique role of allowing parents to celebrate, mark and memorialize a child that (today) didn’t leave the hospital with them. That urge to maintain that connection is ahistorical—it exists outside of time.

MUTHA: Your book focuses on the use of media to stage a collective conversation about parenthood over a few hundred years, starting with newspapers and guidebooks, and moving into the current era of social media. At the heart of it all is the figure of the ideal mother. Can you give us an overview of how she both has and hasn’t changed over time?

Margaret & Bethany: We kept confronting the “perfect mother” that society has constructed (e.g., White, middle-class, educated, heterosexual/married, cisgender, able-bodied, thin, etc.) sets us all up for failure. There are times where we have to remind ourselves that this is an impossible standard that no one can live up to! We have to remind ourselves and each other often that we are not “doing it wrong!”

I (Bethany) am reading intensively right now about the emergence of the capitalist marketplace in antebellum America, and how the expectations of what constituted proper womanhood and manhood emerged from the dislocations of that period, which eventually produced what we now identify as the working, middle and upper-class of America. Yes, these are social constructs, and the boundaries are always changing. Still, I am continually impressed (and horrified) by how idealized gender performance carries such weight across time. Our economy is unrecognizable to that of the 1840s, our technology, our knowledge about the world, about human beings and societies is vastly different. But somehow, we still have an idealized, universal conception about what womanhood is proper, right, and “best for” the family, the community and the state. Individuals have continued to question this construction since the beginning—while there has been shift, I can find plenty on Instagram that looks like much of the same.

Photo by Alexey Shikov on Unsplash

MUTHA: You begin the book with an accounting of the choices and circumstances that distinguish your parenting experiences from each other. And yet, the book is a tribute to two mothers/scholars working together across different methodologies and approaches – and, indeed, parenting experiences – to explore the way in which our collective experience of parenting is mediated. What can you tell us about working together on this book — is your co-authorship resonant of other collaborations you’ve made since entering motherhood? 

Margaret & Bethany: I don’t think either of us realized how much we would be reaching out to social media for medical expertise. For example, Maggie’s son was not gaining weight and was failing to thrive—she found comfort in connecting with other mothers experiencing similar situations. They reminded her that social media can be a great resource for new parents. This was an ironic challenge to face after writing a chapter on the checkered history of growth curves (Chapter 8). We didn’t expect so much of our research to become our lived experience. And when it happened, we really had to test our conclusions. They held. When Bethany’s second baby was born her milk did not come in right away, and Maggie brought her own breastmilk to Bethany’s house so that she could spoon feed her son. Also, Maggie went on social media and found a dairy free breastmilk donor who was able to help Bethany supplement her milk. We wrote about that story in an academic journal article for Health Communication and have told this story on several podcasts. We tell these stories not just to demystify our own performances and experiences, but to help people understand that our work together crosses over into our lived experience daily. Our scholarly partnership is rooted in a real-life support of one another, and our community. Some of that looks like talking about who isn’t included, who is marginalized, silenced, rejected, deserted by our public policy and our edited social media lives. We will continue to share the stories of black mothers, queer parents, non-binary folks, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the narrow narrative we’ve inherited. As Bethany often says, that narrative was never represented by people, even as it was created. As Maggie often says, if we aren’t talking about who is left out of cultural narratives we aren’t doing the work we can do as scholars. Gender scholars produce rich research everyday showing that it was always more fluid, more complicated, more unknown. Ultimately, we are passionate about getting this message out there so that other parents do not think they are “doing it wrong.” Doing it “right” is a fantasy, a construction, a myth. What is “right” today will be wrong tomorrow and we can only do what we know now. Don’t hold yourself responsible for what you don’t know, and remember: you are doing it right, right now.

Photo by Valeria Zoncoll on Unsplash

featured image via Museums Victoria on Unsplash

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About the Author

Rachel Berger

Rachel Berger is a queer fat femme, a parent of twins, a historian of the body, and a lover of walks living and teaching in Montreal, Canada. She is Associate Professor of History and fellow of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University, where her academic work takes up the history of indigenous medicine in modern South Asia, the history of reproductive rights and technologies in Empire, and is most recently focused on the history of nutrition and the origins processed foods in twentieth century India, as well as a geo-mapping of South Asian foodscapes in Montreal. The rest of her academic work focuses on the changing scope of queer kinship in the time of Assisted Reproductive Technologies, which includes the collection of oral histories of queer family-making across Canada. She writes about these topics, intergenerational trauma and holocaust memories, critical Jewish parenthood and queer life in academic and non-academic venues. Come find her on twitter @slantgirl or on instagram @rachel_of_montreal.



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