by Bethany L. Johnson & Margaret M. Quinlan
Rutgers University Press, 2019; 248pp.; $29.95 (Paperback)Buy Book
Margaret M. Quinlan, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies and core faculty in the interdisciplinary Health Psychology Ph.D. Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She explores how communication creates, resists, and transforms knowledge about bodies. She also critiques power structures in order to empower individuals who are marginalized inside and outside of healthcare systems. She has authored approximately 40 journal articles and 17 book chapters, and co-produced three documentaries in a regional Emmy Award–winning series, “The Courage of Creativity.” She co-authored with Bethany L. Johnson, You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise.
Melissa Miles McCarter interviewed Quinlan over email.
Melissa Miles McCarter: What inspired you to write this book?
Margaret M. Quinlan: Bethany Johnson and I were in New York City collecting archival data about the history of Twilight Sleep (a birth method) when she had a voicemail left on her phone at seven o’clock in the morning from her reproductive endocrinologist’s (REI) office in Charlotte, North Carolina, about her unsuccessful infertility treatment. The office was closed, so it took her two hours to reach someone. To add more salt to the wound, the embryologist said, “have a nice day” after leaving the news that her embryos were “petering out.” I was so enraged and told Bethany that as a communication scholar, we could study this topic. By the time we drove back from NYC to Charlotte, we had designed a study to understand the patient’s perspectives on their communication with REI practitioners that led to over thirty interviews and a follow-up survey, a dozen research articles, greeting cards for infertility patients, and a documentary. As a result, we wrote a chapter on infertility for our book, You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise. Although I never experienced infertility, it opened my eyes to my fertility privilege. I am passionate about all the health crises we study in our book (e.g., fertility and conception challenges, pregnancy behavior and outcomes, premature birth, infant loss, and postpartum health issues). Infertility is the one that I credit for starting this journey.
MMM: What did you hope to accomplish by pulling together stories, historical documents, interviews, social media, etc. in researching the book?
MQ: We are passionate about removing the target from female bodies. The shame and pressure they feel results from holding women responsible for transforming society. This demand happens without any institutional change or corporate, governmental, or institutional systems taking any responsibility for the circumstances that can create some of these crises. Throughout our research, we ask: Who is the perfect mother? A myth. It is white, heterosexual, married, educated, cisgender, middle to upper class, thin, able-bodied, etc., etc. Even the “perfect” mother is destined to fail based on the mythical expectations.
MMM: What challenges did you have writing or researching?
MQ: Some of the health crises we write about were emotionally really difficult as we were also living through the “life-cycle of early motherhood” (preconception through early toddlerhood). There were times that Bethany and I needed to take a break from writing and researching because of what we were going through. For example, researching baby loss while one of us was pregnant was difficult. We wanted to write the infertility chapter early because we did not know if either of us would struggle to conceive our second children. Also, we needed to take breaks from social media from time to time. Bethany had some difficulty breastfeeding her second baby, which also happened during Breastfeeding Awareness Week, and it felt very shaming. During that time, I was able to go on social media and connect her with donor breast milk until her milk came in and her son had tongue-tie surgery.
MMM: What did you learn from writing or researching this book?
MQ: We kept confronting messages that we were “doing it wrong,” whether we were in the preconception, conception, pregnancy or postpartum phase, or raising toddlers. So we wanted to connect with others who did not have the same privilege we do, in terms of class, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation, to understand what messages they were receiving. Additionally, we wanted to understand the history of some of these messages, and we found that we are not alone.
MMM: How does You’re Doing it Wrong! fit into a larger historical context?
MQ: Bethany and I have been writing about this for a while—especially as it relates to infertility treatment. Writing our 2016 article for Women & Language, “For her own good: The expert-woman dynamic and the body politics of REI treatment,” we found that for the last century and a half, the diagnosis and treatment of “women’s ills” reflected the Victorian (binary) gender construct, which maintained that women are habitually unwell and biologically flawed. Therefore, many well-meaning medical professionals continue to discipline the female body through paternalism and arrogance. Numerous scholars have also examined the white supremacist, sexist, heteronormative nature of conventional American medicine from the late eighteenth century to the present.
MMM: Why was it important to write this book now?
MQ: I think in the age of social media, so many of the myths about motherhood are recirculated. We found that many experts have a platform on social media to share their “expertise,” so we have access to more voices. But anyone who is confident comes off as an expert. Also, doctors, nurses, and other practitioners use their personal accounts to provide expertise, and some have a professional set of online accounts, etc. It can be confusing to know which hat individuals are wearing when they post!
MMM: In light of recent political and medical events, can you talk about how your research fits in? The image on the news of pregnant women risking their health while marching for racial justice really sticks with me and makes me think of your book!
MQ: Thank you for asking this question! It is hard not to think about how difficult it would be to be pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or having a newborn right now. There are so many COVID-19 unknowns! We have been very vocal on our Instagram and Facebook accounts about how Black women are dying in childbirth. We posted a GoFundMe campaign for a widower named Sam whose wife died after she came home from the hospital with their daughter. We ask, where is postpartum care? We also are trying to share the work of Black authors who write about parenting such as Candace Braithwaite and Nefertiti Austin. We have talked on podcasts about activist groups like Fertility for Colored Girls which provide education and support for Black women who are infertile.
MMM: How does your work connect to the movement for racial justice?
MQ: One of the things that really caught our attention was the narrative around George Floyd calling out for his “Mama” as he died. We’ve seen many images of pregnant and nursing Black women at these protests, holding signs that say “I am Mama,” and we are paying attention. We are listening, and we want to amplify that narrative, those voices. White society has long asked Black women to mother everyone (the mammy construct) and then discarded Black women as expendable, or alternatively, saleable. We cannot walk away from or deny the history of enslavement, rape, and tearing mothers and children apart on the auction block because it deeply informs and constructs this present moment. Why are Black mothers four to five times more likely to die in or just after childbirth? If you are thinking about pre-existing health conditions, you are wrong. Black mothers with PhDs and excellent health are just as likely to die as those without economic status, or education, and in poor health. We have not ended the history of anti-Blackness, and it’s time for white folks like us to really dive into and/or continue doing the work (internally and externally) to alter this trajectory.
MMM: What’s next for you?
MQ: In many ways, I feel I am in the postpartum stage after giving birth to a book. People keep asking us when we will write our next book and our book is only fourteen months old. I usually have my next academic project lined up even before I finish the project I am working on. This time is different because we have been so busy sharing our research that I have not started a new project. Oh and also, we are in a pandemic! It is difficult to start a new research project when I am teaching online and mothering my five-year-old and two-year-old with no childcare. But Bethany and I are writing a book chapter now about Amy Schumer asking for advice on Instagram while going through infertility treatment—it has been fascinating to see so many of the themes we wrote about in our book play out on one social media thread.