In September 2021, our book, Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births, will be published by MIT Press. We’re two design historians, and between us we’ve had babies and books before. But DM, as our most recent offspring is affectionately known, has had the longest gestation of them all. This book sprung from our shared curiosity about why the material culture that defines our reproductive lives was so hidden, and also what it might take to change that. We write about the objects and systems that we came to call “design for the arc of human reproduction”: contraceptives, breast pumps, labor and delivery wards, and at-home abortion kits, to name just a few.
Such objects, spaces, and ideas should be among the most well-considered design solutions; designers should aspire to work on them. Yet these tools, techniques, systems, and speculations are treated as afterthoughts. They receive no attention in design studios or classrooms, and likewise are never present in design collections within cultural institutions. Instead, the subject is treated furtively or as unimportant—as something beneath debate or lacking in intellectual content. This gap inspired our book.
We were tired of society looking away. We wanted to make an image-rich book that could hold these designs to the light. If we told their wildly different—and sometimes totally contradictory—histories, then perhaps they could become part of the canon and, in doing so, could recalibrate it.
In 2017 we embarked on the journey of pitching Designing Motherhood as a public reckoning. We sent out the proposal to directors and decision makers at various presses, and waited with glee, ready to fend off multiple offers.
When the replies did trickle in, they were polite rejections: “Not sure there’s an audience for this....”
A constant refrain: “A women’s issue. We don’t really publish in that area.”
Though we were positive the audience for such a book would be far-reaching, no one seemed to see this topic with the same fervor and potential as we did. In our evenings and weekends, in times when children were napping or on lunch breaks from work, we began to write. We knew we’d need money for image permissions and so we started to think about applying for a Pew grant. The only problem was that we were individuals and we needed an institutional partner—and none of the institutions we knew or worked for were remotely interested.
At the 11th hour, we were introduced to Maternity Care Coalition. MCC has been working since 1980 to support pregnant people and their families with direct services, like doulas and lactation support, as well as advocating for policy change at the city and national level. It is an organization that envisions an equitable future, grounded in racial and social justice. They understood our project right away, because it was their project too. It took folks outside the museum and art and design worlds to “get it”—probably because that’s where the real work usually happens.
When we passed the first stage of the Pew application, we cowrote a proposal for a book, two exhibitions, and a set of public programs that would center the expertise of MCC’s staff. To our disbelief, we were awarded the grant, and MIT Press came on board as the publication partner.
We began writing, mainly during the pandemic. We had a lot to say and more to show—in the 350-plus images we chose to illustrate our writing, and with the 50-plus contributing artists, writers, and interviewees we spotlighted, we wanted to make sure we were as polyvocal as 344 pages would allow. All throughout the book, we cast a critical eye on designs that ultimately shape every living person. We partnered with the Mütter Museum and the Center for Architecture and Design to devise the two exhibitions.
Bringing Designing Motherhood into the world was not easy or painless. But it was a good birth. We wish that the art and design institutions we grew up venerating—first as visitors, then as grad students, and now as curators and writers—might have been more open to these types of stories and histories from the beginning. In hindsight, this process has taught us the importance of trusting your gut and your intuition. If it matters to you—be it a book, a baby, bodily autonomy, or something else—it matters. Full stop. In all likelihood, there are plenty of others who feel the same way, too.
Michelle Millar Fisher is a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a coauthor of books, essays, and exhibitions. Amber Winick is a an independent design historian, writer, and mother of three.