Books

When a couple plans for a child today, every moment seems precious and unique. Home pregnancy tests promise good news just days after conception, and prospective parents can track the progress of their pregnancy day by day with apps that deliver a stream of embryonic portraits. On-line due date calculators trigger a direct-marketing barrage of baby-name lists and diaper coupons. Ultrasounds as early as eight weeks offer a first photo for the baby book.

Yet, all too often, even the best-strategized childbearing plans go awry. About twenty percent of confirmed pregnancies miscarry, mostly in the first months of gestation. Statistically, early pregnancy losses are a normal part of childbearing for healthy women. Drawing on sources ranging from advice books and corporate marketing plans to diary entries and blog posts, Lara Freidenfelds offers a deep perspective on how this common and natural phenomenon has been experienced. As she shows, historically, miscarriages were generally taken in stride so long as a woman eventually had the children she desired.

This has changed in recent decades, and an early pregnancy loss is often heartbreaking and can be as devastating to couples as losing a child. Freidenfelds traces how innovations in scientific medicine, consumer culture, cultural attitudes toward women and families, and fundamental convictions about human agency have reshaped the childbearing landscape. While the benefits of an increased emphasis on parental affection, careful pregnancy planning, attentive medical care, and specialized baby gear are real, they have also created unrealistic and potentially damaging expectations about a couple’s ability to control reproduction and achieve perfect experiences.

The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: A History of Miscarriage in America provides a reassuring perspective on early pregnancy loss and suggests ways for miscarriage to more effectively be acknowledged by women, their families, their healthcare providers, and the maternity care industry.

Available from Oxford University Press in January 2020.

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*Currently half-price from Johns Hopkins University Press!

The award-winning The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) is the story of how Americans in search of middle-class status radically altered their most intimate bodily practices in order to become “modern” in their own and others’ eyes.

Drawing on a rich combination of in-depth archival research and 75 oral history interviews, I show how Americans from a wide range of ethnic and regional backgrounds collaborated with sex educators, physical educators, advertisers, menstrual products manufacturers, and medical experts, innovating in ways they explicitly named as “modern.” They took the risk of abandoning centuries of popular medical tradition and intuition in favor of having bodies which did not leak, smell or reveal their insides, or impede personal and workplace efficiency. Having a modern bodily self-presentation and self-control was perceived as critical to joining the middle class, and necessary to entering a growing women’s white- and pink-collar job market.

Modern menstrual management was eminently affordable, and became a significant part of what allowed the vast majority of Americans, by mid-century, to think of themselves as middle class. This nuanced exploration of the history of menstruation sheds new light on the history of popular modernity, the rise of the middle class, and the relationship of these phenomena to how Americans have cared for and managed their bodies.

Listen to a 2017 podcast about The Modern Period with Dr. Katy Clancy, anthropologist and host of the Period. podcast.

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