Episode 105: “Just Relax” and Other Harmful Advice
Nothing makes you feel more deflated, angry, and misunderstood than when someone tells you to ‘just relax.’ This reaction can be expected in many situations, especially from someone who is struggling with building their family.
In this episode, Bethany Johnson discusses her experience with infertility and how women have historically been blamed for “barrenness.” Over time, this blame has trickled down through generations, lingering in the language we use to discuss women’s health and consistently disregarding how male factor infertility contributes 30% to 40% of the time. Bethany and her colleague, Margaret Quinlan, took this historical context and applied it to the modern phrases and attitudes society has normalized surrounding a woman’s life. They co-authored the book, You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise, to educate others on the constant barraging of unsolicited advice the world seems to dump on motherhood constantly.
As Dr. Georgia Witkin taught us last episode, there’s way more to infertility than stress management, exercise, and dieting. Motherhood isn’t one size fits all either, so it’s important to advocate for yourself and continue on the path that works for you.
Guest: Bethany Johnson, co-author of You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise
Host: Dan Bulger
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Here are some highlights from this episode:
1:38 – 3:27
Bethany Johnson: By that time, we had been married three or four years, and I felt like we had some good time together, I had met some professional goals, and had sort of a plan laid out. So, it felt like the right time, and then nothing happened. This stuck out to me not because I was 30, but because, historically, the women in my family get pregnant really quickly and really easily. Whether or not they can maintain that pregnancy is a different story, but pregnancy happens easily. So, when we have been trying for about four or five months, I said, ‘you know what, I’m just going to talk to my OB,’ who was so lovely. I had had such a great relationship with her up until this point: when she told me to ‘just relax,’ and that it would happen.
Dan Bulger: That hurts, doesn’t it? I’m sure if you’re listening here, someone somewhere has told you that if you just relax, things will change. People say it about all sorts of things, and it’s usually directed at women. Just relax and your pain will go away. Just relax and your work issues will sort themselves out. But the big one is the one Bethany heard, just relax and you’ll get pregnant. It’s annoying when people say just relax, and it can be hurtful. But when it’s a doctor telling their patients that they should just relax, and they’ll get pregnant. Well, that’s when the harm is being done.
Bethany Johnson: She was not right and that was not what worked. But that was the very first time I heard that, and it certainly wasn’t the last. I understand that I’m part of 150+ year tradition of that type of care being provided for people who are in need.
The Impact of Infertility Assumptions
16:22 – 17:34
Bethany Johnson: The assumption in the early 1800s has been, well, it was literally at the beginning that it was not possible for men to contribute to barrenness, which is what it would have been called at the time, and later sterility, and then later infertility. Men were seen as virile, and they were sort of the source of life, so it was always the woman’s fault. And then men weren’t even tested with any regularity until well into the 20th century. And when I was doing Patient Practitioner Communication Studies, under IRB, through UNC Charlotte, we were talking to people whose partners refused to even get tested. So, they could have had male factor infertility, but wouldn’t have known and doctors didn’t require it. But we know that male factor is the cause 30% to 40% of the time, so it’s definitely worth checking. But because we have this idea that women are the infertile ones, and if they would just relax, they would get pregnant, it actually really hurts the men and these heterosexual partnerships, because they deserve time and attention and care as well. And if we keep understanding infertility as a female problem, we’re really neglecting the male patients in these partnerships.
Dan has been in the healthcare industry for the last six years as a multimedia content producer. Better known as ‘Video Dan’ he as interviewed numerous doctors, patients and other experts in the world of fertility. He’s also the producer for this podcast, This is Infertility. On a personal note Dan’s parents started fostering kids when he was four years old, and he considers himself a proud older brother to over 100 foster children.
Bethany L. Johnson (MPhil, M.A.) is a doctoral student in the history of science, technology, and the environment at the University of South Carolina and a research affiliate faculty in the department of communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She studies how science, medical technology, and public health discourses are framed and reproduced by institutions and individuals with structural power from the 19th century to the present; specifically, she studies epidemics and reproductive health. She has published in interdisciplinary journals such as Health Communication, Women & Language, Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, Journal of Holistic Nursing, and Women’s Reproductive Health. Her book, co-authored with Dr. Margaret M. Quinlan, You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise is available now through Rutgers University Press.