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Politics Has Failed Mothers. Can Design Help?

Designers, curators, and entrepreneurs are scrambling to make sense of motherhood in a culture that’s often hostile to it.

Mother/Child Dining Table by Maartje Steenkamp
With her Mother/Child Dining Table, Maartje Steenkamp reflects on the connection between parents and their babies at mealtime. “[It] goes much deeper than just giving food; mother and child are almost one, as with the umbilical cord before birth,” she says. “In this way the furniture has to be one, too.” She based the orientation of its seats, and the length of the table, on the size and position of her own body while feeding her child. Courtesy Inga Powilleit

At their most extravagant, the tendriled seed pods of the Nigella damascena flower resemble the curled necks of swans in a Tunnel of Love. Its fringed, quick-growing blooms have long appeared in English cottage gardens, and in southern Europe and North Africa, where the species grows wild. In the United States you can purchase a packet of its seeds—around 2,200 of them—for about $6.

Nigella damascena is what herbalists call an emmenagogue—a plant that, when ingested, prompts the human uterus to expel its lining, whether or not it’s ready to be expelled. And also: whether or not something is growing inside of it. The flower’s commonly used sobriquet “love-in-a-mist” is actually one of two. Some people call it “devil in the bush.”

This fall, it lends its name to an exhibition at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Opened in late October and running through December 20, Love in a Mist: The Politics of Fertility examines the relationships between fertility, legislation, and the built and natural environment. Malkit Shoshan, the show’s curator, specializes in the architecture and urban planning of zones that have recently emerged from conflict, or are still mired in its depths. While much of her work has focused on Israel/Palestine, she’s now turned her attention to the U.S., to states in the Deep South and Midwest where so-called heartbeat bills are gaining political traction and redefining the public’s access to abortion—indeed, their very understanding of it.

Exhibition display at "Love in a Mist"
Curated by Malkit Shoshan at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Love in a Mist: The Politics of Fertility is set up in four parts, each of which resides in a greenhouse. In one area, Shoshan has included archival advertisements for DES, a form of synthetic estrogen that was administered to women in the mid–20th century to prevent miscarriage. It was later determined to be linked to cancer and underdevelopment of fetal genital tissue. Courtesy Justin Knight

In the university’s Druker Design Gallery, the curator has compiled research and documentary projects from designers, environmentalists, activists, and legislators that show how fertile bodies, including women’s own, are subjugated by schemes of culture and politics—a point we’ve known, though perhaps not seen couched in such naked terms. Early on, Shoshan illustrates the ways that reproductive knowledge and self-regulation, including the use of remedies like Nigella damascena, have been criminalized since the 13th century. Projects like Lori Brown’s maps of abortion providers in Texas, and documentation of Women on Waves (a group that provides pregnancy termination procedures just offshore from abortion-restrictive countries), offer evidence that this struggle is ongoing, and that restriction and resistance both can be spatially driven.

Love in a Mist comes at a critical time for American reproductive health. Earlier this year, the Trump administration finalized a rule that aims to make comprehensive changes to Title X, a nearly 50-year-old program designed to assist uninsured and low-income individuals in family planning. Although Title X funds do not pay for abortion, the rule would prohibit grants to U.S. health-care providers that offer abortion services, or even referrals for abortion—a procedure that is legal in this country. The American Medical Association calls it a gag order. Federal courts have blocked the restriction, but as of September, nearly 900 clinics had already lost funding.

The urgency of Shoshan’s exhibition is only redoubled by its assessment of how an economy of fertility—of synthetic hormones and Big Agriculture—has devastated the planet. The definition of life seized upon and promoted by groups in power, we realize, is one that strangles all other possible versions, that takes no stock of the quality of that life—that throws out the baby, as it were, with the bathwater.

Make the Breast Pump Not Suck
Michelle Millar Fisher, a curator of Designing Motherhood, identifies “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck,” a project that spun out of a 2014 hackathon at the MIT Media Lab, as an innovator in mother-centric design. The current exhibition Designs for Different Futures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Fisher was a curator until recently, includes a documentary on the group’s work, as well as its infographic on breastfeeding.

Courtesy Binta Beard, Catherine D’Ignazio, Alexis Hope, Kate Krontiris, Rebecca Michelson, and Jennifer Roberts/Design by Courtney Lord

Hours south, in Philadelphia, another exhibition is incubating, promising to engage in a complementary critique around issues of fertility. Designing Motherhood: A Century of Making (and Unmaking) Babies, an initiative by the Maternity Care Coalition curated by Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick, will present 100 designs that reflect on the material culture of maternity. Opening in 2021, the project has already built a following on Instagram under the handle @designingmotherhood, where the organizers have shared works of art (the image of a baby-bumped Leigh Bowery), objects (a copper IUD and a perineal irrigation bottle), graphics (a box of Huggies and a chart on breastfeeding), and advocacy projects. Both curators seem well poised for the job: Winick is a design historian, mother, and recipient of a Fulbright fellowship, which she used to study child-focused design in Hungary. Fisher, meanwhile, was until recently a decorative arts curator for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a former MoMA staffer who has campaigned publicly for labor rights, including those of mothers. (Notably, she has been outspoken in her support of Nikki Columbus, whose lawsuit against MoMA PS1 for pregnancy discrimination made headlines in 2018.)

This fall, Designing Motherhood received a Pew grant, and the project has already started planning workshops around paid family leave. While working Americans are probably familiar with the United States’ paltry labor standards, it’s still harrowing to see the numbers: 25 percent of people who have given birth return to work within 10 days; most are back after 12 weeks, though that time, more often than not, is unpaid. As recently as March 2018, only 17 percent of civilian workers in the United States had access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Pregnancy tests have changed little in the past three decades, but have been a critical object for giving women agency over their fertility status. Lia, a flushable, biodegradable pregnancy test, is among the objects @designingmotherhood has shared with its Instagram audience, and also featured in Designs for Different Futures. Courtesy Lia

As an internal knowledge specialist for the global architecture firm Perkins and Will, Christine Dansereau deals with this issue every day, advising clients on spaces that can support parents—and specifically nursing mothers—as they return to the office. That women do it so soon after giving birth means that “mothers rooms,” or breast-pumping rooms, are a necessity. Though it’s recommended that children breastfeed exclusively until they’re six months old, the practice tends to fall off when nursing mothers return to work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In its “Breastfeeding Report Card,” the agency determined that “mothers may not be getting the support they need…to meet their breastfeeding goals.”

Dansereau points out that pumping as a phenomenon is still new. The breast pump was invented in the 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1991 that a consumer model hit shelves. The workplace is still catching up. “There’s still a question of ‘Will this be used, and is this really necessary?’” Dansereau explains. “As a culture, we’re not quite to the point of people recognizing that this is an important thing that we need to protect,” like the way that we treat ADA. She relates that some employers aren’t ready to embrace a mothers room, which may receive only intermittent use, and opt for wellness rooms instead—places for naps, or meditation, or just carving out a few minutes of quiet. “Do we design for the needs of a few or the wants of many, negotiate what is the more pressing need—this person who’s sick and needs to rest, or this person who needs to pump? They’re both important. It’s challenging.”

Mothers Room at Guardian Life, designed by Perkins and Will
This mothers room at a New York City office for Guardian Life was designed by Perkins and Will. The company has an agile work policy, so new parents can work from home two or three days a week. But for the hours they’re at the office, the mothers room offers privacy, bookability, and refrigeration (for expressed milk). Sharon Sharpe, a staffer who uses the room for pumping, says it’s a productive workspace, too. “If I do need to be on a call while I’m in here, I can do that. There’s room to bring my laptop down here if I need to.” Courtesy Eric Laignel

While opting for comprehensive wellness areas might be the more utilitarian solution—and is better than providing nothing at all—it arguably puts the onus back on the lactating worker to negotiate for their own medically necessary space. Here, Dansereau points out, an employer’s own enforcement of policy can be make-or-break. Where that’s lacking, another newcomer on the scene—coworking—provides an alternate path.

A flexible, self-directed work environment supports parents’ needs for more nimble employment, but some spaces go beyond that. The Wing in New York’s Soho neighborhood, for instance, has its own nursery located a floor below its main coworking level, meaning that attending to a child during the day is as simple as going downstairs—a gesture almost radical in its humanity. The Coven, a coworking facility in Minneapolis dedicated to female-identifying populations, welcomes infants up to six months old, and allows open breastfeeding on its work floor. “By creating a space that centers the experiences of women, nonbinary, and trans folks, it’s impossible to leave parenthood out of that,” says Erinn Farrell, The Coven’s chief creative officer.

The spatial component of the workplace, of course, is only one of many challenges facing parents. There’s also the exhaustion, the separation anxiety, the exorbitant cost of child care and health insurance, and, for many, the struggle of conception and pregnancy itself. On this last point, a new fertility and women’s health clinic in Manhattan hopes to offer a more sympathetic model. Called Kindbody, the practice occupies a street-level storefront in the Flatiron district—unlike other facilities of its type, which are often hidden away in labyrinthine corporate offices or hulking medical complexes. Its cheery interior, designed by Islyn Studio, looks more like a twee coffee outpost than a place to receive an ultrasound. (A stirruped exam chair in a patient room is there to remind us otherwise—though, to its credit, it is upholstered in an upbeat, warm-toned vinyl.)

Kindbody exam room
The exam rooms at Kindbody, a new fertility and wellness clinic in Manhattan, eschew the antiseptic look of other OBGYN facilities. Islyn Studio has equipped exam rooms with blond-wood casework and sleek brass fixtures. The company has also opened outposts in San Francisco and Santa Monica, California Courtesy Kindbody and Islyn Studio

Kindbody, along with Tia, a boutique, design-forward ob-gyn clinic, might signal broader changes in women’s care. “With women’s health, you’re not dealing with a sick population,” says Fahimeh Sasan, a founding physician at Kindbody who previously worked at Mount Sinai Hospital. “It’s the only field in medicine where you truly have a consumer. They don’t need you.” She points out that hospitals notoriously lose money on obstetrics, a field haunted by the specter of malpractice litigation. But therein lies the opportunity: A less traumatic, even pleasant obstetrics experience that is transparent about services, costs, and scheduling can be a gateway to other (presumably more profitable) health services. And in a country where we’re waiting longer to have kids, there’s a growing market for fertility procedures like egg freezing and IVF.

But let’s not forget what got us here in the first place: the runaway costs of private health care, the absence of a federal standard for parental leave, and the expectation that women—because they have no other choice—will take what they’ve been given. When politics has failed us, can design pick up some of the slack? Yes, thank god, women have always found a way. Does this mean there’s hope? Are there signs of life here? Only the faintest heartbeat.

You may also enjoy “Building Sisterhood: How Feminists Sought to Make Architecture a Truly Collective Endeavor.”

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