This project came from my own experience of trying to conceive, such a strange encounter with the body in time. This encounter is a constant shifting of both the future, as our desires for ourselves repeatedly take shape and dissolve, and the present, breaking up the present into the phases of the menstrual cycle. The time before it is possible to test for pregnancy is often referred to as ‘the two week wait’. This phrase developed in relation to assisted reproductive technologies: two weeks is the time between the transfer of an embryo and the time you can test to see if the transfer has been successful. The phrase has moved over to cover a similar sized gap between ovulation and testing for those trying to conceive naturally.
Is it two weeks? Because negative pregnancy test results are less reliable than positive ones, for lots of women who aren’t pregnant it takes a little longer, actually, to finally accept that there’s no pregnancy that month. So, two to three weeks? Well yes, except that many women and their partners are waiting like this month on month, year on year, possibly forever. That time can sometimes feel like a waste of energy, a dispiriting and depressingly predictable cycle of the same emotions.
As an academic who works on the past, it struck me that this wait, with its strange rhythms, swirling impressions and fantasies, symptoms and nebulous signs, was oddly historic. It didn’t feel very modern not to know, to be fed false information by my body, to believe and yet to be so wrong.
So, I began to read. If this is what it’s like today, what was it like in the past?
I am finding that the archives are full with materials about the difficulties of trying to diagnose early pregnancy. Before the advent of home test kits, in the late 1970s, pregnancy testing was usually reserved for particularly hard cases – for people with very irregular cycles for example, or for people with medical conditions for whom pregnancy could be dangerous. Before the advent of reliable pregnancy testing in the early twentieth century accurate diagnosis of pregnancy was often a hard thing to do.
Women, men and medical practitioners were all exposed to this difficulty, the ambiguity of the not yet or just pregnant body. Their desire to know first imagined (and so made possible) the technologies we count on today. Sometimes it’s easy to imagine that people were more accepting in the past; but that isn’t what I’m finding. People were as anxious as we are to know things, like what shape their families would have in their futures.
All the literature on trying to conceive for people today acknowledges the difficulty of this wait. Lots of organisations are hosting and setting up support for people who experience it. This project seeks to do something a little different: to get into that waiting space, to think harder about the psychological and physiological ambiguity it exposes and, perhaps, to offer people a toolbox – a modern engagement with extraordinary archival materials – with which to manage the wait in their own lives. Conceiving Histories may have started by thinking about the two week wait but it fast moved beyond that to consider all sorts of questions in the time of pre-pregnancy, a broad term which might incorporate trying to conceive, infertility, early pregnancy and the politics of childlessness. Women and men, married, single, gay or straight have babies or don’t and this project is about and for them all, to connect their griefs, joys and frustrations to an extraordinary history.
So, I am working through archival materials and will be writing about them here and elsewhere but I am also working with an artist, Anna Burel, who is interested in some similar questions and has been working for a long time to think about the female body and particularly under medical scrutiny. Together we are thinking about how contemporary visual art, as well as writing of different kinds, might be a way to gather insight into historic materials for use in our own lives.
So check back here to see how our project is developing. There will also be ways for you to get involved, should you want to. In particular, we are hoping to incorporate people’s reflections and reactions to our project into the progress of its research. Let me know (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like to be added to my mailing list about events and other project news or leave a comment below to tell us what you think.
Featured Image: detail from Le livre de Lancelot du Lac, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library MS 229, fol. 31r.