Why ‘Just Relax’ Has Always Been Bad Advice for Women Looking to Get Pregnant

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Photo: Ebby May/Getty Images

Plenty of women trying to get pregnant have heard it before: Stress only makes it harder. Stay Zen. Just relax, and it will happen. And, yes, in part, this kind of advice is grounded in science: Research continues to find evidence suggesting psychological stress can inhibit the reproductive hormones that make pregnancy possible.

The problem, though, is that stress alone is unlikely to be a sole cause of infertility; if you have a condition that affects your ability to get pregnant or maintain a pregnancy, no amount of de-stressing will cure it. Nevertheless, a woman’s disposition has long been blamed for her inability to procreate — and the history of this seemingly innocuous sentiment is one that’s fraught with paternalism, racism, and bad science.

Hippocrates, back in the fifth century B.C., was one of the first to connect a woman’s psychological state to her reproductive capabilities, hypothesizing that a physical manifestation of psychological stress in women (which scholars later dubbed “hysteria”) could lead to sterility. In medieval times, when a German abbess and mystic named Hildegard of Bingen posited that women suffering from melancholy — a condition that we today might call depression — were infertile as a result.

As these beliefs persisted throughout the centuries, society used them as a way to keep women from venturing too far into the public sphere. They became a particularly potent weapon in the late 1800s, as women began pursuing higher education in greater numbers; in a trend that seems less than coincidental, the medical community began to focus more intently around this time on researching the effects of mental exertion on female reproductive organs. It was Dr. Edward H. Clarke, a physician and Harvard professor in the late 19th century, who popularized the idea that bodies possessed a finite amount of energy, and childbearing used up most of it. Women’s bodies, he argued, lacked the energy required to participate in both professional life and reproduction. The idea took hold, and it became the prevailing opinion, among medical professionals and laypeople alike, that cognitively stressful activities — such as schooling or certain jobs —were detrimental to female fertility.

The rise of eugenics around the beginning of the 20th century added another layer: Anglo-Saxon women in particular were portrayed as more cognitively advanced than other races, and therefore more susceptible to the reproductive issues that might arise from thinking too hard. In her 2016 book Infertility: Tracing the History of the Transformative Term, writer Robin E. Jensen noted that doctors of the time penned journal articles and delivered lectures featuring “vivid descriptions of Anglo-Saxon women’s thwarted maternal endeavors, brought on by their inability or unwillingness to avoid cognitive work.” Clarke in particular, she wrote, focused his warnings about the “harrowing consequences of overtaxing the female system through unremitted study” on white women: “His narrative logic indicated that, although Anglo-Saxon women had to be protected from the kinds of work that advanced civilization introduced to them, women representing lesser evolved races and ethnicities did not require such protection,” Jensen explained, “because they had a surplus of energy despite the hard physical labor they often endured.”

It was around this time — near the end of the First World War — that neurologists coined the diagnosis “neurasthenia,” a nervous disorder in which mental and physical symptoms were thought to result from the stresses of modern society. Symptoms ranged from backaches and indigestion to impotence and, yes, infertility. According to historian David Schuster, “in many cases, diagnoses of neurasthenia attached themselves to traditional ideals, such as the Victorian belief in women’s disposition for motherhood rather than scholarship. A young woman’s depression could be understood as neurasthenia brought on by the mental drain of attending a newly founded coeducational university.”

Fast-forward a few decades to the 1940s, when approximately half of infertility cases were classified as “unexplained.” In the absence of any physiological cause, most doctors believed there must be a psychological one. It was during this period — when men were away at war — that more women began entering the workforce, especially in previously male-dominated industries. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the 1940s saw the largest proportional rise in female labor out of any decade in the 20th century.

And once again, as society prepared itself to return to a postwar era, “old notions that education and careers hindered women’s reproductive potential resurfaced,” as historian Elaine Tyler May noted in her book Barren in the Promised Land. Around the middle of the century, scientists were gaining a greater understanding of the link between stress and infertility in both sexes, with a growing body of research showing how stress might hinder conception by making the fallopian tubes contract or affecting the motility of sperm — but, as you might expect, the brunt of the burden in staying stress-free fell to women. Popular magazines continued to perpetuate this idea: A 1934 article in Parents, for example, decried the stress of modern living as “unmistakably connected” to sterility; in a 1957 story from the same publication, an expert cited the “stressful occupations women now engaged in” as “significant causes” of infertility. Suggestions that men should quit working to improve a couple’s conceiving, meanwhile, were rare to nonexistent.

Today, the belief underlying the whole thing — that women who want children, and only women, should stay still and calm and in the home — feels like an anachronism, but modern society hasn’t rid itself of the ideas espoused by Hippocrates and Clarke. “Just relax” is a common refrain for women anxious to conceive, and carries many of the same insidious undertones: Relaxing is, both literally and figuratively, a luxury that many women can’t afford.

‘Just Relax’ Has Always Been Bad Advice for Getting Pregnant