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Silent Suffering: Infertility Is Often a Lonely Journey for Black Women

sad-black-couple3-296x259By Tamiya King

A study from the University of Michigan reveals that African American women are more likely to go through the feelings of shame and hurt associated with infertility by themselves. The study also indicates that Black women feel that not being able to have children compromises their gender identity and sense of self.

This University of Michigan study may be one of the first of its kind to focus solely on infertility and Black women. Most infertility studies have been conducted on white, affluent couples who could afford advanced medical treatment.

University of Michigan psychology and women’s studies professor and lead study author Dr. Rosario Ceballo, confirms that “infertile African American women are indeed hidden from public view.”

Ceballo, along with her colleagues Jamie Hart and Erin Graham interviewed 50 African American women for the study. All the women were between the ages of 21 and 52, and came from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The women also had varying histories with infertility and different interactions with loved ones, friends and doctors concerning the issue. Most of the women in the study were married, and several had college degrees and full-time careers.

Each woman in the study was officially diagnosed as infertile. Technically, a woman is infertile if she is unable to conceive after a year or more of regular, unprotected sex. The women studied spent anywhere from one to 19 years trying to get pregnant.

Thirty-two percent of the study participants talked about the stereotypes that are associated with motherhood and being a woman. Some women revealed that they felt incomplete as a result of their infertility. Others stated that not being able to have children would make them seem like a failure. Some of the women also felt that not being able to conceive was an inability to fulfill their God-given purpose. These women stated that they believed God intended for women to have children, and this made their shame even greater.

Almost all of the women in the study dealt with their infertility alone, even if a family member or friend knew about it. Study participants also felt that infertility was equally painful for their husbands or partners, but the men were not interviewed.

Researchers also noticed some of the women, particularly those who had one child but could not conceive again, didn’t discuss the challenge to have another child because they knew their pain would not elicit sympathy, and certain not empathy, from the women who were never able to have children.

After observing this, Ceballo stated that “women may also reason that other people can neither change their infertility status nor understand what they were experiencing.”

Black women are also expected to be silent about their infertility,

due to the self-sufficient and strong persona they are expected to maintain, even in the face of great sadness or distress. It is also assumed that Black women can handle their problems on their own, and many people in African American communities are taught not to discuss personal matters with others, Ceballo asserted. A number of women who participated in the study stated that they didn’t “want people in their business.” The women also made it clear that infertility was not commonly discussed in the Black community.

Twenty-six percent of study participants also shared that their interactions with medical professionals and doctors were influenced by race, class or gender discrimination. The women stated that doctors assumed they were promiscuous, or that they didn’t have the money to support a child or pay for medical services.

The research revealed that Black women with advanced education who were financially stable were just as likely as low-income African American women to cite discrimination in a medical setting. Also, the overall cost of fertility treatments were considerably high for most study participants.

Ceballo confirmed that, overall, when Black women were unable to have children, it had a negative effect on their self-esteem. These women viewed themselves as abnormal. This was largely due to the fact that Black women rarely see other African American infertile women in social images.

The shame and privacy associated with this condition heightens the emotional wounds of infertility. Since stress can cause or worsen fertility issues, Black women who are able to discuss the feelings associated with this issue may increase their chances of conception.


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