By Margaret Auguste
“Are you sure you never had any other pregnancies?”
My brand new infertility specialist’s words, delivered with a patronizing smile that somehow never reached his eyes, which were surveying me doubtfully. This reception was not what I had dreamed about from the person with whom I was placing all my hopes and dreams; the person that I was counting on to make me a mother, after years of disappointment. Hurt and confused, I struggled with trying to understand why someone in the medical profession, who by the very nature of their job, should be objective and caring, would instead be the opposite.
Inexplicably, I wondered if in letting my guard down, and admitting my failure to become pregnant, that I was somehow responsible for my mistreatment. Shouldn’t I have known better? After all, as an African American professional woman I was not naÃ¯ve and was accustomed to upon occasion, having to navigate through spaces where my presence elicited shocked or embarrassed silence. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, I now realize, but I knew, of course, exactly what he meant -that I did not belong there.
I didn’t write professionally, at the time, but I had always loved words and had sought solace in the expression of words both written and spoken. However, I just sat there in shock, the doctor’s words dismissing me, rendering me invisible. For the first time in my life, I was silent, unable to speak. I left the appointment quickly; shoving my detailed color coordinated ovulation charts and thorough fertility research in my bag as I ran out the door, knowing instinctively that his eyes it did not matter because for him I did not exist.
Apparently, what I experienced that day was not unusual. Rosario Ceballo, the author of the study, “Silent and Infertile: An Intersectional Analysis of the Experiences of Socioeconomically Diverse African American Women With Infertility,” conducted interviews with 50 black women aged 21 to 50, from various social and economic backgrounds to explore their experiences dealing with infertility issues. She found that the many of the women of color encountered doctors who were dismissive, unsupportive and who failed to offer them services or fully explore their medical concerns. Many of the women reported that the doctors, “didn’t have any desire to help them, rarely gave them options and in some cases, took control away from them.”
My experience traumatized me to the point where I abruptly stopped seeking treatment at age 27. However, a few years passed and at the age of 33 with still no pregnancy in sight, I decided to bring children into my life by adopting, becoming the proud parent of a 3-year-old boy and his 18-month-old sister. The overwhelming happiness and newfound sense of hope that my family gave me, along with my husband’s encouragement, gave me the courage to try my luck again at a new fertility clinic. It was with lots of trepidation that I approached the second appointment with the negative memories of the first meeting swirling about in my head. However, in complete contrast, this doctor was friendly and receptive and appreciated or at least understood why I needed my charts and schedules and seemed to recognize that my organization and attention to detail made me an excellent candidate for fertility treatment.
And so I finally, began my journey, the lone black woman, in a waiting room full of upper-class white women with names like Buffy and Tiffany who discussed golf games and the country club. These women were friendly and included me in their chitchat, but at times they could not help themselves as they asked me questions like, “how can you afford In-vitro fertilization? They spoke carefully of how they didn’t want to offend me but that they didn’t realize that black and Hispanic women ever needed infertility drugs to conceive. I incredulously listened and tried to answer their questions, stumbling over my words, while alternating between feeling insulted and wanting to explain myself to them in the hopes that they might realize that like them, I just wanted to be a mother.
Why I wondered, was there such a lack of empathy and understanding combined with a weirdly curious fascination with black women’s fertility? Kimberly Seals Allers founder of the Mocha Mom’s group that promotes breastfeeding among women of color, sought to answer this question after her eye-opening experience, with an essay where she asked the provocative question, “Are black women baby making machines?” Allers recounts riding a train and engaging in small talk about her two children, with a fellow rider who happened to be an older white man. Their casual conversation unexpectedly turned into something unpleasant when he appeared to be shocked by the idea that women of color prepared for children just like everyone one else and mentioned with surprise, that “wasn’t having only two children spaced fours years apart in age unusual for black women?”
Allers suggests that a part of the problem stems from deeply ingrained biases and stereotypes that exist in our society. Many people don’t even realize that they influence them, or that they are acting upon them. She traces the roots of the stereotypes back to a time long ago when black women were defined as less than human, intellectually inferior and naturally prolific, all for the sole purpose of setting black motherhood within a narrow context of economic and social bondage. Aller’s believes that the remnants of these prejudices linger in our society today and serve to paint a portrait of black women that over time has become misunderstood and unsympathetic, misrepresenting us and rendering our struggles to become mothers invisible.
This absence or acknowledgment of black women’s fertility issues today is glaring, and for those of us personally suffering from it, disheartening. When watching television or the movies, I never saw any women who looked like me. This notable absence occurred on every brochure, every pamphlet, magazine and book that I encountered. Black women were even missing from information. I looked for information on infertility problems like fibroids, that are common to women of color and a leading cause of infertility. I was instead, bombarded with harrowing stories about mothers on welfare, child abuse and low birth weight babies, all of which, are tragic, but did not come close to addressing the breadth and depth of my experiences or those of other black women that I know.
Participating in our own banishment by at times voluntarily by silently suffering, making ourselves invisible, is the tragic outcome of this external and internal dilemma. Many black women conclude that fertility treatment is immoral, unnatural, a personal failure and only something that rich white ladies do, despite the fact that black women are more likely to have fertility issues than white women, according to the New York Times article, “Infertility, Endured Through a Prism of Race.”
I never spoke aloud about my first horrible experience in the fertility doctor’s office with my husband, even though we were in agreement that I should seek out treatment. But afterward, I felt ridiculous and embarrassed as if I had wasted my time, humiliating myself, when of course nothing was wrong with me. I didn’t need any fertility treatments to get pregnant. After all, I came from a line of strong black women who worked throughout their pregnancies. My Great Aunt worked as a maid and because her employers allowed it, usually carried her child on her back, while she was cleaning, only to go home later to cook and clean for her families. I never shared any of my fertility concerns or plans with my family who as unyielding Baptists firmly believed that prayer would solve any personal problems. Instead, I convinced my husband that, knowing how traditional our families were, we should pretend that as a modern college-educated couple that we wanted to focus on our careers first, an explanation that both stunned and impressed our families, as evidence of our ascendance into the world they only dreamed. My subterfuge lasted even after I finally gave birth to a set of wonderful twins through in-vitro fertilization at age Thirty-Five.
Race, social class, economic status and history all intersect; to shape how we think about infertility, showing this process to be a uniquely personal, and demanding physical endeavor, an experience like no other. It humbles you. It either breaks you or shows you what you are made of while sending you into the deepest despair one minute only to raise you up high the next; every blood test, every trans-vaginal ultrasound, every follicle that is too small or too big, writes a new chapter in your story.
Looking into the faces of my children every night after my journey was done and a new one was beginning made me realize that there was a price to pay for my silence. Others were shaping my narrative. Like so many other mothers, I found, that my voice was enhanced and strengthened through my writing and speaking. I stopped being concerned about what anyone else thought or how they judged me and instead concentrated on using my words to become visible and by doing so, to be in charge of my image and to define motherhood for me, women like me, and someday, for my children.
Margaret Auguste has previously written for Literary Mama and Teaching Tolerance magazine. She is the mother of four, a family therapist, librarian and a writer who loves to write about the diversity that characterizes motherhood around the world.