Black Women and Infertility: It's Not Just a White Woman Issue
Black women discuss why it's not spoken about in our community
Having children is one of the most precious gifts that we as humans can create. Most people imagine their lives with these elements: wonderful career, wonderful spouse to spend the rest of their growing lives with, and children to complete this wonderful package.
But, imagine being told you are unable to have children, and that your dream of having a baby with the person you love will never happen. Imagine wanting a baby so badly that it pains you to see children playing on the play ground, or makes you feel ashamed if others found out you were unable to conceive.
The reality for many women---and men—is that they are infertile. And the road to parenthood becomes a never-ending battle of doctors, tests, and unanswered questions that can often put an emotional and financial drain on couples, and cause feelings of inadequacies, especially for women.
Approximately 12% of women ages 15-44 in the U.S. are not able to have children according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). A woman's peak fertility occurs in her early 20s. After age 35 (and especially 40), the chances that a woman can get pregnant drops considerably.
While infertility has no prevalence to race, gender, or class, the issue is concerning among black women (and men), just as health issues as a whole are concerning in the black community for a myriad of reasons.
A study published in the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM)’s “Fertility and Sterility” Journal, notes that “there seems to be widening disparities in in vitro fertilization (IVF) outcomes between black and white women, perhaps attributable to poor prognostic factors among black women.”
The 2006 study found that a greater percentage of black women underwent some sort of assisted reproductive technology between 2004-2006 than in previous years, however, still remained underrepresented compared to the number of white women who may have had infertility and may have benefited from assistant reproductive technology. African American women also tend to undergo treatment at an older age than white women, lowering their pregnancy success rate.
Media frenzy over the number of black women who marry later in life or never marry at all saturate stories of loving couples desperately wanting to build a family but struggling to have children. And rarely do black couples open up about their infertility issues.
But it's more common than we think. Celebrities such as Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon, Sherri Shepherd, and Iman have struggled with infertility. And there are black women who are dedicated to sharing their personal stories and struggles on the web.
As a teenager, Hammond was diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition that makes it hard to get pregnant. After marrying her husband, the couple tried for five years to conceive a child, undergoing six rounds of in vitro fertilization with no success. Left with two options: find a surrogate or adoption, Hammond’s then 55-year-old post-menopausal mother stepped in as a surrogate and carried the couple’s embryos. She gave birth to her three grandchildren in 2004, making her the oldest woman to deliver triplets at that point.
Hammond’s story made national headlines, and overnight she became the unofficial advocate for African American women struggling with infertility. Now, willing to share her story to help others, Hammond tells media she and her husband “suffered in silence” during the ordeal because they didn’t know of anyone going through infertility at the time.
“The reason I didn’t feel comfortable with sharing was because no one that I knew of in my immediate circle or family was suffering from infertility,” says Hammond. “After our children were born and our story was seen on "Good Morning America" and CNN, many people we knew came to us saying they were seeking help and going through the same thing. I felt ashamed that I had not been more honest and transparent. We were struggling at the same time right next to each other and were not brave enough to share. We could have shared things with each other.”
There seems to be a slow-growing community of black women on the blogosphere discussing infertility and their journey to parenthood these days.
Regina Townsend, 29, is Founder and Executive Director of The Broken Brown Egg Inc. Initially started as a blog in 2009, it transitioned into an organization that "puts a brown face" on the issue of infertility for women.
“I started the Broken Brown Egg as a personal blog at first to start the dialog I wasn't seeing on other blog sites,” says Townsend whose infertility is due to her polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and hypothyroidism, and her husband’s Type 2 diabetes.
“I am a member of the online community at ChocolateBrides.com, and there were a few discussions about infertility, but no real in depth talk, I suppose because many of us saw those rare instances as flukes. But as I started researching, I found that infertility was extremely common.”
In fact, Townsend found that 1 in every 8 couples are infertile. “This made me wonder why none of the blogs, websites, or even advertisements showed black couples. I figured it was out of shame and fear, and decided to fight that stigma head on.”
Palm writes of her initial struggles: "for a long time, as I simultaneously wallowed in sadness about my inability to have kids and refused to talk about it with anyone who wasn’t my husband, parents or doctor, I thought I was very nearly the only infertile black woman on Earth. Then I realized that black women suffering with infertility are hiding in plain sight."
Infertility is a very invasive condition that can progress to quite the slew of medical professionals being "all up in our business.” It is also a condition that many African-Americans equate to their faith: “If God wanted me to have kids, I'd have them,” causing them to shay away from infertility centers and costly treatments like in vitro fertilization. Where male infertility is concerned, it is emasculating to question a man’s virility. So, couples keep concerns between themselves and their doctors.
“I share my own stories, the good and the bad, in the hopes that someone who is feeling like they are the only person these crazy things could possibly be happening to, will know different," says Townsend. "I can't be the ONLY black woman who suffers from PCOS, or menorraghia (extreme menstrual cycles), or even just health frustrations. I try to be as brutally honest about my fears, my frustrations and my journey so that others will hopefully glean a little courage from me. It has also made the more mainstream infertility advocates and groups take notice.”
Though Townsend and her husband have yet to conceive a child, she says they are focusing on the progression of their health, and continuing to encourage others going through the process as well.
Hammond's advice to couples who are trying to conceive: "never give up. It’s fine to be sad for a minute, but never give up your faith when the doctor says it will never work. Even with adoption, you have the chance to love and raise a child.”
Both women say it is extremely important for women to share their stories even when the media does not.
“Most [media] will report on the single mother of seven, or the aging single socialite, without even considering the couple who have been married seven years and longing for children," says Townsend. This is also something that WE have to change, by opening up the conversations to include us. My site seeks to do just that. You can't leave us out of the discussion now, because I say that I'm here."