Infertility has become such a common topic in the media that healthy young women who have never tried to get pregnant are often convinced that they can’t. One recent study found that nearly one-fifth of women under 30 assume they’re infertile. (In reality, about 10 percent of American women have problems with fertility at some time in their lives.) A young writer for Bustle recently confessed that she has always assumed she wouldn’t be able to conceive.
These young women have more in common than a not-entirely-rational fear: They’re likely to be white. Stories of infertility, in the popular media, as well as in the scientific literature, almost always focus on affluent white women, and it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that infertility is a white women’s issue. “Women of color don’t see themselves in the media and in society’s representation of people who need help to have babies,” Rosario Ceballo, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, told Women in the World in a phone interview. That’s due to practical reasons as much as cultural bias; it’s easiest for journalists and academics to find women with fertility problems at specialized fertility clinics, which tend to be expensive and may be out of reach for many minority members, including African American and Hispanic women, who are disproportionately affected by poverty in America.
Infertility is also much less discussed among minority communities, though it’s at least as common. And while constantly dwelling on stories of infertility can evoke anxiety among women who don’t need to worry, staying silent can exacerbate feelings of failure and shame for women who can’t get pregnant.
A new study may help break that silence. Ceballo has just published a paper in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly focusing on the experiences of 50 African-American women who have had trouble getting pregnant. She, along with her colleagues Erin Graham and Jamie Hart, spent years recruiting women through newsletters and with ads at African-American churches, community centers and adoption agencies. “It was not easy at all,” Ceballo said. “It took many years.” She ended up with a group of women whose ages ranged from 21 to 52, and who had spent between one and 19 years trying to get pregnant; on average, they had tried for five or six years. At the time of the interview, half were still actively trying to have a baby. They came from a range of educational and socioeconomic backgrounds: just over half had college degrees, and all but three had finished high school. Most of the interviews took place in the women’s own homes, and lasted about two hours.
Nearly all of the women—98 percent—described experiencing silence and isolation. That’s due not just to taboos surrounding infertility specifically; as members of a minority group, black women may feel heightened pressure to keep their problems within the community.
Ceballo said she kept hearing expressions like, “We don’t air our dirty laundry.” “You don’t want people in your business,” Samantha, a 36-year-old married college graduate told Ceballo. “You know, we’re taught to keep things to ourselves.’’ Negative cultural images of African-American women, Ceballo said, have more recently been replaced by the more positive image of the super-strong, self-reliant black women—but that’s also been damaging in some cases. The women “were socialized to think that black women should be able to get through these traumas and personal difficulties based on their own inner strength and inner resources,” Ceballo said.
Many of the women she spoke to mentioned a stereotype that black women are hyper-fertile. “In the African-American community, it was expected that you could have children,” Ann, a 50-year-old social worker, told Ceballo. ‘‘Most of the black people that I have known have not had a problem with [infertility] ever,” said Laura, a 37-year-old process engineer. But in fact, married black women are twice as likely as married white women in the U.S. to have trouble getting pregnant, according to data cited by the New York Times last year. They may be more likely to suffer from fibroids, a type of tumor that can change the shape of the uterus. At the same time, they’re much less likely to seek fertility treatment: As of last year, 15 percent of white women between the ages of 25 to 44, but just 8 percent of black women in that age group, had gone to a doctor for help getting pregnant.
Ceballo believes just starting a conversation about infertility with minority women can help them feel less alone. “I walked away feeling like there are really simple interventions we can do,” she said. “It was remarkable how reassuring it was to the women who I interviewed when I said to them, ‘This is a common problem among African-American women.'”