Black/African & Infertile

“If I have to be the poster child, I will become that poster child to get women to talk about their struggle… At one time, my fear was talking because I didn’t want people to gossip about me. Now, my fear is women not talking.” – Nichelle Polston

For the past 2.5 years I have been dealing with infertility and now more than ever, I feel compelled to share my story because someone out there needs to hear this.

Black women don’t talk about infertility.

And I want to clarify that statement first. 1. Infertility is not about race, I appreciate that, it’s not a black people, white people thing but I do feel that black/african women experiencing infertility, have to contend with a cultural dimension that needs to be challenged. 2. The word infertility itself, comes with so many pre-conceived notions, all of which immediately exclude a woman from the prospects of becoming a mother. The WHO definition of infertility is the inability of a sexually active, non-contracepting couple to achieve pregnancy in one year, that is, a couple is deemed infertile if they have been trying for over a year by natural means. Now there are numerous reasons why this could be happening, there’s irregular cycles, PCOS, fibroids, low follicle/sperm count etc… but in all of these scenarios, pregnancy is still possible. Not always, but the possibility is there whether naturally or by facilitated means.

The problem for me is the dominating single story of pregnancy. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asserted, any single story is dangerous because it breeds misconception and misinformation. There is a strong denial and rejection of a different pregnancy story in our society where in/fertility is concerned and this is incredibly isolating. It is precisely because of this, that I hope to create an inclusive support space with un-fertility because I consider what I am experiencing to be an unconventional route towards fertility. I want to foster a more open approach to infertility, particularly among black/african women, to be able to talk about it, sometimes be upset about it, sometimes cry about it but most importantly feel no shame in doing so because you are not broken and you are not alone.

So my story begins January 2017 when my husband and I (he was my boyfriend then) had a long chat about life, as we often do, and we decided that we would be happy to start a family so I got the coil taken out. A few months later he proposed to me and we got married in September 2018. For the last 8 years, I have used a charting app called Flo to log my periods and in Jan 2017 I had a good handle of my cycle and I knew that I had bit of a longer cycle than most people. So for the first year I was just basing my fertile window on what the app was telling me which fell around 2 weeks before my expected period. And because I had been using this app for years, my period usually came when it predicted +/- 1-2 days so I could be somewhat sure that the fertile window was also accurate because my luteal phase was/is generally 13-14 days long. 2017 came and went -and nothing. 2018 came and even though I was planning our wedding we were still trying. After our wedding, close to 2years trying at this point, I knew I had to do something else. Bearing in mind that I did not at any point in time think I needed to see my GP. Denial – but I will touch on this later.

Almost 2 years in I started doing a lot of research, I had more time in my life now and the researching just took over – articles, youtube, personal stories on instagram… #tryingtoconceive – all of it. I then discovered Natural Cycles which is basically an app that comes with a thermometer that measures your basal body temperature (BBT). I bought the pack and started using that from November 2018 and with this you have to take your temperature every morning before you get out of bed. In my eagerness it started off really well and I was remembering every morning, all good… The one thing the Natural Cycles app showed me, which for some reason I hadn’t picked up on before was that I had an irregular cycle – and this is VERY important to know when you are trying to conceive. My cycles can be anything from 33 days to 42 to 56 days – every month is different. So I did the temping for a few months, never quite getting ovulation confirmed each month and it discouraged me and I started slacking. What I also realised with Natural Cycles is that it seems to be based very much on a 28 day cycle and I think it would need years of cycle information to learn to make better predictions for someone like me with an irregular cycle… so it wasn’t a right fit for me personally (I’m sure it has worked for some people). Also it seems to market itself more as natural contraceptive than a trying to conceive (TTC) tool so perhaps it works better that way round. Long story short it didn’t work for me. All the while I continued to use Flo which as previously mentioned had a wealth of information about my cycle.

Early 2019, when it hit me that another year had gone by I went back to the drawing board and found the book+app Taking Charge of your Fertility by Toni Weschler. I wish I had found this book in the earlier days because it is a big book with so much information and illustrations and hard science – I still haven’t finished it but I would highly recommend it. So Toni’s method is basically the old school method (the Fertility Awareness Method – FAM) of checking your cervical mucus and position every day and logging this information. This can be accompanied by the BBT if you so wish. I did try this, I really did for about 6 weeks, but I couldn’t distinguish the different cervical indicators so AGAIN I was back to square one. Natural Cycles predictions were not accurate for my cycle and maybe that was down to me but also remembering to take my temperature before I got out of bed eventually was just not happening every day. The Fertility Awareness Method was just not practical for me (you have to insert your finger into your vagina every day!) and I didn’t feel confident about what indicators I was looking for. About February this year I discovered yet another TTC tool called Ovusense. Now this one will be strange for some people but Ovusense comes with a sensor in the shape of a sperm and you insert this in your vagina overnight (or whenever you sleep) and take it out in the morning and tap your phone on it (after washing it of course!) with the app open and it downloads all your core body temperature logs and produces a daily graph to identify when you are most fertile in real time. Same as before, this started off really well but then I had a phase earlier this year where I just felt so discouraged that nothing had happened that I stopped using all this tech so I cannot vouch for it’s effectiveness as yet. I am now using Ovusense again because it’s just more convenient as it does all the work for me. It’s a bit like wearing a tampon so nothing unusual there for most women – obviously you don’t use it during your periods or during sex! (I will do a more detailed post on these TTC tools).

In the period I wasn’t using any TTC tool, I inexplicably (even until now) ended up in hospital with severe pelvic pain which carried on for 3 days, this was preceeded by light bleeding for 7 days which wasn’t my period. After being admitted, being seen by several doctors, and having an ultrasound done it suddenly hit me that I had waited over 2 years to actually speak to someone about my/our infertility. Each time a medical professional asked me when I had come off contraception and I would reply over 2 years ago their faces were so telling and it’s only then – only then – that I realised that I had waited for too long before seeking help/advice. And there are many reasons for this. For the most part because of the general denial and rejection of infertility in society, more so black/african communities, I was playing a part in that in my own denial and rejection of what was actually happening. I discounted our first year of trying by coming up with justifiable reasons why maybe it didn’t happen but they were all to make myself feel better about not falling pregnant. The second year of trying I labelled that our real year of trying – you know before you can be deemed “infertile”. The other reason is the complete isolation one can feel when experiencing fertility, especially as a black/african, it is lonely and no one I know in my immediate or even secondary circle has experienced this so I had no one to talk to about it who would understand. Most of the people I have confided in have told me to pray about it, or told me I shouldn’t accept infertility as my reality. (I will speak about God and infertility in another post because while people mean well, the idea of waiting for a miracle from God and encouraging denial can be problematic).

Another reason why I think infertility is hard to accept is, as I mentioned earlier, the dominating single story of pregnancy. A girl I work with started trying at the end of 2018 and I bumped into her not long ago and she told me she was 16 weeks pregnant (now 24 weeks), I screamed the office down because I was genuinely happy for her, but I was happy for her as if she had been through what I had been through but she obviously hadn’t been trying for that long. I kept saying the words I’m so happy for you, and I started crying with the words “we’ve been trying for 2 years so I am really happy for you” coming out of my mouth. It was very awkward but I couldn’t help that my own sadness about my experience was stealing from the joy I really felt for her. The single story of becoming pregnant, that is get married or decide to have a baby (for most people), try for a few months and voila, baby! – while it is truly wonderful for those people and I mean that – it is linear and it further perpetuates the stigma around infertility and just magnifies the shame that women who are trying can feel. Couple that with the cultural dimension, particularly for me as a black/african woman – and I come from a family of VERY fertile men&women – in our communities infertility is not even recognised let alone acknowledged/understood because “black women and men are hyper-fertile beings”. Yet studies suggest black women are more likely to experience infertility yet less likely to seek fertility advice/treatment than their white counterparts. Our reluctance to seek help and even talk about infertility is culturally ingrained because for most black/african women, the ability to become a mother is closely tied to our identity as black women – we are raised in this way. So you start to breed feelings of real shame for not fitting that ‘hyper-fertile’ narrative.

I mean it took being admitted into hospital and being told point blank that 2+ years is a long time to be trying that I actually sought the help I/we need. We – because infertility does not fall on the woman alone – are now under the care of a fertility clinic going through investigations which take TIME and it makes me regret all the time spent without seeking medical/professional help. At my first appointment, because I had to be seen first for the pelvic pain episode I had had, I looked the fertility doctor in the eye and asked him, is 2 years a long time to be trying? He looked at me with compassion and said, it is a long time and there could be contributing factors but we have options don’t worry.

Those words have stayed with me and carried me on the not so good days. I hope sharing my story with you, whoever you are, wherever you are, will give you the courage to do the same, the courage to accept your unconventional fertility and the courage to seek help/treatment.

Sending you all the love, light & baby dust!

Noni x

Further reading: Why Are So Many Black Women Suffering Through Infertility In Silence? – Women’s Health Mag, Oct 2018

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