“Infertility is accepting and grieving one door closing, yet mentally and physically preparing yourself for what’s next. Your heart is breaking and also slowly being pieced back together again with hope of what the next chapter might bring. So many of the triggers lie in this middle place. It can feel like the world doesn’t acknowledge the middle. It feels like you are being rushed through the emotions you shouldn’t be feeling.” – Missconception Coach
I am one of those people who tends to have a delayed reaction to things. Well, maybe not delayed but I spend a lot of time meditating on words, energies that I am receiving over any period of time. This has been the case for the last 2weeks or so…
I shared my story and received an overwhelmingly supportive response and at different intervals this has brought me to tears. Tears of… I can’t exactly call it joy obviously because nothing about this is joyous… I think it was relief that I will be able to continue to tell my story because it is as much for others as it is for myself. Another big part of the relief is that for the most part, people understood me and why I felt this was important. But of course, with any kind of sharing there are others kinds of energies that I personally have struggled with.
The thing that gets me the most, in life, in general, is being misunderstood. I know that in life it’s a given, and it happens but when I think back to all the times I have been really upset or angry it is because someone misunderstood my intentions. I struggle with this and I know that about myself. Over the last few weeks, there have been moments where I have felt misunderstood just because I spoke out about infertility. By saying that we are black/African and dealing with infertility, quite a few people have assumed that we have given up. I find this confusing because at no point did I even suggest this. It made me realise just how strong the stigma around infertility is and how the long-held beliefs within African communities dictate how people respond to a discussion on black infertility. When I put my story out I had an idea of the stigma, but I hadn’t imagined the depths of it as I now know it and feel it.
There are a few things I specifically want to address that have been said to me. I want to add at this point that I am aware that people “mean well” when they say things to me but I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that couples have been tolerant of these statements because usually, they are hiding their infertility issues. So because my/our story is out in the open I just feel that I have some responsibility to challenge these statements and shed some light on what and how it feels like on the other side because maybe people don’t actually know. This is by no means an attack or retaliation (
Noni claps back! – LOL), everything about un_fertility is about offering perspective from the angle of someone who is actually dealing with infertility.
2. I’m sure your husband still loves you.
This was a real mind fuck for me. On the one hand because of who said it and the fact that we had the same upbringing in Zimbabwe and we are similar age, I just did not expect that all. But on the other hand because of the cultural context she lives everyday in Zimbabwe, I couldn’t even blame her for not seeing how flawed her statement was.
Firstly it implies, not even implies, the statement places the fault and consequence with me. This was without any confirmation of the contributing factors in our situation (because we don’t even know yet), this was without any suggesting on my part that, it was an outright statement which had the intention of reassuring me but if I was a different person or if I was feeling insecure in marriage could have had a damaging effect on me.
I want to add at this point that infertility affects both sexes. That is, the contributing factors can come from either the man or woman. Africa. Africans. We NEED to stop placing the blame on women as a default starting point. It is actually inaccurate and even in the case where the women has a contributing factor this can’t be how we treat her when she is already dealing with a lot of feelings of inadequacy and shame internally. This kind of ignorance is more than just words, it is someone’s life.
There is also another element to this statement that even though in my case is not entirely relevant, but it made me think and I spoke about this on radio. For Southern African women whose spouses pay lobola (bride price) for them, infertility comes with another dimension where a woman can feel that she has to prove/show her (bride price) worth by giving the man a child/children. So in the context of infertility, like in my context, my husband paid lobola for me and although I am evolved and liberal and his family is incredibly supportive about our situation, internally in the back of my mind I have thought about it. Growing up I used to hear stories of women being sent back to their families because they couldn’t fall pregnant and the man’s family demanding their money back. These might have been just stories but even then why such stories? And just imagine the lasting impact of such stories – I am almost 30 now. I know for others the issue of inlaws and our cultures is a lot more complex than mine – I am very lucky. But my point is, when we make statements without thinking of the woman’s perspective, we might be having the opposite effect of our intentions.
We need to be conscious of how we reassure a woman/man/couple dealing infertility. And if all else fails – ASK – how can I support you?
2. I just feel that you should relax. You are very young and have all the time.
This will be debatable I’m sure, but I hate anyone saying this to me and it actually really upsets me. I heard this so much last week and each time I would just end the conversation or agree because I did not want to break down. But then I did break down… Last Sunday my husband could tell I wasn’t really okay and the day before he had told me someone had told him to tell me to relax I have time. I was trying to keep it moving and keep my shit together, but my husband asked me again “Are you okay?” You know when someone asks you that and you are actually not okay, the flood gates open. I looked away from him and said “I am fine, I am going to Tesco”. I got into my car tears were literally gushing out of me and I was still trying to fight it. I got out of my car and walked back in the house and said to my husband, “I will go in 5mins, I just need a minute and I looked away from him again and I just started crying. Inconsolably. My husband was so confused and kept asking me what is wrong and I couldn’t even stop crying for long enough to tell him. Eventually I did. Anyway back to the point. Here is what I feel when people say “relax”. Again I know people “mean well” but it does not mean their words always have that effect when they are received. Telling me to relax because I am young and I have time feels like people are saying you have time to keep trying so even if it takes 7 years of trying I will only be 37. Here is something you need to know – EVERYDAY of infertility is painful. Don’t forget that a couple dealing with infertility already has issues with time because of the menstrual cycle and the fertile window that only comes for up to one week in a whole month. So when it doesn’t happen this month, I/we have to wait a whole month to find out if we will be lucky the next month. We are dealing with time already and I personally don’t need to be told that I have time. Knowing that I have 10 years of trying in me because I am only “young” doesn’t make it any better and is not reassuring, I just want to make that clear.
We have made infertility about age – yes the contributing factors can be affected by age – but the experience is a very individual experience. I know someone who was 22 and married and ready to start a family and they struggled to fall pregnant. I know someone else in their late 30s who is struggling to fall pregnant. To make it about age is to say that it is easier for the 22year old because she is younger – it is NOT. They both have/had to deal with disappointment each month, seeking help, medical interventions, the emotional side of it, the mental side of it. The infertility experience is not about age – it about the individual/couple. And as an individual I don’t find being young and having time reassuring. When you trying to have a baby, each month is a TRY – that is – each month you are hoping that you will be lucky. No one wants to do this for 2, 5, 10 years. On the point of “just relax”… I actually get weak with this one because you have already made the assumption that we are not relaxed just because we have accepted where we are on our fertility journey. I actually need to make this point – accepting our infertility does not automatically mean that we are not relaxed. It simply means we recognise that we might need some medical assistance. And that could just be hormone therapy to regulate my cycle. Or it could be the full works; IUI or IVF, wherever the science leads us. Anyone who knows me and my husband knows that we are so chill so relaxing is not an issue. But even if we were not relaxed or on the days that I am not relaxed, I am a human being who goes through the motions like everybody else. “Relax, it will happen” is easily served when you haven’t had to do deal with what we deal with. And no offence but so far it is people who have children already who have said this to me which for me takes away from the intention because I just feel that you don’t understand. Which is fine – if it wasn’t being rubbed in my face. When you tell infertile couples to relax and that they have time, it makes us feel that anything we feel outside of this is not valid or that we are not allowed to not be relaxed. But I ask on who’s terms? Unless you have walked the walk – I mean I am yet to meet another person/couple who have children and went through what we are going through say that to me. I am confident that they could never say such a statement, based on their own experience. Again when your own dialogue fails you – ASK – how can I support you?
3. Then there was the ones that did not say anything at all.
I just feel like there were so many people who saw my story and probably read it but they didn’t say a word to me about it. Some haven’t even spoken to me since. Now I am not saying EVERYONE should have said something but I can guarantee that if I had made a pregnancy announcement those very same people would have had something to say then. This was the first form of silencing I experienced and for me this is the strongest. I’m talking about close friends and family members who in the midst of other life issues I have gone to and I have leaned on them. Their silence has made me feel that I cannot speak about my story with them or that I should be not be doing so at all. And this is how silencing happens because you feel that you make people uncomfortable by merely talking about what you are going through. The family members one for me is important because sometimes contributing factors of your infertility might be rooted in the history of your family health, for example uterine fibroids can run in families, so when families cannot be comfortable with discussing fertility one can be in the dark about their family history and lack the insight that might be important for diagnosis/treatment. The friends element, I know people choose what they want to be involved in and that is their prerogative but if a close friend was dealing with something like this, I want to think I would do more than say nothing. I am aware though that people lack the dialogue to talk about infertility but we need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable so we don’t ice people out with our silence that might seem harmless but is having the opposite impact on someone we claim to care about.
4. The word taboo came up a lot when I first shared my story
This blew my mind. I knew infertility was a taboo topic in black/African communities but when people were saying it, it really hit me and speaks to the rejection of the infertile experience in our communities. This is not an assertion towards the people who used this word, I am actually glad you did because it highlighted important realisations about my experience. Discussing infertility on radio as well gave me so much perspective.
There is a very strong rejection of infertility among black/Africans and this is due to the long-held beliefs that all black men and women are hyper-fertile beings. So when you don’t fit that narrative, there MUST be something wrong with you or your partner. When I was on radio, Kiki described a situation with a group of friends who started treating one of their friends differently when she could not have kids and they all had. They would not want her to touch their children. This blew my mind. After radio a few people actually told me of other similar stories where the infertile woman was (mis)treated as though she was cursed. Guys the stigma is HUGE. When I started un_fertility I was tunnel-visioned in the sense that my experience of infertility was an internal battle as opposed to the external battle that many women are facing. I felt shame, not because I was being made to feel ashamed externally, but because I was ashamed within myself. But I had to ask myself where I was getting these feelings, and when I read the word taboo the first time it hit me, all those years growing up in Zimbabwe, the indoctrination, especially as a black African girl, and the whole idea around servitude to the man I marry and his legacy, what we are taught about womanhood and the strong focus on motherhood as huge part of that. My feelings of shame, and the silence I maintained were rooted deep in my upbringing, even when my current living is that of a liberal surrounded by other liberals. Our cultures play a big part in who we become and what we subconsciously believe and hold onto. The word taboo frightened me actually… but it woke me up so that I could really unravel my own programming. It woke me up to the revised purpose or maybe additional purpose of un_fertility to be a space where we can unlearn old ways of feeling and learn new ways of being – individually and collectively. As couples dealing with infertility or friends/family/communities supporting couples in their unconventional fertility journeys.
To finish off I would like to encourage all of us to be more mindful of our words, our actions or lack of, towards people who are dealing with a very difficult process. Couples dealing with infertility make it look easy because life must go on but infertility is painful and it’s long. We need to be conscious that we are not projecting our own feelings on infertility and imposing them onto people who no doubt have ALL the feelings about their infertility, and rightfully so. We must be careful not to impose how we think we would deal infertility as superior to how a couple might be choosing to deal with it. Because yours is hypothetical, ours is real. There is fundamental difference.