In my feelings

“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 – ASKhow 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 – ASKhow 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.

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