Women's Health

Infertility: Suffering in Silence

Study finds black women feel shame and isolation

A paper in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly focusing on the experiences of African-American women struggling to conceive conveys an oft-ignored fact: Black women are equally, if not more likely, to experience infertility as their white counterparts.

The difference, however, is that black women tend to cope with the trauma in silence and isolation, according to the University of Michigan study.

According to the study, believed to be one of the first to focus on African-American women and the issue of infertility (most studies look at affluent white couples seeking advanced medical interventions), 98 percent of the women who participated claimed taboos surrounding the subject in the African-American community forced them to remain silent.

“Infertile African-American women are indeed hidden from public view,” said Rosario Ceballo, a University of Michigan professor and study lead. “One explanation for the women’s silence about infertility may have to do with cultural expectations about strong, self-reliant black women who can cope with adversity on their own and with notions about maintaining privacy in African-American communities.”

The women also expressed an expected lack of empathy and sympathy for their issues, along with heightened pressure to keep their problems to themselves for fear of being ridiculed and or shamed.

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Study participants were from all socioeconomic backgrounds and ranged in age from 21 to 52. Many of the women were also married, college educated and employed full-time. All of the respondents had met the medical definition for infertility—a condition in which a woman is unable to conceive after 12 or more months of regular, unprotected sex—at some point in their lives. On average, the women spent six years trying to conceive; some spent as many as 19 years trying to get pregnant.

In describing the difficulties of getting pregnant, 32 percent of the women expressed beliefs that equated motherhood with womanhood and suggested that they were failures for not conceiving. Respondents also attached religious significance to fertility, and often felt shame when fertility issues persisted.

About a quarter of the women who participated in the study reported disturbing interactions with medical personnel, citing doctors who made assumptions about their sexual promiscuity and inability to pay for services. Researchers were surprised to learn women across the economic spectrum reported discrimination in medical settings.

Overall, when black women could not conceive, it had a negative impact on their self-esteem. And they believed they were abnormal, in part, Ceballo said, because they did not see other people like themselves—African American, female and infertile—in social images.

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