Black women are far more likely to see infertility as hindering their sense of self and gender identity. (Photo: Getty Images)

Black women are far more likely to see infertility as hindering their sense of self and gender identity. (Photo: Troels Graugaard/Getty Images)

Infertility can be heartbreaking and difficult for women from any culture. That is why it’s so important for women who are unable to conceive to have the support of family and friends. Yet, a new study reports black women are unlikely to request or receive that  compassion when they have difficulty becoming pregnant.

African women are just as likely to experience infertility (defined as unable to conceive over a period of 12 months or more) as white women. However, a small study, conducted at the University of Michigan, found that black women were far more likely to see infertility as hindering their sense of self and gender identity.

Because most infertility research focuses on affluent white couples, “infertile African-American women are indeed hidden from public view,” said lead study author Roasario Ceballo, a U-M professor of psychology and women’s studies, in a university interview.

Ceballo and her team surveyed 50 African-American women, ages 21 to 52, from a range of social and economic backgrounds, about how they dealt with infertility with family, friends, and health-care professionals. Most of the women were married, and many had careers and college degrees. The women spent one to 19 years trying to become pregnant.

Harmful Stigma and Stereotypes

A large share of the women in the study held stereotyped beliefs that equated being a woman with motherhood. Survey responses included statements such as: “Emotionally, I felt that I was not complete, because I had not had a child. I didn’t feel like I was a complete woman,” and “It [having no biological children] would label you as a failure.”

Many women also saw religious significance in infertility. They believed that God meant for women to produce children and that increased their sense of shame and failure.

Rather than talk with family and friends for emotional support, almost all of the women studied faced their infertility in silence and isolation, even when a friend or relative knew about the woman’s difficulty conceiving.

Researchers noted that some women, especially those with secondary infertility (inability to have a child after giving birth), stayed silent about being unable to conceive, because they did not receive empathy when they reached out.

“Women may also reason that other people can neither change their infertility status nor understand what they were experiencing,” Ceballo said. The researchers also felt that some of the women chose to be silent because of cultural expectations that black women should be strong, self-reliant black and silent about personal problems.

One study participant said: “You don’t want people in your business” and “I never said anything to anyone else because in our culture … it was not something that you shared.”

More than 25 percent of the women also felt that they experienced some level of gender, race or class discrimination when discussing their infertility with physicians. They related tales of doctors who assumed they were sexually promiscuous or unable to support a child or pay their doctor bills.

The researchers said they were surprised to learn that highly educated women with high incomes were equally likely as low-income African-American women to report discrimination in medical settings. In addition, the cost of fertility treatments (approximately $15,000 or more a cycle) was prohibitively high for most respondents.

Overall, Ceballo said, black women who could not conceive felt abnormal, in part, because they did not see or know other African-American women who also had difficulty becoming pregnant.

Some women stay silent about being unable to conceive, because they do not receive empathy when they reach out.

Don’t Go it Alone

If you or someone close to you is dealing with infertility, encourage them to get the support that can help them get through it and heal through these organizations:

  1. Fertility for Colored Girls
  2. The Broken Brown Egg
  3. Resolve
  4. Tinina Q. Cade Foundation, which is also sponsoring its annual Race for the Family on June 13.

Each site offers information about treatments, research and understanding infertility among African American women.