African-American women are more likely to suffer through infertility issues alone, according to a new University of Michigan study. The findings also show that black women more often feel that infertility undermines their sense of self and gender identity.
The study may be among the first to focus only on black women and infertility, as most research has been conducted on affluent white couples seeking advanced medical help.
“Infertile African-American women are indeed hidden from public view,” said lead author Dr. Rosario Ceballo, a U-M professor of psychology and women’s studies.
For the study, Ceballo and colleagues Erin Graham and Jamie Hart interviewed 50 African-American women, ages 21 to 52, of different socioeconomic backgrounds about infertility and relationships with friends, relatives and doctors. Most of the women were married, and many had college degrees and worked full-time.
All of the participants had met the medical diagnosis for infertility, a condition in which a woman is unable to become pregnant after 12 or more months of regular, unprotected sex. The women spent from one to 19 years trying to conceive.
During the interviews, 32 percent of the women discussed stereotyped beliefs that equated being a woman with motherhood. Some responses included: “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.”
For some women, infertility was infused with religious significance. They believed God intended women to produce children, which further heightened their sense of shame.
Nearly all of the women coped with infertility in silence and isolation, even when a friend or relative knew about it. Participants also believed that infertility was not as emotionally painful for their husbands and partners, who were not interviewed for the study.
Researchers noted that some women, especially those who could not conceive again after having a child, stayed silent because discussing it did not elicit sympathy or empathy.
“Women may also reason that other people can neither change their infertility status nor understand what they were experiencing,” Ceballo said.
Other reasons for silence about infertility may have to do with cultural expectations about strong, self-reliant black women who can deal with problems on their own and with notions about remaining private in African-American communities, she said.
In the interviews, for example, respondents 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.”
Regarding their interactions with doctors and medical professionals, about 26 percent believed that encounters may have been influenced by gender, race and/or class discrimination. These women spoke about doctors who made assumptions about sexual promiscuity and inability to pay for services or support a child.
One surprising finding was that highly educated women who were well-off financially were just as likely as low-income African-American women to report discrimination in medical settings. Furthermore, the cost of fertility treatment was prohibitively high for most participants.
Overall, when black women were unable to become pregnant, it negatively affected their self-esteem. They saw themselves as abnormal, in part, because they did not see other people like themselves — African-American, female and infertile — in social images, Ceballo said.
Source: University of Michigan