How Infertility & Loss Helped Me Find My True Purpose As a Black Woman
Eighteen months after having my son, I got a new job. It wasn’t quite the legal career my scholarly parents hoped for; neither was it anything near my childhood interest to be a journalist. But as a “people person,” this project manager role seemed like a perfect go-between. I received a phone call about the job hours after my interview.
Being a high-functioning perfectionist, and an ‘ENFP’ on the Myers-Briggs scale, the job seemed right up my alley. So true to my validation-seeking ways, when I was offered the position, I asked the recruiter for feedback.
She explained, “On paper you weren’t the most experienced candidate, but the panel felt confident that you were a good fit for the position and would hit the ground running.”
In that instant, a familiar feeling arose: the pressure I was subjected to felt the same as being Black and infertile.
There’s a common assumption that soon after marriage, a couple desires to have children, and will conceive immediately after they start trying for a baby. That wasn’t the case for us. Three years into our nuptials, my husband and I were bombarded with unsolicited advice and assumptions pertaining to our highly-anticipated parenthood.
“Stop waiting for the right time, you’ll never be ready,” said one of the church aunts. Another, who boasted of her successful “tried and tested” results, intrusively offered to give us a book on “how to make a baby”.
Of course, none of that worked for us. It took two IVF cycles and a few miscarriages to finally become parents — and in fact, the journey to having our two sons was seven years in the making.
I moved to my husband’s hometown in October 2014, settled into our first home, and secured a careers advisor role at the university where we studied and met nine years prior. I felt accomplished. I was newly married, well-paid and a homeowner. The only thing missing was my period, and children to fill our home. I continued to ignore the signs that something wasn’t right, until I started getting pressure from my family.
On one of my regular visits home, my mom received a call from a relative in Ghana. It wasn’t unusual for these impromptu catch ups to turn into polite gossip.
“They are all doing well, Vanessa is here visiting,” my mom explained. “You know she’s a lecturer at one of the top universities.” I was comfortable with her attempt to embellish my credentials as a way of deterring the caller from asking about my family plans, but the question can rarely be avoided.
In Ghanaian culture, marriage is ubiquitous and remains a locus of reproduction. Family goes beyond the nuclear unit and is a cornerstone of social life. So, there are very few boundaries when it comes to family matters.
I can see how this played out when I was growing up. Almost every weekend without fail, parents — outnumbered by their offspring — would gather en masse in our local community hall to celebrate weddings, baby dedications, birthdays and even wakes. It wasn’t unusual for the guests in attendance to not personally know the main celebrant.
The dance floor was crowded with people cutting shapes to the vibrating speakers. Mothers would form a clique in a corner of the room, bouncing toddlers on one knee, and a paper plate heaped with flavorsome cuisine on the other. The atmosphere was effervescent and complemented the distinctive aroma of perfume and liquor.
This fond childhood memory of mine became a territory I avoided following a few awkward encounters. One time my uncle took my husband aside and lectured him about the benefits of zinc consumption for conception. The worst was a confrontation with a relative at my dad’s 60th birthday celebration. As the guests partied, I closely observed my nieces, imagining when my own children would join their cousins.
My despondency must have been palpable. Out of nowhere, my aunt approached me, asking, “Have you been to see the doctor?” I was humiliated and felt like a failure. To make matters worse, it was months after my first failed IVF cycle.
Elizabeth Tettey, author of Motherhood: An Experience in the Ghanaian Context, explains in her book how these feelings of failure may arise in social contexts.
In predominantly West-African culture, motherhood and a woman’s purpose and status are intricately bound as a result of the strong pro-natalist tendency — meaning that mothers of many children are highly regarded, and infertile women are vilified.
I can relate to the feelings of alienation. I became an outcast, navigating infertility behind walls of silence and shame, because I believed fate or God had denied me of what I presumed to be my innate purpose.
By the same token, Black fertility and motherhood are a rite of passage connected to remembrance and survival. It’s a deferred act of defiance inherited from my enslaved ancestors who surrendered their reproductive autonomy at the hands of their slave masters.
For the older generation, who are aptly called “baby boomers”, their desire for their children to procreate can be credited to their vicarious ideals of parenting. They romanticize a new generation who will change the narrative, and resist the derogatory labels of delinquent fatherhood, and errant Black female hypersexuality that they were once assigned to.
My own parents left their “motherland” in the eighties to start a life in England against an established backdrop of racialized experiences — those which have now infiltrated my own reality.
Data shows that rates of infertility in Black women are almost double those of white women. However, only around 8 percent of women like me, between the ages of 25 and 44, seek medical help to get pregnant — compared to 15 percent of white women, partly because of negative encounters in the medical community.
Yet still, Black women in developing nations are choosing to bring new life into this world, with knowledge of their own life being at stake. Even with reproductive assistance, a baby isn’t guaranteed at the end of it.
According to a 2015 study, the strong imperative to become a mother is driven by “the motherhood mandate”, where being seen as a “good woman” is synonymous with being a mom. It’s a directive that takes away our right to choose, and discounts the reality that childbearing is a matter of chance.
My own distorted ideals about mothering aligned to this falsehood. Priyanka Joshi articulates this sentiment perfectly in one of her poignant poems, challenging me to think about why I craved motherhood so much. She questions, “Was it to feel useful and …give me a purpose? Did I lose myself when I became ‘Ma’? Or was I lost before and now this is me in my truest and most powerful form?”
Personally for me, it was the former. As a Black woman, I internalized the superwoman complex and wanted to feel needed. I believed my value and worth was tied to my fertility until this illusion of control was abruptly taken away.
A few weeks into starting my new role, I found out I was pregnant, albeit naturally. Sadly, at nine weeks I suffered an ectopic pregnancy. It’s when an embryo implants outside of the uterus, and usually into one of the fallopian tubes. As it’s a pregnancy that’s out of place, if it’s discovered late it can grow out of control and can become life-altering. But I also mean this in a figurative sense.
Nearly losing my life, as well as part of my fertility, was traumatic — and having to accept that I may never have the big family I romanticized about put me into a state of ambiguity. However, it also propelled me into place of ambition and purpose.
Although it’s a rare occurrence, not all women overcome such an ordeal. It’s the leading cause of 10% of all pregnancy-related deaths. For others, the legislation of women’s bodies and suppression of their reproductive rights could also increase maternal mortality rates.
Looking back, losing another baby after everything I’ve had to endure seemed like an act of force majeure. It’s something that forced me to challenge the societal and cultural obligations of Black kinship. I no longer feel that I am in breach of those outmoded expectations. Rather, I’ve gained freedom.
The shame that once silenced me has given me a voice that has answered to my calling. One that separates my womb from my womanhood and reconnects me with my inner child’s passion to write. More importantly, in the words of Toni Morrison, “I don’t want to [focus] on making somebody else. I want to make myself.”
Before you leave, check out our special series on the Black Maternal Health crisis.
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