When You’re A Woman Of Colour, Infertility Comes With Extra Stigma

Infertility doesn’t discriminate, but there’s little diversity in the stories we hear. If we want to change the narrative, women like me must lend our voices, writes Seetal Savla
Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

“Fertility is not something you conquer. Rather maddeningly, there’s no straight line between effort and reward.”

I read these words, written by Michelle Obama in her autobiography Becoming, as I was undergoing my third round of IVF in as many years. As my eyes welled up, causing the words to float around on the page, I felt understood. Although I had read many accounts of the trials and tribulations of infertility, this one was different. This one, told by a globally renowned and respected personality of African-American origin, directly challenged the mainstream media narrative that’s still largely dominated by middle-class, middle-aged white women. Infertility doesn’t discriminate, so why is there very little diversity in the voices whose stories we hear?

Human Fertility and Embryo Authority (HFEA) figures show that there has been a 20.6% increase in women from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds receiving IVF treatment in the UK over the past five years and yet infertility remains shrouded in secrecy in the Indian community. Progress has been made by popular Bollywood stars coming forward about their fertility struggles: choreographer and director Farah Khan having IVF in her forties; actress Sushmita Sen adopting two daughters alone, and actor and director Aamir Khan choosing surrogacy after miscarriage – but most Indians are extremely reluctant to follow their lead.

Seeing celebrities share their vulnerabilities may legitimise our own infertility battles and comfort us in private, but our experiences and emotions are still not being vocalised enough in public. However, since Indians rarely expose their personal pain to their immediate family and friends, the chances of them discussing it on their Facebook feed is as likely as a life-changing lottery win. We suffer in silence for various reasons, shame being one of the main culprits. We’re ashamed of our bodies being unable to perform their primary purpose and being judged for it, maybe even ostracised. We’re ashamed of letting our family down and making them the source of idle gossip among the extended family and our wider community.

“I too was silenced by these societal stigmas for years. Talking about fertility meant admitting that we had a problem and owning up to our inadequacies...”

At its most extreme, this reputational damage could affect the marriage prospects of future generations, the fear being that they’ll also struggle to start a family. Indian women are afraid of the assumption that the inability to conceive is our fault – our patriarchal society isn’t known for considering an alternate scenario. We may be afraid of being criticised for bearing a daughter if we’re from a traditional family (a son is culturally revered because unlike his sisters, he remains economically and socially part of the family after marriage and can therefore support his parents as they age, as well as performing the last rites at their funeral).

I too was silenced by these societal stigmas for years. Talking about it meant admitting that we had a problem and owning up to our inadequacies. It also means having to answer endless well-meaning questions and constantly hearing success stories about someone who had multiple failed rounds and accepted her fate, only to find out that she had fallen pregnant naturally on holiday. Or someone else just kept going, year after year, round after round, and finally made her dreams come true. These tales of ‘fertility warriors’ are very painful to endure. When your hopes have been repeatedly dashed, daring to dream about a desirable outcome is dangerous. Each time IVF fails, your heart is obliterated like a brick wall by a wrecking ball and you’re left to reconstruct it.

To date, I’ve had three unsuccessful cycles. People assume that those who turn to IVF are desperate to have children, but that’s not strictly true. I arrogantly assumed that I’d become a mother at some point without actively dreaming about it. But the more I was pestered to procreate by elder family members in the first few years of our marriage, the less I felt inclined to do so. Having been raised to believe that a woman’s role is at home, they warned me to settle down before my womb shrivelled up and was good for nothing; work would wait. They occasionally resorted to emotional blackmail, wanting to meet the next generation before they passed.

Ultimately, it was having an early miscarriage from a surprise natural pregnancy that changed things. I’d expected to feel a strong sense of fear when it finally happened and instead only felt overjoyed. My concerns about losing my independence and identity as a woman vanished as soon as I saw the word ‘Pregnant’. We were on the verge of starting a new chapter of our lives and the future seemed so bright and exciting. Having spent years saying that I didn’t feel ready to have a baby, I was amazed at just how ready I felt now that a hypothetical situation had become reality. Each question and comment that had come my way had seemingly suppressed my desire to be a mother, but it had always been there, finally unearthed by this unexpected good news.

Once I’d processed the miscarriage, we began our first IVF cycle, informing only close family and friends. After two failed attempts, and many more years of sidestepping the truth when being asked about our future family plans at weddings, birthdays and family gatherings, I was tired of the secrecy, the weight of it growing heavier by the day.

I decided to break my silence on Mother’s Day this year. Despite traditional values giving way to more modern attitudes in my community, I still hesitated about sharing such a personal story. Did I really want everyone to know these intimate details of our lives? Would posting about our pregnancy woes make me feel like even more of a failure, both as a woman and a wife? Would there be a backlash from those who believed that seeking medical assistance is akin to playing God and that we should accept the limitations of our bodies and move on?

“When I was in freefall after my second cycle, the Trying to Conceive community on Instagram held out a safety net and prevented me from hitting rock bottom...”

With these questions whirring around my head, I resisted the urge to retreat and published my piece. I wrote about the internal and external pressures that I’d been facing about childlessness, the all-consuming emotional, physical and financial challenges of undergoing IVF and our hopes for the future. In doing so, I wanted to offer support to anyone experiencing infertility and provide a public and private outlet for them. When I was in freefall after my second cycle, the Trying to Conceive (TTC) community on Instagram held out a safety net and prevented me from hitting rock bottom. Instead of pity and sentimental platitudes about staying positive, they lamented my loss with me. Speaking out about my own infertility gave me the chance to pay it forward.

My no-holds-barred account of my experience resonated with everyone who read it, either because they were wading through the same quicksand or knew people who were. I was overwhelmed by the compassionate responses that I received from family, friends, former colleagues, acquaintances and strangers. Many of them came from Indians at various stages of their infertility journey thanking me for my honesty and making them feel less abnormal. Those who had been fortunate enough to conceive naturally equally appreciated the post as it enabled them to better understand and support a friend or relative undergoing IVF.

Many of the unintentionally cruel comments stem from a lack of education regarding the causes of infertility and the treatments available today. Annual events such as the Race, Reproduction and Religion workshop run by the Fertility Festival, coupled with real-life stories in the media, are giving BAME communities a platform to educate and debate. Our culture values marriage and children and yet prevents us from having conversations about infertility. But if we want to change the narrative, we must be willing to lend our voices to the current one.

Seetal Savla is a writer raising awareness of IVF and infertility. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @SavlaFaire

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