The symptoms are astonishing — fibroids that can be seen from the outside of a woman's belly, uncontrollable bleeding, and pain radiating with such intensity that a wedding had to be canceled. The remedies are not much better. One woman said she was "filleted" during a surgery to remove the lesions. Still, when women remember the most painful aspects of fertility challenges, most often, they recall how they felt emotionally. They silently shoulder the burden of loss, internalize messages about self-worth, and experience the stress of grappling with medical systems that treat infertility as if it's something new.
About 10-15 percent of cisgender women deal with infertility. The numbers may be higher because data typically excludes nonbinary people and trans men who may also face infertility challenges. It's the second-leading stressor in medical diagnoses, and, for Black women, in tandem with layered healthcare disparities and societal expectations, fertility challenges can be debilitating.
But like so many other issues that are more challenging for Black women, infertility is largely represented as a hurdle only white women face. At least, that's the observation that inspired The Today Show's Sheinelle Jones to begin talking to her friends publicly about it, metaphorically "lifting the veil" in a special called Stories We Tell: The Fertility Secret and creating space for so many women like them to heal.
"I would hear it as a sister, as a girlfriend, behind closed doors. We cry together over it, we get excited or we get anxious together, and whether we get good news or not, we move about our lives," says Jones. "Years later, more people are starting to talk about egg-freezing or IVF but I felt like I didn't see my friends represented, yet I know that they're dealing with it because I'm dealing with it in my own life with them."
In a series of interviews over dozens of hours, Jones sat with her friends and unpacked stories that many of them had "tucked" away and as she listened, Jones felt uniquely connected. So many of her friends felt insecure and inadequate because of messages they'd received about fertility and womanhood. "If you've been dealing with this for two, three, four years, or even 10 years and society tells you the only way to be a woman is to have a child, you feel broken," says Jones.
For her, really shedding light on infertility meant addressing this shame, which proved doubly challenging. It's not just society that treats Black sufferers of infertility as if they are inherently broken. Many Black women who are coping with fertility challenges are seeking treatment within a medical system that doesn't truly see them or hear them. Over and over again, Jones's friends felt uncomfortable after interactions with their doctors.
"My grandfather went to Howard Med, his father went to Howard Med. I come from a family of Black doctors. [My grandfather] was always so gentle and kind. That's the kind of physician I grew up with and the only thing I've known," says Jones. "If it doesn't feel right, if you feel rushed, there are plenty of wonderful physicians who will see you and affirm you."
Infertility is not something women should have to deal with without support or beneath a blanket of shame. Jones says there is no peace in pushing through alone. "Sure, we're strong and sure we're resilient, but I think sometimes sharing and talking about it — trying to shift the narrative, here — that's strong too."
Stories We Tell: The Fertility Secret airs Sunday, December 19, at 10 p.m. EST on MSNBC.
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