Last month, on Valentine’s Day, professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry announced the newest arrival to her family, a daughter affectionately known in public as “Baby Girl Perry” or #BabyNerd. Since we see her each weekend on TV and haven’t seen her with a baby bump, there was much confusion, gossip, and speculation about Harris-Perry’s new baby; many people assumed she adopted. However, as she explained in an emotional and vulnerable post on her MSNBC blog, because of fibroids and a hysterectomy that she underwent after the birth of her first daughter, Harris-Perry and her husband decided to pursue in vitro fertilization (IVF) and look for a surrogate so they could have a biological child together. She also promised to share more about the process and emotions she went through regarding her decision to pursue these methods, and to engage in a broader conversation about redefining family.
Reproductive health, particularly fertility, is so personal to women that it stops us from sharing our stories, fears, challenges, and desires with one another—even those close to us. It affects both how we see ourselves and how society values us as women. The looks, questions, and responses I get when people find out I’m adopted highlight our narrow concept of motherhood, which is based on a traditional biological standard: a sperm fertilizes an egg in a woman’s uterus, the zygote attaches, nine months later the baby is born, and a woman becomes a mother. Many people get really uncomfortable if they find out you’re adopted or have fertility issues, as if such things are unnatural, you are damaged as a woman, or you were neglected. This can be frustrating to adopted children and parents alike, or to anyone who speaks openly about assisted conception; it can make mothers feel ostracized or abnormal. It also has a chilling effect on women who might otherwise want to share their experiences.
As a well-respected, prominent Black female scholar and media personality, Harris-Perry’s announcement gives me hope that our society, and particularly communities of color, can start to have real conversations about this aspect of our reproductive lives. I spoke to a few women who’ve undergone IVF, or aggressive fertility treatments—all Black women from different states. This was by no means a scientific poll, but, anecdotally, they all spoke of feeling “broken,” afraid, and isolated in their pain. They talked about resentment and tears stemming from a feeling of being out of control and not knowing if they could or would have a healthy baby. For each of them, the process challenged their own ideas of “womanhood” and all had to come to a place of surrendering and accepting.
While these feelings are typical of women of all races and ethnicities, it is especially important for Black women to hear about these feelings from people who look like us so fewer women have to feel alone in their journeys. It is also an opportunity to create greater understanding and sensitivity toward ourselves and the families in our lives.
After speaking with these women, it became clear how societal assumptions dominate public and private conversations about childbearing and fertility. Media commentary typically centers around controlling childbearing and who should procreate. For teens, the discussion often focuses on shame and disdain for any young person who wants or has a baby; if you’re a woman over 35, the conversation is relegated to gloom and doom for your decrepit ovaries. Interpersonally, we do an equally terrible job. Even as a reproductive justice advocate, I know I can sometimes be judgmental and insensitive about women’s reproductive choices, even when my heart is in the right place.
One woman I interviewed said that people often used to ask her inappropriate questions like, “Why haven’t you had a baby yet?” or “Have you started trying?” After the birth of her daughter, people had even more questions: “Are you going to try for another?” and “How about a little boy?” She notes, “People mean well, but don’t they realize that they are asking about our sex lives. It’s none of their business.”
Another of the interviewees honed in on the fact that most people lack a thorough understanding of infertility. (A recent report shows that at least one out of every 100 babies born in the United States are conceived with advanced fertility help.) “Because no one knows or understands infertility or conditions that cause infertility, I didn’t feel it necessary to explain to many people,” she said. “I chose to share only when people asked the dreaded questions, ‘When are you and your husband going to have children?’ Then I had to explain all the details of PCOS [polycystic ovaries syndrome], and it was too much for me.”
Many women often remain silent about these issues, with even their friends and family. Black women in particular are very limited in who they talk to, probably for the same reasons we don’t talk about abortion: fear of shame and judgment, and a strong desire to keep our personal business private. (Though websites like the Broken Brown Egg are trying to address these issues, as more women look for an understanding community.)
One interviewee lamented, “I don’t know anyone else in my immediate circle of friends/acquaintances that have problems with infertility. I feel that I stand out here alone.” Another woman spoke of deciding who she could open up to: “It was hard deciding, but infertility is so emotionally draining that you have to be selective. … Self-selecting the people we told allowed us to feel less judged by those around us.”
These are relatively common sentiments from women. On one hand, they’re looking for support, but on the other, they need sensitivity. This can be a delicate balance to strike when childbearing is so personal and we are easily clouded by our own ideas and experiences. As Melissa Harris-Perry shares her story, it is an opportunity to practice listening and challenging our deep-seated beliefs.
This is an opportunity not only to explore the emotions surrounding fertility and parenting, but also the logistics. The women I spoke with talked about the blessing of having reliable health insurance, living in a state with good doctors and hospitals, and having a supportive work environment. These issues factor heavily into women’s decisions about childbearing, as Harris-Perry noted in her recent interview with ThinkProgress. She said she’s going to use her recent experiences to raise these issues of privilege and explore the connections between motherhood and politics in an online challenge called “The Mother of All Politics.”
While there’s still a taboo around adoption, IVF, and surrogacy, especially in some communities, there is increasing exposure and conversation about the prevalence of these methods. I am encouraged by the storytelling of both famous women and the women in my local community who opened up to me for this article. Let’s have more conversations about motherhood and our “worth” as women in ways that are not dismissive or sound the “bad feminist” alarm. Let’s continue to redefine personally and politically what family means. And most of all, let’s become more compassionate listeners.