Last week, a huge window opened for us all into the private life of our former first family. In an interview on Good Morning America, Michelle Obama told Robin Roberts that not only had she endured the pain and isolation of miscarriage and infertility, but that in order to get pregnant with Malia and Sasha, she and Barack underwent in vitro fertilization. For me and other women of color who have faced infertility and all that it entails, this was a revelation.
As these two women sat there, dripping melanin and looking every bit flawless, I’m sure it was hard for some viewers to accept how flawed this experience had made Michelle Obama feel. As she spoke of brokenness, isolation, and despair, I’m sure some thought, She’s been such a pillar of strength and stoic grace. How could she have ever felt defined by her parental status or the reproductive limitations of her body?
But I found myself rewinding the clip on my phone over and over again, each time nodding my head along with Michelle and Robin. And when Michelle said, “I think it’s one of the worst things that we do to each other as women—not share the truth about our bodies and how they work and don’t work,” I literally shouted “YES!” at the screen. She got it.
This talk was a reflection of the kitchen conversation many of us are in desperate need of having with our aunts, our good girlfriends, and our sisters. It is the bold admission we need to start blurting out. And here was Michelle Obama having that conversation on national television.
Now, to be fair, the topic of black women’s fertility and maternal health has been picking up traction in the past few years, with revelations about miscarriage, infertility, and postpartum issues coming from celebrities including Beyoncé, Gabrielle Union, Serena Williams, and even Cardi B. The idea that we belong in the broader conversation about motherhood has been slowly edging its way up the hill, so—while Michelle’s announcement was in reference to all women—for black women, there was a special significance.
As an advocate for black women and reproductive health, I’ve often had to answer the question: “Why?” Why does race have to be a part of it at all when infertility affects all types of women? Why do “we” have to make everything about race? The irony here is that even that statement separates our “we” from the greater “they” that represents larger society. Black women are in a constant flux of self-definition. We are somehow always trying to remove who society says we are from who we know ourselves to be.
From seemingly all sides, we’re fighting imagery that tries to tell us what we don’t do or how we should present ourselves. “Black folks don’t adopt.” “Black folks don’t do IVF.” “Black women are hyperfertile.” And most of all, as illustrated in the stereotype of the black superwoman, we are always expected to be strong, never showing weakness, and to understand that the higher up we go, the less allowance there is for errors, flaws, or deviation.
The ability to conceive, carry, and birth children is simply supposed to happen for us. Or so we’re taught. The idea that our bodies might not cooperate with us, in the most sacred and presumably natural part of womanhood, is almost unfathomable. So the pain that infertility brings can make even the strongest of us feel weak and broken. We don’t discuss it with one another, because it doesn’t match all that we’ve been told about ourselves. Instead, we self-isolate and attempt to come to terms with our own sobering reality alone.
It’s the heaviness of these feelings that made Michelle Obama’s statements so meaningful. Her statements opened the door for some very real conversations to begin happening among black women, while also placing us in the larger conversation about how important it is for all women to talk openly about these topics. We can’t hope to heal each other by remaining quiet and ashamed.
As the first black first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama has had to take the project of defining not only herself, but what it means to be black and a woman, to the largest stage possible. The mere fact of who she is has in some ways normalized an image of black womanhood—both strong and human—that many outside of our community were previously unfamiliar with. She inspires many by her real and regal representation of us.
So her willingness to speak candidly about her personal struggles along the path to parenthood was yet another extension of that normalcy. It gave me, a black woman who has also been forced into a realization about my own fertility, and who has also undergone IVF, a sense of pride and camaraderie. A co-sign on my own transparency. A declaration that yes, this too is a part of being a black woman. Regardless of who you think I am, what you think you know, what you think I’ve been through, this is also me, and I don’t have to be silent about it.