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JENEÉ OSTERHELDT

Michelle Obama, Gabrielle Union shine a light on infertility struggles

More than 7 million women in America struggle with infertility. Michelle Obama and Gabrielle Union are among them

Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama.(Joe Buglewicz for The Washington Post)

Womanhood and motherhood are bound together so tightly, women are expected to reproduce as easily as they breathe.

And we’re choking on the myth. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 7 million women in America struggle with infertility. Michelle Obama and Gabrielle Union are among them. So when the former first lady and the actress each shared their difficult paths to parenthood last week, the conversation went viral.

Obama revealed she suffered a miscarriage in her 30s and turned to in vitro fertilization to conceive.

“We sit in our pain thinking somehow we’re broken,” she said to “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts in a preview for the Sunday ABC special teasing Obama’s book, “Becoming.” “I think it’s the worst thing we do to each other as women, not share the truth about our bodies and how they work and how they don’t work.”

It’s true. Women, especially black women, don’t talk about infertility. Gabrielle Union was one of the first black celebrities to open up about her challenges. Even her character on the BET series “Being Mary Jane” tackled the issue. In Union’s 2017 book, “We’re Going to Need More Wine,” she writes about having as many as nine miscarriages.

“For three years, my body has been a prisoner of trying to get pregnant — I’ve either been about to go into an IVF cycle, in the middle of an IVF cycle, or coming out of an IVF cycle.”

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Wednesday, she and her husband, NBA star Dwyane Wade, welcomed their daughter, who was born via surrogate. Union’s Instagram post on Thursday was liked over a million times. And their story trended online all night.

For Shervonne Coney, a Boston infertility activist, the back-to-back moments brought by Obama’s and Union’s revelations were monumental. The 39-year-old and her husband have been trying to get pregnant for years.

“It was huge,” she says. “These are women I follow, women who people see and categorize as the women who have it all together. But they had trouble conceiving, too. They went through what I’ve gone through and came out on the other side. I feel inspired.”

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Three years ago, Coney started Black Women and Infertility, an online collective for women struggling to conceive.

“There is so much shame around infertility,” she says. “Growing up, we were told not to get pregnant. Now we’re ready to grow our families and can’t. It’s shocking. We didn’t grow up knowing anyone with this struggle. We don’t know anyone going through it now. There’s a lack of understanding, information, and access. So I started a group for support and representation so we could get comfortable talking about it.”

Resolve New England is a Waltham nonprofit dedicated to amplifying infertility issues and those struggling with them.

For executive director Kate Weldon LeBlanc, having Obama and Union open up isn’t just a megaphone for the issue, it helps shake off stereotypes.

Her 11-year-old daughter, who was conceived via in vitro fertilization, was happy to hear Sasha and Malia were IVF babies, too.

“For many, many people, the path to parenthood is long and bumpy, and because people don’t necessarily talk about it, you don’t realize how normal it is,” she said. “Infertility is a disease, and you wouldn’t be so hard on yourself if you had asthma or arthritis.”

LeBlanc says the nonprofit caters to everyone but she recognizes the inequities in resources.

While Obama and Union have the money for IVF and surrogacy (which can cost from $4,000 to $100,000+), that’s not a reality for most women, especially black women. Massachusetts is one of only 16 states with laws requiring insurers to provide infertility coverage. LeBlanc hopes more celebrities speak out, encouraging more access to coverage.

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“Surrogacy and IVF is very challenging financially,” she says. “One in eight people will go through infertility, and one in four will go through pregnancy loss. And when people hear that, they realize it’s more people than they think it would be. We need more advocacy.”

Last month, WomensHealthMag.com and OprahMag.com launched a Black Women & Infertility project to help push the conversation further.

A survey they conducted found that black women were more than twice as likely as white women to say that they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about their fertility issues with loved ones or their doctors.

Studies from the CDC show that black women are almost half as likely to get medical help for infertility as white women — but nearly twice as likely to experience infertility.

Robin Hilmantel, digital director of WomensHealthMag.com, says there are no easy answers. There’s racial disparity, economic inequity, distrust of doctors, and a lot of stigma.

“I think everyone has this idea of what our role as women is supposed to be, and that is something that came up a lot in our research,” she says. “Society is telling women motherhood is synonymous with being a woman, and it’s telling black women what they should be. If you don’t follow these pre-written rules, there’s shaming.”

Historically, black motherhood has been problematically portrayed as the mammy, the welfare queen, the bitter single mom, the teen mom. These stereotypes play out in how black women are often treated by doctors. Black women are three to four times more likely to die of pregnancy or delivery complications than white women. Even Serena Williams had to request medication and a scan that saved her life after giving birth.

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For Beverly Guerrero-Porter, the inequality became clear when the Springfield stay-at-home mom got pregnant with her first child four years ago.

“I went to the support groups, I took the parenting classes, birthing classes, and nursing class. I was the only woman of color. And the educators in those classes didn’t know what to do with me,” she said. “There were no black dolls to practice with in the breastfeeding class. I was given a white doll. Black women were made to nurse white children during slavery. There’s a cultural insensitivity.”

For that reason, she sought a support system of her own: Mocha Moms. Started in 1997 as a newsletter for black stay-at-home moms, it now caters to moms of color, at home, at work, and beyond. There are 100 chapters all over the country with various meet-ups.

In Massachusetts, there is just one chapter. Guerrero-Porter chartered it in July.

“It’s important to have a safe place for mothers of color to connect and speak on issues and their experience and feel welcome.”

Although the 33-year-old didn’t face fertility challenges, she believes Obama and Union are bringing nuance to the images and conversations surrounding black motherhood.

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“A lot of stereotypes depict us in a particular way, and I think it’s important to see women who mirror us telling our stories.”

Black motherhood — the various paths to it or the choice not to walk it all — matters.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.