I detest clinics. Sometimes, it’s the forms I have to fill out, other times it’s the harsh lighting – but the thing I hate most is the television, which is often harnessed in a corner near the ceiling. It is meant to be a distraction, but it never manages to take my mind off why I’m in the clinic in the first place.
Early one morning in May 2021, I was sitting in a health facility in central Berlin. It was different from the aseptic ones I had visited when I lived in New York City: this was higher-end, with mild luminescent lighting and a floral smell wafting throughout. In the far corner of the waiting room, a TV was showing a family of penguins in Antarctica waddling along an icy shore. I was unconvinced by its message of optimism, of nature triumphing against the odds.
On the walls of the waiting room, there were posters of young couples in bloom, tethered to each other, smiling intently, some of the women with protruding bellies. Most of these expressions read like success. I tried to internalise these positive messages, playing Eye of the Tiger in my mind to summon victory. But it was hard to manifest the strength of Rocky ascending the stairs in triumph while I was hungry, thirsty and clad in a burgundy hospital gown, Crocs and a green hairnet.
For two weeks, I had injected hormones into my abdomen daily and sprayed more into my nostrils. These were meant to increase the size of my eggs and offset ovulation. All I could tell was that they induced a state of listlessness broken only by extreme hot flushes. While my body was being optimised for egg extraction, my partner waited with me in the clinic. I looked like a patient ready to go under the knife. He was primed to jerk off in another room to a selection of adult entertainment that included Girls Gone Wild and Latinx Holiday.
Afterwards, I sat with my partner, tense and despondent, waiting to hear what had happened. The doctor came in and said: “We were only able to extract two eggs.”
Two eggs. Two. This was the lowest number yet.
“We will try to fertilise the two eggs with your partner’s sperm, and I am hopeful that it will be effective,” she continued.
In previous extractions, I produced four or five eggs per cycle. This was our fifth attempt at IVF, and the fertilisation rate had so far been 50%. Two days later, the physician telephoned with painful news – none of the eggs had been fertilised. Anguish rushed into my soul, bringing the dismal conviction that I would remain childless.
We had gone through this process five times, and five times it had failed. Each time, our misfortune went unexplained. We had both been tested for genetic preconditions. A haematologist processed my blood; I had surgery to remove a uterine fibroid. My partner had varicocele surgery – to remedy enlarged veins in the scrotum – in October 2020 in the hope that it would improve his sperm quality. It did not.
The process of in vitro fertilisation is brutal, not only because of the mood swings brought on by hormone injections, but also because of the weight gain. One of the many things I have absorbed from everyday sexism is to hate my body, and I was acutely self-conscious about my belly – I had a baby bump without a baby.
In a way, I felt anti-feminist for wanting to be pregnant at a moment when more radical forms of kinship are being imagined. For several years, one friend of mine has been co-parenting a child with two of her romantic partners, moving beyond the cultural norm of one mother to three.
For many Black women I have come to know – ambitious, progressive, and independent – motherhood is a matter of choice. Some of my Black female friends have embraced their role as auntie, stepping into the position of jaunty elder who inspires their nieces and nephews to be adventurous. This nurturing role is fulfilled on their own terms, allowing them the freedom to pursue their life’s work – professional ambitions, financial security or travel. “I don’t want to make somebody else,” states the rebellious seductress Sula in Toni Morrison’s novel. “I want to make myself.”
Before I tried to get pregnant, I never thought it would be a challenge, or that it would raise questions about my body and identity. I had previously felt ambivalent about parenting. Like Sula, I activated my power to be whole, Black, and free. With a community of Black women, I travelled to Paris for the Afropunk festival, organised late-night dance parties in Berlin, and swam in coral reefs off the coast of Tanzania. Being Black and free has been at the core of my existence, given that my mother and her mother were often restricted from living their lives on their own terms. It is not just about flight – it is about pursuing my desire to be a historian and writer, and anchoring myself in affirming friendships and a relationship with a loving partner. But like many people, I was pulled in by my parents’ desire for grandchildren. After I turned 30, my Haitian mother would call and spontaneously declare: “I am ready for grandchildren.” Like the steadfast millennial I was, I would change the subject and hang up.
As a Black American living in Germany in 2021, I was already finding this period of my life difficult. I was exploring my identity in a new place while a global reckoning for Black lives raged. I was surrounded and assailed by images of Black Americans in distress. Reading about the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville or the eviction of a Black and indigenous family in Portland, I found myself wondering whether I should bring a Black life into this world. As my partner and I underwent each IVF cycle, I believed my answer was yes – mostly because he was the only person I could imagine being a parent with.
As cliched as it sounds, we met in a Marxist reading group in Berlin. On the surface, we could not be more different. I am petite and curvy, while he is tall and lean. Beyond the separate, inherited identities of class and nationality, we found common ground in politics and psychoanalysis. Amid uncertainty and grief during the pandemic, we took the leap to live together – something neither of us had done with any previous partner. His wit and ability to charm me with his British humour has been a relief to my radical-left feminist cynicism. Together, we supported each other during our transition from somewhat secure postdoctoral fellows to the more precarious venture of becoming writers. Even translating our different versions of English – he says coriander, I say cilantro – brings a smile to my face.
In the US, where anti-Black violence was a trademark of society, the decision to have a Black child forced me to reflect on the reality that a child of mine might come with foretold grief. In Germany, it felt safer to contemplate bringing up a child, far from armed civilians or trigger-happy police. But more importantly, because of my partner’s compassion and sincerity, I could finally imagine being a parent.
We discussed having children with lightness, imagining what parenting would be like together. I thought we could raise a rabble-rousing socialist family. He would joke that we should call our child Toussaint, after the Haitian revolutionary. I offered that we could choose from an array of Black radicals, including Harriet Tubman or Assata Shakur. We teased each other about the surname. I suggested X – after Malcolm – in order to not pass on the name that enslavers had given my ancestors. At the same time, I felt reluctant to conceive in a world, and a country, where I felt so out of place.
While this was going on, I often thought about the Black women in my family who had little control over their reproductive lives. I had always imagined that once I decided to bear children, it would be easy. My maternal grandmother had 13 children and my mother had three. I assumed I would be part of the first generation – to my knowledge – to have full agency over my reproduction. But what I didn’t realise was that assisted reproductive technology does not guarantee conception. It was an invasive, emotional experience that caused me 15 months of despair.
I was raised by working-class Haitians who migrated to Miami. For my entire childhood, I lived in a majority-Black working-class neighbourhood where the bungalows and apartment blocks were painted fervent pink and bright amber, and whose accessories could pummel your eyes – Catholic figurines carved into lawns, Christmas lights hanging from ramshackle porches all year round. Palm trees soared up between derelict building, providing some relief from Miami’s oppressive heat.
We found a way to breathe life into the community through street parties that stretched out well past midnight, even amid the stench of abandoned waste. The neighbourhood characters – from adolescent to senescent – were full of voracious spirit and wry humour, while the children would rebel against any adults who tried to curtail our freedom to play.
Nothing says “love” the way Black women do the tender work of child-rearing. At one time, we had nine people living in our two-bedroom duplex. In addition to our immediate family of five, we had a rotation of relatives – the recently divorced aunt, the uncle (literally) fresh off the boat, a cousin who became a surrogate older sister. My mother raised her niece in our home for several years during my childhood, and did everything to treat her like a daughter, to the point of regularly dressing us in matching outfits.
At times I felt overwhelmed by this changing cast of people, the lack of privacy and the shouting matches. Our house, a miniature Haitian Ellis Island, was home for whoever my parents could help. When the state fails them, Black people try to provide one another the care they need. Another cousin became a de facto guardian to her nephew, after her brother was incarcerated during the early months of his child’s life. We have never adhered strictly to being a nuclear family. Instead, we carved out a robust and tender support system for one another. Whenever I had a dispute with my parents, or “ran away”, my aunt would console me, feed me, provide relief for my adolescent rage.
At 18, I was accepted into a private liberal arts college on the US west coast. Suddenly finding myself among a mostly white middle-class student body, I was made aware of the contradictions of enlightenment. This was a place that espoused “atheism, communism, and free love” – the college’s unofficial motto – while mainly welcoming in a privileged few, along with some low-income students, like myself, who were admitted with scholarships and student loans.
For a time I thought about becoming a doctor, and volunteered at a clinic. It was a progressive organisation in Portland, Oregon, that provided free medical care to intravenous drug users, sex workers and the unhoused. During my weekly night shifts, people trickled in, hammered by their latest fix or seeking shelter from the perpetual rain. One forthright patient, thinking I was a doctor, pulled down his pants to show me the abscess on his buttocks. One young woman, a heroin user, was several months pregnant and living under a bridge with her boyfriend. These people were barely hanging on. Theirs was a different face of poverty from the one I grew up seeing: they were all white. At the same time, their life stories were similar to those I saw in Miami, except that what existed in the crevices of the Pacific Northwest was an even colder, lonelier version of destitution.
There, I saw how resolving medical problems was not just a matter of physical checkups or taking vitamins. We had to think bigger. The patients needed safe housing and non-judgmental medical care, and not to be criminalised for drug use or sex work. The clinic showed me how the essential work of healing was tied to the project of mutual aid. We need to challenge the systems that make us sick. I came to see medicine as being not just about healing, but also about imagining different possibilities of living in the world, of stepping outside the pathologies that have been imposed on working-class people like myself, and making us whole, through reparations, restitution and redistribution of resources.
Some people think of children in binary terms: to have them or not to have them. When lockdown began in March 2020, my partner and I decided to take our chances and started trying to conceive. Being in our 30s and healthy, we assumed we would be parents in no time. After several months, I realised it wasn’t going to be so easy. Like clockwork, I bled every month – each menstruation greeted with mounting disappointment. A problem that had emerged long before I moved to Germany, but did not really sink in until I was engulfed with pain and failure, seemed to be making my body an unhealthy place for an embryo.
In 2015, while I was a doctoral student at Princeton, tests revealed that my uterus was damaged. The official diagnoses were endometriosis and uterine fibroids. The endometriosis, I was told, was a mass of lesions that, untreated, might contribute to infertility, while the fibroids – non-cancerous tumours whose causes are unknown, and which are three times more prevalent among Black Americans than white – could also cause infertility. The tumours were steadily growing inside me, flourishing and creating a home where they shouldn’t have been. If they hadn’t caused pain, I probably would have kept them – mostly because the surgery would have interrupted my research, and I didn’t then have anyone to take care of me afterwards. I had one round of surgery in 2015 and another in April 2021.
Whenever my emotions are anaemic, I pry open a book, hoping to find refuge in someone else’s prose. Whether it was my academic undertaking to trace the fragility of life during a plague, or my journalistic assignment to track instances of racism in medicine, I was gnawed by the details, hoping that I exist outside the statistical categories of being Black in the US. I had hoped that relocating to Germany offered a new possibility for what a healthier life could be like.
My surgical experiences in the US and Germany were wildly different. In general, the care I received in the US was compassionate, but came at a high cost, financially and personally. My 2015 fibroid surgery in the US cost $90,000, while the 2021 one in Germany cost €0. In Germany, the public medical system felt fairer and more humane, even if German doctors had a more hard-nosed style. Thinking she was doing me a “favour” by not raising my hopes, one German physician told me that, being in my mid-30s, I was too old to have children. The health workers I encountered were at best methodical, and at worst brusque, but there were no barriers to getting healthcare.
Many predicted the Covid-19 pandemic would herald a baby boom, given all the spare time people suddenly had. What could one do but shag? However compelling the idea, it didn’t work out like that – at least not in the US. For about six years, the birthrate there has been decreasing, and in 2020 it declined by 4%. This is likely due to the expense of raising children, the lack of state support or paid parental leave. In contrast, Germany saw a 10% increase in its birthrate in 2020, the highest since 1998, most likely related to longstanding government support for reproductive assistance and paid leave.
Having my IVF partially funded by the German medical system felt revolutionary. Even as a foreigner, I benefited from a welfare programme that is not available to most working-class women, including many of my relatives, in the US or Haiti. For the first time I felt as if I had the power to break through the constraints that had shaped my life in the US.
Race is not the only lens through which we can see how people are treated, but it does often determine whether someone has access to healthcare, if their pain is considered “legitimate” and, in the context of Covid, whether they are more likely to die. Today, maternal mortality is soaring in African-American communities. Medical racism takes different forms in different places, with subtle vocabularies, at times echoing violent histories. While these histories can seem abstract, the trauma is embedded within us, and expresses itself in the people we become.
Black motherhood has historically been precarious in the US. Under slavery, women had no control over whether they had babies, or were allowed to raise them. As historian Leah Wright Rigueur has written, Black mothers were vilified, generating “the American mythology surrounding the so-called menace of the pathological Black matriarch of the 1960s, the treacherous welfare queen of the 1970s, and the drug-addled crack mother (and her babies) of the 1980s”.
This unexamined trope has become part of the accepted canon of racism in the US. There is little public support or sympathy for Black families, but that does not prevent Black mothers from seeing themselves in another light.
There are people who have had families that give them support and comfort and a model for what love might be. At present, that is not my reality. We are often told that, in order to get a sense of ourselves, our humanity and our worth, we must become parents. And for those of us carrying intergenerational trauma – enslavement, genocide, forced migration – the pressure to “carry on the family line” complicates what family obligation means. For women from Black, working-class families like mine, to have children – countering the forces that tried to destroy us – can be a powerful political act.
I say all this not to be fatalistic, or even to reduce the cherished and beautiful moments of Black kinship, but to highlight that the historical discrimination against Black women has combined with these discriminatory narratives about them to strip away our humanity. My aunts speak about parenting in vague terms, about how they value it, not for some intrinsic reason, but as something that their parents and grandparents did. Never do they say what I think about motherhood: they do not speak about the material difficulties and psychological struggles. Instead, their dreams are deferred to my generation, who they hope might avoid the hardships they endured. Being a parent is one of the most underappreciated jobs in our society. Of course, we should demand wages for housework and provide more space and support for people who do this. As I struggled to get pregnant, I was aware that so many of my life circumstances have been shaped by who deems me worthy of care.
As it became clear that my fertility journey was going to be rugged, I started reading heavily on the subject, taking refuge in research papers, books and leaflets about reproductive hormones. Writing became part of how I dealt with my pain, but it barely deflected my shame or anxiety. I regretted waiting “too long” to think about starting a family, and I was ashamed of my jealousy at seeing others successfully do so. From June 2020 until August 2021, I suffered from a depression that affected my work and my ability to connect with others. It turns out that my post-IVF depression was not uncommon. Infertility damages mental health in many ways, and the clinical depression and anxiety disorders that occur after failed IVF attempts can have long term negative consequences.
With my friends, and the feminists I organised with in Berlin, I looked for ways to bring up my experience. I needed compassion, but sometimes I received only unwelcome advice: drink tea, try acupuncture, just relax. Some people offered unwanted counsel: “Why don’t you adopt?” or “You can’t get pregnant because you’re too stressed.” Such comments made me petulant. Everyone seemed to have a friend who had tried for two months and magically got pregnant. It felt like some people I knew could simply cough and conceive. Meanwhile, I had to accept that some people will never get pregnant, no matter how hard they try.
During one low point, after my final IVF attempt had failed, I read an article about a white British woman in her 30s with early-onset menopause who managed to conceive. I began to see a pattern in the way that fertility struggles get told. There is a growing body of literature that focuses on the infertility struggles of highly educated white women who succeed in getting pregnant. These are celebrated because the majority of readers can relate to them. These stories seem to imply that, with determination, a person can conceive, that childlessness can be conquered with tenacity. People want to read happy stories, and accounts of difficult pregnancies that end in birth are, of course, uplifting. It is more challenging to tell a story about fertility treatment that ends in childlessness.
With few exceptions, I felt invisible in these narratives. But then I came across Emily Bernard’s book Black is the Body, in which she describes her own reproductive struggles, and how she felt like a failure for not being able to conceive. Her account stuck with me and festered like an open sore, as I considered how conception stood for so much more than bodily failure. Like me, Bernard was an ambitious Black American scholar and writer, and like me, no matter how much she tried, she could not conceive (she ended up adopting). Emotionally exhausted by the ebb and flow of artificial hormones, and the isolation I felt in the midst of the storm, I was further marooned by my inability to develop a precise language, or a method of coping.
Infertility stung me. I sought insights from family and friends. I revived a group chat with my cousins and asked how many of them had fibroids. I connected with Black parents I knew in Germany, and heard their stories of conception, pregnancy and birth, each different from the next. One friend and confidante, who struggled for nearly 10 years to conceive, told me how she had been ready to adopt right before she became pregnant. These conversations were healing, but they have not been enough.
My inability to have a baby opened new vistas of disappointment and grief. It has forced me to meditate about my soul’s purpose, to accept and move on, to imagine new possibilities for myself, and forge new bonds. At the same time, I have to rationalise that my body, like all bodies, is complex, and there is no simple answer for why I cannot get pregnant.
My fertility struggle has shown me that I need new ways to envision parenting outside giving birth. Wright Rigueur shows that Black parenting can be full of laughter and pride, not just the fruit of suffering, but an experience shared by people with common political aims, desires and agency. Her account of Black mothers’ joys reminded me of what I was missing. The stories she recounted, of new life coming to this Earth, revealed Black love, visceral and beautiful, and in a way, validated my pain and how I felt embattled and charred. I want to feel that joy of Black motherhood, the hope that runs through a lineage of survivors.
It’s hard to say that I will never be pregnant. I do not know if I will ever feel comfortable with my body with the exactitude that Black joy demands. Black joy is grounded in the active commitment to love myself and accept that I am complete. But there are days where I don’t feel that way. I want to hold dear to the words of the poet Robin Coste Lewis, who affirmed without apology in an interview that “black joy is my primary aesthetic, often: the world was so muted in what it offered us, but because of love and family and connection, our lives were gorgeous.”
Knowing that I cannot get pregnant is forcing me to look inwards, to find ways to mourn, and to recognise that joy has to come from elsewhere. My partner and I have walked in the forests of Brandenburg, done Sunday yoga and watched trashy TV. And though these rituals have been healing, they have not been enough. In Revolutionary Mothering, the poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs suggests an alternative: “Queer, utopian, and hopeful and critical articulations of mothering” centred on collective kinship.
I find that Black joy enshrined in my friendships with queer Black people, the people who create havens of safety where we can debate the big questions and share the trivial – whether watching HBO’s Insecure or passionately debating which west-African country makes the best jollof rice. But there is also comfort in our listless moments, those periods of walking aimlessly in the summer heat and finding a shoulder to lean on. This is the family I have chosen to create.
In our confessional culture, it is not uncommon to reveal intimate aspects of being human, our identity, our sense of self. But we mostly tell the stories that appear digestible – our brilliant accomplishments, only occasionally sharing the less uplifting subjects. In the closing lines of a story such as this, one might assume the denouement brings a child: it doesn’t. Unfortunately, it ends here.
Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science and writer based in Berlin.