Adventist Radio Interview

A few months ago Vanesa Pizzuto, presenter and producer at Adventist radio invited me onto her show, On The Go. Vanesa came across me via Sheridan Voysey, who I shared a platform with at Fertility Fests’ Fertility Fight Club at the Barbican back in April. So yesterday I was welcomed at the Radio station in Watford by Vanesa and her team.

It always surprises me how I feel like every interview is my first. This time I was particularly surprised at how emotional I felt during this one. I do, at times, feel a touch of sadness when I tell my story but at this interview I was reminded of how I felt when I first attended a Gateway Women’s workshop back in December 2014. I was also reminded of how I felt when I first faced the possibility that I was grieving the loss of my dream of becoming a mum and I was reminded of how far I have come since 2014. What a journey!!!

It is so great to be invited onto Christian platforms, Premier Christian Radio being my first, where I can still remain true to who I am. One of the difficulties that I experienced in the church environment (that I was in at the time) was the feeling of not being truly accepted and the many messages of ‘not being good enough’ that I felt on a regular basis. Today I was heard, acknowledged, understood and validated all in a place. This is a feeling that I never thought I would have, I never thought that the ‘Christian world’ would not accept my truth.

So today I am truly grateful for the opportunity to be heard on a platform that could have easily said No (to me) and from a woman who know’s how important it is for our stories to be heard so that other women on a journey similar to mine can hear that they are not alone. So I’m sending a BIG FAT THANK YOU to Vanesa for allowing me to share my story and for her world to know my truth xxx

The F Word

Back in October Vanessa Haye, founder of Femelanin, emailed me the following message “I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind since I saw you perform at the fertility fest… I would love you to do the same for a fertility event I am hosting for black women on Friday 1st November. There is a panel of black women also talking about their own experiences within different aspects of fertility is surrogacy , endo, baby loss etc… and I would love for you to touch on childlessness….” Well how could I say No??? It was the first event that Vanessa had organised/ hosted where she wanted to create this space for black women to share their fertility journey’s. As you all know I am exploring/ talking about why black women/ women of colour do not talk about our problems so the opportunity to be part of a forum dedicated to black women was one that I did not want to miss.

Not only did I get to present the piece I had performed for Fertility Fight club back in April during Fertility Fest at the Barbican but I got to be the other black woman in the room and talk from a place of a common experience and understanding. An aspect of sharing our experiences as black women is that we usually find ourselves having to explain, defend or even water down (if we are able to talk at all) who we are so that white people are comfortable around us. I have been very fortunate in the sense that I have been having some really open conversations with white women who are willing to explore them own ‘stuff’ to hear mine but am painfully aware that we are not all this lucky. In fact there are times that I wonder if I am going too far with what I plan to say (in those white forums) so The F Word was a very different experience for me. On this occasion I got to be with women who already knew where I was coming from, our cultural backgrounds forming a common understanding with no apology needed – a place I never imaged I would ever be in.

All I can say is a big thank you to Vanessa for thinking of me and inviting me to be a part of this wonderful event.

Click here to read Vanessa’s feedback

The Storyhouse, Chester Review

On the 14th November Cheshire Live wrote a review of the Stroyhouse Childless event tat took place on Sunday 10th November.

To quote the article…

The event addressed societal expectations, insensitivity, and stereotypes – particularly the narrative that childless individuals are less happy than those with children.”

Hats off to the Storyhouse team and Dr Dawn Llewellyn for their rare combination of vision, efficiency and empathy in creating such an iconic event” [Jody Day].

There were moving real life stories told by a community of women living without children, who talked candidly about the reality of not being a parent.

Childlessness – by circumstance, by choice, and infertility – is still a stigmatised issue, and I think Storyhouse Childless challenged that taboo by opening a space for a really important conversation.” [Dr Dawn Llewellyn].

For me the organisers (in collaboration with the University of Chester) created a space for women like me (childless by circumstance) to share our experiences. For some this was the first time that they spoke in such a public forum for others it was “the start of reducing the loneliness and social isolation for a tribe of people” [Nicola Haigh, Storyhouse] and for me it was a place of acceptance.

When I started my journey in 2014 I could just about tell people that I didn’t have children without wanting to breakdown and cry, let alone tell them why. As the years have passed and as I am healing with my grief I find myself becoming increasingly curious (thanks to Jody Day’s question back in 2018) about my cultural past and the impact that it has had on mine and other women of colour’s ability to talk about our circumstance.

As a result of this curiosity I am incorporating more of these cultural messages, that have been passed down in my genetic memory, into my talks. Something I find scary (as I never know how I am going to be received), enlightening and freeing. It’s almost like those messages do not need to have the power that they have held in the past and I can now have deeper conversations (with white people) about my experience as a black childless woman. Needless to say, my experience at Storyhouse Childless was one of these times where I was heard and accepted. Not only did I have admiration for the women who spoke about their experiences for the first time, but I also had conversations with women that I would not have dreamed possible a few years ago. So thank you Storyhouse (Nicola Haigh) for inviting me to be a part of your day, thank you Dr Dawn for your wonderful introduction and thank you to the audience for allowing me to be, pretty much, the only black woman in the room as well as allowing me to be me.

For those of you who missed it and for the request that I also received on the day here is the talk that I presented… I have yet to upload the recording of my talk from my phone so for now I have placed the transcript below…

Growing up there was always a club that I wanted to be a part of…

  • At school it was the netball, rounders’ or trampolining club
  • At college I wanted to be part of the popular kids club
  • At University it was the Afro-Caribbean society

Looking back I was pretty successful at joining most of the clubs that I wanted to be a part of but there was one club that eluded me. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I wished to join, motherhood was the club that I was never going to be a part of.

It is estimated that 1 in 5 women in the UK between the ages of 45 to 49 are childless by circumstance and for many of us the reality of life without children is one that we never expected to face.

In October 2014 I was diagnosed with Unexplained Infertility and those 2 words changed my life. I was never going to be the same again… Now I am sure that I am not the only person in this room who has experienced a life changing moment and I’m guessing that I am not unique in how that moment affected me. So you won’t be surprised to hear that I was immediately silenced;

  • I was silenced because I had no words to describe the feelings that I didn’t understand
  • I was silenced because I felt shame – the shame of my past decisions flooded my mind
  • I was silenced because I had failed to be a mother,
    • to do what society expected to do,
    • to do what generations of women before me had done.
  • I was silenced because I failed to give my husband the gift of being a father and
  • I had failed to give my parents the gift of being grandparents to my children.

It hurt to be in this place.

It hurt to be around my friends and their young kids, knowing that our relationships would change, feeling like their lives were moving on and mine was standing still.

It hurt to be on a train watching young families meeting up for a day out. It hurt to know that I would never have what they had.

It hurt to know that I would never see my baby’s first smile, hear my baby say mummy, see my baby take his or her first steps.

It hurt to know that I would never have a ‘first’ anything with my child.

It hurt to know that I would never hold that special place in my husbands’ heart and

It hurt to know that my parents would never have funny or embarrassing stories about my kids.

Being on this road is a reality that I found hard to face. For me it was the start of the painful realization that I wanted something that I was never going to have. Until that moment I had experienced loss and grief but this was different, it was unexpected, it was unexplained, it felt underserved and yet it was not allowed. Let’s face it how can you grieve over the loss of something that you’ve never had?

Now we all carry baggage, it might be the size of a handbag or in some cases the trunk that we are constantly dragging around. For me it was time to put down my bag, open it up and start to unpack the stuff that I believed others would judge me for It was the stuff that impacted on my ability to grieve and be open about what I was going through. You see in my head everyone would tell me that I didn’t deserve to be a mother because I had 2 terminations in my 20s.

In her book ‘Living the Life Unexpected’ Jody Day so beautifully describes the difficulty in grieving that women face post an abortion where she mentions ‘For those of us who have gone on to remain childless after having had an abortion, there can be a dark shadow that hangs over us which says that somehow we’re ‘not allowed’ to grieve our childlessness because we had an opportunity to be a mother and we didn’t go through with it. It’s another way of adding to the experience of disenfranchised grief, and a secret that even childless women rarely share with each other.’

Since joining Gateway Women in 2014 I have been given the opportunity to be around some amazing women, women whose stories’ around their own struggles with not becoming a mother inspired me to write a letter forgiving my younger self. I told her that I understood why she had made the decision to terminate her pregnancies, that she loved her unborn children and that she had made those decisions because she wanted more for them. This enabled me to own my story. Gateway helped me to normalise my thoughts and feelings; it gave me my sanity back. I also realised how much women without children were and are being silenced by the stereotyping and the unhelpful shaming, reductive comments such as “oh you’re one of those career women”, that we hear on a daily basis. Comments that can be unhelpful and generally hurtful. It’s these comments that go a long way to keeping women like me silent and struggling to find the help and support that we so desperately needed. When we hear these words we feel dismissed. Our pain isn’t validated because we could have done something about our situation. The more I realized that we weren’t being heard the more I wanted to give us our voices back. This pain and frustration inspired me to write my book Dreaming of a Life Unlived.

Dreaming of a Life Unlived is my baby conceived amongst my sister participants of the Gateway Women plan B program. We came together to learn how to grieve and to find ways of being creative in our lives without children. The idea for my book was natured and fed with compassion and understanding, and gave birth to a collection of stories representing women who are standing strong on our journeys towards finding our own Plan B’s or for some, their alternative Plan A’s. It can be difficult opening up to others esp your family and friends. I know that they don’t want to see us hurt but sometimes there is a judgment in their responses. It can be difficult to be at family gatherings watching from the sidelines feeling inadequate or like you don’t have a place there anymore. I also created my book so that people who are not in this place can understand the difficult journey that women who are without children, who are childless not by choice, face. I wanted to reach out to other women and couples who need that support and hope for their futures. Dreaming of a Life Unlived is also for their friends and families, the people in their lives who give the essential compassion and support to find a new and satisfying future when life is so muddled and painful. The words ‘I now know how to help my friend’ from a woman who had read my book will stay with me forever

Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

I started to feel a sense of pride when I shared my story. Ok so the first time I publically did this I thought that I was going to die. But once I had done it I couldn’t believe how free I felt. I know that not everyone will speak out in the same way that I have but being vulnerable and owing your story with family or friends can be such an empowering experience.

Then in 2018 Jody Day asked me why black women were not connecting with her regarding being childless. This question took me by surprise because up until that point I did not consider that my race or culture had anything to do with being childless or my ability to grieve the loss of motherhood. Thinking about Jody’s question and talking to my friends I started to reflect on my experiences as a black woman. I realized how much of a proud family / a proud race I come from. The stories of how my parents grew up in the Caribbean and their experiences of ‘No blacks, No Irish and No dogs’ when they came to England, went a long way to framing how my parent’s generation functioned during that time as well as the messages that they passed on to their children. I see how much my race has and continues’ to silence us, let alone how society has silenced us. Statements such as “what will the neighbors think?” and “don’t bring shame on the family” told me, as a child, that I had to carry myself differently from my white friends and show that I was better than they thought I was. I was told as a young woman that I had to work twice as hard as my white friends not only because I am a woman but because I am black. I somehow felt that I couldn’t show any form of weakness, I had to be strong, I had to be better. So as a race we put on our masks and live our lives keeping our problems in our suitcase.

In my guest blog for Gateway Women titled ‘The black woman in the room’ I reflected on the situations where I felt like the angry black woman in the room. The times where I felt that being the black woman amongst my peers made me automatically stand out as well as feeling different and being treated differently. In my experience I have found that as a vocal and opinioned black woman I would be perceived as ‘aggressive’ or ‘angry’ where my white counterparts were seen as passionate. I also learnt from my friends that they had experiences where white people would only talk to them when they felt safe to do so or if they fit into their cultural parameter. These experiences are so subtle and very difficult to talk about and be heard or accepted. But what does this have to do with infertility???

The Womens Health Mag and Oprah Mag surveyed more than 1,000 women and reported that [‘Infertility affects at least 12 percent of all women up to the age of 44. Yet only about 8 percent of Black women between the ages of 25 and 44 seek medical help to get pregnant, compared to 15 percent of white women 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 friends, family, a partner, their doctor, or even a support group. There are also specific factors that affect Black women disproportionately, Uterine fibroids and obesity, for example, are conditions that can negatively impact fertility and Black women suffer from higher rates of both…’]

The stereotype that Black women don’t have fertility issues is real. Fertility in black women is rarely discussed or acknowledged as a problem. Breeding myths from slavery perpetuate the stereotype that black women do not have problems conceiving. I grew up hearing that black people are baby-making machines and that we ‘bred like rabbits’. However there are studies that suggest black women may be almost twice as likely to experience infertility as white women. So why are we not getting the acknowledgment that there is a problem why are we not getting the help that we need?

As well as stereotyping there are other experiences that black women face the further perpetrates our inability to speak up. These include and are not exclusive to;

  • Colourism
  • Cultural weathering
  • Objectification and
  • Post traumatic slave syndrome

In my research I read that dark skinned women are less likely to be married than lighter skinned women and the discrimination starts young. If you are a dark skinned girl you are three times more likely to be suspended from school than your light skinned peers. Lighter skinned black people are perceived to be more intelligent educated black people. Darker skinned black women report higher experiences of microaggression, which affects their mental health and wellbeing. Darker skinned black women report more physiological deterioration and self-report worse health than lighter skinned women.

Arline Geronimus was a student at Princeton University in the late 1970s (and is now a public health researcher and professor at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Centre). She noticed that the teenagers were suffering from chronic health conditions that their whiter, better-off Princeton classmates rarely experienced. Arline began to wonder how much of the health problems that the young mothers in Trenton experienced were caused by the stresses of their environment? Arline wrote; “..what I’ve seen over the years of my research and lifetime is that the stressors that impact people of colour are chronic and repeated through their whole life course… and that increases a general health vulnerability which is what cultural weathering is.” Arline used the metaphor of ‘playing the game Jenga’ They pull out one piece at a time, and another piece and another piece, until you sort of collapse. You start losing pieces of your health and well-being, but you still try to go on as long as you can.  Arline mentioned there’s a point where enough pieces have been pulled out of you, that you can no longer withstand, and you collapse.

Tom Jacobs is a senior staff writer at Pacific Standard wrote an article at the time when Serena Williams was penalized at the U.S. Open for allegedly cheating and then expressing anger over the accusation. New research doesn’t address that issue directly, but it suggests black women who suspect they are looked at differently than their white counterparts may be right. It reports that, at least under certain circumstances, black women are more likely than whites to be both sexually objectified and perceived as less than fully human. These unconscious biases on the part of whites can, of course, guide their beliefs and behaviors.

“The dehumanization and objectification of black women still persists today, albeit more subtly [than in past decades],” writes a research team led by psychologist Joel Anderson of Australian Catholic University.” Another study demonstrated that “Black women were more strongly implicitly associated with animal and object concepts, which indicates their greater dehumanization compared to white women.” These are just studies and the results have been questioned however it does raise some thought provoking points…

Dr. DeGruy’s Post traumatic slave syndrome theory explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviours in African American communities throughout the United States and the Diaspora. It is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites.  This was then followed by institutionalised racism that continues to perpetuate injury. When I spoke to a councilor friend about this she mentioned that during slavery no one cared about their suffering, slaves did not have a space to talk about their feelings, to raise their concerns or to be heard. There was no support system to help them through at that time. Post slavery there was no support, no therapy to help them to heal from this traumatic experience so the messages from slavery (of “don’t talk about your problems outside of the family”, “don’t show any form of weakness” “don’t bring shame on the family”) got passed down from generation to generation. These messages remain in our genetic memory.

In her article for the Leadership Academy Morvia Gorden mentions that “her belief is that black people have inherited internalised oppression from 400 years of slavery as we’ve been taught that white people are better than us

Even though no living white person is responsible for slavery, BAME people still bears the scars if it…”

I have used these examples to show how much black women, black people battle for an equal place and equal voice and how much we can be silenced in our everyday lives.

Reflecting on my experiences, my friend’s experiences and the stories that I have read about I wonder how safe black women feel to talk to a white people about their problems, no matter how small that problem is. Black women/ women of color have experience’s where we are told that;

  • it is all in our heads
  • we’re being over-sensitive
  • I’m sure they didn’t mean it in that way
  • their not racist, they have black friends

We have experiences where we have been dismissed and treated differently from our white co-workers. In her book ‘White Spaces Missing Faces’ Catrice Jackson wrote …”a large number of women of colour in predominately white spaces are surviving at best…”

“WoC know it’s not safe to share her true experiences in white spaces and thus learns how to survive the environment while sacrificing her true value…” “black women, in particular, have been forced to minimize their existence, silence their voice, watch their tone all of it done for survival. Because of the stereotypes, discrimination and racism that black women face, many of them consciously and unconsciously sacrifice themselves to be accepted. They shift”.

If childless women have no currency in todays society, then what about the black childless woman?

It’s important that women of colour are allowed to speak their truth, to own and tell their stories in a safe and open environment without the dismissive stance that ‘we have to prove it’ or that we are playing the ‘race’ card. If women of colour can’t talk about our normal everyday stuff then how are we going to talk about the sensitive/ private experience that is our infertility?

Jody Day mentioned in her TED talk that – “Pronatalism makes us believe that the only way to be an adult is to be a parent, which then makes it hard for us to claim our identity”. I remember a friend telling me that a relative joyously told her that ‘you’re a woman now’ when she announced her pregnancy in her 30s. I wonder how she is now seen as she remains childless. To further quote Jody “change happens one story at a time, one women at a time. This starts a chain reaction that breaks the shame and taboos”. We feel less alone, less silenced and less shamed. Owning our stories will bring the richness back into our lives and allow us to reclaim our existence.

I have come so far since 2014 but it has not been an easy journey. I have learnt to be careful about my battles but at the risk of being labelled the ‘angry black woman’ my fertility journey is one that I have had to fight. My honesty and vulnerability has opened many doors for me to share my experience. But I would not have had the strength and courage to do this without the space to be heard and understood. I have heard from WoC who have contacted me telling me that they have turned away from the GW on-line forum or have walked away from an event because they didn’t see other women that looked like them. These women say that they will only talk to me because there are things that they need to say and know that I will understand. It has been such a privilege to be accepted in this way and to create a space where not only mine but for other stories from WoC to be heard. It’s important for us as black women to have the courage to stand up and be heard and to wear our vulnerable with pride. Without a voice we remain powerless to be on control of our own destines.

Michelle Obama said “If there’s one thing in life it’s the power of using the voice” “a story is what we have and will always have, it is something for us to own.”

But it not just about being able to share our stories, it’s also about who is listening to them. To quote Psychology Today  “A witness assures us that our stories are heard, contained, and transcend time. Bearing witness is a valuable way to process an experience, to obtain empathy and support, to lighten our emotional load via sharing it with the witness, and to obtain catharsis. ” Without this how can we be healed?

Brene Brown talks about the courage to be vulnerable and in her research found that vulnerability makes you beautiful and is the birthplace of joy, belonging and creativity. Brene said, “When we deny the story it defines us. When we own the story we can write a brave new ending.

So I will end by saying thank you for bearing witness to my truth and allowing me to write my brave new ending.

Storyhouse CHILDLESS on Sun 10 November

Jody Day and I will be at the Storyhouse in Chester on Sunday 10 November. Jody is the keynote speaker at the opening and will also chairing the wrap-up panel at the end where I will speak about my experience of involuntary childlessness for black women and women of colour.

Jody

There’s an amazing lineup of talks, workshops, performances and activities to choose from at Storyhouse CHILDLESS, including:

  • Real-Life Stories from members of the Chester Gateway Women Meetup Group who’ll be on stage to talk candidly about their experiences;
  • Robin Hadley, the UK’s most well-known (and loved!) academic and speaker on male involuntary childlessness on ‘The Rise of the new MAWFIA: Men Ageing Without Family – Invisible and Alienated’;
  • Barbara Dillon on the grief of involuntary childlessness and how coming out of the closet (this year) as a member of the LGBT community is woven into her story;
  • Shona Hookham on being diagnosed with POI (Premature Ovarian Insufficiency) and facing both the menopause and childlessness in her early twenties;
  • Dave & Lizzie Lowrie’s interactive seminar on the principals of great storytelling and how to apply them to our lives to help us live a better, more meaningful childless story;
  • Chiara Berardelli’s ‘Seamonster’ – fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe, a one-woman music and spoken word performance by the Italian/Scottish singer-songwriter – based on her album ‘Seamonster’ which charts her experience of coming to terms with being childless by circumstance.

 Read more about the programme and book here.

I look forward to seeing you there

Yx

Premier Christian Radio

On Thursday I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Maria Rodrigues on her Woman to Woman radio show at Premier Christian radio. I am always amazed at how nervous I feel before an interview, as if it’s my first and then I start to speak….

Maria was great, really warm and friendly and, as I found out during the morning, that she is childless too so it felt extra special to have been invited to share my story knowing that the woman on the other side of the microphone had a story of her own that she could have easily shared in place of mine.

My friends told me afterward that no matter how many times that they hear my story it touches them as deeply as the first time they heard it. So here is the link for those of you who missed it and for those who’d like to hear it again…. (click on the picture below)

We are born into stories…

I went to a lecture in London earlier this year that was presented by Professor Helen Milroy. Helen is a descendant of the Palyku people and talks about using art as a form of healing and about her research/ work around Aboriginal mental health that includes recovery from trauma and grief. 

Reflecting on her experience, and the experiences of the other Aboriginal stories that she told, Helen mentioned that “unless you hear the stories and give some sense of validation the womb will remain open…” “…stories need to be heard in order for us to be understood…” Helen talked about the need to understand the cultural context around peoples stories and the need to strengthen cultural knowledge especially when children have lost their elders, their language, their generational stories and their culture.

Helen presented her observations from the experience of the Aboriginal community who have the tragic history of child kidnapping and ethnic cleansing (much like our history of slavery) to better the Australian race. As Helen spoke I found myself identifying with the generational trauma she was talking about. I felt like she was describing my experience as a black woman in the UK. My experiences of being seen as the angry black women , being dismissed and over looked because of my gender and/ or skin colour or being told that I’m being over sensitive (to what I perceived as a racist situation). Now I realise that not every white person is being intentionally racist towards me (or other black people) but when I think about the genetic memory that black people carry (as a result of slavery) I wonder what genetic memories white people carry that then impacts on their unconscious treatment of us being different to them???

I spoke to a white women recently (not that this is unusual for me) who relayed her experience of a black women (as she described it ) ‘playing the race card’ – I’ve been accused of playing the race card in my past – lets face it, what black person hasn’t? I have a tendency to reflect on conversations days after I’ve had them, and when I thought about this conversation I realized how dismissive the term ‘playing the race card’ can be. The term (which may actually be over used) can stop us from fully exploring the back-story to the situation where that person felt that ‘it’ was racist. If you think about Helen Milroy’s comment “…stories need to be heard in order for us to be understood…” especially regarding their cultural context you can see how we can miss the truth to someone’s situation especially when you take into account that transference (a situation where the feelings, desires, and expectations of one person are redirected and applied to another person) plays a part in our everyday interactions.

I understand how unjust it can feel to be accused of something that, for you, is just not true but unless we take the time and care to deal with our feelings (in our own time) we will not be able to listen to the story in front of us, we will not be able to validate that person’s experience. Without asking, how can you understand the cultural context around that persons experience that reminds them of their past in that present moment. Ok yes I realise that it also relies on emotional intelligence – from the person asking the question and the person providing the answers without blame or being in victim mode – but I hope that you get where I am coming from here???

People need to be able to tell their stories so that they can move from surviving to thriving” and this means making a long-term investment and committing to listening and understanding. As Helen Milroy said in her talk “…bearing witness to someone’s pain is part of their healing too”.