The Significance of Michelle Obama’s Fertility Story

The cultural stereotype of an IVF patient is an older white woman, even though black women are almost twice as likely to struggle with infertility.

Michelle Obama watches as her daughter Sasha, 7, blows a kiss at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Malia Obama, 10, looks on. (Charlie Neibergall / AP)

“Did you hear about Michelle Obama?” my mother asked me last Friday morning. “Her girls were born through in vitro.” Despite the awkwardness of her phrasing—born through in vitro—I knew my mother was pleased by this connection to the former first lady. Two of her own favorite people, my daughters, were also born through IVF.

I hadn’t heard, and was as surprised as many others were by the news revealed by the prepublication discussion of Becoming, Obama’s new memoir. In a televised interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, Obama shared the story of the miscarriage, more than 20 years ago, that led her to seek treatment for infertility.

“I felt like I failed,” Obama told Roberts. “Because I didn’t know how common miscarriages were. Because we don’t talk about them.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Ten to 25 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, after all, and in the 40 years since the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first “test-tube baby,” more than 8 million children have been born via in vitro fertilization. Plus, it was really none of our business: The Obamas had every right to protect their daughters and family life from additional scrutiny.

But it’s interesting to consider why Michelle Obama kept her miscarriage and fertility treatment private for so long, and what it means for her to reveal it now.

“Imagine all the pressure of being in that position, as the first African American first lady,” says my colleague Ronisha Browdy, an English professor at North Carolina State University. Browdy studies black women’s rhetorical strategies and has written about Obama’s messaging as first lady. “Now she can tell her story independently of her husband and without the additional risk of her story affecting, or being affected by, his administration.”

When the Obama family became the first family, Sasha and Malia were 7 and 10, their parents nearly a decade past the fertility struggles the first lady writes about in her memoir. There were new challenges, especially for Michelle, who entered the White House doubly—or even triply—constrained: as a woman, an African American, and a professional. Browdy argues that as first lady, Obama focused on doing ordinary things that in fact had great significance, such as recycling her outfits, growing vegetables on the White House grounds, and encouraging children to exercise and eat healthfully. Her self-appointed role as “mom in chief” set an example for American parents, and was particularly significant for other black women.

“There’s a historical system that has been used to deny black women the status of true womanhood,” Browdy told me. “Mothering is also attached to black women in stereotypical ways, whether they have children or not—they were situated within slavery as ‘mammy’ and sexually exploited as breeders.” A black woman in the White House, shaping parenting norms in the U.S., was a powerful counternarrative to these long-held racist ideas.

And now, out of the White House, Obama is shaping norms again, for those trying to become parents. In Becoming, she writes about the specific tasks and sacrifices of fertility treatment, which fell almost all to her: injecting the hormones, going in for daily ultrasounds and blood draws, canceling work meetings to make room for clinic appointments. “Did I want it?” she writes. “Yes, I wanted it so much.” Like so many of Obama’s rhetorical choices, the image she presents of herself, determined to become pregnant even as she is aware of an inescapable gender imbalance in the labor it takes to do so, does something more than tell us about her own particular circumstances: It shows that, as Browdy puts it, “the work of motherhood begins way before there are children.”

In 2008, the year the Obamas moved to Washington, watching the adorable Obama girls was a national obsession. I can remember Barack Obama’s tight grip on mischievous-eyed Sasha at campaign events; postelection, there were unfounded but exciting rumors that the Obamas were considering sending Malia to the D.C. charter middle school where I worked. (Our principal fantasized about calling her parents in for a conference.)

That year, my own fertility problems were becoming apparent. I was 32, the same age that Obama began trying, and failing, to conceive. Like her, I felt lost and alone—more so as months, then years, passed without a baby. I thought I was too young to have fertility problems—wasn’t IVF something undertaken by women in their late 30s? In their early 40s?

It wasn’t until I began researching a book about fertility and assisted reproduction that I learned the truth: Infertility is not only common, affecting one in eight American couples, but also often looks different from the narratives offered by media and popular culture.

Film and television portrayals of infertile women, like Tamara Jenkins’s widely praised Private Life, again and again show women from the same demographic: older, heterosexual, upper-middle-class, educated, white. This image is so common that many doctors have internalized the stereotype, assuming that white women are most at risk for infertility. This misperception can affect research, referrals to reproductive endocrinologists, and outreach to potential patients. The law professor Jim Hawkins’s 2012 study of fertility-clinic advertising found that 97 percent of clinics included photographs of white babies on their website, and 62 percent featured only photographs of white babies. Hawkins speculated that this skewed advertising risked driving away minority patients, and warned of the possibility that treatments themselves “entrench racist norms.”

In fact, infertility is not only just as likely to be a male problem as a female one; it is more likely to affect minorities, the poor, and those with less formal education. African American women, who have higher rates of uterine fibroids, are almost twice as likely as white women to suffer from infertility. A recent study concludes that African American women wait twice as long as white women to see a doctor for infertility, and are less likely to seek treatment. This makes the news of Michelle Obama’s miscarriage and IVF treatment especially significant.

For Regina Townsend, the founder of the Broken Brown Egg, a blog devoted to infertility awareness for women of color, Obama’s disclosure last week was “such a good moment. Liberating.” Townsend began her blog not only to document her own experience with infertility—like Obama, she became a mom through IVF—but also because she knew many other African American women were struggling in silence. “I was seeing all these stereotypes of super-fertility and oversexualization in the black community, when I was also hearing personal stories of women and families who were struggling to become parents and who felt like they were anomalies,” Townsend told me. “There needed to be some balance.”

“For [Obama] to say, ‘No, this is a thing, and it’s a thing that affected me, and I’m not going to be silent about it’ is not only going to give some women the permission to speak up that they feel they need, but it will also help to normalize the conversation,” Townsend said.

“So many black women live in silence and in shame,” agreed Stacey Edwards-Dunn, a reverend and the founder of Fertility for Colored Girls, a national organization that provides education, support groups, and financial support to African American women facing infertility. Edwards-Dunn began FFCG after spending years as a health educator in Chicago—and seven years (and seven IVF cycles) trying to get pregnant. She saw women battling multiple obstacles—financial, cultural, biological—and wanted to create what she calls a “safe space” for women who were often left out of the fertility conversation. Obama’s announcement “gives black women an opportunity to realize, No. 1, I’m not alone, and No. 2, she dealt with infertility, and that gives me hope.”

In Becoming, Obama writes of the surprising realization that “fertility is not something you conquer,” and that “two committed go-getters with a deep love and a robust work ethic can’t will themselves into being pregnant.” She describes Barack “flooring it up the interstate after a late vote” in the Illinois legislature, just so they didn’t miss her ovulation window. When Michelle finally became pregnant, it ended in miscarriage, an experience she describes as “lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level.”

What helped her cope with the experience was talking about it with women friends, who in turn shared their own miscarriage stories. Talking with other women helped her see that miscarriage was common, not a personal failure or even a tragedy. It was, in her words, “a normal biological hiccup, a fertilized egg that, for what was probably a very good reason, had needed to bail out.”

“It didn’t take away the pain,” she writes, “but in unburying their own struggles, they steadied me during mine.” One of these friends suggested a fertility doctor, and the Obamas began the path that led them to IVF, and their daughters.

By unburying her own struggle, it seems Obama is trying to return the favor, to steady those grappling with their own fertility challenges.