In a way, their tribe got its start in Jamaica. Jillian Baker and Sinora Allwood, longtime friends, traveled there, to Montego Bay, for a vacation to celebrate Baker’s 40th birthday.
“We were just catching up on life,” Allwood explained. “And we discovered that Jill and I had both suffered from infertility. We were like, ‘Wow, how didn’t we know this about each other? We could have been each other’s support system.’”
Back in ’91, Baker and Allwood became friends when they were in eighth and seventh grade respectively, when they carpooled together from their homes in the Bronx to private school in the suburbs.
The friends stayed close over the years. Allwood studied to become a registered nurse and health coach, and Baker, now an associate professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, earned a doctorate in public health from Drexel.
They’d been quiet, as many parents are, about their struggles getting pregnant before they had their children. Both women were well aware of the stark disparities that Black parents experience. Black women are more likely to experience infertility, more likely to have pregnancy-related complications, and more likely to die pregnancy-related deaths, while a racist notion persists, contrary to evidence, that Black women are more fertile. In Philadelphia, non-Hispanic Black women account for 43% of births, but 73% of pregnancy-related deaths, according to city data.
So when they returned stateside, Allwood to Lawrenceville, Ga., and Baker to Cherry Hill, they continued their conversation on Black maternal health. They began planning a podcast series. The series, A Tribe Called Fertility, launched in September 2020 and completed its 16-episode first season last week. The second season will premiere in September.
The podcasters spoke to The Inquirer about the series and the tribe they’ve been gathering — a community of Black parents facing these issues. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
Not everyone knows what the experience of infertility is like. And not everyone knows what it’s like for Black women. Could you talk about what people just never seem to get about that experience?
Allwood: I think people don’t get that the couple is experiencing a pain. It’s pain. We’re scared. We’re worried. We’re anxious. And people need to be more sensitive.
When I started to even speak about it to my mom and my aunties, they were like, ‘Oh, my God, please! Infertile? What? You can have a baby.’ Like, just so dismissive. And then, ‘You better get on your knees and pray.’ And I’m like, ‘I am praying! I’m going to church every Sunday! I’m on the choir! I’m in the ministry.’ Like, I was doing everything that I possibly could to align myself so that we can have a baby. It just makes it seem like there’s something you’re not doing.
Baker: I’m a community health researcher by training. The reality is — and when we tell people this in a presentation, they’re like, “Huh, what?” — but the truth of the matter is that Black women are twice as likely as white women to suffer from infertility.
Black women are viewed as hypersexual, we’re viewed as hyper-fertile. And so when you have conversations with people about your inability to get pregnant, people look at you like you’re an alien, like ‘How can that possibly be?’
And then Black men, they’re supposed to be hyper-masculine. So you have heterosexual, Black married couples who are like, ‘Hey, we’re having a problem having one baby.’ And having conversations with the larger community who don’t have that experience — it can really isolate you.
Talking to people who have had different journeys — and having different journeys yourselves — what has the podcast taught you about infertility?
Allwood: It has many faces. There’s a spectrum. And that there are many contributing factors to infertility. So, like, the breast cancer survivor [on the podcast] whose diagnosis rendered her infertile.
There’s also a community of Black fathers who are raising children without mothers, because of having lost them to Black maternal mortality.
Baker: It really should be a national emergency that Black women are dying to this end, post-childbirth.
The more we talk to the experts in the field like Dr. Joia Crear Perry, there are common themes in our stories and the stories of our guests [of] discriminatory experiences with the health-care system. I’m pretty sure with every guest that we’ve talked to so far, everyone has had some triggering event regarding racial discrimination or cultural incompetence by a health-care provider.
So many of the stories that you two have heard are so distressing. What are the things that have given you optimism about where Black maternal health is heading?
Allwood: I don’t know how we forgot to mention it, but we have a psychotherapist.
Baker: Yes! Dr. Angela Clack.
Allwood: She lends herself to the show, and our guests, but she also does it for us as well.
We’ve actually set apart some time to do a retreat … As we talk about the problems, we also find the solutions. Now, I’m not just left with ‘OK, this happened to me, but now what.’ Now, [as we grow], we’re going to be teaching medical students. The reach is going to increase. And we’re going to be able to actually do something about these issues.
Baker: We’re just trying to provide support, because we didn’t have that.
But I think the culture slowly is kind of catching on. I don’t know if you watched the new season of Master of None, but Lena Waithe’s character and her wife went through infertility. We just watched Kevin Hart’s new movie Fatherhood, and then his wife [died]. And we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so authentic.’ Now you’re seeing that the stories are coming more into the mainstream.
This is really happening across all types of Black families, heterosexual, same-sex couples are all struggling regardless of income, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of education, it doesn’t matter. We’re all struggling with not knowing if we’re going to make it home after we deliver our babies. There are Black women now who are scared to get pregnant. We have to be there to support them.