Yvonne John interview
In this article we interview Yvonne John, author of Dreaming of a Life Unlived and specialist in the experiences of childless women of colour. Yvonne will be one of our speakers at our There’s More to Life Than Children event on the 27th April and here she explains more about that and the work she is doing in this area.
FF: So, let’s start off with what Fertility Fest is.
YJ: If you look at the website, it is quoted as an international programme of events that brings together leading artists in fertility, professionals, patients and the public to discuss what it means to make, and sometimes not make, babies in the 21st century. And so it goes on to talk about understanding the emotional journey of people who struggle to conceive and improve the level of public conversation, as well as improving fertility education, which I think is so fantastic because it’s brought together people, and its created a forum, where we can openly talk about fertility. There’s a lot around fertility that hasn’t been said. I think there is a big emphasis on becoming a mum, as we know, but what no one talks about is how difficult it is to get pregnant and actually, more often than not, people do struggle to get pregnant.
I think when people do end up with a baby it's like they’ve forgotten those difficulties, and I am really grateful for this platform to recognise the fact that actually it is difficult, and people need to talk about it but also to recognise it doesn't always end in a miracle baby story. And for me Fertility Fest is about giving an equal voice and status to both men and women who are not able to have the traditional families that they dreamed of.
FF: And how did you get involved in Fertility Fest?
YJ: In 2016 Jody [Day] had invited me to Fertility Fest, and I think that was the first one. She was talking at it and I went along and absolutely loved it. I didn’t know anything about it and I thought it was such an amazing event. It was for one day in London and it really, I suppose opened my eyes to the world of fertility and all the things that happen within fertility. I had met Jessica for the first time. Jody had introduced us and Jody had told her about myself and that I was at the beginning of my journey. My book was coming out and I was talking about the difficulties I was experiencing and the fact that I had all these stories from other women that I was starting to present. And she asked me if I’d be interested in taking part in Fertility Fest the following year, and I was like ‘ok’. But then we never spoke after that. And then in early 2018, I did a talk that she saw and then reconnected with me and she asked me to take part in Fertility Fest that year. So I ended up being on the panel discussing, Does Motherhood Make you Happy? and that’s where it all started.
Maria Da Luz Ghoumrassi performs at Fertility Fest 2018
FF: And so what will you be talking about this year?
YJ: So I’ve got two platforms this year. On the 27th April, I’m taking part in Fertility Fight Club. And it’s the There’s More to Life Than Children day. We have ten minutes each to talk about something we feel passionate or angry about in the world of fertility, infertility or reproductive science in modern families. And I will be talking about how culture, race and generational trauma can impact on our ability to talk about our childless circumstance, as well as how white privilege and fragility prevents us from talking. And on the 1st May I’m taking part in the Race, Religion and Reproduction panel and will be talking about the infertility taboos.
FF: Could you tell me a bit more about that? What are the main issues that are experienced by childless women of colour?
YJ: There’s a lot of silencing around women of colour speaking. I was surprised because Jody had asked me last year why women of colour weren’t connecting with her, which I thought was crazy because I’m a woman of colour and have connected with her. So I didn’t see why other black women wouldn’t. And then the more I looked into it, the more I started to see how silenced we are as a race, and it comes from so many different angles. I remember hearing stories of my parents growing up in the Caribbean and what they faced when they came to England and the racism that was around. I started to see how much they clubbed together and had to survive during those times. In that survival it meant that white people were seeing us as different. So we had to show, or they had to show, that they were better than they were being perceived. So within that, the messages that then impacted on their children meant that we had to show ourselves as strong, that we had to show ourselves as better, as different. We couldn’t show any weaknesses. I remember hearing things like ‘don’t bring shame on the family’, ‘don’t talk about your problems outside the house’ even things like ‘you have to be better because you’re a woman and because you’re black, you have to work a lot harder’. So we had to carry this sense of strength. We couldn’t show any vulnerability, we couldn’t show any weakness and I think all of that then starts to impact on how we do talk. So we talk, but we don't show the weakness, we don’t show there’s problems. We have to show that actually we’re really good and better, and we couldn’t show any form of vulnerability.
I also found religion was a way of silencing, so if there's a problem you take it to God and that meant you didn't talk about it, because you didn’t have to. And if you had the faith that God would resolve it and help you through it and make it all better, then you prayed. And the more faith you had, the more you prayed. I found that if you did talk about things and you did show that you were concerned about something, it was almost like you didn’t have enough faith to let God deal with it. So again, it’s another form of silencing because once somebody is going to say ‘hang on, I’m sad about this situation’ people turn around and think you can’t have enough faith if you’re going to sit there in this sadness.
Stereotypes as well play out in this because we are seen as strong, aggressive, and we don't have fertility issues. There’s a lot of things that I’ve read in my research, that black men and women are seen as hyperfertile so why would there be problems. There’s a lot of women that look at brochures, even who have gone to the Gateway Women website, and have just seen white faces. They don’t see people that look like them reflected back, so they are less likely to go and get help because they feel that no one is going to really understand, or black women don’t really have fertility issues because I’m not seeing them in the brochures, or on the noticeboards or on the websites talking about it. So there’s a lot of things that really do impact on our ability to talk.
FF: So what sort of changes are you hoping to see through your work in this area?
YJ: It’s breaking those stereotypes down. I think in the absence of conversations, in the absence of being allowed to talk about it, women are not going to reach out and get help. And it’s both sides because it’s women of colour being able to talk about it more, and as I said, breaking down those stereotypes and creating that platform where they can speak too…it’s almost like the ‘me too’ because the amount of women that have come to me and said you know ‘I’m there too, it’s like you’re telling my story’. And it’s almost like they’re having permission to tell their stories as well, so the more black women they see talking, the more likely they are going to speak even if it’s just to their families. They will own their stories and they will be able to be empowered and speak their truths. And it’s also for white people to hear that actually they need to stop silencing us as well. And also other people, because you know we silence each other. Even black people and people of colour will silence each other because you get the whole dismissive ‘You shouldn’t feel like that’, ‘But you’ve got a good job’ ‘But think about how wonderful life is without children’. It’s about people understanding how these comments are not helpful and actually what we want is for people to hear we’re sad, to hear we’re grieving and to allow that grief to be there and for white people not to place those stereotypes on us. And things like ‘Don’t be oversensitive, oh no it’s not a race thing’, well actually it could be. You’ve just got to allow the conversation, be comfortable enough to hear what we’ve got to say without taking offence by it.
FF: And what do you think has helped you the most in your journey in learning to live with childlessness?
YJ: So firstly it was being able to find help. I mean, Gateway Women has been such a support for me. I was lucky because a friend introduced me to Jody very early on in my grief, and without that I don’t think my sanity would have survived. Being in a place amongst women who understood me, allowed me to grieve, normalised my feelings which really, really helped. And within that, the start of me being able to work through my grief, even work with my grief, I was able to forgive my younger self. So I wrote her a letter forgiving her for her past, and her past decisions and telling her I understood why she made them, because blame was a big part of my grief. Acceptance was a big thing and I don’t think acceptance is about ‘well I don’t have children, it’s ok, I’m moving on’. Acceptance is about: actually I’m here and I’m going to have a fulfilling life. I’ll still be sad, so I accept that I’ll still be sad about it, but I also accept that life will still be good. So being given a voice is such an honour, for people to say that we want to hear your story and we're going to let you talk. And all of those things have really made such a difference to me.
FF: Are there any other ways in which, you've touched on a few things there, any other ways that talking about your own experience has made a difference to you personally and your own life?
YJ: It’s made me a lot stronger. There’s a lot of things that I’ve said already that I’ve experienced, like you know, people want to be dismissive, people put you down, I’ve been called a career woman. And I've known other women to be called selfish, all sorts of things, and for me, I’ve just become stronger in it. Instead of running away and being upset and crying which women will do, I know a lot of women would do that, and I would have done it. But I was able to stand up for myself and start to show people, well actually this is not helpful.
I remember one time I was in a restaurant with my friends and the waiter, he was being very friendly, came and asked, ‘Are you all mothers?’ and I wondered why that mattered. And he said ‘it’s because there’s a film called Baby Boss out (so it was quite a while ago), that this film Baby Boss had come out and if you are a mum you’d appreciate it’. And that really upset me. There’s similar things around that, you know, ‘You won’t understand because you’re not a mum’, ‘You'll never know love until you are mum’ or ‘You’ll never know true love until you’re a mum or until you’ve given birth’ and it's being able to say well hang on a minute, and in a way stand up for yourself and show that person how hurtful or unhelpful those comments are without actually being really angry about it, without walking away and bursting into tears. Just to sit there and calmly say, well actually I find that very offensive, and have an explanation about that. Because there’s an education around it for other people as well. I don’t particularly want to sit there educating everyone I come across but there are times when I feel stronger with the ability to just sit there and say ‘well actually that’s not right and that’s not helpful, and I know women who would be very offended by what you’ve just said.’
FF: And then finally: what are you working on at the moment and what will you be working on next?
YJ: So what I’m working on at the moment is redesigning the Women of Colour Workshops for Gateway Women. Actually it will be separate from Gateway Women now I think. As I said before one of the things that Jody has noticed is that women of colour are not connecting with her. So she was very keen to separate the Women of Colour Workshops from Gateway [Women] so that it is owned by a woman of colour. She asked me to take it on, so I’m researching at the moment why women of colour don’t talk. I’ve been talking to quite a few women, getting things together. I’ve spoken to Jody about it so I’m now looking at how I can reframe that into a workshop that will then better cater for women of colour, and that women of colour would be glad to be a part of as well so that they can have their space and they can own it and they can own their stories.