Conversation – Susy & Gaby
G: Hi, my name is Gabriela Valle, I’m forty-seven, I have to think about that one. Today’s date is October 24, 2015, we’re in Los Angeles, CA. Today I’m interviewing my friend and work colleague, Susy Chavez.
S: My name is Susy Chavez Herrera. I am thirty-nine, but about to be forty, so I’m at the last few days of thirty-nine. Today is October 24, 2015, we’re at the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice office in Little Tokyo in L.A. I will be talking with Gabriela Valle, who is a friend and a co-worker.
G: Thank you, Susy. Susy and I work together at California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and what that, reproductive justice, means is that we take a holistic approach to women’s health and well-being, and this includes thinking about her as a whole person. That means your immigration story, your immigration status, where you live, if you have enough money to take care of your kids, if you have kids, if you didn’t have kids, if you’re single, if you’re in partnership, your sexuality, your orientation. All of that is part of your whole life and when we look at the issues that we face within our work, we consider all of that as part of our RJ story. So today, Susy and I decided to be courageous and talk about an issue that doesn’t get talked about as much in Latina communities, probably because we face certain types of stereotypes, like Latinas have a lot of kids, you all have kids really young, and we claim that with pride. I like to say that young families are part of the fabric of Latina/o communities and I think that’s a good thing, but that’s not true for everyone. Some of us wait and go to college and travel and do other things, and try to become moms when we’re a little bit older. So today Susy and I want to take on this issue, which doesn’t get talked about as often, infertility, or just struggling to form family. And so with that, Susy, I wanted to start off and ask you, before you were married, you’re married now, but before that, what were your ideas about forming a family? What picture did you grow up with?
S: So I think…you know, I grew up in a family…I’m the oldest of five, so I kind of felt that I had the last few children. They were much younger than I was, they were thirteen and fourteen years younger than me, so when people would see us together, people would assume that they were my children. I kind of grew up feeling like I had already been a parent at a very young age, even though they were not my children, so when I thought about having a family, I didn’t really want to have any children anytime soon. I kind of didn’t really think about whether I wanted to have children or not, I just kind of felt that I had already had children, so I didn’t really think about it. Maybe if it came to my mind, it was really, kind of like the TV stereotype of a family, you know? Two parents, two children, the house, the car, the jobs…the dog. Yeah, that’s what I would say that I thought.
G: Would you say that you were in your twenties when you weren’t thinking about kids?
S: Yeah, I mean, I really…yeah, I was in my twenties. I had been very focused since I was very young on going to school, on getting an education, and my parents are…my dad’s an immigrant. My mom’s technically not an immigrant, but she’s an immigrant in a way because she grew up on the other side of the border. She was born in the U.S. but grew up on the other side of the border. So her mentality is very much like being an immigrant, and she actually didn’t learn to speak English until she was in high school. So I really grew up in an immigrant family. I don’t know how this happened, but my earliest memories…I was going to go to school, I was going to go to school, that was it. So by the time I was in my twenties and I got out of school with my bachelor’s, I still felt like I needed to do stuff, I felt like I needed to do so many things. I wanted to travel, I wanted to see the world. I wanted to do that, so children were not something I really thought about, although, at the same time, I had this pressure from my family, not necessarily to have children, but to get married. So I definitely felt a lot of pressure to sort of get married and I guess in that same vein you have you get married and then you have children.
G: Did you think in the back of your mind, “Oh, I can just have kids later?”
S: Yeah, I think that I always thought that I wanted children, but I just didn’t know when the right time would be. Being unable to meet up to those social standards of having a family, having a house, having a car, having enough money in your bank account to actually be able to support children…that hasn’t even happened to this day!
G: And you have a degree!
S: And I have a degree! So at this point…I very much drank the Kool-Aid about having to have an education, having to have a stable job, having a house, having a car, having the dog, having the husband, having the bank account. As time kept going on and none of that was really happening, even though I never thought I would not having children, I am now in a situation where I’m going to be forty and not have children. I never thought it was going to get to that point. And I still don’t have what you’re supposed to have to have children.
S: Yeah, so can we talk about what does it look like to hit your mid to late thirties and you decide, “Ok, I want to be a mom, I want to try this.” Like you said, I think a lot of us drink a lot of different kinds of Kool-Aid. One form of that is that somehow as Latinas, we’re automatically fertile, we grew up with these jokes…so and so shouldn’t even look at you because you’ll get pregnant. And I’m saying this because this stereotype of Latinas doesn’t always come from outside, it comes from within our own families, our own ideas about ourselves and each other. So let’s go there…what does it look like then when we’re in a situation…the reason we’re doing this interview together is because this is something we have in common in terms of the struggle. So what does it look like then, when you’re Latina, you didn’t get pregnant younger, you’re trying to now in your mid to late thirties, but it’s not happening?
G: I don’t think I really thought…I didn’t think I would be in this situation, but I also know the story from my own family. My mother, for example, had a very hard time getting pregnant, so I did have that in my mind. I did know that she didn’t get pregnant until she was twenty-seven. For the time, she was considered an older, old mom. She had her first child when she was twenty-seven. She had been married for four years and had struggled a lot with fertility. It was a real struggle for her, she really wanted to have children and she had struggled a lot, so I knew that story. But then…she struggled…but she ended up having five children. So she had me when she was twenty-seven, then four years later when she was thirty-one…so for the time, she was really considered an old mom. So then she had my brother at thirty-one and by the time the last ones came, she was in her forties, right, when she had the last two. So I knew it wouldn’t be easy hearing her stories about having children and how much she wanted children. But I also never thought it was going to be…that we were going to get to this point. You’re thinking the clock is ticking and when is this going to happen and if it doesn’t happen, are you going to be okay, you know? And I’ve gone through different periods of that. At one point I was really, really stubborn about it…like, okay I really want to get pregnant and right now I feel like I’m in another place. I’m really positive about possibility having a child, having that opportunity, but I’m also not closed to other possibilities. Does that answer your question a little bit?
G: Yeah, I also think along this journey of dealing with infertility as we get older, I feel that there’s stuff people don’t tell us. So in your case, your mom told you a lot, that’s more than some of us got. I think when I look out into the world, the face of infertility is white women and if we tell the truth, it’s a problem that faces all women, but the face of it certainly is often white women and the reality is that it’s usually upper or middle class white women and it was because they were struggling with infertility that the infertility industry became an industry. In other words, it was a group of women who had money, or insurance, or both, to be able to fight for particular needs. But when I look at that picture still today in 2015, there are issues like in vitro fertilization and things like that, and I look around and have this conversation with my friends in my thirties and forties, going “Oh, we didn’t have a kid sooner, now that we’re trying and having a hard time, Latinas largely face fibroids. This is something that I’ve dealt with for a long time, which you go to the doctor and they tell you, “Well, it’s not cancer,” and you’re like that’s great, I don’t want cancer, that’s great, but it can and often does disrupt the ability to get pregnant. And these are different issues that we deal with. I didn’t know anything about fibroids until I got really sick and I was talking to a group of friends and they were African American. I always tell my story…part of my story is that I had a community diagnosis, I had Black women telling me, “Oh, all that severe bleeding you’re having and the pain and the cramping…that sounds like fibroids.” I believe them because they described to a T what was happening to me. Maybe a week or so later I’m at the doctor and told that I have fibroids, but really, the community had already diagnosed me. I paid attention to that because here I am, somebody who does work in women’s health and reproductive issues and sexuality for a really long time. I thought I knew a few things! I didn’t know anything about fibroids and how it can impact, first of all, your health period, but also fertility issues. And when we would have these discussions with my friends, just the thought of something like in vitro, is something that is not even a thought if you don’t have insurance, if you don’t have $15,000 a pop, right? So what does it look like in our case if we’re dealing with these issues….
S: …when it looks like you can’t afford it. It looks like…once again, if you back to this ideal that when you have children you’re supposed to have a house, a car, a bank account. And if you don’t have any of that, how are you supposed to even…you can’t afford even going to get diagnosed for something because it’s not covered by insurance, you know, it’s not. For myself, it’s been super interesting because I have other friends in the same situation, but they’re not necessarily here in the U.S. I have a couple of friends in Mexico who have had the same…we’re all sort of in the same boat. For them, one of theme is married to someone who is French, so she was able to go to France and in France, insurance actually covers that three times. So you can have in vitro fertilization covered by your insurance in France three times and they pay absolutely nothing. Here in the U.S., we live in California, we’re in a super progressive state, I like to point out that we’re not so progressive in so many ways! And one of the ways that we’re not progressive is specifically when it comes to fertility. And this doesn’t just affect me, I don’t see it as only affecting me as a cisgender, heterosexual, woman, it affects family members who are queer and friends who are queer and poor. We ‘re all super well-educated but we’re not necessarily out of the…we’re in the middle-class intellectually I guess, or upper class…whatever you want to call it, but we’re definitely not there in terms of material things and money. We’re all super in debt, because we wanted that education so badly, and we’re supposed to be better off than our parents, but I’m not really sure if we are. So the whole thing with fertility is a struggle that doesn’t get talked about, doesn’t get addressed, and as progressive as we might be here in California, there’s no chance, I don’t see right now, a chance of actually having that, which would help myself and other people in the same situation, unless we have that $15,000, that $25,000 somewhere. If you happen to trip over some money, which is not going to happen.
G: I know in the context of our work, you’ve heard me say that fertility and problems with family formation in this particular way is not something we’ve taken on yet in the work, and yet it’s very present. And you’ve heard me say that it often happens at the end of a workshop, we’re in this really comfortable space with the participants, which for the most part are women, and at the end we’ll often times come to this area, and what we’ll talk about…and I’ve said this for a few years because I’ve watched it happen both in my life and what you’re sharing, my friends around me, that we have this really interesting dichotomy that we’re part of a community that is over-sexualized…first of all, underrepresented on TV, when we are represented on TV, we are over-sexualized, because we have a measurable amount of young women who become young moms at a young age in the community. That is a reality and we choose not to shame that because it’s part of one of the reproductive choices that people get to make and we fully support that. If she’s sixteen and chose to keep her pregnancy, she needs support. If she’s thirty-seven and has three kids and is going to terminate a pregnant, she needs support. And the third category that we’re inserting is ourselves; if we waited until “later,” whatever that might mean for folks, to try to get pregnant, to try to form a family, to try to deal with the multiple issues around race, class, gender, sexuality, and identity, those of us who are falling in this middle space, there aren’t enough stories out there that share our experience. So what we’re up against is this stereotype, oh Latinas have a lot of kids, and I don’t know about you, but I think we buy into that. I think we think…even though you heard your mom’s struggles, but you saw that the outcome was five kids; that makes an imprint in us. My mom was twenty-eight when she got pregnant with me, so there’s similarities, but in her case, she wasn’t trying to get pregnant younger, but then she had four kids. When she got pregnant with my youngest sister, she was thirty-nine; they totally acted like she was a senior being pregnant and I remember that because I was eleven-years-old going with her to the doctor’s visits and listening to the language. So we’re up against this really interesting thing that as a community, we’re seen as having “too many kids”, and then if you add the layer if immigrant bashing that we not only see on TV, but have experienced in our own homes often obviously, then the questions we’re facing are interesting to me because we’re in this weird middle space. And some of the things we have in common is that we’re the ones who went to school, created a certain career path and then tried to create family later, and then we’re having a hard time and then there’s no one to talk to and there’s not even that much to read because as usual we’re not included in these big research studies. And the mainstream is maybe not thinking that Latinas are dealing with infertility. I think of my African American friends and they know for sure that we’re in the United States and we have one of the highest rates of infant mortality and material mortality…in the U.S. in 2015 if you’re a Black mom! You have a really high chance of not having a healthy pregnancy and that’s crazy to me and yet the space where we fall, it’s just not talked about and there’s very little written and we really want to do something about that. We often get into these grey areas in our work: when broader society thinks of reproductive anything, they only think usually about abortion. As an organization, we fully support women’s autonomy to make all choices for themselves, including the right to access a safe and legal abortion…yeah we still have to say that in 2015, which is crazy. So when we’re fighting that fight on the daily that abortion needs to stay accessible, both in location and financially, and we’re fighting to have young people acknowledged as families and not have to always hear punitive language towards them. We’re holding up space for different people and yet we haven’t held enough space for us to talk about what we’re going through. And the mainstream way of looking at the fight, as if we only have one choice, you either stay pregnant or you don’t, there’s all this middle ground that we need to talk about. What happens when we do get pregnant, finally, and we’re waiting and there’s all this hope attached, especially if we’ve had a hard time getting pregnant later. And the idea of loss, miscarriage is not something…even in our work, we hardly ever talk about this, and the mainstream reproductive rights movement was afraid to talk about things like miscarriage because somehow they thought that that would impact us in the work, but we don’t believe that in the RJ framing. We actually think it’s valid and it’s necessary to talk about all of the different experiences that we have.
S: But I think it’s still something we still don’t talk about, right? Having had a miscarriage myself…it’s something that I thought a lot about, when it happened. It’s been very recent. I thought a lot about it because I do work for a reproductive justice organization, but we never mention fertility, we never mention infertility, we never mention miscarriage. And really if we look at…I’m just thinking of the bigger picture, when people think of anything reproductive, it’s abortion, it’s condoms, it’s birth control, that’s what you talk about. We’re all feminist on the birth control/abortion category, but we don’t talk about miscarriage whatsoever, so when that happened to me, I had already looked for groups that talk about, first of all, infertility, before I even got pregnant. I was looking for any group, any information, any women of color who are talking about infertility because it’s like you said, whenever we talk about infertility, it’s usually upper middle class, white families, whether they are straight or gay, they are usually upper middle class, middle class white families, who are the ones who are shown in infertility. The ones who go and adopt children in other parts of the world or even adopt from here, but you never see any women of color, or couple of color, being represented, or queer or straight, and their struggles with infertility or miscarriage. I’m happy to see that, little by little, more people are talking about miscarriage. So one of the first things that happened when I had my miscarriage is people questioning you: is it because of your age? You go to your doctor and your doctor is thirty-three, just got out of med school, and they’re looking at you like you’re seventy-five, so the first thing that goes through your mind is: is it because of my age? The good thing about my situation is that I actually knew a lot of people, maybe not directly, but I knew a friend of a friend. Because of my struggles with infertility, I knew maybe a friend of a friend who had been in her twenties, or was twenty-one, and had a miscarriage, or even younger than that, who had had several miscarriages. And the more that I speak about having a miscarriage, the more I learn that the age doesn’t matter. I recently told a friend and she told me, “You know, I had three miscarriages before Emiliano came along.” He’s now eight months and she’s 25 and she’s like yeah, I had three miscarriages before I had Emiliano. And then I had other people who were older who had had miscarriages as well. So one of the things I needed to do after I had my miscarriage was sort of push against the whole guilt that you feel because your body wasn’t able to go through this thing that’s supposed to be so natural and it’s supposed to be how your body works. So I had to push back against that in my mind, constantly, I still push back against it and say oh, I’m not the only one. And this happens to a lot of people, it’s not just me. It was definitely a very hard experience, a very sad experience, and then a very positive experience, and beautiful experience at the same time.
G: Explain that a little more.
S: It’s very hard because it’s like you said, you start making plans, you start noticing things in your body and you’re like, wow, okay, so this is really happening. You no longer start fitting into your clothes, thing start happening. And then there’s the loss. When you go to the doctor, they’re not looking at your anymore, they’re looking at a screen and they’re running around trying to get somebody else in there. Once again, they’re not looking at you and you don’t see anything up in the screen, you know? You just see black in the screen and that’s horrible, it’s horrible just to see a black screen.
G: So this is the ultrasound where they’re trying to find a heartbeat and what you’re saying is that there’s nothing.
S: You see an empty cavity…
S: Yeah, you see just black. There’s a tremendous sense of loss and all those dreams. And that argument you’re having in the car about naming your child this or that, all of a sudden that’s all gone. So then how do you turn that into something that’s positive, right? For me it was something that I had to turn into something positive. It was the first time I had gotten pregnant, ever in my life. It was really, really sad but at the same time it was really fully of hope. That’s amazing to me. That you can feel that and do something that’s hopeful because you’re so devastated and your body is still going through…it doesn’t stop, your body is going through the motions as if you had given birth, but at the end of it, you don’t have a child. I hang on to it as something positive, you know? I hang on to it as…I got to see the ultrasound…before the second ultrasound, we had a previous ultrasound and I got to see that tiny little light, and hear this tiny little heartbeat, I still think about that.
G: Thank you, Susy. Thank you for sharing about that and it’s lost and we need to mark it as lost and be okay with that. And name it, we can claim that too, that’s also part of our RJ stories. I think this is something again so many women have to go through in silence, and there’s silence about it anyway probably in communities, but sometimes there’s an extra layer of sadness in our community probably because our moms, grandmothers, aunts, and uncles sometimes can be hurtful in ways that they don’t understand. They’ll say, “Oh mija, just try it again! Or just get pregnant again!” My mom when I was in high school would say, “don’t get pregnant!” That was her sex ed, like so many moms of so many cultures: “Just don’t do anything and don’t get pregnant!” Okay, mom and that’s because she just didn’t have the skills, so she didn’t know what to say. So fast forward to my thirties and she hasn’t had another grandchild, from me that is, she hasn’t had another grandchild. And I think in my thirties she starts changing her mind: “Oh, I don’t care, just go get pregnant somewhere!” But even those comments, as light-hearted as they can be, can be hurtful because they don’t…in my case, we don’t always tell our parents what we’re going through because we don’t want to worry them and maybe because we think they wouldn’t understand. In my case, maybe my mom or my aunts wouldn’t understand infertility because they hadn’t dealt with it themselves. So having come out this other end and really claiming the space for yourself. You had a pregnancy that you wanted to keep and at any point, if we kept that pregnancy there’s a hope and we can name that and be okay with that. And at the point that you’re sharing about your loss. What would you say to someone who is listening to this interview, of any age, Latina, but what if she falls in our category, in your thirties when you realize fertility is not guaranteed and it’s not granted. There’s not a good or bad, we’re not saying people should change the choices that they’ve made, we just want to continue to make the stories around RJ as complex as they are and show them. What would you say to someone who, you know, she is going through this right now and her family and her friends don’t know what to say to her? And maybe her mom or dad tell her, “Oh, it’s okay, you just try it again next time!” sometimes those are the most hurtful comments, they may be unintentional, but they can be really hurtful. And you went through that process yourself; you and I talk about people didn’t know what to say. I remember I waited a few days before I called you because I thought, “Oh my God” I assumed, “she probably doesn’t want to see people!” And finally I said, no, you don’t get to do that, you ask what the person wants instead of just making your assumptions, so what would you say?
S: Yeah, I think everyone was sort of afraid to talk to me after that and I was trying to make a really big effort to talk to people. I think if someone would go through something like this, I think you really need to find a way of turning it into something possible—so making it into a seed for something. That doesn’t mean you need to make it into a seed to have another child, but really, you can’t sort of get stuck in it and think of only the negative part. You need to sort of push what society tells you, even what your doctor tells you, out of the way and turn it into something that’s positive and find a way of healing. You need to find your own way to heal and it’s okay to be sad. It’s totally fine to be sad, it’s totally fine to be mad. It’s okay, you need to do that, but you also need to…for me I sort of immediately found a way to turn it into something positive. I was really lucky because my sister was there throughout the whole thing and I think people need to understand that we definitely need our loved ones, we don’t need you to say anything, we just need you to be there. We really need you to be there. Don’t even open your mouth maybe, just be there. Be there. And be loving. That makes a huge difference.
G: Thank you, Susy. Thank you for the confianza and for sharing this part of your story and helping us get out there about issues that need to get out there and in our work. Thank you so much.