Suffering Shouldn’t Be a Normal Part of Womanhood

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Written By Robby Macaay

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One of the most important lessons medical schools teach is one my mom mastered as a teenager left to fill her own mother’s shoes: how to figure out who is really sick and needs immediate attention and who can wait (or what we in the medical field call “triage”). Nothing I learned in med school or since has contradicted what I learned at Bertha’s knee.

At the time, the practice of medicine was rudimentary—and that’s putting it nicely. So, the diagnoses typically made at home were probably not that different from those of a bona fide doctor. The more serious common ailments were things like dropsy (now known as “swelling” or “edema,” due to congestive heart failure); consumption (used to describe any disease that seemed to consume the body, like tuberculosis); weak hearts (for people who tired easily or had fainting spells due to congestive heart failure); and “fits” (which could apply to anything from seizures to strokes). These were terms my mother and aunties still used when I was a child, although I had no idea what they were talking about.

I had 12 years of training to become an OB/GYN and have benefited from some outstanding teachers and colleagues. But I still stand in unmatched awe of my mother’s incredible gifts as a diagnostician.

As big and boisterous as our brood was, no family doctor or pediatrician ever saw our family on a regular basis. An earache, known in today’s parlance as an “ear infection,” was treated with sweet oil (which I have only in adulthood come to know was olive oil) on a cotton ball stuffed in your ear. I have no idea why it worked, but my siblings and I can all hear. And pediatricians are now acknowledging the overuse of antibiotics in the treatment of many childhood infections. Such treatments were commonly known, but by and large, prevention was not a thing. Sickness, like bad weather before Doppler radar, was unpredictable, unavoidable, and something to be endured.

And it’s true: life comes with some unanticipated and unavoidable suffering. But why, when we’re given the option to suffer or not, do so many of us choose suffering? The answer to this question is complex.

Read More: They Say Suffering Will Make You Stronger—But It’s Not That Simple

For starters, we’ve been raised to view suffering as an integral part of womanhood. In short, we have normalized suffering. We have incorporated the language of misery into the lexicon so effectively that we take suffering for granted. Girls suffer from menstrual cramps. Women suffer through childbirth and postpartum depression. We also suffer with migraines, suffer from heartbreak, and suffer through abusive relationships.

At one end of the reproductive life spectrum, we suffer from PMS, or premenstrual symptoms, only to then suffer on the tail end from the onslaught of symptoms that accompany The Change. In that sense, menopause is simply the finale on a continuum of suffering that starts the moment we begin puberty.

But the expectation that feeling bad is a natural part of growing up and growing older has got to go. Chronic pain, persistent discomfort, and feeling lousy are not normal. We have incorporated the perceived inevitability of suffering into our psyches so much that we cannot fully grasp the notion that not suffering is a viable option.

Where did this tendency come from? For Black women, it has its origins in slavery. The surgeon J. Marion Sims, once lauded as the Father of Gynecology, is documented as having operated on enslaved women repeatedly and without anesthesia, even after anesthesia became available. We’re not talking minor procedures here.

Sims performed gruesome vaginal surgeries on these Black mothers, sisters, and mere girls, some of whom had been raped by their slave masters, to learn how to fix injuries sustained during childbirth. And trust me, he wasn’t doing this for their benefit. Sims performed these surgeries in an attempt to restore these women’s value as breeders.

The common misperception—still prevalent today in certain misguided corners of medicine—that Black people are capable of enduring more pain than white people, was reinforced by the circular logic of having to endure more pain. In fact, a study done in 2019 found that some white medical students and residents believed that Black patients had higher pain tolerances than white patients. It is galling and enraging that in the twenty-first century, Black people are still consistently undermedicated for surgical and post-op pain as well as for chronic medical conditions known to be excruciating, such as sickle cell crises.

This occurs, in part, because of miseducation and the stubborn prevalence of these misguided beliefs. They must be eradicated.

Women’s pain is all too frequently ignored or simply minimized as women being hysterical or overly dramatic. Even the word hysteria is most often associated with females, as it is derived from “hystera,” the Greek word for uterus. The linguistic implication is that being born with a uterus makes one more inclined to unfounded, uncontrollable emotional exaggeration, which is, of course, untrue. Back in 2020, more than 200 women were not believed when they complained mightily of excruciating pain during their egg retrievals at a Yale fertility clinic. The following year, a nurse at the facility pleaded guilty to tampering with the fentanyl meant for the women’s procedures, having replaced the opioid with saline. Now ask yourself why it took five months and two hundred women before anyone figured out what was going on.

Read More: Self-Silencing Is Making Women Sick

I did mention that this took place at Yale, right? Why do we continually doubt women or decide that their concerns are unworthy of redress?

The ongoing lack of gender and racial diversity, self-examination, and historical knowledge within the medical profession has led to a complicity in the acceptance of suffering, particularly for certain groups. We should never forget the hard lessons of the past, and we must continue to hold the medical establishment accountable for its ethical failings and broad inequities. But we mustn’t allow these problems to prevent us from seeking every medical benefit available to us today. Mother wit and homeopathy have their place, but there are things that only modern medicine can do.

Our mothers and grandmothers did the best they could with what they had. Imperfect as things are today, we have more and better resources available. We just need to stay aware of what those resources are and how best to access them. We have to learn how to prevent disease and recognize its early warning signs. Today, we have more in our medical tool kits than leeches and rusty saws. To honor these women and the dreams they placed in us, we must do more, and be better at alleviating our own suffering and getting the care they could not.

From the book Grown Woman Talk: Your Guide to Getting and Staying Healthy by Sharon Malone, M.D.. Copyright © 2024 by Sharon Malone, M.D.. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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