An interview with Cassandre Charles
Cassandre is Ovia Health’s VP of Marketing, mom of two, and a trained doula. We sat down to talk about discovering she had PCOS, opening the conversation around infertility, and helping other families through their family planning and birth experiences.
Can you tell me a little bit about your family?
I come from a big family, on both my mom and dad’s sides. I’m one of five girls and grew up in a house in Brooklyn with about 20 family members — siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. I’ve always had a lot of kids around me (I don’t even know how many cousins I have)!
I always knew I wanted kids. I used to say I wanted four — that was my magic number. My career was also important to me, but I knew I wanted a family.
What role did your career play in your life? How did that influence your family plans?
Balancing family planning and my career was a challenge, but once I began dealing with infertility, starting a family became my top priority. I still worked — which probably made it harder because I was in a stressful job — but family planning was #1. The thought of not being able to have kids really scared me.
Tell me a little more about your experience with infertility.
I got married in my early 30s and we waited four years to start having kids because we wanted to enjoy marriage and have fun. I recommend that to everyone, if you can!
Once we started, we tried for 6 or 7 months before my midwife recommended an infertility specialist. It took her a while to diagnose me with PCOS. I will never forget that day in the infertility specialist’s office when she told me, “You’re not going to be able to conceive naturally.” At that time I didn’t know much about fertility treatments. I didn’t know anyone in my life who went through this because no one talked about it. I had no clue where to begin.
No one in my family knew. Finally my husband told me, “You have to tell your sisters.” So I finally told them and my parents. Eventually I told everyone, in part because I wanted people to stop asking me when we were going to have kids. From that point on whenever someone would ask me, “Hey why don’t you have kids yet?” I would respond, “Because we’re having fertility problems.” That got them to stop asking.
Starting IUI was emotional. I had to take shots every day. We had two cycles, the second one took, and we finally had our miracle baby!
Tell me about your pregnancy experience.
Pregnancy was good, but it was emotional. If you go through infertility or miscarriage, when you finally do have a successful pregnancy, it’s hard to enjoy. I was so worried something would go wrong. I didn’t take any photos when I was pregnant for that reason. We moved recently and I found the one picture I took when I was pregnant. I was so happy to find it.
Once I had her though, I said to myself, “Never again will I not share this story.” I tell everyone now. And I found the more I was honest with people about my experience with infertility and IUI, the more people reached out sharing they were dealing with the same issues. And it just continued. In my life so many people are dealing with infertility issues. All of a sudden, I became this unofficial, unlicensed infertility specialist!
I wanted to know everything about PCOS and infertility — I dug all the way into the research, I bought books, I joined online communities — and I realized there is this whole world of people going through the same thing and no one is talking about it. Especially in the Black community. No one.
Why do you think that is?
Black women seek medical treatment for infertility at much lower rates than their white counterparts.There is a stereotype that Black women are super fertile and have lots of kids. And culturally within the community, we do it to each other. You’ll hear Black folks say things like, “Oh she’s a fertile myrtle.” These stereotypes make it feel like we don’t have fertility problems, like we don’t do IUI. I had two friends who froze their eggs recently and I was so proud of them. It’s an investment in their future, but there are barriers that need to be broken.
I dealt with infertility in silence with no one. It was just me and my thoughts and my little online communities. It was very isolating. I’m happy to see the conversation becoming more normalized now.
Yes, it does feel like people are getting more comfortable having conversations about women’s health: periods, fertility, postpartum health, and menopause.
Yes. Education is a huge part of it and so is listening to your body. Part of the reason I found out I had PCOS (even though it took my doctor forever to figure it out) is because I went through this period of 3-4 months where I was regularly exercising, eating well, and I lost no weight. I was breaking out (which I never do). I knew something was wrong.
I got some regular bloodwork done at my doctor’s office. A few days later she called me and told me that something was wrong with my hormone levels. She referred me to an endocrinologist (my fertility specialist) and that’s when we realized I had PCOS.
Moral of the story: listen to your body!
And your body changes! I had a baby 12 years ago and had all kinds of challenges and then at 44 I got pregnant with no problems. We weren’t trying. I was done having kids. It’s so important to trust your body. Work together with your doctors, but you know your body.
Yes, and when you’re used to ignoring pain or discomfort, that becomes your norm.
When you’re used to needing to minimize how you’re feeling, you don’t think anything of it when you’re actually feeling pain.
I wonder about the role that weathering plays in this fertility space too and how holding generational pain within the body might impact fertility.
I think it absolutely does. Among unmarried couples, Black women are five times more likely to be the head of household than Black men. When you have the responsibility of providing and caring for your family, the added pressure of infertility adds another layer of stress. And stress is absolutely a huge factor in infertility.
We tried to conceive when I was at my previous company and it just was not happening. The moment I left and came to Ovia, I got pregnant. The exact same thing happened to two of my other coworkers. Stress is a major factor.
Do you think your experience influenced your decision to become a doula?
It was a big part of it, but what really convinced me was when my sister-in-law was pregnant. Her doula was very late to the birth, she literally almost missed it. So I ended up naturally working as her doula. When I left, I started looking into doula work. I didn’t have a doula with my first, but the more I dug into it I realized I could do it and it connected with my story. Especially being about to help people through infertility — it’s such a soft spot for me. I did a training specialized program for infertility work during the pandemic.
Tell me about the differences in your birth team for your first versus your second pregnancy.
I’ve always gone to midwives. Because I had a midwife I had a great birth experience. Midwives labor with you — that’s the difference between a midwife and an OB.
And for your second pregnancy you gave birth far from your home right?
Yes. I live on Long Island now. It’s diverse and great, but I did not feel comfortable giving birth here. I got great OB recommendations, but there are no midwives near me. So I commuted all the way to Brooklyn for my midwife. I just made it happen. I was not going to sacrifice that part of my care.
How has having a second baby later in your reproductive years impacted your birth and parenting experience?
Because I’m a doula and I’ve attended so many births, with my second I felt like a complete expert in terms of what I want and didn’t want.
Basically you could have delivered the baby yourself…
If I could have I would have! I knew I wanted to be induced. I had some fear about my age, but while it was unexpected, I had less fear the second time around than I had with my oldest. With my oldest, I didn’t have any information. Information is so critical.
Now, I’m leaning on my first pregnancy, my work as a doula, and even working at Ovia. Working at Ovia while having kids is truly a blessing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve emailed an Ovia Health Coach (shoutout to Lisa and Lilly!) with a question about breastfeeding or something else. They are just amazing and have helped me so much.
But overall, the beauty of having a baby at this age is the confidence, the education, knowing I can disagree with my midwife, knowing all my opinions, it’s been so much easier.
Do you have any advice for someone going through a first pregnancy or feeling nervous about pregnancy for any reason?
I’m a strong advocate for midwives, but the most important thing is to trust your body. You have to get to the place of trusting yourself and trusting your body. I was so nervous when I was pregnant with my first that my body was going to fail me. But you have to remember that your body is built for this. There may be some complications, but listen to and trust your body.