Waiting for Babies

Today’s guest post is from Steven Mavros, L.OM, the Founder of the Healing Arts Center of Philadelphia, and the producer of a new podcast called “Waiting for Babies.”

Maria and I met Steven when he came to check out our exhibit, SEA-ART-HEAL, in Seattle a couple of months ago. The three of us immediately connected over our shared desire to make infertility more visible by collecting and sharing oral histories. So, Maria and I were thrilled when he invited us to Philadelphia to partner on an art exhibit this fall. The exhibit will run November 3 – 28 at the Old City Jewish Arts Center.

We’re working hard to outline all the programming and the event dates and times, including a film screening and art and writing workshops. However, we’d love to start by introducing you to Steven. We’d also like to extend an invitation to you, to share your story of infertility through visual artwork and writing you have created. You can learn more by checking out our Philly event landing page.

Read Steven’s story of creating “Waiting for Babies” below. Then, give his podcast a listen. We’re particularly fond of his recent episode about Jessica (A).

Waiting for Babies
by Steven Mavros

15 years ago, when I first started practicing acupuncture, I never set out an intention to work with couples or individuals struggling to bring a child into their lives.  In my first month, a new patient brought me a study done in Germany detailing how using acupuncture before and after the embryo transfer of an IVF procedure raised its success rates.  She asked me to come to her fertility clinic and replicate what was in the study which I was happy to do.  When you’re first starting a practice you say yes to everything of course.  Thankfully, her physician was amenable and open minded enough to let us take up space in their office for something that was brand new in their world.

That study spread both among patients and the fertility doctors and suddenly I found patient after patient asking for this type of help as they’d heard I’d done it before.  Interestingly, there was also some evidence that acupuncture would be helpful for those who were just trying on their own or doing things that were less complicated than IVF like IUI or artificial insemination, so a lot of patients started coming in before they made it to IVF. Still, almost every week I would get a phone call (always the day before because they never got more than that amount of notice) and I would wake up earlier in the morning then I normally would and go to one of the fertility clinics and do some acupuncture.

Steven Mavros is an acupuncturist, founder of the Healing Arts Center of Philadelphia, and the creator of the new infertility podcast, “Waiting for Babies.”

Here’s how it would go: at the clinic I’d meet my patient and often their husband or partner.  The three of us would sit together in the waiting room until one of the nurses would come and tell us that they had space for us to do acupuncture and the woman and I would go back to do the treatment.  Afterward, I would sit in the waiting room for what could’ve been twenty minutes or could have been three hours for the procedure to be finished.  Then I would go back into the room to do a slightly different acupuncture again.  Needless to say I spent a lot of time waiting in clinics.  I often read both a book I brought and every magazine possible.  There was no handy internet in the pocket then.

This was such an intimate moment I was privy to. It was also extremely intense as the procedure they were about to have was in some ways the culmination of a lot of effort, time, money and emotion that they have been putting into trying to conceive.  At these treatments I would get a first-hand view as to what the couple’s relationship was like.  Some were what I’d consider healthier than others.  Sometimes they fought on the morning of and sometimes it was the most loving and caring thing I’ve ever seen. Sometimes there was no relationship because it was a single woman trying on her own or her partner didn’t show up or didn’t want to show up for reasons I didn’t always get to know.

To add pressure to everything the woman had to have a full bladder for this procedure. This always lead to a classic scenario.  I’d be sitting with my acupuncture case, the woman sitting next to me with her legs crossed three times around like eagle pose in yoga and the partner sitting next to her just twiddling their thumbs waiting for everything to be over. The nurse would come out and tell us that they were running a little bit behind and the woman would squeeze her legs together even tighter because she already had to pee and was both nervous and getting even more uncomfortable. Then, almost without fail, the partner would stand up and say “Ok, I’ll be back, I have to go to the bathroom.” To which the woman would always just roll her eyes and laugh and I would look incredulously at someone who clearly didn’t understand the concept of solidarity.

There are so many moments and so many little things that are both hilarious and heart wrenching sitting there with all of these patients and I realized that their stories are so intense and emotional and yet no one outside of that room knew what they were going through. So I thought the best idea would be to write a book and to try and tell their stories the best way I could.  I’d add along some anecdotes and things that had happened to me along the way.  But after hitting so many walls writing, I realized that I was trying to tell a story that wasn’t mine. I was trying to tell their story and that would never work because I didn’t have all the information. I don’t know what came before and what was to come afterwards. I didn’t always know how things turned out as sometimes I only got to see them in that one intimate moment and never even found out if the procedure worked.

So I decided the best place to hear that story was from the patients themselves. Waiting for Babies was born.

Pregnancy and miscarriage, IVF and artificial insemination are not actually new concepts to our American society, but given how little is talked about it you would think that it was. When it comes to medicine, we are so intensely private.  Did you know that in America there’s really no ritual or common healing practice for someone who’s had a miscarriage? Many other cultures have them to give you at least a playbook as to what to do when this happens but we miss that in America. And most of the time people bottle it up and keep it within the partnership which often doesn’t help either of them.  And it’s so much more common than you think as is this whole field. One in eight couples or individuals trying to get pregnant are having difficulties like this.  Most likely someone you know has either been through it or is going through it right now. I want to open that conversation and get all of this information out there to show just how human this whole process is and what some people are going through. I was to shed some light on how hard it is when something that for everyone else takes a very quick momentary interlude in life, but can take those struggling years and years.

It’s time someone shared their stories as there are so many more who are still waiting for their babies.

The One About the Sperm

by Robin Silbergleid

In the car, climbing across the car seats to look for his favorite Jim Gill CD, my son tells me he’s going to give his Father’s Day gift to Uncle Jesse, since he doesn’t have a dad. He says it casually, as if it’s something he’s explained before. Okay, I say—before I even ask what this particular school project is— or you can give it to me, or your sister, or Grandma, or anyone else, but sure, I think Uncle Jesse would like that.

As I have explained to him in various ways from the time he was old enough to listen, he doesn’t have a dad but a donor, who generously provided the sperm (or “magical seeds”) necessary for me to have him as a single mother. I’m glad it’s not a big deal for him today; other days the situation is more complicated and emotionally fraught, like when he was about three and concocted an involved fantasy about how his father was a construction worker who lived at a blue house that you could see from my bedroom window and let him drive his excavator at work sites; after that scenario, he claimed his dad was, interchangeably, Santa Claus and Batman. He told this tale to his preschool teacher who, I think, was more upset that my Jewish son had ruined other kids’ perceptions of Santa Claus than anything about his parentage. The construction worker fantasy worried me, as it seemed so real. I kept reminding him, you know you can’t get into a car with anyone other than mom or grandma or our friend A., right?

From what I can tell, now at five and a half, my son does not have deep longing for a father–nor does his sister, who had a similar imaginary dad fantasy around that age, hers involving a plane trip to Africa (a detail borrowed, no doubt, from her readings of Curious George). For a while, as an elementary-schooler, she liked the fact that the donor was Irish (like, first generation from Ireland) but mostly she hasn’t asked any questions or even to look at the profile, though I’d be happy to give it to her. It’s been years since I’ve read it myself.

Mostly, the fact of using a sperm donor to build our family is just not a big deal in our day-to-day lives, although it’s a huge deal in terms of my gratitude. My kids wouldn’t exist without his generosity even if, I know, he was compensated financially for his donation, and I’m reminded regularly that my children aren’t my clones but have features that could only have come from the donor—my daughter’s musical ability, my son’s interest in machines, the shape of their toes. Although neither one of my children has expressed a keen interest, I think at some point it would be nice to celebrate the donor on Father’s Day, although I understand that ‘holiday’ has more to do with social role than it does biological connection.

Before I had my children, I thought in a vague way of how I would talk to them about the donor. With my son, books have been helpful in opening conversations. We particularly like the picture book What Makes a Baby; I’d recommend it for anyone who has used donor gametes, surrogacy, adoption, or, really, anyone who wants to explain family building without needing to talk about sex or gender. Because babies, as fertility patients know all too well, don’t always come from sex. They come from desire, labor, egg, sperm, and uterus.

My son knows now that he came from a special sperm and a special egg and my uterus. He also knows he was born in the hospital operating room, where, I’ve assured him, the doctor gave me a lot of medicine and sewed me back up, and I was so in love with him I didn’t really feel a thing. Because he’s five, he also asked how I got the sperm, if the donor held it in his hands and gave it to me, like a present I might open on my birthday. No, I explained, trying very hard not to laugh, it came in a small jar called a vial. (I didn’t tell him my favorite detail, that the fluid the andrologist used was pink.) I know as he grows he will continue to ask, and I’ll continue to reframe the narrative of his conception, giving him more detail each time.

I don’t know if our sperm donor is also a dad, whose family will acknowledge him on Father’s Day. I do wonder about him sometimes, and wonder if and when he thinks about the families made possible by his generosity. Because of him, a child exists who has made a hand printed card in preschool and asked about how he came to be.

Still in the Trenches on Father’s Day

Today, during Father’s Day and Men’s Health Month, we offer you the perspectives of three men whose path to fatherhood has been blocked by infertility. For resources on male factor infertility and men’s health, we encourage you to visit The Turek Clinics and Men’s Health Network.

Matt Quarterman

We lost a child almost before we knew we had one.

My partner had an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured. We had been trying to conceive for about six months, but the hospital was the first that we knew of it. She was bleeding internally. She lost parts of her body in surgery.

So our experience with infertility – tests and procedures, questions from friends and family, their baby showers and birth announcements – was colored by losing a child we didn’t know we had.

I’ve learned that every infertility journey is unique. The details might seem inconsequential to the outside observer, yet each of the specifics makes the story your own. I hope that by examining my own experience through these poems, some of my fuzzy logic or murky feeling might ring true for others.

Even when we’re alone, we are not alone.

Excerpt from Babyland
Matt Quarterman

It’s expensive enough that not everyone
can go. We know the time saved up
we know the long journey
We know returning empty-handed
is hardest. Trade a plastic cup
of tokens for tickets to earn the prize.
There’s the ultrasound screen,
there’s the wheel of pills,
there’s the calendar app, reminders and
still not enough. Not enough can be offered,
report card clean, but no-one here judges,
the problem is ours together to create,
to solve. Some get there unexpectedly,
an osprey dives through empty oxygen,
the force of the flower the green fuse drives,
fool’s gold, cruise boat, news reel,
the heat death of everything, passengers waving.
They’ve run out of options. They hope
for the best at the turnstiles,
the monorail speeding away,
always away. Forget it – it’s Baby Land.

Nathan Chan

“Sometimes on the way to your dream, you get lost and find a better one.”– Lisa Hammond

Nathan’s passion for the surrogacy and egg donation field started in 2009 as a young male when he pursued single parenthood. It was a complicated process which he found difficult. He had always been a source of assistance to his friends and he felt a calling to join. This calling led him to spend 2014-2016 working at another leading Canadian Surrogacy and Egg Donation consultancy, where he played a large role in many of the success stories.

Nathan has spent more than five years pursuing single parenthood in India and Canada. At one point in this journey, he was even lucky enough to use a known Egg Donor. His journey to parenthood is still in progress. He is empathetic to the Intended Parents’ journey to surrogacy because he personally understands the challenges.

Nathan takes great pride in supporting Intended Parent(s), including many single men who are now proud fathers using his surrogacy and egg donation services. Participating in this art exhibit has been very important for him as this process of sharing his infertility journey through art has been very empowering. Nathan lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada where he is the Managing Director of Proud Fertility, an inclusive surrogacy and egg donation consultancy. He is also an accomplished musician and visual artist, best known for his Aurora Borealis series.

Angst of an Infertile Caterpillar, 2010
Nathan Chan
painting on canvas

Angst of an Infertile Caterpillar, 2010 by Nathan Chan

This piece was created when I was feeling lost after my first early miscarriage. I questioned the steps that I have taken, the money I spent on IVF and surrogacy, and it was during a time in my life where I was resentful and hateful of myself and the choices I made for my desire to have a child.

Is there more to life? Have I moved too fast in life to spread my wings quicker than anyone else? Many days, I feel like a very beautiful monarch butterfly, but many other days I feel as though I’ve lost one of my wings.

I have a lot of re-energized moments where I feel I can start over again, but like the caterpillar, I see my past where I’ve flown as a butterfly with broken or missing wings. Or, I see that there are too many difficulties and challenges to overcome and it doesn’t help when I’m a caterpillar exposed to so many issues in the past and the many problems that I have seen so closely in my life.

They say there is little communication between the caterpillar and butterfly, but I wish that in my life, there could be a better relationship between the two. It would be tremendously amazing if I could see a symbiotic relationship between the two because I want my caterpillar and butterfly to see and learn from each other’s experiences and perspectives.

Memorializing My Losses, 2013
Nathan Chan
mixed media

Memorializing My Losses, 2013 by Nathan Chan

This piece was created when I came to a point where I wanted to memorialize my losses through surrogacy. I needed a way to honor those losses. Each figure represented an embryo transfer attempt in India and Canada. It was very important for me to contextualize everything and capture it onto a canvas. These losses make up who I am and what I have become. These losses were not small, and not to be minimized.

The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side, 2013
Nathan Chan
mixed media

The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side, 2013 by Nathan Chan

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” is a common phrase that everyone knows. It refers to the way we tend to look at other people’s lives and other things that we don’t have. All throughout my life, I compared myself to others. Whether so and so has a bigger house, so and so had a higher grade on their assignment, so and so visited XYZ country in the world, so and so has a higher paying job, and finally, so and so has a partner and children.

This painting is of two simple houses in the shape of an “N,” my first name initial and there is an inverted sunset. The inverted sunset represents the state of turmoil I am in. These two buildings are deliberately sitting on plots of grass that are of different shades of green. As I pondered over this common phrase, I have never really understood what “greener” means. What shade of green actually denotes “greener grass” As I thought more about this, I realized this shade is darker green.

Through my reflections, I have learned to be grateful for all my experiences, including my experiences of infertility – my experiences of pregnancy loss as a single male Intended Parent. As I rebuild my life I call “home,” I can only make two choices. I can either be resentful and miserable and loathe everyone else around me, or I can be grateful for the life I have led and will continue to live. I must acknowledge the growth I have experienced. I have a diverse set of skills and talents and I have family support in my endeavors.

“The grass is greener where you water,” is perhaps another idiom that has been overused. But I need to water my own lawn by simply focusing on the things I do have, and count my blessings. It’s either that, or I am going to drive myself miserable and upset with the things that what others “appear” to have that I don’t. I hate these clichés, so I want to come up with my own – “The Grass is Always Greener on My Side.”

Jeffrey Tucker

I believe that writing – especially poetry – is an act of confession. Whether the thoughts expressed in art are joyous, sorrowful, or somewhere in-between (or both, in some instances), the act of committing pen to paper builds a bridge between the reader and the writer’s psyche, often with an intimacy eschewed in normal conversation.

Which is the say that I tell secrets in my poetry. This poem, in particular, allowed me to express something I would never say out loud. It was both liberating and terrifying to write – an experience (in sentiment, if not in practice) that I have heard many people describe passing through in the journey of infertility: on one hand, you want to scream; on the other hand, you want to hide. Thus, this poem – whose writing process inspired the same feelings in me – in an apt form to convey my emotions.

On Geography and Biology and the Meeting Thereof
(Excerpted from Kill February, from Sage Hill Press)
Jeffrey Tucker

My brother-in-law and his wife: gone,
off to cruise Mexico: siesta
or Fiesta, la Riviera Maya, salted latitudes
south. I picture the two white-footed Utahans
quick-stepping down a burning brown beach,
silver hawkers at hand. They have not heard the stories
I have, of endless squatting in jails
for a wrong U-turn, an unpaid bribe.
Yet I am unconcerned. It’s a cruise,
after all, staffed with smiling deckhands
so eager to pass out Turkish towels
or spray palms with alcohol. If they
died, my wife thinks aloud, they would not
leave our nieces – the four girls – to us.
Since we don’t live in Utah, I say,
and she nods. No family nearby,
not for two thousand miles. And I knew
that my body does not allow us pregnancy, morning sickness, any of that
lovely fecund wreck. But I did not know that geography
conspired against us at the same time
(not that I ever wish for a death).


Music Heals: Finding Happiness When a Marriage Struggles to Conceive

In this post, Maria and her husband, Kevin, reflect on the role music has had in their relationship, particularly in regards to their infertility. Discussing their recent following of country rock star, Eric Church, the two reveal how listening and connecting to music has allowed them to find happiness in their marriage after infertility. While The ART of Infertility encourages creative making, this post reminds us that surrounding oneself around creative processes – like attending concerts – can also help us heal after coping with infertility.

This Memorial Day Kevin and I didn’t go to the local parade. We didn’t attend any barbecue parties at a friend’s home. We saw music. Live, southern rock-inspired, Nashville music. And it was epic.

Maria and Kevin take a selfie while in Nashville over Memorial Day.

To understand the impact of this experience, to understand how this relates to our infertility, to our marriage, I need to go back some years.

When my husband and I first met, we were in high school. We were young, really young — like 15 and in love. Too young for our relationship to be taken seriously by our parents and friends, we frequently sought to escape the world and the limits that our youth put on our relationship. Often we did so by jumping in Kevin’s old Volvo, turning on the radio or popping in a mixed CD and just driving. We drove all over, for hours. Sometimes we would stop at a state park or forest to hike. Sometimes we stopped for ice cream. Sometimes we would stop, just to stop, and talk about us — what we wanted and who we wanted to become together.

At Maria’s high school graduation, 18-years-old and in love – eager to go to college, get married and start a family.

Memorial Day weekend was often a weekend when we would hop in the car and drive away for an escape. To this day, we both recall Memorial Day of 2004. We were both 18 and had just finished our junior year of high school. That weekend, Kevin picked me up for another drive. With the Wisconsin weather finally in the 60s, we decided to stop at a Kettle Moraine State Park to hike a bit. On that hour drive, we can both recall listening to a local radio’s classic rock countdown. We remember driving rolling glacier carved roads listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Bob Seger and our personal favorite – Led Zeppelin.

Kevin and I could listen for hours to Led Zeppelin. Their music threaded us together. We both felt passionately connected to the melodies and to the lyrics. Zeppelin was not only a band that we enjoyed, it was a band that connected us on a deeper, intimate level.

As we got older and our relationship evolved, time and the pressures of college and “the real world” got to us. We started dabbling in other music. But every time that Zeppelin came on the radio, Kev and I were sure to turn it up. Singing along and reminiscing about the memories we had listening to them in high school. Even at our wedding, it was joked that Zeppelin’s heavy, metal-esque “Immigrant Song” should have been our wedding song. And, if we could have figured out a way to dance to that, it probably would have.

But it was not until early this year that Kevin and I began to realize how the music, once so integrate and vital to our relationship, had suddenly stopped. Listening to music. Going to live shows. Connecting to melodies and lyrics suddenly disappeared as we struggled to conceive. Our world, our relationship, went silent.

For about the first five years, when we were trying to grasp, cope and then figure out our infertility – neither Kevin nor myself can remember what (if anything) we listened to. During this time, our marriage also struggled. We didn’t know if we wanted to do fertility treatments. We didn’t know if we should start to adopt. We didn’t know – if we were happy – even if we should still stay together. Our world as a couple was dark and silent.

Despite these feelings and concerns about our happiness, we determined one late night in bed that we should stick it out. We determined that we still loved each other. That even without the prospective of having a kid, we could still be happy in our marriage. We could still find happiness – even if we couldn’t find it at this moment.

Life pressed on, and our relationship slowly began to get better with the understanding that we were both committed to figuring it out and making it work. We moved states, Kevin changed careers, I finally finished grad school and we started to feel happier again. Through all of these changes, we also found new music that resonated with us just like Zeppelin did back when we were teens.

Neither Kevin nor myself would classify ourselves as country song lovers. But one day as we were driving we heard a song by Eric Church on the radio. The two of us looked at each other and you could feel that same spark we had back when we were listening to “Going to California” by Zeppelin. It just hit us at our souls.

Last August, after listening to every song and learning nearly every lyric, we decided to finally see Eric perform in person. We flew out to Colorado and saw his now legendary performance at Red Rocks. Not having seen a concert together in nearly 10 years, Kev and I were admittedly a bit suspicious. We didn’t know if the $300 tickets we bought were really worth it nor the plane tickets and Airbnb rental. But when the sun went down over the rocks and the single spotlight hit Eric – a new musical melody fused Kevin and me together once more. We were hooked, like a drug.

At Red Rocks Amphitheater to see Eric Church perform, August 2016.

The morning after the concert, we looked at each other and talked about how the happiness we were feeling in our marriage. How we actually did this. How we went through hell and back – still with no kid – but had our marriage, had our vibe, had our connection once more. Suddenly, it hit us – music heals. It heals for those who write and compose lyrics and melodies. It also heals those who listen and who are engaged in the performance of its spectacle.

As we returned back to the Midwest that august, Kevin and I determined to make 2017 our year for music. We vowed that we wouldn’t worry or talk about the next steps with our IF. Instead, we would take steps to renew our marriage. So, in January of 2017 as Eric went on tour, we did our own mini tour. Seeing him perform in Green Bay, Portland, Milwaukee, and two Nashville encore sets.

Eric’s tour is now over. And, in many ways, so is the one Kevin and I have been on. Throughout his tour, which has broken attendance records and has allowed him to play 40+ songs at every venue, Eric has repeatedly made it clear that this tour is because of the fans. It is because of the fans that he is able to go on stage without an opening act and perform to sell out crowds for 4+ hours. Kevin and I want to make it clear though, that while Eric may be thankful to the fans that have given him this opportunity of a lifetime, Eric’s influence on his fans should not be forgotten.

A photo Maria took of Eric performing in Nashville at the closing of his tour.

With the tour now concluded, Kevin and I wanted to take a moment to thank thank him for reminding us of the importance of music in marriage, relationships and life. Music heals.