Healing your HeA.R.T through Art

by Maya Grobel

Several years ago, Elizabeth Walker  (founder and co-director of The ART of Infertility) came to my house to interview my husband Noah and me for a project she was working on. After four plus years of a tumultuous journey to parenthood that involved every possible assisted reproductive technology in the book (clomid, laparoscopic surgery, IUIs, IVF, IVF with donor eggs), we were tentatively pregnant with a donated embryo that (thankfully) resulted in our daughter.

At the time, Noah and I were working on a project of our own. It was a documentary film about infertility, our own path to parenthood, and the making of modern families. None of us in the room knew that in our hearts we were actually pursuing a common goal— expressing our feelings about infertility through art, in order to process our experience, decrease stigma and shame around the disease of infertility, and normalize how different families are created.

Noah and Maya at home during their interview with Elizabeth in December of 2014.

Cut to four years later. Noah and I have an incredible daughter nearing three years-old, and a feature-length film called One More Shot that was recently released on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, and Vimeo on Demand. And Elizabeth, along with co-director Maria Novotny, has created a brilliant non-profit arts organization to support those struggling to create a family by showcasing artwork done by infertility patients. The exhibits by ART of IF aim to build awareness of infertility and educate the world about it, “portraying the realities, pains and joys of living with IF.”

When Elizabeth asked us to show our film at one of the ART of IF exhibits in Seattle, we were thrilled, and it became immediately evident that the collaboration between One More Shot and The ART of Infertility was a perfect match.

The screening in Seattle accompanied the exhibit SEA-ART-HEAL, held at the Seattle Center in April of 2017, and included a Q&A.

Our film was our entry into a world we knew nothing about. It chronicles our journey and explores the complex relational, emotional, physical, financial, medical, and ethical issues that accompany assisted reproduction. It’s a very personal glimpse into what infertility really looks like. In an attempt to find community around the shame and silence surrounding infertility, Noah and I interviewed others who had experienced similar struggles and found alternative ways to construct their families. This allowed us to meet and have in-depth conversations with people who shared what it was like to experience multiple pregnancy losses, let go of a genetic connection to their child, or watch someone else give birth to their child. It was eye opening for us, and also hopeful.  And when each baby-making intervention we tried failed, we knew that somehow, if we were open to all possibilities, and had high enough limits on our credit cards, we’d find a way to be parents.

As a psychotherapist now practicing in the realm of infertility, I can clearly see that this film, in a lot of ways, is our trauma narrative. Producing the film together, while stressful at times, allowed Noah and me to have a different creative focus when we were completely isolated and stranded on Infertility Island. While we couldn’t make a baby, we could make a movie. So we did. And through that we were able to analyze and understand our experiences, create something tangible and visual about it, and connect to this isolated but incredibly powerful and supportive community through a shared narrative. As Noah likes to say, we were able to make lemonade out of some sour-ass lemons. It was cathartic and I believe it also helped us heal our hearts at a time when they were very broken. Now we hope that it can help others heal too.

Our story really is a version of that of so many other people. And by sharing our story through our film, we know we can give a voice to this pain and connect to the hearts of so many people who struggle to make a baby. Sharing through visual story-telling was our medium. The ART of IF displays a variety of other artistic work that allows the viewer to see it from other personal points of view.  And through understanding, there is a sense of connection and hope.

So when Elizabeth asked us to join her and The ART of IF in Salt Lake City, Utah— well, it was a no-brainer. I just have to figure out where to trade in my California girl flip-flops for some snow boots.

A screening of the film One More Shot and panel discussion on using the humanities to cope with infertility will be held at Urban Arts Gallery in Salt Lake City at 6 pm MST on February 15th. This event, an extension of the exhibit, Arches in Perspective: The ART of Infertility in Utah, is free and open to the public. Reserve your space at http://bit.ly/onemoreshotutah.

Not near Salt Lake City? One More Shot is now available on Netflix, iTunes, Vimeo on Demand, and Amazon. The ART of Infertility will have events in Los Angeles, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Chicago later this year. Check out our full schedule for events near you.  

 

 

 

Launch Point

Ben Holladay-McCann shares some of the challenges he and his husband face as gay men building their family. Read how they decided which option was best for them and how creating art is playing a role in their quest to become parents. Thanks, Ben, for sharing your story!

Launch Point
by Ben Holladay-McCann

From a young age, I knew that fatherhood was something I aspired to. The fact that I’m gay never phased me or stood out as an obstacle to achieving that dream. Sure, I knew it would be a challenge — the scales are tipped in favor of heterosexual people – though I’ve always been of the mind that any journey worth dreaming about is a journey worth taking, no matter the odds.

Ben (right) with husband Erik. Photo by Kendra Stanley-Mills.

Erik, my husband, shares my dream of raising children together. At first, we had explored the idea of adoption, which, though an awesome and noble avenue to take, can prove hugely challenging for LGBT folks. Most countries outside the U.S. will not adopt to gay parents. In a strange twist of happenstance, the governor of Michigan signed legislation permitting faith-based adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBT parents not long before we relocated to Colorado. Our home state is not unique in that regard, as several other states allow the application of the petitioning couple to be denied based upon nothing more their sexual orientation.

Though adoption was quickly removed from the table, we uncovered a new and more fundamental truth that lived deep within us; holding a genetic relation to our child was of greater importance to us than we had first known. With that in mind, having a child through IVF via gestational carrier as the path to parenthood was the only logical option for us.

Making the decision to pursue that route was the easy part, though it is not without its own unique set of challenges. Like so many others, our biggest roadblock was attached to the price tag. I remember staring slack-jawed at the full sum once everything had been tallied up. The total cost of IVF treatments is positively eye-watering. Resources to lighten the load do exist, though the majority are geared towards heterosexual couples. Most applications for grants or financial assistance list “husband” and “wife” on the form, rather than “partner’s name”. Even “Parent 1” and “Parent 2” would work in a Suessical pinch.

To complicate matters further, information about LGBT-inclusive adoption agencies can be tricky to find. Surely you can understand our sheer joy when we found an aptly named organization that exclusively helps gay men who want to have a child through IVF – “Men Having Babies”. Using the tools on their website, we poured over all available information and researched many different organizations nationwide before selecting InVia Fertility, out of Chicago. With that important line crossed off, we could turn attention back to the elephant in the room: how make this happen financially. As money savvy as we fancy ourselves to be, our piggy banks wouldn’t provide enough of a springboard on their own. We had to broaden our sights to help make this dream real.

Ben and Erik, surrounded by loved ones. Photo by Kendra Stanley-Mills.

Education is an important component of any fundraising effort, and we are not unique in that regard. As a part of this process, we have sought to bring awareness and information to our friends and family. Try as we have, however, some have made the assumption that adoption, rather than IVF, is the end goal. On more than one occasion, well-intentioned people have asked “what country will you adopt your child from?” or “have you met the birthmother yet”? We are surrounded by people brimming with excitement for us to become fathers, though some may be unaware of the complicated nature this road holds for us. Launching a crowdfunding site hosted by YouCaring.com has provided an effective platform to keep our loved ones up-to-date on our journey while serving to dispel any mysteries surrounding IVF and what that looks like for us.

Ben’s passion for knitting is helping build his family. Photo by Erik Holladay-McCann.

More creative means of capital generation are also supplementing our crowdfunding efforts. I have been a knitting hobbyist for years, though this new adventure of ours provided me the push to begin selling finished works and patterns of my own design, under the brand “NoahNoa Crafts”. Though a seemingly unusual brand title, it was born from the love that my husband and I have held for the name, Noah, for years. When translated from its original Hebrew roots, it embodies “comfort”, while its feminine variant, Noa, signifies movement. It only seemed a natural fit, as those are two qualities I love most about knitting, and hope to model to the children we bring into the world. While getting a small start-up such as this off the ground can be time-consuming and occasionally stressful, it is ultimately rewarding, which is not entirely different from parenthood.

Follow Ben and Erik’s family building progress on You Caring and shop NoahNoa Crafts.

#startasking About Parenting After Pregnancy Loss and Infertility – Lauren’s Perspective

Lauren of Rainbows & Unicorns, a site about parenting after pregnancy loss and infertility, reflects on mothering her daughter who was born after donor egg IVF. This story does include an image of parenting. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Lauren!

I scoop up my toddler and carry her upstairs to begin our bedtime routine. Diaper, pajamas, teeth, goodnight Daddy, books, and then — my favorite part — songs and cuddling.

She lies on my belly, her head against my chest. “Saaah!” When one song ends, she looks up and asks for another. And another. And another. Eventually my little ball of energy goes limp in my arms. I hold her for a few minutes, treasuring her chubby cheeks and the smell of her sweet, malty little head before kissing her goodnight until she wakes up to nurse at four in the morning.

Lauren with her daughter at bedtime.

Lauren with her daughter at bedtime.

Although singing the same limited repertoire until my throat hurts and not having more than a five-hour stretch of sleep for almost two years grate in different ways, I remember how it wasn’t always like this. In the tough moments — like trying to console a teething child having an hour-long exhaustion tantrum at 3 am — I somehow find inner strength. I get to do this.

I am a mother thanks to many people, including a younger mom who donated her eggs so that I could experience the same joy she felt when she held her son for the first time.

It wasn’t joy that I felt when I met my daughter. By then, I’d been through too much to let myself feel anything so big. After miscarriage, infertility, being told I would never have a healthy genetic child, and a high-risk pregnancy requiring me to deliver via planned cesarean, I couldn’t allow myself to believe that I was finally a mom. Not until I heard my daughter’s first cries. Not until I held her. Not until she was furiously suckling did it dawn on me that I was out of the trenches.

But am I really a regular parent now? Parenting after infertility is a strange place to be. As I like to describe it, “I’m no longer in the trenches, but I’m covered in mud.”

The grief of infertility is hard to remember. Like the face of someone you loved a long time ago, it’s hard to recollect its features in detail. That is, until a whiff of their perfume, or a pregnancy announcement, or an innocent remark from someone who has no idea why the question “When are you having another baby?” causes your heart to quietly crack a little.

“I’m no longer in the trenches, but I’m covered in mud.”

For many parents like me, we’ve left Infertility Island but we’re moored offshore somewhere else. Play dates with other parents — so many blissfully unaware of everything that can go wrong before, during, and after conception — can have moments that are hard to navigate. How do you relate to another parent who casually announces she plans to get pregnant in March so the baby is born before Christmas? What do you say when someone asks when you’re having another baby? How do you casually explain egg donation when asked where your daughter’s red hair comes from? In time, the answers come.

Don’t misunderstand; none of this is as hard as trying to have a baby. But when you’re a graduating member of a club you never wanted to join, you’re caught between two worlds: the one you had to leave once your child arrived; and the other everyone else assumes you’re in.

I have my “rainbow unicorn” (if a “rainbow” is a baby born after loss, I surmised one born after infertility would be a “unicorn”) and she fills my days with more joy than I thought possible. But joy and pain aren’t mutually exclusive. What a lot of people don’t realize is that having a baby resolves childlessness — not infertility.

You’re caught between two worlds: the one you had to leave once your child arrived; and the other everyone else assumes you’re in.

Even though we’re parents, we’re still infertile. Unless we fall into a small lucky statistic of spontaneously conceiving after infertility, if we want a second or third child we will have to submit to the invasive, sometimes painful, and always expensive tests and protocols we endured a few years before — this is equally true whether you do infertility treatment or adopt.

If we want a second child, we’re lucky to have eight chromosomally normal frozen embryos to choose from. All we have to do is pick a date for transfer. Most of my infertile comrades don’t have leftover embryos, either because they didn’t do IVF or, if they did, they didn’t have any embryos left over. It struck me the other week that some of my friends are going to have to go through the whole TTC thing all over again. They have my full support and admiration.

For me, parenting after infertility has given me some unexpected blessings. First and foremost, I have this amazing little girl in my life. She’s affectionate, smart, talkative, mischievous, and healthy. We might not share DNA, but we share a sense of humor, a love of Marmite, a dislike of tomatoes, and we’re both pretty tall with big feet. Most importantly, she’s here, and she couldn’t have been created any other way. My journey to motherhood was filled with more pain than I thought I could bear, but I’d do it all over again to have this sweet child that I get to call my daughter.

Eighteen months into this parenting gig, I am more or less at peace with a whole lot of stuff that I never thought I’d be able to accept.

I have a chromosome disorder which means genetic children aren’t possible, so I chose egg donation to build my family. I can say that openly and joyfully now that I’m a parent. I can be open about the way my daughter was conceived because the irrational shame of not being able to reproduce has dissipated.

Breastfeeding has been tremendously healing in this respect. I wasn’t expecting much, so I was surprised that it came to me so easily. Being able to feed my daughter they way I hoped has restored faith in my otherwise broken body. My body can’t make a baby that will live, but it’s pretty damn good at growing and feeding them!

Over the last year and a half, I’ve spent days looking into my nursing daughter’s beautiful eyes fixed on my face — the same eyes I admired in our donor. Not recognizing any of my family of origin’s features in my daughter was, at first, strange. Sometimes she looks like her dad, sometimes she looks like our donor. To my surprise, I like seeing our donor’s influence. It’s reassuring to see something of the special woman I chose to replace my DNA reflected in my daughter.

Eighteen months into this parenting gig, I am more or less at peace with a whole lot of stuff that I never thought I’d be able to accept.

You might say I had a crash course in comfort levels, though. My daughter’s hair is a deep red, and every time we’re out three people, on average, stop us to admiringly ask if red hair runs in my family. At first the question made me wince. I didn’t know how to answer the question without also sharing the circumstances of my kid’s conception. I’ve got good at saying, “Nope! But isn’t it beautiful?” When pressed, I explain, “Red hair is a recessive gene, which means both genetic parties have to carry it.” In this way, I’m able to acknowledge my daughter’s genetic origins while not divulging too much to a stranger if I don’t feel like it.

I guess that’s what parenthood is about: constantly being surprised and having to readjust expectations, all the while practicing patience, kindness, and even finding the funny side when something’s gone wrong.

And in that sense, my infertility journey prepared me well.

Lauren is a mother via egg donation, after miscarriage, infertility, and a massive postpartum hemorrhage. She is a writer, editor, and designer at Rainbows-Unicorns.com, a community blog for parenting after pregnancy loss and infertility. Originally from London, Lauren lives in San Diego with her husband and their toddler. Follow her on Twitter at @DEIVFmama.