Reflections on UURAF

by Juliette Givhan, The ART of Infertility’s Undergraduate Research Intern

This past Friday, the 13th of April, I was able to participate in Michigan State University’s 18th annual University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum. The forum, which was held at the student Union on State’s campus, was an opportunity for students to summarize the research they had conducted throughout the year and present it in front of a public audience in the format of a poster.

As I arrived at the Union to present a synopsis of the work I have done with The ART of Infertility Project I was prepared to be disappointed. UURAF, while an opportunity to present research, is also a competition… one that I was sure would be dominated by STEM majors who would expertly present posters chock full of graphs, data charts, and ground-breaking findings. I felt that my poster, which displayed art from the project and the reality of a human story that cannot be quantified in the same way that other research can, would be out of place. I didn’t know, as I was clipping my poster to the stock board I had been provided, that I would leave the room after an hour and a half of presenting my findings feeling a huge sense of accomplishment.

I left UURAF wishing I could have stayed longer. The forum provided a space where I could accomplish one of my main goals of working with this project: to spread word of the reality of infertility and to display that art can be used as a means of conveying complex emotions. The poster I presented was broken into five sections: a break down of The ART of Infertility Project and what my role within the project has been, a description of the workshop— Reproductive Writes— held on State’s campus, my own artistic response to the topic of infertility, and a small section for facts about infertility. The last and largest section of the poster was taken up by interviews I had conducted with Annie Kuo and Madge Harris-Rowland, two women of color whose stories built a commentary on representation within the world of infertility. My favorite part of participating in UURAF was being able to spread the narrative of these two women whose varied experiences presented a reality outside of the often-assumed norm of infertility solely affecting white women.

I also really enjoyed interacting with interested passerby as well as the judges who would determine the winner within my category (Humanities and Performing Arts.) Everyone that I spoke to was interested in the project and asked questions. Their eyes widened in alarm when presented with the financial reality of trying to treat infertility, of looking into adoption or egg freezing. I was sharing knowledge with people that they didn’t previously have, and that was really rewarding. I even gave my email to a woman who wanted to know if the project was still taking submissions.

Overall, I really appreciated being able to share the work not only I— but Elizabeth, Maria and Robin—had done on the project. Presenting at UURAF put my research into perspective, it let me see a reflection of the work I had done this semester—work that I am proud of and that I hope will impact those who were able to witness it and spread awareness of the reality of infertility.

We were all excited to learn that Juliette’s poster won first place in her division, Humanities and the Performing Arts. Congratulations, Juliette!

Perspectives on Reproductive Writes from Juliette Givhan

An intro to our Michigan State University (MSU) Undergraduate Research Intern, Juliette Givhan, and her take on our recent Reproductive Writes workshop at MSU. 

Hello,

My name is Juliette Givhan and I’m a new addition to The ART of Infertility team. I joined Elizabeth, Maria, and Robin with the goal of helping them organize, analyze, procure, and ultimately anthologize the creative materials surrounding infertility and reproductive rights generated for this project.

I study at Michigan State University where I’m near the end of the pursuit of an English degree with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in African American and African Studies. I’m a poet and I write from my individual experience as a Black American. My writing has been shaped by this focus and I’ve come to realize that this has often involved an erasure of my experiences as a woman. I find that where I am proud to be Black and have always felt a strong need to express my Blackness, I rarely uplift and take pride in my identity as a woman.

When I think of what it means to be a woman I think of the stereotypes of femininity sculpted by patriarchal influences: the mother of many children figure, the stay at home domestic goddess figure, etc. Since I have never fit into any of these roles I have rarely thought about or processed the reality of my own identity as a female, one defined by my own experiences. My goal with this project, then, is to embrace the fact that my actions- the daily experiences that collect as my identity- need to also have a stage on which to be addressed. I think working on The ART of Infertility Project is going to offer the space for my writing and thinking to take this first step.

Infertility as a topic of research is something that I am interested in learning more about because of how much I don’t know. I have had connections with IF before in the women on one side of my family, who have repeatedly experienced complications with pregnancies and conceiving, but I don’t know the facts or figures. I don’t know the emotional toll IF has on people, or how to accept that a reality might exist in my own life that means one day I might not be able to have the children that I don’t even know if I want.

I find how this project uses art to express these difficult, diverse, and complex issues to be extremely comforting. Art is the medium I have personally used to express myself, so I believe in its power of expression and healing. I’m looking forward to helping create an anthology of this projects work because a tangible and accessible collection could potentially connect so many people who could benefit from this community of support.

Participants at Reproductive Writes, February 28 at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI

The Reproductive Writes workshop that took place in the LookOut! Gallery on Michigan State University’s campus was the first time I’ve been to a workshop that addressed the issue of reproductive rights. When I started working on The ART of Infertility Project I knew very little about reproductive rights because it was not something that I ever heard talked about. Our society censors information about the human body, especially the female body, and this gap of information has largely left me ignorant to the issues that exist and affect the people of this country. I came to the event excited to deconstruct my own ignorance in these topics and nervous at admit to how much I didn’t know.

We started the evening with a question: what does reproductive rights mean to you? After having time to reflect those who chose were able to share their definitions. This moment was particularly interesting for me because no two definitions were the same, though parallels certainly existed. One woman defined reproductive rights as wanting to end the stigmatism she felt from outsiders who expected her to be pregnant because of her position as someone’s wife. Another’s definition was having the right to choose whether to have a child and letting that option belong to the individual it affected. My own definition of reproductive rights was having access to affordable healthcare to support a fetus and later a child. I realized that as a broke college student, my definition of reproductive rights was bound to be different than someone who was married or someone who was diagnosed as infertile.

Realizing that the definition of reproductive rights was fluid was as empowering as it was obvious… after I’d given it some thought. Though the room only held about fifteen people, several diverse backgrounds were represented. There were undergraduate students new to the conversation like myself, a graduate student, a nurse familiar with the medical side of working with IF, women from the MSU and Lansing community, even a man who used a penis shaped poem to portray his interpretation of reproductive rights. Each voice had its own story to tell and interpretation to make and I appreciated hearing all of them.

Having had some time to reflect on the workshop I think my main take away was that more spaces like these need to exist, where people from diverse backgrounds can come together and talk about the realities that exist for them. Being in a space to talk about these things and make poetry and have discussion was a relief after so many years of silence. I think more people need to have the chance of experiencing something like Reproductive Writes because spreading awareness of issues is the best way, in my opinion, to end ignorance.

The ART of Infertility as a Research Project

by Maria Novotny

As Elizabeth mentioned in last week’s blog post, we have been a bit quiet this summer. And as you may have learned from reading her post, while we were quiet, we certainly were busy both personally and professionally.

This summer I spent the majority of my time working on my dissertation titled, The ART of Infertility: Conceiving a Participatory Health Intervention Community. As some of you may know, I am fourth year PhD student in Rhetoric & Writing at Michigan State University. My research then looks at how women navigate an infertility diagnosis and use art as method of personal reflection and activism (read more at my website).

This coming May I will graduate and hopefully take a job as an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at a university somewhere in the United States. My responsibilities in this role would include teaching writing courses ranging from health and medical writing to rhetorical research methods and multimodal composition. But – to first receive a job offer – I need to have a completed dissertation. Hence, a summer of writing all about infertility.

Waking each morning knowing that I would once again be thinking and theorizing about infertility allowed me to really take time to process my own journey. I actually went back to graduate school when my husband and I were first having trouble getting pregnant. As an English major in college, I had always wanted to go and receive my master’s degree so that I could teach at the collegiate level. With no pregnancy on the horizon, and having just moved to a new state for Kevin’s job, I applied and was accepted into Michigan State’s Critical Studies in Literacy and Pedagogy Master’s program.

In this program, I spent two years taking graduate level composition and education courses as well as teaching sections first-year writing. All the while, I quietly continued to try and get pregnant naturally. Graduate school was simply another distraction, until I enrolled in a course titled “Queer Rhetorics.”

Reading Hennessy’s article made me think how much infertility is tied to the production of materiality – literally being capable of producing a child. What happens though when our bodies can’t make a baby?

This course shifted my entire professional identity. As I read books and articles for this class, I started to see my own struggle with feeling often – abnormal. Especially in the case of sex. Few, if anyone I knew, could understand how messed up my sex life was because of infertility. But in reading queer theory, I could begin to find traces of myself in the other stories shared with me.

I began to eventually write reflections on the connections I was making to infertility and began to feel energized in sharing my own struggles and finding a space for infertility in my studies. In fact, part of my final project of this course resulted in several pieces of creative writing. For example, “The House” is a short vignette that is part of The ART of Infertility’s exhibit. My engagement in this course led me to apply for a PhD in Rhetoric & Writing – and long story short — ended up once again at MSU.

For the past fours years now, I have been writing, researching and presenting on what I call “rhetorics of infertility” which examines the meaning-making process of navigating an infertility diagnosis. Partnering with The ART of Infertility allowed me to explore this topic further by looking at how multimodal composition, such as creating art, opens spaces for personal validation as well surfaces a desire to use art as a method of activism.

Facilitating a micro workshop in Houston with the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition

Facilitating a micro workshop in Houston with the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition

As I begin my last year in graduate school, I still am not pregnant nor am I in treatment. But I am part of a wonderful organization – The ART of Infertility. And look forward to continuing this research as a co-director with Elizabeth. Through this partnership, we look forward to building a digital archive to provide greater access to narratives and artwork we have collected for the infertility community as a resource for support groups.

As a project that uses art exhibitions as a method to translate embodied, and often invisible or unrecognized challenges of an infertility diagnosis, we hope to continue bringing the exhibit to a variety of audiences. This summer, we were fortunate enough to travel to The Turek Clinic and share this work with physicians, fertility specialists and therapists. And this fall, we are thrilled to announce that we will be traveling internationally to present the exhibition for Merck’s Patient Day in Switzerland on November 9th. The purpose of Patient Day is to help educate staff members about the experience of infertility, and the other diseases and conditions, treated by the pharmaceuticals made by Merck.

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We’ll be flying into Geneva and look forward to collecting infertility stories in the surrounding areas while in Europe.

We haven’t finalized our exact travel dates yet, but for those who follow us in Europe, we will be on your continent for the second week in November, give or take.  Please contact us at info@artofinfertilty.org if you would like to be interviewed for the project.

And thank you to all who have supported this project throughout its journey. Elizabeth and I are truly amazed at your continued enthusiasm for this organization.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

How I Spent My Summer Vacation
A post by Elizabeth

You haven’t heard much from us this summer. We’ve taken a bit of a break from our regular social media posts to work behind the scenes. It’s been very busy.

After working as a photographer for the University of Michigan’s Department of Pathology for just over 16 years, I accepted the new position of Communications Specialist early this summer. I’ll be spending less time on imaging and more time managing the content for the department’s website as well as Inside Pathology magazine, and our annual report.

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Dressed for the morgue.

Within minutes of accepting my new roll, my partner unexpectedly announced his retirement. They don’t plan to back fill my old position and haven’t yet filled his, so I’ve been trying to manage it all since June 24th. This has meant that I’m on call for autopsy service every morning and get little else done!

A job to cover autopsy photography has finally been posted and closes on Friday. I’m hopeful that we can get someone in to relieve me soon and I can spend more time on the new job that I’m excited to dive into.

I worked with a delightful high school student this summer to get our artwork and supplies organized at our storage unit. It took us some time but everything is so much easier to find now. It looks like it might not be much longer before we need a bigger space. We’re all paid up through March but this will be one of our upcoming needs for sponsorship.

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Artwork and supplies in an orderly fashion.

We’re hard at work on our 501(c)(3) paperwork. Our articles of incorporation have been filed and it won’t be long until we’re a full-fledged non-profit. We’ve started assembling our board and are excited about what our non-profit status will mean for the sustainability of the project.

My sisters, my mom, and I went to see Dolly Parton in concert in August. Seeing Dolly was on my mom’s bucket list and attending the show induced tears of happiness. Dolly is an amazing performer and I view her as a great child free role model. It was great to spend an evening with Dolly and some of the nearest and dearest ladies in my life.

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Waiting for Dolly to take the stage.

My nieces came to Michigan for their annual summer visit. This year they stayed with us for 3 weeks. It’s never long enough. There were play dates, night time glow parties at my parents’ pool, and we tried our hand at our first batches of French macarons.

Our first attempt at macarons. Not too bad!

Our first attempt at macarons. Not too bad!

I have to admit that the macarons totally intimidated me. I only agreed because my middle niece really wanted to try making them. It ended up being a great project that we all enjoyed doing together and I learned that I shouldn’t be afraid to try things that scare me. Well, at least recipes that scare me ;).

I took a trip to the REACH Art Studio in Lansing where we’ll be showing some work from the permanent collection during the Cultural Rhetorics Conference at Michigan State University at the end of this month. Maria, Robin Silbergleid, and I will also be presenting at the conference. I hope you’ll come see the exhibit on Friday September 30th from 6 – 8 pm. 

We’re teaming up with the University of Michigan Center for Reproductive Medicine for a cigar box art workshop on October 10. We’ve also been prepping for a wind chime art workshop with the Utah Infertility Resource Center and the talk we’ll be presenting at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s Scientific Congress in Salt Lake City on October 18. We have another exciting trip and exhibit coming up in November and we’ll be announcing the location once we have our travel finalized.

We'll have a variety of materials available to create wind chimes for pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day.

We’ll have a variety of materials available to create wind chimes for pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day.

This summer has brought some challenges for me in navigating my infertility. Mainly, how it’s affecting socializing with my fertile friends. I’m finding it hard to spend time with the families who have kids around the same age my twins would be had they survived. It’s made for some cancelled plans and afternoons in tears. Fortunately, my friends are willing to stick by while I try to figure out how to handle these situations.

Between this and the crazy work schedule, I’ve been utilizing all of my tools for self-care. Many days, on the way home from work in my vanpool, I color. I love the images in the Coloring Conception adult coloring book. Don’t forget that we’re going to be doing an online exhibit of images from the book this fall and you’re invited to participate. You can download the pages from a link in creator, Buffy Trupps’, blog post. Just scroll down past the video and enter your name and email address and the files will be mailed to you. Those who participate have the chance to win a Mindful Fertility Journal.

I recently finished coloring this page of Coloring Conceptions.

I recently finished coloring this page of Coloring Conceptions.

Finally, over the weekend, I took the first non-work vacation in, well, I can’t actually remember the last non-work trip I took. I met up with my friend Jo in Chicago. Our friendship is one of the many I have infertility to thank for. We spent time exploring the city, eating great food and getting inspired by exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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With Jo in the Windy City.

Maria and I are in the process of hiring social media interns so we can get back to bringing you some great content every day of the week.

We’re always looking for those interested in sharing their stories through our blog as guest posters, those who would like to do an oral history interview, and those who would like to share their artwork through our exhibits. We invite you to learn more at our website. Feel free to contact me via email at elizabeth@artofinfertility.org or tweet us @artofif.

Elizabeth