Redefining Family

I was photographing a work event a few years ago when the brother-in-law of the guest of honor struck up a conversation with me. It started with small talk about my camera, as it often does, and then he asked, “Do you have a family?” I didn’t have to think about my answer, and immediately said yes. He asked a follow up question about who was in my family and I told him about my husband and my dog. He looked positively confused. Only then did I realize he was inquiring about my children. I don’t have children, but I DO have a family.

Elizabeth's family includes husband, Scott and dog, Spot.

Elizabeth’s family includes husband, Scott and dog, Spot. Not pictured, the newest member of the family, an 8 year old chihuahua.

It’s a common myth that you must have children to be part of a family. In actuality, families come in many different varieties. Families of two adults are a family. Those who are not partnered are still part of a family of relatives and friends that they create for themselves. I feel a little pain in my heart any time I hear of a “family friendly” event, when what is really meant is that an event is appropriate for children.

I have no question that my husband and I and our two dogs are a family, even if we don’t fit the vision that comes to mind for most people. I would like the work that we do through ART of Infertility to reflect that families come in all varieties and help broaden what comes to mind when one hears the word. Below, Maria shares her thoughts on family and we’d love to hear what family means to you.

Elizabeth

 

When I was 21, two of my college roommates returned from their European study abroad trip. They came back with a range of gifts – Belgium chocolates, scarves, perfumes –typical European presents. My gift, though, was slightly atypical. I remember opening up the bag, hoping for a scarf, and yet finding a baby’s bib featuring a cartoonish image of the 1964 era Beatles. Holding the bib up, I burst into laughter – it was a gift only close friends would know I would want.

The bib Maria received from her friends.

The bib Maria received from her friends.

When we met each other in our college dorm rooms, it was our love of the Beatles that brought us together. In many ways, the Beatles forged our friendship. But why a bib? The running joke was that I would most likely be the first to get pregnant. I had the serious relationship. I had a huge family. I had a baby brother whom I shared an 18 year old age difference with. It was assumed I would get married out of college, have kids and that the bib would be a way to tell my babies about their Auntie Rachel and Auntie Kelsey. It has taken me now 8 years to get rid of that bib.

I’ve transported that bib from WI to MI and back to WI. Throughout multiple moves, I always new where that bib was – packed nicely away in a bin of other various childhood mementos. Unpacking from my most recent move this past summer, I came across the bib. Taking it out of the bin, a wave of emotions flooded myself. Fond memories of college appeared, and then shortly dissipated as I came to realize that I had never used the bib and (most likely) will never use that bib. Every move my husband and I made, I thought of getting rid of the bib. But getting rid of the bib, felt like getting rid of hope that some miraculous baby would come into our lives.

This last week, I finally felt ready to get of the bib. So many things have happened to my husband and me – particularly in this past year. We’ve moved again back to our home state of WI. We’ve changed careers. We’ve said goodbye to our first dog. But through all of these changes, we’ve found happiness – finally– after years of struggling with coming to terms with our infertility. Much of this happiness I attribute to embracing the family that we are.

Maria with her family.

Maria with her family.

We are a family that may never have our own children, and we are okay with that. We are family that believes being an awesome aunt and uncle can be just as important as being a good parent. We are family that believes our two dogs love us just like our children would love us. We are family that believes we became stronger because of infertility, when we could have chosen for it to split us apart. We are family that may not be recognized or viewed as complete, but knows in our hearts, we are who we are – a family of four – Kevin, Maria + the pups Mason & Gia.

 

My Infertility Wardrobe – Reflections from Elizabeth

My mother once told me that she was so excited when she was pregnant with me, in part, because it meant she got to buy new clothes. Her budget for clothing was tight but a changing body meant she’d have no choice but to expand her wardrobe. My relationship with clothing and fertility has been a little more complicated.

I knew, long before I started trying to conceive, or received my diagnosis of Luteal Phase Defect, Endometriosis, and Diminished Ovarian Reserve, that when I got pregnant, I was going to show off my growing belly. No flowing tops with empire-waists for me! I was going to wear form fitting dresses, showing off every curve.

Once I went off birth control, I was reluctant to buy new clothes. It was only a matter of time before I wouldn’t be able to fit into them, right? I needed to save my money for trips to Motherhood Maternity and shopping A Pea in the Pod, and the maternity line of stores like GAP online.

Months turned to years and my clothes were getting tattered and faded. It was a stand off of sorts. I refused to give in and buy something new. Eventually, just after beginning a treatment course of inter-uterine inseminations with a hybrid of oral and injectable hormones, I needed a new winter coat.

My mother-in-law, Beverly, and I took a trip to TJ Maxx on a Saturday afternoon. I picked out two. One was Calvin Klein. Long, black, full of down, with faux fur framing my face on the detachable hood. The other, an Anne Klein of bright red wool. Beverly, an excellent shopping partner because of her excitability over a fantastic find, gushed about how cute it was and asked, “Oh! Don’t you hope you don’t get pregnant right away so you can wear it a little while?”

I didn’t care. The coat would fit after my pregnancy, or it wouldn’t, but at least I’d have a baby in my arms.

In the red coat, surrounded by children on a hay ride on our friends' family farm.

In the red coat, surrounded by children on a hay ride on our friends’ family farm.

Around that time, I decided to readjust my perspective and started using clothes as my consolation prize for not being pregnant each month. With the arrival of each new cycle, the sure sign that treatment had once again been unsuccessful and the prospect of having to buy maternity clothes was delayed for another month, I would head off to the Limited, or scour the racks at Marshall’s after appointments with the reproductive endocrinologist. I bought sweaters, camisoles, tops, but never bottoms, still holding on to the possibility that it wouldn’t be long before I was pregnant and I would have difficulty zipping and buttoning them.

My dresser drawers started overflowing and I had no choice but to start moving clothes into the dresser in the guest room that was supposed to become a nursery.

At Advocacy Day in 2014 wearing clothes purchased specifically for the occasion.

At Advocacy Day in 2014 wearing clothes purchased specifically for the occasion.

In March of 2013, we moved on to IVF. I had originally hoped to do it in February, just before 35th birthday. I liked the idea of using 34 year-old eggs to create my embryos. Everyone knows things go downhill after 35, right? Unfortunately, since I now live in the world of infertility, I know that things can go downhill at any age.

Our IVF cycle resulted in three, grade 5AA blastocysts. They were high quality, hatched, and ready to implant and become my children. They were beautiful. We transferred two in May and waited to find out if they’d implanted meaning that I was finally, after four years of dealing with infertility, pregnant.

On the night before my beta, after we’d had dinner and I’d taken the dog for a walk, I tested. I seriously wasn’t expecting anything. The words, “It’s negative” were already coming out of my mouth when I realize it wasn’t. Positive. The line wasn’t very dark but it was there. My husband and I were all smiles and I made some comment about being his pregnant wife. Still, we were cautiously optimistic. We knew the blood test the next day would give us a better indication of what to expect.

The next morning, I saw a rainbow on my way to have my blood drawn. That had to be a good sign. The nurse called with my numbers a bit later. At 30, they weren’t where I wanted to be but I was indeed pregnant.  Suddenly, I didn’t hate the pregnant women I passed in the hall at work. I was one of them. It was exciting but also a complete identity crisis. I was fully immersed in the infertility world at that point and the thought of switching gears and becoming a parent were daunting. Still, I smiled when I thought of raising my child alongside my best friend’s daughter who would be just a bit older. Summers at the lake, sleepovers. After years of being left behind by friends as they moved into parenthood, I’d finally be moving forward and joining them.

On the day of beta number two, my mom and I were shopping in Metro Detroit. I needed some summer clothes and took care to choose items that, as my mother-in-law had said about the red coat, I’d be able to wear a little while. At Nordstrom, I fell in love with a light-weight tweed skirt that, unfortunately for me, a newly pregnant woman, fit perfectly. There was no give, meaning it wouldn’t fit long enough to make it to the “yes” hook in my fitting room.

I paid for my items, we had some lunch, and made our way to an antique store. It was in the parking lot there that I got the news. My beta had gone down. The pregnancy was not viable. I emailed my husband the message, “No more shots.”

I thought I could hold it together but I couldn’t, we hit the highway to head back to the hotel. All I could think was, “I should have bought the skirt”, like doing so would have guaranteed that my pregnancy would have continued. For a moment I panicked and my mom and I considered turning around and going back to Nordstrom. We didn’t.

With my husband on our "IVF didn't work so we're taking a vacation" trip. I bought the hat at the resort gift shop after forgetting mine at home.

With my husband on our “IVF didn’t work so we’re taking a vacation” trip. I bought the hat at the resort gift shop after forgetting mine at home.

After my early miscarriage, that skirt haunted me. I looked for it on repeat trips to the mall and it wasn’t there. Months passed and my husband, Beverly, and I were visiting my nieces in Minnesota for their birthdays. We’d been at the Mall of America for hours with a trip to the aquarium, amusement park, the movie theater, and more. The girls were anxious to get back to the hotel to play with their new birthday toys but I wanted to try to take advantage of Minnesota’s tax-free clothing. I said good bye and I’ll see you soon as the rest of my family boarded the elevator to find the shuttle back to our room. I didn’t have much time, but I headed into Nordstrom Rack.

There it was. The skirt. I needed some closure. I took it to the fitting room, this skirt that I hadn’t been able to get out of my mind since the day of my miscarriage. The skirt that I passed up because I was pregnant, then wasn’t. My heart was racing as I put it on and zipped it up. I looked at myself in the mirror and was surprised to see that it wasn’t as fantastic as I had remembered. Relief rushed over me.

Since then, we unsuccessfully transferred our last embryo. We’ve moved on to trying to regroup. To find ourselves after more than half a decade of the turmoil that comes along with an infertility diagnosis. In addition to regular therapy, I’ve indulged in a little too much retail therapy.  My recent splurge (a great deal at Nordstrom Rack, yet still not cheap), a Burberry dress. Not because it’s Burberry but because the fabric feels amazing and it’s in a style that I’ve always wanted, but I’ve never before been able to find in proportions that fit me right. It’s hanging in my closet, with the tags still on. I go back and forth between thinking I should return it and imagining myself wearing it to present about the ART of Infertility at an upcoming medical humanities conference.

The Burberry dress. It's nowhere near that short on me!

The Burberry dress. It’s nowhere near that short on me!

Click here to vote on whether I should return or keep the dress.

I’m not yet sure if my journey will take me to a life living child free or to parenthood. I imagine both scenarios and there’s a wardrobe that goes along with each. In one, there’s shopping without the worry of my newly purchased pants suddenly not fitting, neatly folding clothes and then doing my best to cram them into already over-filled suitcases for more travel with ART of IF, carefully chosen outfits for business meetings, a variety of shoes, belts, and jewelry for accessorizing.

In the other, there are also the shoulders of my sweaters soaked with baby drool, the hem of my skirt being tugged by the tiny hand of a son or daughter, urging my attention to his or her level. There’s me in the stands at a ball game in the rain, wearing a wind resistant parka and, eventually, a trip to a boutique to purchase a mother-of-the-bride, or groom, dress.

I don’t imagine that one wardrobe is better than the other. I believe I can be happy wearing either one. But will one make me happier? Feel more fulfilled? More at peace? I’m not sure yet. So, I’ll take this time to work on re-weaving the fabric of my life that’s been worn thin over the past six and a half years, hoping that I’ll eventually know how to cut it up and stitch it back together into something beautiful and new.

s/m/othering

We’re featuring artwork from the project’s permanent collection in this week’s blog post.  Marissa McClure has created this piece, s/m/othering, in which she has removed the babies, children, and reproductive organs from well known pieces of art. She then invites others to choose an image that speaks to them and share their reaction to the image by pasting it, along with their narrative, in a book.

File Aug 18, 4 26 43 PM

File Aug 18, 4 23 30 PM

We’ve been traveling with the book and it’s been in Iowa City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Northern California with us so far. We’re sharing some images and stories from the piece this post and you can look for us, and the book, at our upcoming events in New JerseyMichigan, California, Illinois, and Arizona where we’ll invite you to share your own story through Marissa’s piece, mini interviews and photo sessions, and some other fun interactive projects we have planned.

File Aug 18, 4 22 41 PM - Version 2

File Aug 18, 4 27 23 PM

You can read Marissa’s complete paper on s/m/othering at this link. Thank you, Marissa, for sharing your art with us!

File Aug 18, 4 28 24 PM

 

 

 

A Guy’s Perspective on Father’s Day and Infertility

We’re fortunate that as word about ART of Infertility gets out, we have more and more men sharing their stories with us. This week, Kevin Jordan tells us a bit about his infertility journey. Thanks so much, Kevin, for giving us an inside view on what it’s like living as a man with infertility.

A Guy’s Perspective on Father’s Day and Infertility

Running long distances, I work things out. I work out the sadness that I will never see my wife give birth. I work out the ways that I address co-workers questions about “when” and “if” we are going to have kids. I work out my own anxieties and frustrations that come with my wife and I choosing to live childfree. For me, running is my thing. My way of being a guy and dealing with infertility.

Two years ago, I decided to embrace my passion for running that developed out of my infertile frustrations. That Father’s Day weekend, I ran my first full marathon in Northern Michigan. For anyone else who has run a marathon, you know that it is physically grueling. But running along the shores of Lake Michigan, navigating through the dense fog building up from off the lake, I found renewal and a spirit to continue to move on.

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Running the marathon on Father’s Day was also symbolic of a new view on life. To rethink how I may want to experience fatherhood – possibly not as a biological or adoptive father – but as a dog-father, an uncle, a better friend.

This year, as my wife and I move to a state where both our families live, we have had to renegotiate how to handle holidays like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. In the past, living out-of-state, we simply would send a text or card. But this year is different, and this is challenging. We are expected to celebrate these events in person, expected to celebrate the dad’s and grandfather’s we have in our life. And while I appreciate and honor those men in my life, I can’t help but question where I exist in relation to all of this celebration?

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Overall, I think what’s most trying for most of whom are infertile, it is being asked to do the same things, when you just aren’t the same person. When we moved to Michigan five years ago, my wife and I were different people – not yet diagnosed with infertility. As we return to Wisconsin though, I have to admit that infertility has not just changed us – it has changed me. For example, I have two different family events where I feel like I need to put on a happy face and pretend that I’m on board with celebrating a holiday that explicitly reminds me of one of the hardest challenges I’ve faced in my life. This is hard and often leaves me feeling distant. Father’s Day isn’t about me. But perhaps even more frustrating, is the fact that talking about how Father’s Day isn’t for me is simply a conversation most men don’t want to have.

But I’ve come to realize that not everyone is going to understand the distance I feel when participating in these family events. Some may say this realization is fatalist, but I actually think this realization is freeing. Getting to this point is a relief, because you transcend into a new space that only a certain group will ever get to, should they take the time to. And I encourage others – especially men – to take the time to be self-reflective, to think back on those frustrating experiences with infertility and to find a hobby to work out those moments. For me it was running, for others it could be skiing or golfing or fishing. Whatever it is, it should be something because men dealing with infertility have different needs and coping mechanisms than their wives. Taking the time to care for yourself is crucial. Without self-care, how can you care for your wife? How can you transcend into a fatherly-figure?  For me, I have gained much from taking the time to reflect on my infertility. I have found a new self-confidence that can be applied in other avenues of life. Try to look at this weekend as an opportunity to get to this place. You won’t regret it. Cheers!

Kevin Jordan

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Kevin lives in Madison, WI with his wife and three-dogs. His experience with infertility encouraged him not only to become an avid runner but also switch careers. He recently graduated with his M.S. in Medical Physics.

 

Infertility is…

While we were in Washington, D.C. for RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association’s Advocacy Day and for our pop-up gallery and workshops at Busboys and Poets a couple of weeks ago, we asked those in attendance to fill out cards describing what “infertility is” to them. You’ll see some of them throughout this post, from Elizabeth. You can see more by viewing a slideshow at this link

infertility is a journey

When I think of infertility, I think of many things. How I view infertility and what it means to me has changed as I’ve traveled through my journey.

Infertility is… devastating.

Infertility is…feeling left behind.

Infertility is…an identity crisis.

 

I was pregnant once, as a result of a frozen embryo transfer, and only knew I was pregnant for a few days before learning that the pregnancy was ending in an early miscarriage. During those few days, I was excited, hopeful and cautiously optimistic, that after four years of timed intercourse, hormone injections, and 7 a.m. ultrasound appointments, I might finally become a parent. However, I was also experiencing some serious anxiety and a complete identity crisis.

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The early years of infertility were extremely difficult. However, once I was used to the fact that I had an infertility diagnosis (for the most part anyway), I settled in to my place as an infertile woman and RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association peer-led support group host. I read books on infertility, I knew which foods to eat to boost my egg quality (and incorporated excessive quantities of them into my diet), I had infertile friends, and was beginning to perfect my answers to the question, “Do you have kids?”, recite them with conviction, and be ready for any follow up questions that came my way.

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When I found out I was pregnant, though obviously happy, I was also confused about where I would fit in. What would happen to my relationships with my infertile friends who I would leave behind? What would my role within RESOLVE become? The first ART of Infertility exhibit was on the schedule at the Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson and I remember being a bit upset that I had to stay in the world of infertility to work on it, instead of being able to enjoy my pregnancy.  I was terrified of moving into the world of someone who was pregnant after infertility. I was even feeling exhausted about the fact that, after watching my diet for years to GET pregnant, I’d need to watch my diet for another 9 months in order to make sure my baby was getting the nutrition it would need. It was a mix of thoughts and emotions. A complete identity crisis, over the course of less than 72 hours.

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I wish I would have gotten the chance to figure out how I would incorporate all of the thoughts and fears above into my new identity as a woman who was parenting after infertility. I haven’t gotten there yet and might even eventually choose to live child free. I’m still trying to navigate figuring out my identity a bit. However, through working on the ART of Infertility, I feel like I am really finding my footing. Because of this project, my view is now that

Infertility is…meeting amazing people, around the country and around the world, who understand how the disease impacts my life, because they’re living it too.

Infertility is…educating health care professionals about how they can better serve their patients.

Infertility is…hosting art and writing workshops to give others the creative outlet that I have found so helpful along the way.

Infertility is…visiting amazing cities and sharing the infertility stories of those who live there.

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Please share with us what “Infertility is” to you.

-Elizabeth

 

What is Your First Fertile Memory?

Today’s guest blogger is Jenny Rough. We’ve gotten to know Jenny a bit while working on our upcoming workshops and pop-up exhibit in Washington, D.C. and are looking forward to meeting her there next month!

Elizabeth

What is your first fertile memory?

A friend of mine asked me that question, and I spent a few moments in silence. I thought back as far as I could.

Sunflowers.

Sunflowers

The day I stood among the sunflowers in a garden by the side of our house. The sunflowers had grown even taller than me, just as my mom had said they would when we planted the tiny seeds. I was four years old.

It’s fascinating to me to hear how others answer that same question. Last month, I asked the women in the Living Childfree support group I host through RESOLVE. One woman recalled a summer night and a backyard full of fireflies. Another woman remembered a hike through a rainforest. Her family was an “indoor” family, so every twist and turn on the adventure brought a new surprise and engaged her senses.

On May 15, when the ART of IF’s pop-up exhibit is in Washington, D.C., I’ll be holding a workshop on journaling your fertility journey. One of the writing exercises will be to spend five minutes writing about fertile memories.

How about you? What is your first fertile memory? Please email me at jenny.rough [at] jennyrough.com, or post a comment here and share. I’d love to hear about it!

Jenny Rough is a writer who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. Every summer, she hikes out the sunflower fields near her home. Visit her on the web at jennyrough.com.

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