At Reproductive Associates of Delaware, we understand that infertility can be a very isolating disease to face. It is important to know you are not alone. The purpose of the Make a Difference series is to highlight the dedicated organizations and individuals in the community available to help you on your journey.
In addition to her role as Founder and Co-Director of The ART of Infertility, Elizabeth Walker is an artist that works in imaging and communications for the University of Michigan Medical School’s Department of Pathology. Maria Novotny also serves as an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh where she teaches professional writing. They began their work together after meeting in May of 2014 in Washington, D.C., where they were both lobbying for infertility legislation on Capitol Hill. After meeting for monthly dinners to support one another, a great friendship was born in addition to The ART of Infertility.
The ART of Infertility’s mission is to break the silence around the experiences of infertility, offering art and storytelling as therapeutic heuristics to capture and express the realities, pains, and joys of infertility.
Elizabeth Walker and Maria Novotny, PhD. Co-Directors of the ART of Infertility
After lobbying for infertility legislation on Capitol Hill in May 2014, you shared that you became fast friends when you both discovered your mutual role as peer-led infertility support group leaders. What happened next?
Elizabeth: Maria went to view the first exhibit, The ART of IF: Navigating the Journey of Infertility, which was on display in my hometown of Jackson, MI. We started meeting for monthly dinners. They were first meant to be a support system for our shared experience of the stresses of being a support group host. However, they quickly turned into meetings to discuss the ways that we could work together to collect and distribute patient stories through art. We’d spend hours in a dining hall on the campus of Michigan State University, where Maria was getting her PhD at the time, and talk about what this project, now organization, could be. We started traveling to do interviews and pop-up exhibits and started submitting abstracts to present at medical humanities conferences.
Your exhibit entitled “Cradling Creativity” is set for November 3 to 28 at the Old City Jewish Arts Center in Philadelphia. Is this your first event in the Philadelphia area?
Elizabeth: We had the opportunity to be interviewed for the Waiting for Babies podcast live, on stage, in Philadelphia back in August. We brought along some artwork from our permanent collection as a sneak peek of what was to come with Cradling Creativity. We’ve shared our stories many times but that was the first time we’ve shared so much about how we came together from our individual journeys to join forces and use art to educate about the experiences of infertility.
How has art been therapeutic through your personal fertility journeys?
Elizabeth: I was silent about my infertility for a long time. Not because I was ashamed, just because I had no idea what to make of it. Creating artwork helped me come to terms with my infertility diagnosis and figure out what it meant for me. Art gave me a voice when I felt silenced by my experience. It’s funny to look back at some of the pieces I created early on and reflect on both how differently and how similarly I feel. Art has been a reminder for me that although my body cannot create a baby, there are many things I can still give birth to.
Maria: I was looking for a way to document my experience. I am not sure why, but I had this feeling that I would want to look back at my experience. I was feeling isolated and struggled that many of my friends and family members simply did not relate to how I was feeling. While I struggled to actually talk about my loss without breaking down into tears, I turned to writing about my experiences because I knew that I could share my writing without having an actual conversation about it. It helped me tell others what I was going through, and I think it helped others reflect on how I felt.
What advice do you have for others navigating their fertility journey?
Elizabeth: Find a creative outlet. Be true to yourself and do what’s right for you and your family. It’s easy to get distracted by the advice and experiences of others but only you and your partner know what is right for you. Don’t be afraid to take breaks to gain clarity and definitely find a good therapist to help you through the tough decisions that come along with infertility.
Maria: Share your story. I know this isn’t always the easiest, especially when you are new to infertility. I remember how strong I felt when I first told my friends and sisters. They didn’t quite get it, but that was okay. I needed to stop hiding, stop staying silent. I also found that by telling my story, it connected me to so many other individuals who were going through the same thing. In fact, by telling my story, I found Elizabeth and a great friendship was born.
What are your goals and what do you strive for every day with the ART of Infertility?
Elizabeth: To make infertility visible. To share the stories that aren’t as often heard. Those of single parents by choice, those preserving their fertility before cancer treatment or before transitioning. Those who choose not to pursue fertility treatments. Those who can’t for whatever reason. Stories of same-sex couples and people of color. To use these stories to help raise awareness about infertility and create a community of support so those with an infertility diagnosis don’t feel so alone.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
Elizabeth: Join us on social media. We’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Invite us to bring an exhibit and/or workshop to your community. Make a piece of artwork that we can display in our exhibits. Contribute financially. Share your story via a guest blog post. Attend our exhibits and events.
We are always looking for stories and artwork to share, as well as volunteers. If you want to become involved with our organization, we encourage you to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Elizabeth: Find an infertility support network as soon as you feel you need it. I didn’t seek out a support group as early as I could have used it because I felt my situation wasn’t “bad enough” yet and that my presence may hurt others who had been dealing with infertility for a longer amount of time or who had been through more treatments. The early months and years dealing with infertility are incredibly stressful and the resources you’ll gain from finding support through people dealing with similar experiences are essential.
Maria: Practice self-care. Trying to conceive consumed so much of my life. One day I looked in the mirror, and I just remember feeling so unhappy. I didn’t recognize who I had become nor the life I was trying to build with my partner. I decided that I had to get back to who I was. So, I began running every morning. 7-8am was my time, just for me. Running helped clear my mind and also reminded me that I was healthy, even if I couldn’t get pregnant. I still run today and really value the ability to make time to just be with my body – even if it can’t make a baby on its own.
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