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Breeding Ground

In a graphic memoir and an online video, two women channel anguish over infertility into art

Holly Lebowitz Rossi
August 26, 2010
A panel from Good Eggs, by Phoebe Potts.(Phoebe Potts)
A panel from Good Eggs, by Phoebe Potts.(Phoebe Potts)

In Genesis, Sarah laughs out loud when she overhears God telling Abraham she will conceive a son at the “withered” age of 90.

In the book of Samuel, Hannah weeps and prays for a son, becoming so overwrought that the temple priest thinks she’s drunk.

Laugh or cry. Like the matriarchs before them, artist and teacher Phoebe Potts, 39, and blogger Keiko Zoll, 28, have each done their share of both along their journeys toward motherhood. And as these two women navigate the confusing, terrifying, and emotionally charged landscape of infertility—Potts in a book, Zoll in a website and video—they’re sharing their stories in innovative ways, bucking recent research that suggests infertility is a “closet issue,” something women are afraid or ashamed to divulge.

Good Eggs, Potts’ graphic memoir about love, marriage, career, Judaism, and in-vitro fertilization, hits bookshelves just after the High Holidays. Later in the month, Zoll will accept a “Best Viral Video” award from Resolve: The National Infertility Association for her video, “What IF: A Portrait of Infertility.

The two women struggle with a problem that affects one in eight American couples, or 7.3 million people, according to an estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though statistics don’t offer comparative rates of infertility among different populations, the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” can especially sting when a Jewish couple fails to conceive.

After three artificial insemination cycles, four goes at in-vitro fertilization, five miscarriages, and four years of procedures, drugs, acupuncture, and yoga, Potts is without a definitive diagnosis of what’s kept her from staying pregnant. Zoll, newly married to her high-school sweetheart but diagnosed with premature ovarian failure, never even got to try to conceive.

But infertility stories, long and complex as they are, don’t end so much as unfold. Potts and her husband, Jeff, are now deep into the adoption process, awaiting news of a match with an Ethiopian baby, and Zoll and her husband, Larry, are weighing the possibilities of adoption or IVF with a donor egg. As their journeys took shape, both women discovered solace in the creative process.

For Potts, drawing became a way to forge a record of her experiences so she could “create when I wasn’t creating,” she said in an interview from her home in Gloucester, Massachusetts. “Virginia Woolf talks about how art is making your own world, and you can do as you like in it. I could make something out of my own body, my hands. That was profound for me.”

Good Eggs is at times hilarious, at times poignant, and always successful at conveying the many layers of coping with infertility, from how to handle friends’ pregnancies and what to share with families to how to manage depression and maintain a healthy marriage. The team of professionals any infertility patient encounters becomes a memorable cast of characters in Potts’ hands, including a big-headed and cyclopic phlebotomist, an egg that sings Sinatra, a financial adviser who cackles like a mad raven, and a crowbar-wielding nurse.

Don’t mistake Potts’ humor for false cheer, though. “I will never, ever be accused of putting a happy face on something that’s not happy,” she said. After years of living with depression—which she also chronicles in Good Eggs—Potts has become adept at finding the absurd even in dark moments. “It’s how I’m used to communicating. It’s sort of a safety net too, so I don’t completely descend into sorrow.”

Another safety net is her Judaism, which was just budding when she entered the infertility maelstrom. Potts grew up, she said, “ethnically Jewish, loosely Reform.” She turned more to Judaism during her engagement when Jeff, raised with no religion, suggested they take an Introduction to Judaism for Interfaith Couples class. “My connection to Judaism was really fostered by finding love,” she said, recalling their “great, funky Jewish wedding.” Potts subsequently flirted with rabbinical ordination and now works part-time as a Hebrew school teacher, work she also covers in Good Eggs. These days the couple observes some Shabbat rituals—they light candles on Friday evening and don’t use the phone or computer during the Sabbath.

Her faith was not shaken by her infertility struggle. “I tend to blame myself more than I would Hashem or the godlessness of the world,” she said. “If anything, I’d be like, ‘Oh, I eat too many M&Ms,’ or, ‘I’ve got this wonky uterus.’ ”

Zoll’s instinct when she received her diagnosis—at work, via a blunt email from her doctor—was to make plans to attend Shabbat services that Saturday. Zoll describes herself as a “half-Japanese Jew-by-choice”—raised a Christmas-and-Easter Protestant but curious about different religions, she converted to Judaism in 2007, just before her wedding to a Jewish man. But her solid faith suddenly buckled that Shabbat when she randomly flipped to the back of the siddur and landed on a treatise about how “not being able to bear children is the greatest punishment that God can ever hand down,” she recalled, with incredulous anger in her voice.

Her journey to a better relationship with God involved launching her blog, “Hannah Wept, Sarah Laughed,” and coming back to Judaism as a source of comfort, not failure.

“It was about re-contextualizing my faith, and instead of seeing my diagnosis as some sort of causal relationship or punishment thing, to look at it as my net to keep me from falling farther,” said Zoll, who, like Potts, lives on the north shore of Boston, in the town of Salem.

Zoll’s popular video—20,000 views since it went live in April—is a window into the thoughts that follow an infertile woman during a typical day. Her eye catches a pregnancy test in the bathroom drawer (“What if I never see two lines?”). A favorite pink nightie hangs in the closet (“What if infertility has robbed me of my sexiness?”). The computer screen flashes (“What if I have to read another pregnancy announcement or see another ultrasound photo on Facebook today?”). A mom with baby carriage passes her in the park (“What if I never let go of the resentment and jealousy of the women who got to do this naturally?”). And the most raw and basic question of all, “What if I lose myself along the way?”

For Zoll, the video was an entrée into the world of infertility advocacy and consciousness-raising. Despite a full-time job as a residence-hall coordinator at Tufts University, she now devotes at least three hours each day to her advocacy work, which is as much about affecting political change, including getting more insurance coverage for fertility treatments, as it is about redefining terms like “mother,” “woman,” and “family.” It’s also about helping women put words—or images—to a struggle that can feel ineffable and overwhelming.

She wants, as perhaps Potts does too, to help women feel more comfortable sharing their stories, countering recent studies that reveal infertility as a “closet” issue that keeps many women feeling depressed and isolated. A January 2010 national survey by the pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough showed that only half of infertile couples had told their mothers about their struggles, 44 percent had told female friends, and 16 percent had told no one other than their spouse.

“The most crucial issue in infertility advocacy is the lack of people who are willing to speak publically about it,” said Zoll. “Infertility is one of those diagnoses that literally rocks you so deeply to the core that you’re literally left with almost no words when you’re first diagnosed.”

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts. She is the co-author, with her yoga teacher Liz Owen, of Yoga for a Healthy Lower Back: A Practical Guide to Developing Strength and Relieving Pain.