How Seattle Became a Center for Infertility Support

An emergent community comes together this month to offer camaraderie and opportunity to those struggling to build a family.

As is often the case, Tamara Tobias and her husband weren’t prepared.

The couple had decided they wanted to have a child, but when they struggled to conceive they didn’t know quite what to do. With virtually nothing in the way of organized support or community, they, like many couples who face infertility, were going it alone. Tobias dove in, learning all that she could about the myriad issues that couples face when they are having difficulty conceiving.

Twenty years later, Tobias is mother to twin boys via In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and one adopted daughter. She is also a nurse practitioner at Seattle Reproductive Medicine, where she guides aspiring parents through what can be a very difficult process.

“I’ve been there, I’ve lived it, I understand the journey,” she says.

Tobias is also a very active member of a loose-knit group of authors, artists, and organizers who are bringing infertility out of the shadows and helping to provide the kind of support that she and her husband lacked back when their home wasn’t as full. This April, she and other members of that community are bringing their struggles and successes into full view with a series of events, including an exhibition of infertility artwork, a couple film screenings, and a grant-giving 5k walk, all of which will lead up to National Infertility Awareness Week at the end of the month.

“We’re the only city doing [so much in one month] across the country,” Tobias says. “It’s amazing.”

Two years ago, even, such an event was unlikely, says Tobias.

By that time Resolve: The National Infertility Association had long-since dissolved its regional chapters to focus its attention on advocacy in the other Washington. Aside from one support group in Kirkland, there was very little community around the issue, until 2015. Then Annie Kuo got involved.

A mother of one, she found that what Mother Nature was able to provide, seemingly on a whim, fertility treatment was unable to replicate. After facing roadblocks to freezing her eggs, Kuo decided to take a different path of action. She headed to Washington D.C. for Resolve’s Infertility Advocacy Day, where she joined other advocates in lobbying Congress for financial relief and increased access to family-building options.

Then, during the closing reception of that whirlwind day, Resolve staff approached her and asked if she would consider starting a support group in Seattle. In October 2015, she hosted the inaugural meeting of the first Resolve support group in the city in many years. And in the year and a half since then, Kuo has helped build a network of volunteer-run infertility support. That network consists of 11 monthly groups now, each covering a different part of the region, as well as special breakout groups for secondary infertility, third party reproduction, and pregnancy and parenting after infertility.

“My marketing background has turned out to be handy,” Kuo says. “Half of marketing is just paying attention—being a good listener and delivering programs that respond to what people want.” Her media relations experience has also been helpful in raising infertility awareness in the local news. But the greatest benefit, Kuo says, has been personal. “My focus has changed from preserving my chance of pregnancy to helping the community. It’s another way of giving birth.”

The support groups weren’t the only thing to come out of Kuo’s time in Washington, D.C. Two Michigan advocates she had met in a copy shop, where they were printing constituent letters to their lawmakers, invited her to an art exhibit called The ART of IF: Navigating the Journey of Infertility. The Michigan women, Elizabeth Walker and Maria Novotny, had been creating artwork based on their own reproductive struggles and collecting artwork and stories from their support groups. They put these works together for an exhibition of infertility-inspired artwork, oral history, and portraiture that first showed in Jackson, Michigan and now travels around the world.

Kuo was deeply moved by the work and started to explore ways to bring the exhibit to Seattle, which included finding a venue, recruiting local sponsors, and developing a plan for community outreach. She had also discovered that her favorite infertility blogger, Maya Grobel-Moskin of Don’t Count Your Eggs, was working on a film. Titled One More Shot, it is a collaboration between Maya and her husband Noah, who has worked as a producer on unscripted television series for the last 15 years. The film started as a mechanism for the couple to talk about a very difficult subject.

“Like a lot of husbands and guys in general, I have a challenging time discussing my feelings,” Noah says. “We had been trying for a year and my wife and I were having problems communicating about it. I just thought, let’s record ourselves and it will help loosen me up.”

It worked. Then the couple brought the camera to the fertility clinic and continued to film the entire experience.

“I figured it would be an 8 or 10 minute short,” says Noah. “What I didn’t know was that [the] first [IVF] attempt would not be successful and it would actually take 4 or 5 years to have our baby.”

That journey took the Los Angeles couple to Seattle, near where Noah’s parents live and where they underwent a new, ultimately successful method of fertility treatment. So when Kuo and Walker pitched a film screening in conjunction with the art show, they naturally said yes.

The film will be showing at the SIFF Film Center on Sunday, April 2, kicking off the month-long exhibition of Walker and Novotny’s show, which Kuo arranged to show at the Art/Not Terminal Gallery at Seattle Center. Rechristened SEA-ART-HEAL, the show will consist of several of the nearly 200 works in the permanent collection, as well as art produced by Puget Sound locals, and will close with a community art workshop on blackout poetry on April 29.

In addition to these two events, Kuo is lending a hand in promoting the Footsteps for Fertility 5K at Seward Park on Saturday, April 22. The event was brought to Seattle by Tobias, who has made it her personal mission to help couples in need of IVF, but without the financial means to attain it. Last year she published Fertility Walk: A Nurse’s Guide Along Your Journey, proceeds from which are going to those in need. Likewise, the fertility 5K will award a handful of free IVF cycles and $5,000 grants for fertility treatments, as well as coverage for medications and genetic testing.

“I think what is really tough is when you see someone that you know needs IVF, but they can’t afford it and then they drop out,” says Tobias. “And it breaks my heart because those people who drop out have never achieved their dream.”

The art on display throughout April shows the emotional toll felt when that dream is kept out of reach. But the community that is building up around that work, through support groups and events in Western Washington, is offering hope and fellowship for anyone on a more difficult family-building journey.

Each person’s story adds to the community and, in return, the community offers comfort and support. As Kuo, who now chairs the training of advocates in D.C., tells it, “Activism fueled by passion and a broken heart will take you far.”

SEA-ART-HEAL will run April 1-30 at Art/Not Terminal Gallery at Seattle Center (next to KeyArena, across from the fountain). The blackout poetry event will be held on April 29. One More Shot plays Sunday, April 2 at SIFF Film Center, also at Seattle Center. The Footsteps for Fertility 5K will take place at Seward Park on Saturday, April 22. (Register here to take part.) Vegas Baby plays Thursday, April 27, at the AMC Loews Alderwood Mall 16.

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