Is there anything a graphic novel can’t do? We think not. Take Myriam Steinberg’s Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of (In)Fertility—an extraordinary feat of visual storytelling chronicling her five years of fertility treatment prior to the good fortune of birthing twins.
In her review for Foreword’s March/April issue, Rebecca Foster sums up the grueling journey: “By the time she became a parent, she’d had 125 blood draws, 151 injections, and 483 progesterone suppositories—and shed an estimated twenty-five liters of tears.”
But don’t think that Myriam feels at all sorry for herself. In the following conversation, she reveals an undaunted spirit, one that will inspire parents the world over.
Was Catalogue Baby always going to be a graphic memoir, or did you decide somewhere during the writing that you wanted to tell your story via images as well as words? What was it like collaborating with Christache?
About two or three years into my fertility journey, I knew that I wanted to do something with my story. At first, I thought I’d put together a one-woman play. Enough happy, devastating, crazy, and emotional things had happened by then that it was sure to keep the audience on their toes. Trouble was, I had no idea where or how to even begin writing a script (not that I had any clue about how to write a graphic novel either, for that matter). Also, I am NOT an actress. I cannot memorize a line to save my life, and I couldn’t imagine redoing the play over and over again with the same passion and conviction, both reliving the trauma each time and feeling less attached to it at the same time. I thought about writing a picture-less book, but it too seemed overwhelming because there were so many things that happened and emotions that were felt that either have no words to describe or would take too many to explain. I’m a very visual person and, in the end, I felt that doing it as a graphic novel would be the best and most powerful way to convey my story.
Collaborating with Christache was an interesting process. At first, I wondered what it would be like to work with a guy on something that is so deeply the purview of people with a uterus. I’d worked with him on other projects, but only in the performance world. I used to organize a festival and he performed at it several times as an actor/clown/special character, so I knew he had the emotional range to be able to empathize and translate what I was trying to tell. I wrote the script and storyboarded the entire book before giving it to him. The visual metaphors all came from the physical, emotional, and visual sensations that I felt as I was writing or thinking of my journey. Perhaps there was some form of synesthesia as I was writing because so much of the book came to me as ready-made images. I transcribed them into stick-figure drawings and a written script. The stick figure drawings and script were then made into the final illustrations by Christache, who, somehow, managed to translate the script descriptions and more than rough and terrible sketches I provided into the final drawings.
You really lay yourself bare here—emotionally, but also sometimes literally. How did you steel yourself for this level of self-disclosure? Did the potentially cathartic (for you) or therapeutic (for others) value of the work make it seem worth it?
It was a story that needed telling. The reality of a fertility journey (especially a challenging one) is that there is A LOT of physical and emotional exposure. By the n-th number vaginal ultrasound or insemination done by the n-th number doctor, privacy was no longer a concept I held onto. I sometimes wondered what some of the general public or the more religious members of my family might think about seeing me laying it all bare, but then shrugged my shoulders and said mehn! That’s the reality of it all. If I was going to be honest and real about the journey, I had to be OK with showing all the things—vagina and all. But really, it was often the emotional stuff that was harder to expose to the world—especially the chapter about Azariah.
I was still doing embryo transfers and experiencing miscarriages and trying again and again as I was writing the book. Often, while I was undergoing another cycle, I couldn’t bring myself to write a certain scene if it was too emotionally charged or involved infant loss because I was scared it would be too stressful and I would infuse the embryo with too much sadness and negativity, thus putting the potential implantation and pregnancy at risk (one gets very superstitious and cautious when living through loss and infertility). I would write the difficult scenes in between tries.
I did find it very cathartic to write my story. Without actually erasing it, writing diffused a lot of the grief and took the edge off some of the deepest traumas. That was a side benefit, though. The thought that I would potentially be helping so many other people to feel less alone and broken on their journeys, and the fact that I was creating a piece of support material that I wish I had had when I was on my journey, really made it all feel worth it. It was important to me to be able to write something that not only the person going through infertility and/or loss would have a connection to, but also something that the support network of people experiencing infant loss and infertility could relate to and begin to understand what their friend, partner, patient, or co-worker is going through and how to support them in a compassionate, non-triggering way.
You give examples of some of these triggering comments that people made to you or to people you knew. What are better things to say, or do, to support people who are going through infertility treatment?
When going through infertility treatments and/or infant loss, what anyone fundamentally wants from their family, friends, co-workers, and other peers is to be met where they are, to have their feelings acknowledged, their grief accepted, and their basic needs met. They want to be given the time to feel the feels and to recover in a stress-free environment with however much time they need to get back on their feet. In general, supporting them by offering to listen, empathize, accompany to appointments if needed, bring food, provide a judgment-free space, or give hugs—as needed and desired by the person going though the journey—is much more useful than offering perceived solutions or comparisons to other people’s situations. Understanding that this type of grief isn’t something that takes only a day or a week or even a month to get over, goes a long way. Words (and follow-through) like “I am here for you,” “I’m sorry for your loss,” “I will drop food off for you,” “Do you want to talk?”, “I would like to invite you to xyz but I totally understand if you can’t/don’t want to come” are invaluable.
In the book you discover the notion of dalia, or destiny, and sense that you can communicate with your lost children. To what extent do you think you have shaped your life through your decisions? To what extent was it fated?
They were mystical feelings and events that I couldn’t deny, yet they were not based in any religious or spiritual practice of mine or that I had read up on. Personal decisions and fate seem so interlinked for me. The best way that I can describe how I see the interplay between decisions and fate is to liken it to a leaf. In the center of the leaf runs the backbone—the through-thread of fate. Branching out from this backbone are the crossroads where decisions are made. One decision takes you to the left, the other to the right, and so on as you make your way along the length of the leaf. Each rib of the leaf, however, hits the edge and then curves upwards and, ultimately, any path one chooses leads to the same place: the point of the leaf (the point of your life). Along the way there seems to be free will, but whether it is the semblance of free will or actual free will I don’t know. And what happens after you hit the point of the leaf? Your life isn’t over. Do you choose the new leaf of your life (thus having an element of free will in what direction to take) or does a new one land into your lap as you contemplate what to do next (nixing free will altogether)?
I particularly enjoyed meeting Sherbert, the pet rabbit you adopted. Was caring for her medical problems—an unexpected parallel to your fertility struggles—like practice for parenting, or something else entirely?
Caring for Sherbert ended up being so many important things for me. In a lot of ways, I guess it was like practice for parenting in the sense that I had to provide constant care, develop a different kind of patience, meet the bunny where she was at instead of where I wish she were at, teach her how to be mobile again in the way that I would have to teach a child how to read or how to get dressed, and, of course, sacrifice my sleep and personal schedule in order to fulfill the rabbit’s needs. For a long time, she was entirely dependent on me for everything from eating to cleaning to moving.
But Sherbert’s medical problems also coincided with one of the hardest, most heart-wrenching parts of my fertility journey—that of having to decide whether or not to keep a pregnancy when I found out there were genetic anomalies. The constant care I had to give the rabbit provided me with an aperçu of what my life would potentially look like if I had a severely disabled child. It put me in a position of really questioning whether that was the life I wanted for both myself and my child. I don’t regret any of the decisions I took, but I still grieve and feel deeply uncomfortable telling the full story (even though I tell all in Catalogue Baby). Someone the other day said that, really, the whole process of deciding what to do was not just about me, my body, my feelings, my future challenges. It was also a loving mother’s decision about the quality of life for her child. I knew this was the case all along, but the wording of it had never been put exactly that way so it had never really clicked until she said it. The day before the termination, seeing Sherbert so utterly dependent on me for every one of her needs and seeing her struggle so much with pain, all I could think about was my baby struggling in much the same way and it broke my heart and reconciled me to my decision in a deeper way.
Caring for Sherbert after the termination also ended up being a powerful grounding force. Although I was still grieving deeply, the fact that I had to spend most of my day caring for her meant that I was distracted from wallowing in my grief and falling into a deep hole of depression. Making Sherbert comfortable and then starting with her rehab gave me something tangible to do. Seeing her actually make slow but real progress in her rehab gave me hope and infused positivity, relief, and joy into my life. That in turn, gave me the space to think about the next steps in my fertility journey in a forward-thinking way.
What has your experience been during COVID-19, when you might not have had the family and community support you expected as a single parent?
The lack of childcare has been extremely difficult. I was still finishing up the book when COVID-19 hit—doing final edits, colouring, more edits, more colouring, checking and rechecking everything to make sure it was ready for print. I don’t think I did much of anything else but care for babies and work on the book for the first five or six months of the pandemic. It really took a toll. All the family and community support that I would otherwise have had basically evaporated so that I could keep my parents, my kids, and myself safe. I am very grateful that my boyfriend (whom I met when the babies were eight months old) was able to come over and help with the kids a couple hours a day as I was finishing the book. This was when he got laid off from work because of COVID. He’s been back at work for several months now and, on weekdays, I’m back to depending on when the babies are down for naps or nighttime sleep to work. It means I only get to do a fraction of the things I need done.
The book ends with you pregnant with your twins, Abegail and Isaac, but doesn’t follow you into the delivery room or into your new life as a mother in any detail. How did you decide where this narrative should stop?
I originally didn’t even want to include the successful birth. I didn’t want to be that person who says, “And you too, if you try hard enough, will have your children.” For a lot of people that just isn’t true. Even I, because of the medical stuff that cropped up during the twin pregnancy, was a hair’s breadth away from not having children. If I had lost the twins, I don’t know that I would have gone on. I suspect that that would have been the end of my journey. So, although I was so excited to finally have my live babies, I was wracked with “survivor’s guilt.” It was such a strange feeling to come out the other side feeling like part of me was so affected by the four and a half years of the journey that I kept putting myself in the shoes of those who still had not had their wishes of a child fulfilled, and so wasn’t able to freely shout my success from the rooftops. It took my editor, illustrator, and some friends to convince me otherwise. They wanted to know the happy ending, that everything wasn’t for naught, to celebrate the success. I gave in and included the successful pregnancy and birth of the twins. But I didn’t dwell on it mostly for the aforementioned reason. And, in the end, so many epic things happened during their conception, gestation, and birth that it would have added another three hundred pages to the book. It was the perfect excuse to write a sequel.