I’ve been close friends with Maya Grobel and her husband Noah Moskin for over fifteen years. We all met in college and have done some of our most important growing up together. For the past three years, we’ve been collaborating on a documentary chronicling their struggles to start a family. We’ve discovered that in the complex and emotionally-charged world of assisted reproductive technologies, self-documentation can be a powerful tool for catharsis and connection.

In 2012, Maya and Noah told me that they were going to see an infertility specialist for the first time; after a year of failed attempts at conception and inconclusive information from other doctors, they were hoping for a little more guidance. They also asked me if I wanted to come along to their appointment. It may have seemed an odd suggestion, but it struck me as a perfectly natural thing to do because they didn’t just ask me to attend, but to also bring a video camera along and document the whole thing.

Creative, collaborative storytelling has always been a shared point of connection within our friendship. We took film studies classes together in college, Noah is a television producer, I’m a media arts researcher and instructor at USC, and Maya continues to be a prolific writer as well as a clinical social worker. Bringing a camera along to a potentially important doctor’s appointment just made sense. Maya and Noah had already done some light documentation of their frustrated process up to that point. They thought that filming the appointment with the infertility specialist would be something of a coda, that he would tell them everything was fine, maybe make a simple but effective suggestion and voilà la! baby on the way. Then they could take the footage and make a little vignette or short film for the sake of family memory.

They didn’t think that that appointment would be the beginning of a three year journey of confusion, heartbreak and hope. But that’s exactly what it was. And as their story unfolded, we kept rolling the cameras: through blocked fallopian tubes, unending ultrasounds and follicle counts, IUIs, IVFs, unblocked fallopian tubes, acupuncture, reiki, promising starts, devastating turns, exhaustion, compassion, anger, humor, and grace. If you or anyone you know has journeyed through the world of assisted reproductive technologies, you know the litany. You know that the process can be isolating, requiring all your attention and focus just to keep to the schedules and parse the options, and that the whole thing is charged with the most fundamental human yearning to create new life, to make a family.

Even though Maya and Noah are two of my best friends, I never would have been able to understand what they were going through or to be able to keep up with all the twists and turns of their journey if I hadn’t been right there with them with the camera. I became a witness-participant; somewhat removed by nature of my role, yet intimately connected through my presence and the process. This really came home to me during Maya and Noah’s attempt at IVF when I accompanied them to an early morning aspiration procedure. This is the step in in vitro fertilization where doctors surgically retrieve eggs from the hormonally stimulated follicles of the woman’s ovaries. It required that Maya be anesthetized and that the procedure be carried out in an operating room where Noah would not be able to accompany her. Every other step of the way, Noah had been next to her, holding hands, keeping the team together. But for the aspiration, he had to sit and wait anxiously in a room by himself, wondering if the eggs would be plentiful and of a high quality.

Even though Noah couldn’t be with her during the procedure, Maya was able to wear a wireless microphone. This enabled Noah to listen to the whole procedure from the waiting room. I sat with him, letting the camera roll, and it was one of the most powerful moments that I had experienced as a documentarian; just seeing his absolute engagement and connection to the play-by-play of the aspiration as the doctor reported how many eggs he was able to retrieve. The technologies and practices of representation opened a whole new window into this act of technologically assisted reproduction. As the project and the process continued, we discovered more and more such instances supporting the idea that self-documentation and storytelling offer powerful means of catharsis in a variety of contexts.

For one, there is the social nature of storytelling and the community building that comes with it. As Maya and Noah stepped further and further into the process of trying to make a family, they were confronted with an unexpected reality: their situation was not simple and although their doctor was confident that one way or another they would be able to make a family, the means by which this would be achieved were of an almost infinite complexity of permutations. Maya, especially, is someone who wants to know all of the contingencies, all of the choices in extreme detail. She’s a planner. And even the most conscientious and patient of doctors can only provide so much detail and insight into every possible eventuality. To get more information, Maya needed to seek out other families who had actually lived through the process themselves.

Maya began reaching out to families she knew who had been through similar ordeals. The three of us began documenting extensive interviews in which these families shared their stories; every one a wholly unique tale of drama, determination, and above all love. We learned that there were deep connections amongst these families, but that they existed largely within untold stories. It became clear to us that these were stories that needed to be shared, that just as Maya and Noah gained knowledge and strength from hearing these stories, others might be able to experience the same thing through the initiation of a more wide-reaching dialog and community.

Maya began to write about her experiences on a blog she created for the purpose: Don’t Count Your Eggs. Over time, she’s been able to connect with people all over the world who are united through this experience—all looking for information, inspiration and support, all looking for community. Maya’s writing gives a direct insight into her personal experience, giving voice to her thoughts and feelings. Alongside her writing, she’s shared numerous short sequences of video material that we’ve created along the way, adding another dimension of visibility to the story and allowing people to see for themselves what the process looks like, how it sounds, and how it feels. Maya and Noah’s decision to document their story sheds light onto their own darkest moments and allows that light to spread into the lives of others. In the midst of a process that often feels bewildering and beyond any means of control, Maya and Noah found a way to maintain a sense of agency and productivity.

We all have different ways of processing our experiences and feelings. For Maya and Noah, documenting their story and the stories of others through writing and through filmmaking has become an invaluable set of tools by which to make sense of, work through, and share their experiences with infertility and the amazing ways in which modern families are made. As their process of family making goes on, so does our shared process of filmmaking and the hope that the resulting media artifact, a feature-length documentary film, will serve not only as a tangible extension of their own emotions and ordeals, but as something that can open doors to dialog, support and community building for others around the world.

Further Reading

  • Michael Renov, “Domestic Ethnography and the Construction of the ‘Other’ Self,” in Collecting Visible Evidence, by Michael Renov and Jane Gaines, U. of Minnesota Press. 1999.

Image Credit: Elizabeth Walker from The ART of Infertility 

About The Author

Avatar photo

Gabriel Peters-Lazaro is the director of photography and producer for the film One More Shot. He is the media design lead and an instructor in the Media Arts+Practice Division at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. He researches, designs and produces media for innovative learning and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on digital media theory and production, new media for social change, and digital tools and tactics. He holds an M.F.A. in film directing and production from UCLA, a B.A. in film studies from UC Berkeley, is a member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics research network, serves on the advisory committee of LA Makerspace and has presented his film and academic work at conferences and festivals from San Francisco to Doha.