Lisa Grunberger thought she had all the time in the world by 39 years old to have a child; infertility never crossed her mind.
But it’s a common phenomenon — about 12 percent of women in the United States between 15 and 44 have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Grunberger then found herself in that circumstance.
Grunberger, who lives in South Philadelphia, took prescriptions to treat infertility and went through intrauterine insemination; she got pregnant once but miscarried.
Coming from a scholarly background — with a doctorate in religious studies and American cultural history — “my default position is to study.” So she turned to text and learned everything about infertility, interviewing women, sperm and egg donors, embryologists, and fertility doctors.
With her hefty archive, she started to write about her experiences privately — Grunberger has a background as a poet, author and associate professor of English at Temple University.
She developed it into a manuscript, and then a play, à la The Vagina Monologues.
It went through a long rewriting gestation period over just a few months — flipping from a four-person play, then a one-woman show, then puppets were briefly involved — resulting in the final product, Almost Pregnant, which Grunberger called “beshert.”
“Everything aligned up in the stars,” she said. “It feels like everything was very destined with this project.”
Almost Pregnant follows 40-something Becca adapting to her infertility, joined by a chorus of sorts. The final show will take place at the Old City Jewish Arts Center Nov. 25, a program through The ART of Infertility.
The ART of Infertility travels across the country for month-long art installations hosted by people within the infertility community, featuring art by locals, like Grunberger, and additional related programs.
Elizabeth Walker, founder and co-director, alongside Maria Novotny, started the organization from her own experience being unable to conceive.
“I needed a visual representation of what I was dealing with because so much of infertility was hidden,” Walker said, so she created artwork around her own experience.
Also on the docket this month is a film screening of One More Shot, a yoga and writing workshop, and a religion and medicine panel discussion, all in collaboration with the Healing Arts Center of Philadelphia.
“My initial thought [of the play] was you never know what you’re going to get with infertility,” Walker said. “It was refreshing and a nice, honest account of one person’s experience that I felt would resonate with others.”
Walker said a big misconception about infertility is that it “only affects a certain kind of person.”
“We often hear the stories of the career woman who ‘waited too long to conceive,’” she noted, “or the heterosexual, white middle-class couple who is undergoing fertility treatment. But it affects all kinds of people. It doesn’t discriminate.”
With such a serious subject, Grunberger’s humor lightens the play, through puns like a “public cervix announcement” or digs at sites like Ancestry.com for the way it “fetishizes where we come from.”
Grunberger said making people laugh stems from Jewish comedy traditions of laughing through the pain; “we make lemonade out of lemons.”
A couple of those lemons are Becca’s alter ego characters Estrogen and Lucky, who are based on Waiting for Godot’s Estragon and Lucky. The pair represent the infertility waiting room, or the “notoriously horrible spaces of silence,” as Grunberger put it.
“There’s so much shame and frustration and longing — very sad spaces,” she said. Inspired from her own experiences, the play stands alone as its own composite story, but a lot of the Jewishness transferred over.
Protagonist Becca is Jewish, who is a contrast from Pam, a Catholic woman, wherein infertility methods are a conflict for her.
“I met Catholic women who refused to use IVF because they are followers of the church,” Grunberger said of one archived interview, which was adapted for the play. “I was very moved by these women’s commitment to their faith.”
Furthermore, Becca has an “eruption of frustration” during a Passover seder scene, in which she associates the orange on the seder plate — a symbol of feminism — to those that clinics give patients to practice giving yourself fertility shots.
“Becca’s character is dealing with her own origin story,” she added, “so she’s wondering how is Jewish identity passed on from generation to generation. It addresses issues of nature and nurture, who is a Jew, what is a Jew — what is anybody?”
Grunberger — who eventually was successful with in vitro fertilization and gave birth to a daughter — hopes the play educates young women about the wide range of infertility.
“It’s not for women just over 40 or just white middle-class women. It affects so many people. It’s a disease, and there’s not enough information out there about it,” she said. “A lot of women identify themselves by their capacity to bear and gestate a child in their wombs, and when they’re unable to do that, there’s tremendous grief for them but it also feels like a personal failure.
“It’s a really psychological burden.”
That stigmatized burden weighs heavier on women than men, Grunberger noted, who can both contribute to infertility. For about 35 percent of couples with infertility, CDC reported, a male factor is identified along with a female factor. In 8 percent of couples with infertility, a male factor is the only identifiable cause.
That doesn’t even include the financial burden of treatments, for which only 15 states require insurers to offer coverage.
For political reasons, too, Grunberger hopes the play will travel across the country to spread awareness on this issue.
“I want women to walk out of this and be freaked out,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to have to spend money and be confronted by this.”