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‘The process is shockingly void of communication’: how a graphic novel aims to illuminate IVF

·4-min read

A man stands in the doorway of a bathroom, brushing his teeth. His wife lies in bed, reading. “So… ummm… are we going to…?” she asks. He pauses for a moment, then enters the bedroom. They have a conversation about sex, ovulation, cycles. It’s clinical, almost business-like.

So begins Two-Week Wait, a graphic novel following a couple, Joanne and Conrad, on their journey towards parenthood. Based on the experiences of authors Kelly and Luke C Jackson, as well as people they interviewed, the book is a compelling, harrowing portrait of the difficulties faced by the one in 50 Australian couples trying to conceive.

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When the Melbourne-based couple began their IVF journey in 2011, they couldn’t find any non-jargonistic literature. “The process is shockingly void of any proper communication, counselling or insight into how it affects the broader nature of your life – it’s a purely medical approach,” Kelly Jackson tells Guardian Australia.

“We thought it’d be great if there was a more accessible book that could help us communicate with each other and understand the process. This is a book someone could pick up to get insight into what family members are going through, and ask questions in a meaningful, sensitive way.”

Two-Week Wait takes a two-pronged approach, showing both the pragmatic and emotional sides of the process. “It covers medical procedures, but it’s not a medical text – it’s a relationship drama,” says Luke Jackson.

The IVF process takes a toll on the characters’ relationship, especially when they have a pregnancy take, only to later fail. The story depicts their financial and emotional struggles, as well as misunderstandings both with one another and in their wider social circles. (The authors acknowledge that the perspective presented is that of a heterosexual, cisgender couple, and that people of other sexualities and genders can face more complex challenges.)

There’s real vulnerability, and denial, in Conrad’s character in particular. While the IVF taboo has largely been lifted for women, thanks in part to public figures such as Michelle Obama and Amy Schumer sharing their experiences with this intense process, the Jacksons say there’s still a culture of shame for men.

“I still have men whisper to me that they’re going through IVF, particularly if they feel that it’s something to do with their sperm,” says Luke. “I know men who don’t feel comfortable telling people that they’ve been through IVF because of that sense of shame.”

“There’s definitely a divide,” Kelly agrees. “Women are slightly more comfortable with the medical procedures, but it’s quite daunting and overwhelming and confusing for a lot of men, who also have their role belittled in some ways – that all they have to do is deliver a cup.”

The couple worked with illustrator Mara Wild to bring the story to life through deceptively simple artwork, reminiscent of that of comics favourite Alison Bechdel. The graphic novel format simplifies the medical procedures through visual charts, but also allows each character’s emotions to be fully expressed – some of the most moving moments are panels with no words at all.

The book is publisher Scribe’s first entry into the graphic novel market, which is rapidly gaining speed in Australia. Like Mandy Ord’s Stella Prize-longlisted When One Person Dies the Whole World is Over, it’s proof that comics can be much more than superhero stories – they are a dexterous art form that can effectively communicate complex, serious topics.

“I’ve been a fan of comics since I was a kid,” says Luke. “As I grew up, I really started to appreciate the way that words and pictures could tell slightly different stories at the same time, and that disconnect between them would cause a third story to emerge.”

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It’s a happy ending for Joanne and Conrad, just as it was for Kelly and Luke, who are parents to two daughters, the second of whom was conceived naturally. The couple is open with their older daughter about her IVF beginnings.

“It’s about normalising it for her,” says Luke. “We framed it as that we had a lot of trouble getting pregnant, so we needed scientists to help us. One of the things we’ve always been able to say to her is that we actually saw the fertilised egg inside the petri dish.”

“That was a truly incredible moment in the whole process,” says Kelly. “It felt miraculous to see her so early – it was magical.”

Two-Week Wait: An IVF Story by Luke Jackson and Kelly Jackson, illustrated by Mara Wild, is out now through Scribe