It's no far stretch to call the infertility odyssey a quest of our times. Peggy Orenstein's experience includes Clomid, IVF, and a round of IVF with donor eggs, miscarriage, adoption, and "natural conception" is certainly an emblematic journey. What's more, she begins, as all true seekers, with the kinds of doubt about her relationship to motherhood that mean her determination is not simple and clear, but fettered. A feminist with a very compelling, successful writing career, Orenstein begins her journey toward motherhood conflicted about having to slow down in order to become a mother, and perhaps even more uncertain about her willingness to do so. Add to this some formidable if not insurmountable physical challenges: her age -- second half of her thirties and very early forties -- having only one ovary and having survived breast cancer at the beginning of this period in her life.
After trying to conceive for few months, Orenstein finds herself surfing infertility websites. She reads a posting about a woman's desperation when her husband says he needs a break from the relentless pursuit of conception aloud to her husband, Steven: "Am I supposed to put on an act? Pretend to be a good wife and smile and be happy knowing I've had two miscarriages and now might never get pregnant? What if one of those months is the only one for the rest of my life when I can conceive?" When Steven protests that he doesn't need to hear any of this, Orenstein promises she'll never emulate "Babyfever."
"Clomid," writes Orenstein in Waiting for Daisy, "was my gateway drug: the one you take because, Why not—everyone's doing it. Just five tiny pills... It's true, many some women can stop there. For others, Clomid becomes infertility's version of Refer Madness... You've become hope's bitch, willing to destroy your career, your marriage, your self-respect for another taste of its seductive high."
What Orenstein describes, with incredible honesty, more than a little humor, and plenty of detail, is becoming her very own version of "Babyfever," a woman obsessed by infertility. More than simply the number of tries or the amount of money spent, she describes the emotional toll to herself, her partner, and their marriage. After her first miscarriage turned out to be a molar pregnancy, the doctor ordered them to take a break from pregnancy attempts to ensure that her hormone levels remained normal for nine months. Orenstein describes that period as a "certain reprieve" during which her marriage "expanded again beyond my ovulation cycle." She began to believe that she'd be all right regardless of whether she became pregnant or not. Once given the go-ahead to try to conceive again, Orenstein discovered, "That dream was short-lived." At thirty-seven, she was now in a hurry, racing against time, which portended diminishing odds to conceive as she neared forty, unclear whether to put her faith in science or her body.
Pregnancy becomes its own myopic achievement, and Orenstein writes of how trying to get pregnant takes on certain disjointedness from the notion of parenthood after a while. At a clinic "known for treating the posh infertile" she writes of sizing up other women in the clinic's waiting room. "And that one with the reading glasses -- who is she kidding? She has to be at least forty-five! I knew they were sizing me up, too, guessing at my age, the nature of my defect, which of us had a better shot at success." As they dive further headlong into more invasive treatments with more doctors, Orenstein writes of her husband's complaints that she's become obsessed. She also describes how his pleas that they discuss something else stir only her anger.
Added to the pain of not conceiving is the added loss from miscarriage, including one that takes place while she's doing research in Japan. After that miscarriage, she ventures to make an offering to Jizo, a bodhisattva -- enlightened being -- "who (among other tasks) watches over miscarried and aborted fetuses as well as dead children." Orenstein's musings about the lack of language surrounding these kinds of losses in our society are extremely smart, a missing link, perhaps, in why we struggle without success to find better dialogue about abortion, miscarriage and the losses surrounding infertility. Orenstein writes:
Without form, there is no content. So even in this era of compulsive confession, women don't speak openly of their losses. It was only now that I'd become one of them, that I'd begun to hear the stories, spoken in confidence, almost whispered. There were so many. My aunt. My grandmother. My sister-in-law. My friends. My editors. Women I'd known for years -- sometimes my whole life -- who had had this happen, sometimes over and over again but felt they couldn't, or shouldn't, mention it.
Beyond silence, Orenstein notes how, with technological advances so much that was less explored and unexplained is now under scrutiny. She writes, "As it was, at a tenuous five weeks gestation, I'd already calculated my due date on a Web site, ogled pictures of 'my baby's' development, and joined an Expecting Club on iVillage for November Mommies-to-Be." This, she asserts, leads to a framing of fetus as person. The Japanese Jizo at least offers an option of some ritual, some acknowledgement, at a time when Americans tend to fall silent. "Another thing I'd never noticed: there is no word in English for a miscarried or aborted fetus," she writes. "In Japanese it is mizuko, which is usually translated as 'water child.'" Japanese Buddhists consider children slow to solidify and become fully of the human realm, a process that takes years.
It's Orenstein's ability to write personally of her experience but also to get outside of herself enough to question her experience -- female identity, the havoc wreaked upon relationships through infertility, the sense that profit motivates many infertility doctors more than compassion as examples -- that make this book resonate farther than her particular story. Through connections made in Japan -- an amazing story in itself of a woman who periodically helps place babies for adoption -- she and her husband receive a chance to adopt a boy, whom they name Kai, although the process is bogged down by arbitrarily vexing, entangled paperwork. At the same time, Orenstein finds herself unexpectedly pregnant (conceived romantically rather than scientifically) and faces the prospect of two babies, one baby, or no baby; she has no idea which possibility will come to pass.
The book's title answers that question: Orenstein ultimately carried a baby, Daisy, to term. Of the Jizo statue in her garden, Orenstein describes her feeling each time she noticed it: "I wasn't sure whether to bow my head before it or chuck it in the trash. That was pretty much how I felt about everything that had happened over the previous six years -- torn between a need to remember and the desire to forget."
Much as Orenstein and her husband adore Daisy and parenthood, much as she wanted to, as her husband feared "'go getting all revisionist'" we readers are lucky that she neither chucked her experiences in the trash nor denied what she lost. She writes that she ceded "the entire second half of my thirties -- obliterated by obsession." This to the detriment, she confesses of her career, her happiness during that time and her marriage, which while resilient still bears "hairline cracks." Orenstein describes some of her personal insights about how she would wish to approach life differently after her ordeal, and she also goes to lay out a broader perspective, questioning the industry surrounding infertility and the weighty responsibility consumers have to be alert to the pitfalls of being aggressively marketed "perpetual hope." It's a hard feat, with a happy ending, to go back and ask tough questions. Orenstein rises to that challenge and offers an unflinching, at times funny, tender and yet tough look at an experience she isn't alone in having endured.
mmo : march 2007