Misconceptions: A Writer Recounts the Ordeals She Went Through to Have a Child

Washington Post | March 11, 2007


By Peggy Orenstein

The book business loves a niche, especially a profitable one. So it’s easy to understand the burgeoning category of what might be called Repro Lit, fueled perhaps by delayed parenthood or by the increased incidence — or is it heightened awareness? — of infertility. Some of the books in this category treat adoption, others miscarriage; some address gay parenthood, others single motherhood. And while some are serious investigative studies, many more are personal narratives. The real challenge, especially for the literary memoir writer, comes when she (or sometimes he) wants to transcend the obvious rubric and appeal to a wider audience.

This, I suspect, is Peggy Orenstein’s ambition for Waiting for Daisy, and she succeeds in places. In spite of her book’s histrionic subtitle — you can almost hear the agent or editor whispering in her ear, “More! Worse! Farther! Bigger!” — she treats her efforts to become a mother with intelligent skepticism and a brazen sense of humor (a quality not often found in Repro Lit). It takes chutzpah to begin a chapter: “I married a man who is far better looking than I. It’s not that I’m a candidate for a dogfight, exactly, but no one’s ever going to confuse me with Adriana Lima.”

Unlike many women who have written about the experience of trying and failing to have a baby, Orenstein doesn’t leave her feminism at the door. She writes frankly about her initial reluctance to become a mother and traces the complicated evolution of her feelings from “no! never!” to single-minded passion. Once launched on the all-consuming path, she makes stops that will be familiar to many of her readers: joyless “fertility sex”; miscarriage after miscarriage; fertility test after fertility test; expensive, uncaring reproductive-medicine specialists; adoption near-misses; attempts at the brave new universe of surrogacy. But her voice makes all the difference in the world. Far from the anguished, often reverential, super-serious tone of Internet discussion groups is this passage on her introduction to the world of fertility medicine:

“Clomid was my gateway drug; the one you take because, Why not — everyone’s doing it. Just five tiny pills. They’ll give you a boost, maybe get you where you need to go. It’s true, some women can stop there. For others, Clomid becomes infertility’s version of Reefer Madness. First you smoke a little grass, then you’re selling your body on a street corner for crack. First you pop a little Clomid, suddenly you’re taking out a second mortgage for another round of in vitro fertilization (IVF). You’ve become hope’s bitch, willing to destroy your career, your marriage, your self-respect for another taste of its seductive high.”

In addition to her slightly skewed stance, Orenstein engages in some interesting cultural peregrinations. Traveling to Tokyo on a research grant while pregnant, she visits a doctor who tells her that her fetus may have a chromosomal abnormality and then quickly adds that there is an 80 percent chance all will be well. But Orenstein doesn’t buy the optimistic outlook: “Japanese doctors lie to protect their patients’ feelings. It’s considered legitimate, for instance, to withhold a cancer diagnosis from a woman even after a mastectomy so that she won’t fall into a suicidal funk. So I didn’t believe Dr. Makabe.”

And she was right not to. While still in Japan, she experiences both a miscarriage and a D&C (dilation and curettage). For solace, she turns to the practice of Jizo, in which women who have had miscarriages, stillbirths or abortions leave offerings at the feet of statues. She realizes that there is no American term for a fetus that doesn’t become a child, whereas the Japanese have a word — “mizuko,” water child. She explains that, historically, Japanese Buddhists thought that “existence flowed into a being slowly, like liquid.” Children aren’t considered completely in the human realm until they’re 7, and a mizuko exists in “that liminal space between life and death but belonging to neither.” Beautifully said.

Although much has been written on many facets of the fertility quest — the medicines, the miscarriages, the adoption process — surrogacy is less discussed, still more veiled and verboten than other aspects of the experience. Orenstein does a great job with her chapter on “Fish,” the young girl who began a correspondence with her after reading her book Schoolgirls and who eventually became her surrogate. She wonderfully describes surrogacy as another stop on the slide down fertility’s slippery slope — one of “perpetually raised stakes and overly inflated expectations.” As she and Fish go through the surrogacy process together, Orenstein gives both of them a humanity that enables the reader to see why each would enter this not terribly well-charted territory.

One of the best things about this book is that when she succeeds in her quest (the baby’s name is Daisy), Orenstein refuses to take refuge in the smug pieties so prevalent in fertility discussions. When a friend tells her that everything happens for a reason, Orenstein bristles (bless her!):

“That’s not something I believe, not when women I love die leaving babies behind, not when children are starving, when adults are tortured. Nor do I like its corollary: ‘God only gives you what you can handle.’ If so, God is a sadist. I refuse to view life through such a simplistic, superstitious lens, whether it’s held up by religion or by New Age…. My infertility was not a result of my ambivalence about motherhood.”

As Daisy moves on through life, and her mother and father move with her through the parenting maze, it would be interesting to hear Orenstein’s intelligent, skeptical voice ruminate on the next stages. For if any writer has the verve and tenacity to supersede the typecasting of Mommy Lit, it’s Orenstein.