The female body, as any owner knows, can be a diabolically creative source of torment. There are so many things about it that can disappoint, embarrass or send your self-esteem straight down the barrel of a Cuisinart. Almost all women have some notion of the ideal body, and almost all women, at some point or another, wonder whether theirs got lost in the mail.
All this fretting is pointless, of course. The definition of normal is much more expansive than anything the shrieking goblins in our heads ever tell us.
I thought quite a lot about what normal is and isn’t as I was reading “The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood,” Belle Boggs’ thoughtful meditation on childlessness, childbearing and — for some — the stretch of liminal agony in between. Her book is a corrective and a tonic, a primer and a dispeller of myths. It is likely to become a go-to guide for the many couples who discover that having children is not the no-assembly-required experience they were expecting. They will come away enlightened, reassured and comforted by her debunker mentality.
We often think of infertility as a white, upper-middle-class problem. (Cue the image of the brittle career woman, her latte in one hand and briefcase in the other — when will she learn that she can’t control everything?) But infertility disproportionately affects minorities, the poor and the less educated. We also tend to think of it as a woman’s problem. Again, not true: It affects both sexes in equal numbers. Most insidiously, we think of fertility troubles as rare and unnatural. They aren’t. One in 8 couples have trouble conceiving. It’s a phenomenon so commonplace you’d think it wouldn’t bring shame. Yet it does.
For about five years, Boggs, a writer and teacher at North Carolina State University, struggled to have a child with her husband. The experience made her a citizen of a shadow nation we hear little about — a place with its own rites, institutions, even language. (On online message boards, ovarian follicles are “follies,” embryos are “embies.”) For the first three years, Boggs attends a support group, in part to hear horror stories. “I’m hoping to detach from the process,” she writes, “to see what I could spare myself if I gave up.”
But giving up is difficult, as she soon discovers. There is always one more treatment to try or redo, provided she’s willing to spring for it or disappear into a canyon of debt. There’s adoption to consider; there’s also the simple possibility of giving up, of deciding there’s another kind of life to be lived.
Boggs did that for a while. It was both horrible and a great relief. “I felt split in two,” she writes. “The person I had hoped to become was torn away, leaving only the person I had always been.” She eventually resumes trying.
Boggs’ book is unsparing in its account of what in vitro fertilization — which in her case was successful, after just one try — really looks like. The grueling, undignified mechanics of it. The unsolicited opinions of friends, who tell her she’ll give herself cancer, that she’d be better off drinking more whole milk. Its extravagant costs, seldom covered by insurance (the profiteering she reports is outrageous).
But what lingered with me is the social isolation she describes during her many years of trying and failing to get pregnant. “Increasingly, our life was less and less like the lives of our married friends,” she writes, “who had entered a new and somewhat exclusive world of playdates and birthday parties and bedtimes.”
You need not be struggling to start a family to identify with this melancholy observation. People who’ve opted not to have children will surely see something of themselves in it, and so will those who are still searching to find a life mate. (Having reached 36 before pairing off with my husband, I felt a familiar heartsickness when reading these words.) There’s something truly challenging, if not excruciating, about being out of step with your cohort. And if you want what they’ve got, what story do you tell yourself as you bide your time? That living without is the new normal? Or that it’s only a temporary spell of distress?
“If someone had told me, ‘In five years you will have a baby,’ I would have been fine to wait those five years,” Boggs writes. But she had no way of knowing. “The problem with infertility is that it is not a patient, serene kind of waiting.”
Had Boggs told only her personal tale, she would have won her readers’ affection. But she adapts her story for a much wider screen. She examines fertility and infertility in the animal kingdom. She interrogates the notion of “baby fever.” She looks at childless couples in literature — an unstable, unhappy lot — and realizes, to her horror, that she herself capitulated to stereotype and created a “desperate, uptight” infertile woman in her debut collection of short stories, “Mattaponi Queen.” “If I could go back and rewrite her,” she confesses, “I would.”
She writes without sentimentality about adoption, which is far more emotionally complex than anyone who says “just adopt,” can imagine; she tactfully handles the ethical complications of surrogacy, especially when it relies on poor women in developing countries; she writes resourcefully about gay families, which are far more inclined to adopt and foster. They’ve also helped dissolve the stigma associated with assisted reproductive technology. They view it as a source of empowerment and excitement, rather than shame and defeat.
These discussions aren’t always earth-shattering. Some, like her rehash of the custody battle over Baby M, are downright rote, and her ruminations on lives without children could have been much richer. Part of the problem is that she spoke mainly to fellow writers about this subject. For all Boggs’ sensitivity to diversity, she seldom strays from her own artist milieu to do her interviews. (When she reveals that a couple she’s been profiling lives in a cohousing community, I could hear my Grampa Simpson voice complaining about hippies.)
Yet Boggs has done something quite lovely and laudable with “The Art of Waiting”: She’s given a cold, clinical topic some much-needed warmth and soul. The miracle of life, you might even say.