July 2007

Elizabeth Holden

nonfiction

Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother by Peggy Orenstein

Before reading Waiting For Daisy by Peggy Orenstein I knew little about infertility. Oh, I knew some of the facts -- in vitro fertilization, adoption, etc. But the reality of it was something I had barely considered. My only encounter with the sort of grief a mother-to-be could experience was in the novel The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, where the last third of the book is dominated by the main character’s heart-wrenching attempts to bear a child. After reading Waiting For Daisy, I know many more things about infertility, one of which is that Ms. Niffenegger’s descriptions of her character’s grief and ordeals were not the least bit exaggerated.

Waiting For Daisy is a book about infertility, but it is not meant to be an all-encompassing look at it. Though Orenstein does discuss statistics, history, and difference of attitude between cultures, the book is unmistakably her story alone. It is because of this, I believe, that it packs such a punch. Orenstein trains the focus so sharply on herself, and I was right there with her feeling the heartbreak of repeated miscarriages and the frightened, tentative hope of positive pregnancy tests. Paradoxically, it is the intimacy of her narrative that makes the book speak so well about the generalities of infertility -- perhaps not the details, but the emotions.

What is fascinating about the tale of how Orenstein fell down the rabbit’s hole into the world of several-thousand-dollar IVF cycles, donor eggs, and international adoption is that it seems that it could happen to anyone. She takes pains to express that she was never one of those little girls who dreams of being a mommy. At 36, when the book opens, she is still unsure she wants children. Even after she and her husband, Stephen, have decided to try to conceive, she still feels ambivalence. Over this ambivalence, however, as she is trying to get pregnant, comes more powerful feelings. The implications of being diagnosed with fertility problems have repercussions far wider than how she will be able to become a mother. Orenstein questions her validity as a woman, feels guilt for having placed her career ahead of motherhood, and anger at living in a society where she, as a female, was forced to choose between family and career at all. Her increasing need to conceive comes to represent not just her yearning to be a mother, but a way to prove something to herself and to the world.

The effect this has on her life is clearly hell. The book spans four years, and just by reading about them I suspect I’ve got a few more gray hairs. One of her miscarriages occurs during a solo trip to Japan. Her sex life becomes merely a means to an end, governed solely by her reproductive cycle. She gives herself injections in her thighs, takes hormones that drop her moods to new lows, drinks infusions of Chinese herbs of dubious medicinal value, and gets acupuncture needles stuck in her on a regular basis. The lone fact that her marriage survived the ordeal is reason enough to celebrate.

Throughout the book, Orenstein takes detours into the details of other cultures. She visits an old friend, now a devout Jew with 15 children (all with the same woman) and later, while abroad, learns about mizuko, the Japanese termed for an aborted or miscarried fetus. Her visit to the 17-person family is an interesting side note; it is educational, and it reveals more of Orenstein as a person. It is her trip to Japan, however, that really weaves its way into the narrative. Orenstein notes how in English there is no term like mizuko, and considers how that might make the grieving process after a miscarriage more difficult for Americans. She learns of Jizo, a Japanese divinity known to protect the spirits of mizuko. Jizo will guard the mizuko, it is said, until they are ready to be reborn to the same mother, or be born into a different family. Though Orenstein is not religious, this idea comforts her. As the reader, along for the hellish ride through infertility treatments, I found it comforting as well.

In the end, Orenstein does become a mother, to the eponymous Daisy. But the outcome at the end of the book is not just a child, but two very changed adults. Orenstein and her husband are not the same after their ordeal. Struggling against infertility has helped shape them into the people they’ve become, for better or worse.

The book could be interpreted as a cautionary tale against leaving decisions about motherhood until later into life. It could also be read as an indictment against our culture, which forces women into those decisions. It could be read many ways, by many people. If I viewed it through a particular lens, perhaps I would like it less, or like it more. Viewed simply as Orenstein’s story, however, it is clearly poignant, often sad and sometimes funny. Orenstein has the power to make the reader feel how it must have felt to go through it -- which is to say, heart-wrenching.

Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother by Peggy Orenstein
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 1596910178
240 Pages