Baby or Bust

At a checkup to clear the decks for conceiving a child, Peggy Orenstein learns that she has cancer — and that’s just the beginning of her roller-coaster ride to motherhood.

waiting for daisy

There is a tender moment in the epilogue of St. Louis Park native Peggy Orenstein’s new memoir, when she is gazing at her daughter, the beautiful result of her six-year struggle to have a child, and asks her husband, “Aren’t you glad it all worked out?”Don’t go getting all revisionist on me,” he tells her. “I don’t want you to forget what actually happened and start thinking it was all worth it.”

There seems little risk of that in Orenstein’s world. While other new moms may give in to the self-preserving amnesia that makes us “forget” the pain of childbirth, or the loss of miscarriage, or the soul-crushing unfairness of infertility, Orenstein, a contributing writer to the New York Times magazine, is in the habit of taking very good notes. Her painfully candid and moving memoir, “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,” deftly wipes the Vaseline coating off the lens of modern motherhood and exposes it for the messy business it is. Messier still in an age when, Orenstein reports, more than 1 million fertility-related medical appointments nationwide are made every year.

Orenstein is funny and frank from the beginning, exulting in the good reviews that her cervical mucus has received from gynecologists who tell her she won’t have any problem getting pregnant. If only it were that easy. At a checkup to clear the decks for conceiving, breast cancer is found — a setback that comes to feel like a footnote compared with other obstacles that emerge.

An avowed feminist (her previous books “Schoolgirls” and “Flux” also mined the lives of women and girls), she seems the obvious go-to gal when Oprah’s producers need a confident voice to rebut Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s much-hyped “Creating a Life” (2002), her book about the “crisis of childlessness” among high-achieving women. Instead, Orenstein and her husband are themselves reeling at their own realization that her chances of conceiving are receding with each passing cycle.

“I always thought it was a gradual decline,” her husband says, looking at a steep chart given to them by one of their many fertility doctors, “but it’s like falling off a cliff.”

Writes Orenstein: “I felt like the poster child for Hewlett’s thesis, the midlife professional who’d badly miscalculated, who found out too late that her accomplishments were meaningless compared to motherhood.”

This feeling may explain why a woman who admits to eating organic broccoli and running from microwave ovens finds herself taking a fertility drug linked to increased cancer risk. “Clomid was my gateway drug: the one you take because, Why not — everyone’s doing it. … 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.”

And while she endures a dizzying and disheartening array of treatments and procedures — acupuncture, injections of purified Italian nun’s pee, donated eggs, dirtlike tea and a sad series of D&Cs — Orenstein’s ordeal may be more typical than not. During the first four years she tried to get pregnant, annual IVF attempts rose by 78 percent, while Americans spent $2.7 billion on fertility treatments. “Why don’t you adopt?” people ask. “Why don’t you?” she wonders.

The book’s lengthy subtitle suggests something of the meandering nature of the memoir — a sense that it may not have been the book Orenstein set out to write, but rather the one that was thrust upon her. Visiting with an old boyfriend who now has 15 kids, she learns to be careful what you wish for. Suffering a miscarriage in Japan, she finds an extra tendril of connection between herself and the Hiroshima survivors she interviews there, some left unable to bear children after the bomb blast. And yet, each experience affirms her desire to be a mother, and brings her back to the question asked by anyone who has entered a fertility clinic: “What if it works?” Orenstein asks repeatedly. “What if this is the only way we can have a baby?”Waiting for Daisy” has a surprise happy ending, bittersweet and born of some painful lessons. It will surely resonate with anyone who has been an expectant parent — especially those whose expectations have been challenged.

 

This review appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

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