Over the past several years, Graywolf Press has developed a knack for publishing young female essayists who write intelligently and frankly about their lives as women, particularly their experiences of the female body and motherhood. Leslie Jamison considered female pain in The Empathy Exams, Eula Biss examined her decision to vaccinate her son in On Immunity, and now in a worthy successor, The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, Belle Boggs delves into the complicated subject of infertility.
Like Biss, Boggs came to her subject through a personal quandary: After a few years of trying to start a family, she and her husband, Richard Allen, realized they wouldn’t be able to do it without help. This was distressing for many reasons. “A large part of the pressure and frustration of infertility,” Boggs writes, “is the idea that fertility is normal, natural, and healthy, while infertility is rare and unnatural and means something is wrong with you.” But what kind of help should they seek? And how far should they go?
Through a mixture of personal essay, research, and reporting, Boggs explores various facets of infertility: the onset of what is known in Scandinavia as “baby fever” (symptoms range from “a generalized wishing for a child to a delirious, aching sickness”), the many options for medical intervention, the moral and legal tangles of adoption and surrogacy, the terror of waiting to find out if a pregnancy is successful, and the possibility that Boggs’s life will not include the child she always imagined. “The desire for a biological child does not fade into ambivalence or deepen into wise acceptance, post-treatment,” Boggs writes. “It only grows stronger.”
Boggs is very aware that the various systems at play in Infertility World favor people like her and Allen: married, heterosexual, white, educated, gainfully employed, and insured. They can afford to pay $20,000 for in vitro fertilization, and Boggs can afford to take time off from work for the many doctors’ appointments this requires. Had they decided to adopt, they wouldn’t have run into the legal difficulties gay couples face.
It is to Boggs’s infinite credit that The Art of Waiting never descends into whining or anxious uterus-gazing. “The narrative failed,” she writes at one point of a support-group meeting, “because it was about only one thing: becoming pregnant. I needed my story to be more flexible.” Hers is: she makes the problem of infertility palpable, even for someone like me, who has never had the slightest twinge of baby fever. (And why am I so surprised by this? I’ll most likely never go to war, but I’ve still read plenty of books about it without questioning their relevance.) And she does so with a generosity of spirit befitting both the best parents and the best writers. v