Although a number of my friends and relatives have battled infertility over the years, I never knew much about what they were going through — in part because I, like many others, never asked.
Our collective sense of etiquette, coupled with squeamishness about the human body and its failures, conspire to make conversation about disability of any kind taboo. And as Belle Boggs argues, infertility is among the most devastating of disabilities — even more so for its invisibility — and one of the least openly discussed.
“The Art of Waiting,” an eye-opening, gorgeously written blend of memoir, reportage, and cultural analysis, breaks this taboo to powerful effect. Examining infertility and childlessness through the lens of her own struggle to become pregnant, Boggs presents not only a courageous account of her personal experience but an illuminating, wide-ranging study of the medical, psychological, social, and historical aspects of a condition that affects one in eight couples nationwide.
Boggs is primarily a fiction writer, and this is literary nonfiction — but unpretentiously so. She analyzes the childlessness of George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” and identifies with the main characters of the Coen brothers’ film “Raising Arizona”: an ex-con, Hi, and a police officer, Ed, who become so desperate for a baby that they kidnap a child.
Boggs and her husband, Richard, choose a more legal, less madcap approach to parenthood: They embark on series of attempts to become pregnant through assisted reproductive technology, which fertility clinicians and patients refer to as ART. The acronym is a soothing alternative to sci-fi inspired labels, like “test-tube baby,” that members of the infertility support group Boggs belongs to find dehumanizing.
This is one of the ways infertility is unlike other disabilities. It strikes at the core of what it means to be human — or at least, what many people see as the essence of human existence: the ability to create other human life. Women, in particular, often feel infertility as an existential loss, Boggs observes. She is no exception. “[S]ome days,” she writes, “I felt like Ed . . . before she kidnapped Nathan Junior: bereft and lonely, consumed by longing. ‘I don’t feel like myself,’ I remember telling Richard. More accurately, I felt split in two. The person I had hoped to become was torn away, leaving only the person I had always been.”
Boggs gives away the outcome of her own fertility treatments surprisingly early, in the book’s second chapter. Still, there is much more at stake than the will-she-or-won’t-she mystery around her attempts to conceive. Although the narrative arc follows her path toward a hoped-for pregnancy, the book makes enlightening detours into the world of infertility along the way.
Boggs details the science behind in vitro fertilization and other treatments and chronicles the surprisingly short history of fertility studies, noting that the “presence of eggs, or ova, was not confirmed until 1827; it took another sixteen years for scientists to discover that sperm must fertilize an egg.”
She offers an anthropological examination of baby fever and tackles the research into whether an innate human drive to reproduce exists, beyond the desire to have sex. She compares the sacrifices humans make for reproductive success — including the painful injections and daunting costs of IVF — to the sacrifices animals make, down to the Australian redback spiders who “are so intent their offspring survive that males catapult themselves into the jaws of their mates immediately after copulation, providing extra nutritional resources for the female and her young.”
And she explores the social issues surrounding infertility treatment, one of which is the way our culture privileges “natural” reproduction, stigmatizing both infertile straight couples and gay couples who conceive “unnaturally,” using donors and surrogates. (She also points out the not-so-subtle racism and classism inherent in statistics demonstrating who has access to ART — a predominantly “white, older, wealthy, and educated” elite.)
These are heavy topics. But Boggs broaches the political without didacticism and the personal without sentimentalism or self-pity. And while the book is often heart-rending, it’s not an unmitigated downer. In her wry, subtle way, Boggs is frequently funny. We’re rooting for her during her daily abdominal injections of IVF medicine in the same way we rooted for Hi when he ran from the law with pantyhose on his head and a bag of Huggies under his arm. The intense longing, the irrational risks, and the extreme self-sacrifice: These strike a chord as the hallmarks of “natural” parenthood, whatever that might mean.
THE ART OF WAITING:
On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood
By Belle Boggs
Graywolf, 242 pp., paperback, $16
Jennifer Latson is the author of a book about Williams syndrome, which will be published next year. Follow her on Twitter @JennieLatson.