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Infertility, possible parenthood and ‘The Art of Waiting’

By Amy Joyce Washington Post

Before the years when friends embarked on starting families, we all assumed having babies would just happen. We look back now and think: Who knew this would be so much (try to circle just one) work/pain/sadness/silent torture? In just one group of friends, there were multiple miscarriages, long adoption waits, years of IVF. The pain was real, the transformation to parent (or not) an often-changing landscape. And for many, it was lonely, even among friends.

Belle Boggs’s smart, elegant book, “The Art of Waiting,” gets to those feelings and so much more. Her memoir also includes reporting on eugenics, zoo animals and research behind “baby fever,” tying in great works of literature and even “Raising Arizona” along the way. It is a painful, enlightening joy to read.

We chatted with her about her own journey to both book and, eventually, baby. Here is an excerpt of that conversation.

Q. Why did you write this book?

A. I started writing the pieces in the book when I was in a place of great indecision and isolation. For me, a way out of those places, particularly isolation, has been through writing. I wrote the book, in a lot of ways, as a means of finding community. Infertility is, for many of us, a very isolating disease, very hard to talk about, a very private, personal experience. I wanted to find a way out of that, to meet more people who had gone through similar things as us, but also people who had gone through different kinds of waiting, and discover how it affected their lives and how to learn from them.

Q. Who is the book for?

A. I wrote it first for myself and my husband. That’s where I started. But as I started to try to publish the pieces and began to do research, I wrote it as a tribute for the people who had been through long periods of waiting to forming their Plan B families, whether those included children or not. I wanted to pay tribute to those people to recognize their strength and courage. Just becoming a parent, getting to the family you envision or desire, can be very challenging for some people. I hope it opens conversations.

Q. Why is there a narrative that motherhood is just a given?

A. We all got here, so we all have our own families to refer back to. A lot of the literature that we read has children in it. But particularly as young adults and high-schoolers, and I’ve taught high school for a number of years, when I think about how many books re-emphasize the primacy of mother-child relationships or women and child-bearing, I was really taken aback. It’s not to say that they’re not wonderful books of literature, but the effect is the idea that having children is right and good, and not having children is somehow deviant. There are all these cultural forces pressing on us as we mature and grow, plus there is just kind of the narrative of nature. Every year, every spring, you see these examples of rebirth. So it’s just hard to escape. I’m really lucky to do this, but I’ve been able to watch bald eagles have their young every spring. And that began to feel to me like, “Oh, this is not an experience that I will have.”

Q. Your writing illustrates the people living with infertility as more real sympathetic than we’re used to reading about. How are women who are struggling with infertility typically portrayed?

A. They’re often portrayed as selfish, particularly if we treat infertility through assisted reproductive technology. They’re often portrayed as coming from a particular class and background. It’s easy to write a character who is infertile who’s maybe a little bit older than the average mother, is career-driven, highly educated, upper-middle class. We see them with some negative character traits: desperate, selfish, will pursue at any cost. I did it myself in my own first collection of stories. I had a character experiencing infertility and treating it with IVF, and she’s portrayed in a way that doesn’t feel sensitive. Looking back on it, I felt like I used this experience to infer some other kinds of characteristics. Of course, I regretted it later.

Q. Tell me about the comments you and others hear: You should get a dog, you should just relax, you should adopt.

A. I think people say these things because they don’t know what else to say. So in my experience, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. They’re just uncomfortable talking about this, or they’re trying to make me feel better, letting me know there’s some other option. I think we have a lot of misconceptions about adoption and how easy it is. I think that having more open conversations, people can realize this is a medical problem. Not everyone has to choose to treat it in the same way that I chose to treat my infertility. My dad had a number of heart surgeries in past few years. I’m so grateful that he had insurance and good medical care. No one ever said to him, “Did you stay alive the natural way, or did you spend a million dollars?” I think we should think about infertility in the same way. Not saying that everyone should pursue IVF. Some people choose to live child-free or adopt or foster. Those are all really great choices.

Q. So about this title: Is there an art to waiting?

A. If there is an art, it’s one that each one of us has to create for ourselves and has to live in our own way. For me, what helped and made my life bigger instead of smaller as I was waiting was the experience of finding community and finding fellowship with other people. My support group, people I interviewed who found their families and are still working on building their families, people I knew who chose not to have children, all of these people helped me see the multiplicity of outcomes that would all be beautiful in their own way. So that experience of reaching out and finding other people to talk to and learn from was what really made my waiting bearable for me. And more than bearable.

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