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, 240 pages, $23.95
Waiting for Daisy is the chronicle of what happens when a busy, successful woman and her busy, successful husband take the plunge and decide to have a child. She is thirty-six, he is forty-four, and things do not come easily—as the long-winded subtitle suggests. By page 175, she has been through “six months of Clomid, two rounds of IVF, three miscarriages, and a year of acupuncture,” spending more than $40,000 trying to have a “biogenetic” child. And that's before undergoing donor egg implantation (also a failure).
Peggy Orenstein is an accomplished journalist, and she skillfully and vividly tells this tale in which, after eight months of failing to conceive, a very intelligent, well-educated woman succumbs to the blandishments of fertility specialists. For the next five years, even as part of her realizes that doctors have no motivation, when faced with a desperate woman, “to turn away business,” she is driven by two questions: “What if this [method] worked?” and “What if it was the only way we could have a baby?”
Born in 1961, Orenstein grew up in a close-knit Conservative Jewish milieu in Minneapolis, went to Oberlin College, and began her career in journalism in the early 1990s in New York. She rose to become editor of Mother Jones before moving to the Bay Area, where she met the man she would marry, documentary filmmaker (and Oscar recipient) Steve Okazaki. Her first book was Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap (1994), which was followed by Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World (2000). She writes frequently for the New York Times Sunday magazine, most recently in December: “What's Wrong with Cinderella? One Mother's Struggle with Her 3-Year-Old Daughter's Love Affair with Princess Culture.” Besides being enamored of long titles, Orenstein is clearly interested in the subject of women, at least of those who believe women should have it all and are baffled that they don't.
That being said, she writes far better and more coherently than the other writers of her cohort who have worked this beat, Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi. She is also more humorous, perhaps because she is able to portray, if not exactly explore, the ambiguity of finding herself seemingly a “poster child” for the midlife professional “who'd badly miscalculated [and] found out too late that her accomplishments were meaningless compared to motherhood.”
She is never less than good at portraying the “descent into the world of infertility,” a process she describes as “incremental,” leading a woman from one “enabler” to another, each confident that he can do a better job than the previous one. (“In my opinion,” says one doctor of his predecessor, “he oversupplied your natural cycle. . . . I'd try a different protocol and I'd add ICSI after the egg retrieval.”) By the age of forty, she has gone from high-tech to a practitioner of Chinese medicine: “There's something about acupuncture that begs one to suspend disbelief. Cancer patients I knew, women who had read every study on an FDA-approved drug before agreeing to take it, willingly downed Chinese herbs without asking what they were or what harm they might do. It didn't really matter; for most of us the treatments were less about efficacy than mystery, yet another source of that narcotic high of hope.” Besides, at $100 a crack, treatments that moved the vital energy through the body along meridians (thus stimulating her sluggish uterus) seemed a bargain after the high cost of prescription drugs. “Science had done me no favors; maybe pseudoscience could.”
Alongside the personal story, this account puts flesh, so to speak, on the workings of the fertility industry, which lacks minimal consumer regulation or ethical oversight but on which Americans spend almost $3 billion a year (a single cycle of IVF costs at least $12,000). This focus on the medical side of things, while excellent in itself, has a drawback: It permits Orenstein to avoid reflecting deeply on the issue of why a woman who has had breast cancer would go through years of hormone manipulation in order to conceive.
As Orenstein's Flux has documented, ambivalence is not uncommon among ambitious women born at the end of the Boomer generation. These women stepped easily into the professional life that awaited them, but, while they are prepared to work eighty-hour weeks as a lawyer, they will not spend thirty minutes washing dishes, because that smacks of gender oppression. They see motherhood as limiting, because they view their own homemaker mothers as limited, but they are themselves trapped by feminist expectations—the biggest of which is that parenthood should be planned. When difficulties arise, as they do in Orenstein's case, a woman's motivation gets distorted and, as she notes, “conception rather than parenthood” becomes the goal.
Here is what “planned parenthood” looks like before the first dose of Clomid: As soon as Orenstein stops taking the Pill, she is charting her ovulation from daily thermometer readings, drinking two teaspoons of Robitussin every morning (because it loosens mucous in the lungs, it is “thought to work similar juju farther south”), restricting sexual intimacy to “the most gravitationally correct position,” and tucking a beaded African fertility fetish under her side of the marital mattress. When pregnancy fails to occur within three months, the “basic fertility workup” follows: blood tests to check hormones, an ultrasound, and “a form of medieval torture” in which a blue dye is pumped through the fallopian tubes to see if the pathways are clear.
While Orenstein is right to insist that her failure to conceive was not punishment for having postponed pregnancy, she seems not to notice that the planned life—in which pregnancy and parenthood become calendar dates—has given her a black-and-white view of a person's choices. On the one hand, there is the interesting life of the Okazaki-Orenstein household (replete with Oscar and Emmy awards ceremonies and, as she admits, “superficial, self-absorbed friends who spend all their time discussing which overpriced eatery makes the best anise creme brulée”); on the other, there is her high school boyfriend who, as she herself moved away from Judaism, became increasingly religious, to the point where he and his wife now have fifteen children. She seems to know no one in between.
And yet, unlike Faludi and Wolf, Orenstein can think enough outside the feminist box to imagine that her fecund Orthodox friends are happy. Unfortunately, she can only go so far. Here she is, for instance, writing about throwing away the Pill and the diaphragm: “There is the first time you have sex, and then there is the first time you have sex without birth control. On purpose. To make a baby. There was something both sacred and carnal, . . . an erotic thrill in breaking the taboo against unprotected sex, along with a startling intimacy.”
If Orenstein had paused to deconstruct that insight, she might have discovered the logical impasse in which feminists find themselves. Only once does she reflect on her pro-choice politics, while she is on a working trip to Japan. Having suffered a second miscarriage while there, she is led to seek out a so-called Jizo Temple, which memorializes aborted and miscarried fetuses: “That thread connecting me and my embryo had felt startlingly real, and at direct odds with everything I believed about when life begins.” Though not admitting that this was “a person” or “a child,” she can't deny “that it was something.” She steps back very quickly, however: “Voicing my confusion, admitting that the bundle of cells I so adamantly called a zygote had felt to me like some sort of life, seemed like playing into the hands of the enemy.”
Interestingly, it is Orenstein's husband, almost ten years older, who had gently insisted that he would like their relationship to partake of the “life cycle.” When she undergoes CVS testing with her successful pregnancy, because there is a three in one hundred chance of a Down syndrome child, he responds: “Ninety-seven percent? Then why don't we just assume it's normal?” Earlier, when he had suggested to one of the fertility doctors that he and Peggy just try “on their own” to conceive, he was told that their chances were about one in three hundred. Clearly, those odds worked in the end, and one can't help thinking that Orenstein put herself through a lot of torment. Orenstein herself, however, “had no faith in luck, no truck with probabilities.”
Waiting for Daisy opens with an account of a visit to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. It was the year Orenstein turned forty, and, for the first time in more than two decades, she went through the prescribed ritual. She prayed for forgiveness for all the torment she had put her husband through and imposed on her own body and for “the strength to forgive myself for the sins against my marriage and my own heart that I'd committed during my six-year, single-minded quest to bear a child, and the courage to close my own book, one way or another, on this anguished chapter of my life.”
The book closes with an epilogue that reflects the warring impulses of this generation of women. Though she admits that she adores being a mom at forty-two, saying so makes her “uneasy.” Her happiness seems to have expanded her vision. She is still guided by feminist platitudes: “Until the workplace and family life better accommodate mothers, there's no right answer” for a woman with a ticking biological clock, she insists. But her final paragraph expresses her “reverent, radiant gratitude” for the new state in which she can “wake up every day—every day—feeling transcendently blessed.”
One is curious to learn if motherhood and transcendence mesh. Stay tuned for the next installment.
<span style="font-variant: small-caps">Elizabeth Powers</span> is a writer in New York City. She is currently completing a memoir of American life since the 1950s.