We have become a nation of oversharers. And yet, even in the Era of TMI, it’s rare for women—or couples—to broadcast their struggles with infertility.
In this regard, the publishing world largely mimics real life. If you’ve been searching for a book that personalizes the excruciating pain of infertility or repeated pregnancy loss, you’ve likely been waiting a long time. Belle Boggs has received significant attention and critical adulation for her new book, “The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood,” and it’s not hard to see why. Boggs’ book steps squarely into a wide void in the public conversation about family.
Americans spend countless hours reading and writing about the joys (and challenges) of parenthood. Why, there’s even a whole section of the blogosphere devoted to it! We argue about a woman’s right to delay motherhood or avoid it altogether, and whether helicopter or free range parenting works best. However, we spend minimal time discussing, or empathizing with, the adults who long to be parents but find that goal elusive.
Examining the Stigma of Infertility
There are several reasons why, starting with the remaining stigma surrounding infertility. There is also the matter of self-protection at a moment when one feels emotionally raw. For everyone involved there is pain; for some there is shame, and in our success-oriented culture, there’s not much public support. Boggs’ explanation? “Infertility and assisted reproduction can be difficult to talk about with fertile people—they may not understand, may not want to talk about it, or may be too busy raising their own families to offer much support,” she writes. This is a fair assessment, even if it’s one that we could—and should—work to change.
Boggs comes to this topic as someone who’s been there. “The problem with infertility,” she writes, “is that it is not a patient, serene kind of waiting, not a simple delay in your plans; it happens for many of us in the context of consuming struggle, staggering expense, devastating loss.” She and her husband struggled for years to conceive. It is only with the help of one successful round of IVF—an atypical result—that Boggs’ family finally grows to include a daughter.
This book, which mixes reportage, political commentary, personal reflection, and others’ personal experiences, is essentially the story of Boggs’ own infertility journey. Boggs is at her strongest when she writes from experience or showcases her skills as a creative writer.
The Art of Storytelling
From the first page, we are acutely aware that Boggs is an able writer, vividly capturing the local cicadas’ return. In place of a simple statement, Boggs conjures a memorable sensory experience for us: “the males’ mating song, a vibrating, whooshing, endless hum, a sound at once faraway and up close, makes me feel as though I am living inside a seashell.”
Boggs puts her storytelling skills to use while sharing the story of a North Carolina couple that not only adopted their son in a movie-worthy scenario but also founded a foundation to help other parents interested in domestic adoption. She also offers us a peek into the private world of “couples trying to conceive (or TTC, as it’s known among people who have been trying for a while).” Beyond in-person support groups, like those affiliated with RESOLVE, there is a global infertility community online. TTC message boards feature their own conception oriented graphics and “‘angel baby’ memorial tickers for children lost to miscarriage and stillbirth.”
It is perhaps because Boggs is so talented a writer and is tackling such a vital and oft ignored topic that I found myself disappointed, and even frustrated, by other parts of her book. In particular, the numerous sections that reference religion and politics are likely to turn off traditional believers and social conservatives.
Pervasive Political Commentary
Boggs is very clear that she is not a religious believer. However, it’s one thing to note that you yourself don’t believe before moving along, and quite another to deliberately poke millions of American Judeo-Christian believers in the eye. For example, Boggs refers to the miracle of Sarah’s geriatric pregnancy as “the myth of Sarah,” which she complains, “infects our literature and our thinking.” As a practicing Jew who takes comfort in my tradition, including the Matriarchs’ struggles, I found that incredibly off-putting.
Had I been Boggs’ editor, I would have advised her to minimize, or even completely eliminate the political commentary that pervades her book, like weeds growing in a flower patch. The comments don’t substantively add to public debates about contentious issues, and they drive a wedge between the writer and a large subset of her potential readers.
For starters, Boggs is an enthusiastic fan of Obamacare, unlike millions of Americans who have struggled to pay its ever rising premiums. Boggs is obviously entitled to her opinion, but given her book-length canvas, her case could have been strengthened by acknowledging that detractors have at least a few valid points.
Elsewhere, Boggs champions the choice to be child free and writes approvingly of Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb,” saying “Zero population growth: there is something elegant about that math.” Boggs may deeply believe these things. However, such positions strike discordant notes in a book that follows her own years-long struggle to become a parent, encapsulated by Boggs’ noting at one point: “[H]aving a child was something I’d always taken for granted, it was difficult to imagine or understand my life without that experience.”
Much Ado About Israel
Most alienating for this reader, though, was Boggs’ extended tangent about Israel. Boggs disapproves of Israel’s surrogacy laws, so she concludes that Israel is LGBTQ unfriendly. That struck me as both overly simplistic and unfair.
First, surrogacy laws are currently in flux, as scientific and moral considerations are weighed in public policy debates worldwide. In Israel in particular, there is reason to think that surrogacy laws could be liberalized in the near future, which would presumably please Boggs.
Second, there are 72 nations where it remains illegal to participate in same-sex sex, and “13 countries, [including several of Israel’s regional neighbors, where] being gay or bisexual is punishable by death. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv is the only Middle Eastern locale that is regularly listed among the world’s most gay friendly cities.
Boggs’ sustained criticism of Israel is also surprising in light of her chapter cataloguing American states’ varied health care coverage for infertility and IVF treatments. Boggs praises Massachusetts for easing the worries of those dealing with infertility because it makes IVF treatments more affordable. Of course, Israel is incredibly generous to its citizens, financing up to eight rounds of IVF for eligible women. The cost and quality of Israeli IVF are also appealing enough to draw many would-be parents from abroad.
In the end, Boggs’ book is imperfect, but it’s still a worthwhile contribution to the public conversation we should be having about infertility. Here’s hoping that more continues to be written and publicly shared on the topic, reflecting the experiences of more and more families—traditional believers, social conservatives, and the apolitical included.