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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Interview with Peggy Orenstein

To wrap up the fourth tour of the Barren Bitches Book Brigade, I sat down at my computer and Peggy sat down at her computer and we chatted. But let's just pretend that we held this interview over a less technological medium. Picture us, if you will, sitting in a small cafe tucked into the corner of a cozy bookstore. I have my trusty orange notebook on the table and Peggy is sipping a latte (wait--Peggy--do you like lattes?). People keep walking by the table and want to stop and talk to her and have her sign their copy of Waiting for Daisy but they're too shy to ask and they kick themselves the whole ride home.

I loved this book. I devoured it in a few days. I was grateful to Peggy for writing a panoramic view of infertility. I think the media too often focuses on either the happy outcome or the pits of despair, but few outsiders hear about the day-to-day: the arguments inside a marriage, the doubt, the fears, the promises that are dangled in front of you and snatched away. The hard decisions. I have a deep respect for Peggy for putting it out there and making the journey accessible to both the stirrup queens and sperm palace jesters of this world as well as the outsider wishing to understand the emotions that surround infertility and loss.

And I think at the heart of this, it is infertility through the lens of feminism. Here we have a strong, female narrator--an ardent feminist who has built her identity on her strength as a woman and being part of a large continuum of feminists through the ages. And she is questioning how she can remain true to her ideals while also expanding and refining them. How she can hold tight to rational thought when emotions threaten to rip her under--and can we ever overcome impulses that we can rationalize simultaneously are biological and societal in nature? Are we taught to believe that we need motherhood OR are we honestly hardwired to desire motherhood? Or is it a blend of the two? And how can one remain a strong, independent, intelligent woman when something that should be within your control--reproduction--is taken out of your control and placed in the hands of doctors (and when you are not the norm--you are the exception). And this is the part where you add your own thoughts on these matters...

I found the whole book fascinating. And I found OUR reaction fascinating too. Especially because we only had one man-pie this tour. So the common voice was overwhelmingly female, yet we differed so greatly on whether or not we could relate to the journey as well as our judgments. For me, I am always anxious about making assumptions because I only know a small sliver of a story. I don't know how the writer (blog writer or Peggy Orenstein) feels on the multitude of factors that goes into making the decision--I only usually know the final decision. I'm always sensitive on the issue of waiting or the timing of going to treatments. Many bloggers said it well when they mentioned that they started trying when they were ready. And readiness is a very subjective, personal decision that can't be judged.

The methods we use to resolve infertility also are difficult to judge. Some people feel comfortable heading straight into treatments. Other people want to achieve parenthood just as badly yet don't feel comfortable seeing an RE. Some people accept every protocol thrown their way and others want to be deeply involved in charting their own treatment.

Choosing to resolve childlessness with IVF doesn't mean that you want parenthood more than someone who chooses to resolve their state of childlessness by altering their path to be one of living child-free. We can't simplify actions into the sole barometer for understanding desire--if that was truly the case, why didn't you marry the first person you dated if your goal was to be married one day? You didn't marry that first person (or maybe you lucked out and the first person you dated was a keeper) because it didn't feel right. And sometimes choices simply don't feel right. Or they don't feel right in the moment but may feel right further down the line. Or may feel right after other information has come to light. And sometimes, when they are our only option, we make them feel right because we want the goal so badly. And in making them feel right, they become right choices. And all of these are valid processes that don't detract from the emotions felt about that goal nor the emotions felt after the goal is achieved.

Therefore, I'm grateful that Peggy has written a book that explores that ambivalence that comes for some women hand-in-hand with motherhood. Being entirely sure of your desire to mother doesn't make you a great parent and feeling pulled in a multitude of directions as you consider motherhood doesn't make you a sub-par parent. The actual parenting and the desire to parent are two very different things.

And now...our questions to Peggy (these are the ones I collected over the past few weeks from book tour members) and her answers. And a very public thank you to Peggy for reading along with the book club and answering our questions:

Melissa: As your husband requested, you included the arguments that went on behind closed doors as part of the journey. Did writing about the fights renew any of the tension that existed in those fights? Did writing about the fights resolve any leftover ill-feelings that came from those arguments?

Peggy: I have to confess, once a book is done the process sort of disappears in the pages. And since it takes a year for a book to come out that means I finished over a year ago and was writing for the 2 years before that. But writing about the fights both renewed and dispelled the tensions between us. There was a point in an earlier draft--actually quite a late draft, but an early "final" draft--where I was much harsher on Steven during the miscarriage in Japan. He read it and his main comment was, "Well, someone hasn't processed her anger." IT was true. I was still really mad at him about how he behaved then. And even though I UNDERSTAND it better now, it's still a sore point for me (he has his own sore points....). His feeling was that his perspective wasn't represented at all and the way I'd written it was so damning that he'd never come back from it as a "character" in the book. I don't know whether that was true or not (in general, he comes off better than me, which is partly fair and partly the protective veil a writer casts on the husband who is brave enough to become her fodder). Anyway, we had to talk through that one quite a bit. There's a point you'll notice in that Japan chapter where I say he thinks he talked about the pregnancy all the time and I think he never mentioned it (over the phone, while I was there and he was home). I still think I'm right about that one. So does he. But that said, I think in general writing the book helped me work through a lot. That's not why I wrote it, but it did have that side effect. I felt in a lot of ways I put the person I was during that period to rest, or maybe forgave her or some other New Age crap.

Melissa: In one part of the book, you do mention the possible problems of taking fertility drugs after cancer (especially estrogen-based ones). Do you think when you're in the middle of infertility, it is impossible to push aside the drive to have that child (or overcome infertility) in order to truly fathom the repercussions of our choices? Do you think the medical community should be more responsible when allowing women to take these drugs? I know that I, for one, was not warned about the possibility of future medical problems tied to fertility drugs. This was information I read online. And I never paused to think about it until after I had already taken all the drugs.

Peggy: The answer to the first part of that question? Yes. I mean, really, that's the whole answer. I think when you're caught up in it you (or at least I) become willing to do anything--compromise health, marriage, self, friendship, you name it. I actually don't worry (too much) about links to breast cancer because there don't seem to be any (though I don't know, I do kind of wonder about Elizabeth Edwards). But I worry very much about ovarian cancer, not for "normal" people but for people like me with a potential tendency towards it. In general, we who do any infertility treatments are guinea pigs in an unregulated industry. I mean, what the hell is that medium in which they culture the embryos? I don't know. Do you? Do you know what impact it might have on future children? We trust. We hope. Who can blame us? Maybe the medical community should be more responsible, but they won't be. They're self-regulated. There's a huge profit motive in infertility drugs. So it's up to the individual, unfortunately. For me, also, I was the total prepared patient about cancer. Read everything. Knew everything. Clipped articles for my oncologist. With infertility, I just closed my eyes and did what the docs said. Was that because it was harder to accept? Maybe. Or because by then I was so tired of being medicalized I didn't want to think about it. I'm not sure which, but I do think about how weird it was not to be more pro-active.

Melissa: Knowing that Daisy would one day read the book, did you have any impulse to censor things? What about your parents as readers? Whose reaction did you worry about the most (or Daisy's in the future) when writing the book?

Ah, someone knows me. No impulse to censor for Daisy, but my parents were another story. I look forward to Daisy reading the book, though I'm not sure she'll want to (it involves her parents having, or not having, sex. Ick.). But I love the idea that she'll know me as a younger woman than I'll be when she's of a more conscious age. She'll have some sense of me, if not as a teen or very young woman, at least in my 30s and 40s. And since I'll be about 61 when she's 20 that means something to me. I always worry about writing about my mom. That's much more sensitive. So of anyone, it's her reaction I worried about most. I talked to her a lot about the brief section on her before she read it. The thing is, she's always really nice about it, but I worry nonetheless. And Steven's reaction is obviously important. If he didn't think the book was authentic that would've been a huge problem. But I also know we can work any issues through. He's a great editor (I edit his stuff too) and has really good ideas. I'm not a filmmaker and he's not a writer, but the creative and critical thinking skills transfer.

Melissa: How has succeeding in conceiving and delivering a child after infertility changed your thinking about motherhood? Do you relate easily to women who delivered without any intervention? How often do you acknowledge infertility with other mothers? Do you feel some need to educate the uniformed, correct myths, or do you sometimes just prefer not to bring it up...?

Peggy: I can't say if conceiving after infertility changed my feelings about motherhood. I don't know what it would've been like if I'd just up and gotten pregnant like other people (that does happen to some people, right? It's not a myth, is it?). I do know I'm a really grateful mom. I'm also older, so really ready to welcome this experience without conflict or resentment. I really and truly love it. Far more than I expected. Part of that is the kid you get, too. And part of it is how parenting works with your mate. I do think, perhaps, that I take things for granted less than easy moms. I don't speak in that dismissive way about my kid that I sometimes hear in others. And since I wrote a book about it, I'm pretty much the infertility go-to gal. But I'd be that way anyway. I'm totally open about it. I really think it's so defining, even if you do end up having a child (by whatever means). Same with cancer. I'm happy to talk to any newly diagnosed person ever. There were women, strangers, whose phone conversations in those early days kept me sane. I'm happy to do the same for others. I do sometimes hate to bring it up, though. But, yeah, I feel I have to avenge when people say things like, "I know someone who got pregnant right after she adopted" and all that other garbage. The just relax stuff. I feel the same way with cancer. And with being a mom of a biracial kid (I get the question, "where did you get her?" a lot). The question about whether I relate to women who conceive easily is really perceptive, too. I mean, I don't dislike them or anything. It's just so....foreign. And I think I do tend to gravitate towards other women who experienced loss. There's something that happens to you when life is upended that way, even if it's only briefly. And everyone will experience loss at some point, it's just some of us got hit with it earlier. There are a lot of differences between me and other mothers around me. I'm also 10 years older than the other preschool moms, though I live in Berkeley, so in fact there are some who are maybe more like six or seven years younger. That doesn't seem like such a leap. It's not that I think they seem callow or anything, and we're still pals, but I am aware sometimes that I've got that time and perspective on them. And their skin looks better. And my old friends, a lot of them, have kids who are learning to drive now. So I can feel a bit out of sync. But all of that? So what. It's how it rolled. It's petty stuff. Even the math (I'll be how old when she graduates college...). So what? Not like I could do it differently. And mostly I feel lucky to be on the other side of all of this, however it went.


serenity said...

"With infertility, I just closed my eyes and did what the docs said. Was that because it was harder to accept? Maybe. Or because by then I was so tired of being medicalized I didn't want to think about it."

I can relate to this more than I can say.

Ellen K. said...

This interview really rounded out the book tour. Thanks, Mel, for organizing this, and thanks, Peggy, for your participation.

Samantha said...

Thank you for doing this interview.

I just also want to say thanks for discussing the whole judgment issue. I was particularly struck by your comment, "Choosing to resolve childlessness with IVF doesn't mean that you want parenthood more than someone who chooses to resolve their state of childlessness by altering their path to be one of living child-free." I think this is very important to remember that our decisions are made using a whole set of complicated factors, and those of us who will become mothers don't necessarily get there just because "we wanted it more."

BestLight said...

Mel -- "Being entirely sure of your desire to mother doesn't make you a great parent...The actual parenting and the desire to parent are two very different things."

I needed to hear these things. I had a tough parenting day yesterday, and I was berating myself for not being 100% grateful for what I have, especially in the context of visiting all the BBBB blogs.

Thanks, Peggy, for your honest and often amusing narrative, for capturing the essence of the IF experience.

Thanks, Mel, for creating this space.


Bean said...

I second Ellen's comment. The interview was a great way to wrap up the book tour. Thanks for taking the time to put the whole thing together. I really enjoyed reading what everyone had to say about the book, even though I didn't have time to make any of my own comments after the first day. I look forward to the next tour!

Bea said...

Great interview. I've often wondered whether this desire is more of a wanting to fit in than anything else, and I'm relieved to hear someone who made it to the other side voice ambivalence.

Of course, those who chose not to pursue parenthood at all have an important voice, as do those who found it easily and didn't like it all that much, but P's been through the trenches and is now holding her child, and to hear her say, "You know, it's not everything" - well, that's very comforting, and fairly unique.

As for closing your eyes and doing what the docs said - I do find I'm more likely to do that as I go on. At first I was the "prepared patient", but I've just hung up from making an appointment for "some blood tests" and I had to admit to the nurse I didn't really know - or care - what they were about. I guess no-one can say for sure why P reacted differently to infertility vs cancer, but I'm voting for the "fatigue" explanation.


Michelle said...

Thank you, Mel and Peggy, for doing this interview. I also devoured this book and loved Peggy's honest and funny voice. Thanks for baring yourself as you did, Peggy, and for participating in the book tour!