The Art of Waiting Julie Phillips

The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, by Belle Boggs, Graywolf Press, 242 pages, $16

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By the time you get to be fifty, you’ve begun piling up unfulfilled desires, the not-yets becoming not-evers. Here we are, my friends and I, a few with children, most without. Some of us have a life we chose (and fiercely defend), others an unchosen one, but it’s around our reproductive fortunes that you’ll find some of the deepest phantom pain. In The Art of Waiting, memoirist and essayist Belle Boggs likens not having a child to a scarcity of water. You can learn to accommodate it, but the knowledge of drought remains. 

Boggs, in her thirties, did not yet know her maternal fate. The Art of Waiting chronicles the five years that she spent trying to conceive. It’s also an exploration of identity and the body, a wide-ranging, thoughtful, and lively meditation on the desire for children and coping with that desire. Boggs starts by musing on fecundity and infertility in the natural world—mating bugs, spawning salmon—but quickly moves on to the real point, reproduction’s effect on humans’ sense of ourselves. Fertility treatment, in her description, is a sojourn in the unnatural world: “The presence of medicine in something so deeply personal, so long hoped for, so much a part of how we envision ourselves, is perhaps the rudest awakening within the experience of assisted reproduction.” 

Because Boggs is a brave writer and an empathetic one, her book opens out in many directions. She gives us portraits of parents who adopt, examines the moral dilemmas of surrogacy, asks who gets fertility treatment and why. In one chapter, Boggs turns the drilling of a new well at her house in rural North Carolina into a metaphor for trying to conceive. How far can you afford to go? At ten dollars a foot to drill, do you give up at 500 feet, or do you keep going down? If you knew your efforts would have results, you would go on, but what if you can only trust to luck? At one time, Boggs writes, she would have seen in vitro fertilization (IVF) as “selfish and wasteful . . . Better, the younger me would have argued, to donate the money to an orphanage or a children’s hospital. Better to adopt. The thirty-four-year-old me has careful but limited savings, knows how difficult adoption is, and desperately wants her body to work the way it is supposed to.” 

Where does the desire for children come from, Boggs wonders. Is it innate? Are humans biologically programmed to want children, or merely to want sex, which in turn leads to babies? The English call women longing for children “broody,” while “Americans, perpetual taskmasters, say that the biological clock is ticking.” A Finnish sociologist collects evidence of the condition, which she calls “baby fever.” One woman describes it as a yearning in spite of herself, “a restless feeling all the time, just as if my womb was demanding something I did not agree with.” 

Boggs (who is also the author of the short-story collection Mattaponi Queen) now teaches writing at NC State. But she used to teach high school English, and in one of the most engaging sections of the book she looks at the embattled childless characters of literature, like the bitter married couple George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the barren Lady Macbeth. “As with George and Martha,” she writes, “what the Macbeths lack makes them dangerous”—though that doesn’t stop Boggs from coming to the school Halloween party as Lady MacB one year and Miss Havisham the next, hissing “Break their hearts!” at her students from beneath her yellowed veil. Yet she is dismayed by “how little consolation there is for the infertile” in books, “or even for those who are childless by choice and trying to live in a world that is largely fertile and family driven.”

One effect of this section was to make me wish that its writer had been my English teacher. Boggs’s affection for her students comes through clearly, as does her warmth for almost everyone else she encounters. She introduces us to support groups and online message boards, with their private language of oocytes and estradiol, TTC (“trying to conceive”) and BFP! (“big, fat positive” on a pregnancy test). She explores the particular problems of infertile women of color, who tend to get less support when they seek treatment. She profiles a gay couple who hope to make a nontraditional family. In an especially moving passage she reflects on the life of Willis Lynch, a retired handyman and musician who at fourteen was taken from a state-run children’s home and sterilized under North Carolina’s eugenics laws. Almost seventy years later he still mourns the children he couldn’t have, and wonders “if a daughter would have come to hear him sing, if a son would have been someone he could have been proud of.”

Boggs’s rare anger surfaces when she talks about the economic side of assisted reproductive technology (ART). Because it is seldom covered by insurance, poor women are effectively denied ART, as if a low income should disqualify a person from the human joy and fulfillment of bearing and raising children. And while she has no problem with Facebook’s and Apple’s offers to freeze employees’ eggs—she sees ART as ultimately empowering—she points out that the companies’ receptionists and food-service workers were not included in the proposal. 

In the end Boggs and her husband, Richard—a loyal presence throughout the book—conceive through IVF and have a daughter, Beatrice. Yet the long wait and the narrow chance of success have carved marks too deep for good fortune to erase. Boggs’s eloquent observations on bodies and family-making don’t deploy critical theory, the way Maggie Nelson’s do in The Argonauts, Nelson’s celebrated memoir of queer family. But in reporting on the economic and social conditions of reproduction, she emerges as a passionate advocate for the right to have children, no matter how unconventional the result or how seemingly “artificial” the means. 

Julie Phillips is the author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (winner of a National Book Critics Award for Biography). She lives in Amsterdam, where she is the English literature critic for the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw. She is a member of the advisory board of 4Columns.

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