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'The Art Of Waiting' Stands As Part Memoir, Part Cultural History Of Infertility


There is a special kind of loneliness in infertility. Belle Boggs and her husband, Richard, knew this feeling well throughout five years of trying to become parents. They waited. And friends and family celebrated milestones and birthday parties. They waited and went to doctors and weighed their varying rates of success for different methods.

Belle Boggs' new memoir is called "The Art Of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, And Motherhood." It's a memoir and a kind of cultural study about her experience and the experience of so many, which is defined in many ways by our own expectations.

BELLE BOGGS: For many years, I was a K-12 teacher. And one of the things that I noticed was how early this starts for so many of us. We think about the families that we will have. Many of us do.

The families that we imagine are very often families like our own or families like the families we read about in books - families we've idealized somewhere along the way. And so I became more conscious of it as a teacher.

MARTIN: What kind of misconceptions about infertility did you have before finding yourself in that place?

BOGGS: You know, like a lot of people, I suppose I probably misunderstood it as more of a woman's problem than a man's problem when, in fact, if you look at infertile couples, it's just as likely to be a male problem as a female problem. And it's very often a couple's problem together.

MARTIN: You mean biologically?

BOGGS: Exactly. And I also probably had in my mind a stereotypical fertility patient - you know, maybe an older woman who's just delayed and delayed childbearing. So one of the things that I did when I was thinking about that, when I was thinking about my teaching and thinking about the books I read with my students - I thought about my own book, which is a collection of stories.

And I thought about the way that a couple of the characters reinforce these stereotypical ideas. I have a younger woman in one of my stories who is seen through the eyes of her mother. And she's receiving IVF treatment.

And I really - Rachel, I will admit that I got a lot of the details wrong. And so I wrote in the book that, you know, if I had the opportunity to go back and write that one character over, I would.

MARTIN: You looked to great works of literature as resources when you were putting this book together. Can you talk about some of the examples that you found of important characters in literature who have dealt with infertility?

BOGGS: Sure. One of the writers I admire most is Virginia Woolf. And I also very much admire Tillie Olsen and her book "Silences," which is a book about women writers and the silences in writing and in literature and in the canon.

And she writes really beautifully about Virginia Woolf's diaries and how in those diaries, you can see Virginia Woolf struggling with her own feelings of jealousy and insecurity and self-doubt over the fact that she did not have children.

And then later, after she'd had, you know, some wonderful experience sitting at her desk and writing - writing in those same diaries - that, in fact, children are nothing to this. And I found that so consoling and beautiful.

At the point that I was reading that and thinking about her experience, I thought that I might not be a mother, that I would also console myself with my writing, that I would find other ways to be generative and expressive.

I also write about the play "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" by Edward Albee. And I thought so much about the imaginary child that George and Martha share. And I thought about how so many of us who struggle with infertility have somewhere in our minds these imaginary children.

MARTIN: Which gets to, really, a central tension in your book. You're waiting and waiting and waiting. But you're also forced to make choices. How do you balance that emotionally, with trying to disengage and just say, it'll just happen?

I've got to release. I'm going to stop thinking about the imaginary children. But at the same time, you have to keep hoping because that's what gets you to the doctor's office to get the next treatment.

BOGGS: We stopped treatment for a while. And I have to say that it was a relief. We didn't know what we were going to do next. We wanted to explore the option of adoption, which is a beautiful option for so many people but is also very complicated.

We wanted to think about living child-free. And I also wanted a break from the medications that I'd been taking. And when we finally began our IVF treatment in 2013, we were very lucky. And I got pregnant the first try. So that's not the case for many people.

I want to mention that IVF and many kinds of assisted reproduction are not often covered by insurance. Only 15 states mandate any kind of infertility treatment. My state, North Carolina, does not. So we didn't have any insurance coverage. So we had to pay for this ourselves.

MARTIN: It's the kind of thing that a lot of people feel free to weigh in on. Did you experience that?

BOGGS: You know, infertility is hard to talk about. And then on top of that, you don't want to hear the well-meaning but sometimes really unhelpful advice that most of us who've been infertile have heard. You know, well, you should just drink more whole milk. Or you should just go on vacation. Or you need to eat meat. And...

MARTIN: Did people really say those things to you? Drink whole milk (laughter)?

BOGGS: Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of stuff that, you know, people want to tell you. And it - maybe it helps some people. It didn't help me. So sometimes, being aware that those suggestions are out there, too, can make it even harder to tell somebody what you're going through.

MARTIN: You and your husband were very lucky. And it worked. And you have a beautiful baby daughter now. That is not the case for many couples who go through the same process. What do you want those couples to take away from your book - people who are earlier on in the process or who went through it and were not able to conceive?

BOGGS: I do know people who were not successful. Me, personally - I wouldn't - I don't - I didn't want to start the process of IVF unless I knew that I would've been OK if it hadn't worked. And I did come to that point. I knew that I would be OK. I would find other ways to be happy and to be generative.

So that was what comforted me as I started my process. And I hope that people who are lucky and don't have to go through that experience - I hope that maybe they'll think a little bit about who they might know who's going through this and struggling and not talking about it.

MARTIN: Belle Boggs - her new book is called "The Art Of Waiting." Thanks so much for talking with us.

BOGGS: Thank you so much for having me, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.