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Posts Tagged ‘infertility’

To Have? Or to Have Not?

We all know infertility can be an ordeal, and many talented writers/artists who’ve had the misfortune to experience it have chronicled their arduous journies, such as Phoebe Potts in her memorable graphic memoir, Good Eggs. Infertility, like most other conditions, has many many dimensions, the least of which is the inability to have a child. Relationship dynamics is always affected, self-esteem often suffers, and much time and money are spent on what becomes an obsession. The moneyed invest in IVF and therapy, and endure much pain, and the non-moneyed speculate on whether money could have bought them a biological child and endure much pain.

Peggy Orenstein’s memoir 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 is a story of distress and longing, but it also describes Orenstein’s deep-rooted contradictions and confusion. The book’s rather long subtitle somewhat summarizes the struggle, but not her emotional anguish. The title also kills much of the suspense – you know there is a baby girl at the end of the story somewhere, unlike Good Eggs.

Orenstein’s woe partly stems from the way she identifies herself – a feminist, pro-choice, strongly attached to her career. As she watches many of her gifted friends settle down into full-time motherhood, she speaks of feeling scorn and pity, while at the same time envying them for their conviction. She also witnesses the exhaustion and resentment that working mothers stomach. Seeing her peers feeling either trapped or burned out (or both), she notices how “so many women were smitten with their children while begrudging everything their husbands did or didn’t do” and wonders if having a child precludes some semblance of a fulfilling career life:

Last time  checked, childlessness was only supposed to be a condition of career advancement for nuns.

Certain about her feminist identity, she struggles to reconcile her feminist self with motherhood and the resulting disarray to her life, and expresses her confusion, thus:

“I was clear about who I didn’t want to be like, but not who I did. So many people I knew – women and men – had tumbled into their lives without much thought defaulted into marriages, careers, and parenthood because that was what one was supposed to do. I wanted to live my life more consciously. But what did that mean? How could I guess what I might regret in twenty years?”

While some of us claim to not have any of this confusion or regrets, I know many (including me) whose twenties were plagued by self-doubt, and a burning desire to figure things out and carve out our own unique path. Her confusion speaks to me on many levels. Her story is unique in that, despite her strong ambivalence about motherhood, she tries so desperately to get pregnant.

Orenstein’s journey also has other painful twists. Much like Giuliana Rancic, she receives a breast cancer diagnosis at 35, as part of pre-conception tests. When she finally receives the green signal to try to conceive, she faces numerous setbacks and one too many miscarriages. Compounding the situation is her mounting desperation which almost jeopardizes her marriage to Academy Award winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki. Although, clearly the marriage is based on mutual respect and tenderness, Okazaki’s attitude sometimes seems puzzlingly cold. On one occasion, after losing yet another fetus/baby, Orenstein wretchedly tells her husband:

“I’m so sad. And I’m scared.

He shrugged. “You have to learn to roll with it, Peg.”

Orenstein rationalizes Okazaki’s seeming lack of sensitivity as due to his stoic Samurai side (Okazaki is Japanese-American). Okazaki does express his own  grief and apologizes later.

Orenstein’s state of minds throughout the memoir are (a) her single-minded pursuit to get knocked-up – not to become a mother, but to conceive, to get pregnant, as she admits on several occasions:

You don’t notice your motivation distorting, how conception rather than parenthood becomes the goal, how invested you become in its “achievement”

and (b) her eternal confusion about her own identity and desires. “How was it that despite my achievements, my education, my professed feminist politics, my self-worth had been reduced to whether or not I could produce a child?”, she ponders. Her confusion often results in dishonestly, both to herself and others as when she lets a well-intentioned person think she is quite keen about adopting a Japanese baby, when in fact she is not sure at all. She avoids, dissembles, and lies outright.

Orenstein, strongly pro-choice, is also at loss to explain her abject misery over her miscarriages. If what she lost was but a fetus, and not yet a life, why was she so distraught? Why did she feel a connection to her 6-week old fetus? And how did she feel it snap when the fetus stopped growing? She struggles to make sense of this loss of a being not legally living, but something potentially living, almost a child. Miscarriages are not that uncommon. And yet, she notes, the English language (and many others) do not offer women the tools or words to express and deal with their loss.

…there is no word in English for a miscarriage or aborted fetus. How better to bury a topic than to make it quite literally unspeakable?

Orenstein ventures that pregnancy begins much earlier now than half a century ago. While our mothers got their pregnancies confirmed a good month or so after they missed their period, these days First Response proudly announces that it can tell you six days before you’ve even missed your period. The pregnancy and the fetus/baby are more real – you can track the size of your child’s toe nails online and even listen to its vigorously pumping heart. You can even get an ultrasound picture. A miscarriage is that much harder when you’ve formed an attachment to this tiny kidney bean that you know intimately well.

The Japanese language, however, does have a word for the dead fetus.

In Japanese, it is mizuko, which is translated as “water child”…A mizuko lay somewhere along the continuum, in that liminal space between life and death but belonging to neither.

Orenstein finds solace at a temple of Jizo, a beloved Bodhisattva, revered by the Japanese as the protector of dead children. There is something profoundly human and moving about a staunch feminist, hitherto questioning the parental decisions of fellow women, being completely defined by her longing for a child; and a fiercely pro-choice woman mourning the death of her 6-week old ‘baby’ and seeking to find calm by making offerings to strange Gods. We are all shaped by our life experiences. We live, wonder, and are affected.

Born into a Jewish family, Orenstein also discusses women in Judaism. She explains why menstruation is considered impure:

Death is considered impure in traditional Judaism and since menstruation represents the monthly loss of potential life, so is a woman having her period.

I now have some explanation for a practice my own culture has practiced. Whether I agree with it is another matter. Orenstein also speaks of her college sweetheart who defends Judaism’s attitude towards women:

It’s a distortion of American culture to think that the person who has the greatest influence on a child’s values and development is inferior to the one who brings in the money. Men may have imposed that ideology, but the women who didn’t glorify the domestic role contributed to it, too.

My own experience has been that women have glorified the domestic role, while at the same time insisting that this role is exclusively women’s and that men’s roles are unconditionally superior.

Orenstein’s story is graphically intimate, funny, deeply moving, and very, very engaging. I look forward to reading her other works.

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 is my entry to the What’s in a name 5 challenge – a book  with a topographical feature (land formation) in the title.

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Between 1940 and the early sixties the industry commonly accepted the profile of the comic book reader as that of a ’10-year old from Iowa’. In adults the reading of comic books was regarded as a sign of low intelligence.- Will Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art

Lamenting the lack of scholarly discussions on Sequential Art, an area that he thought deserved the consideration worthy of a valuable art form and medium of communication, Will Eisner condensed his vast knowledge on the theory and practice of comics in Comics and Sequential Art. The book, originally a collection of essays, is ostensibly for “the serious student, the working professional and the involved teacher”. I am neither and not exactly Eisner’s intended audience, but comics in general have in the past few decades been held in so much higher esteem than before and comics in various forms (from comic strips to full size graphic novels) have attracted such an enthusiastic following all over the world, that I feel it’s only natural that some non-artists will seek to satisfy their curiosity about the mechanics and thought processes that underlie the production of graphic literature. More recently, Scott McCloud’s comics about comics have offered much insight to comic aficionados.

Discussing core components and techniques used by comic creators, many of which are ubiquitous and yet invisible since the reader is often so wrapped up in the story that the methods are overlooked, Eisner liberally uses examples (many of which are his own Spirit stories) to illustrate concepts such as pantomimes, drawing on common experiences (such as our knowledge of how long it takes for a drop of water to drip from a faucet) and using appropriately sized and positioned panels to create a sense of time and rhythm, the use of panels to create  the required mood and tempo, and the use of gestures and postures to tell the story.

Comics are a unique art, similar to written works in that the reader’s eyes are free to roam and picture a scene in his mind’s eye, and similar to motion pictures in its use of images. And yet, comics invite the reader in a visual dialogue like no other art medium. The reader has more control over how he reads and interprets a comic (than a movie) and there is a tacit understanding between the artist and the reader on the rules that need to be followed to read the comic in the right order. Comic reading is an act of collaboration and requires a certain sophistication – to fill in the blanks between panels to constitute fluid action and to participate in the emotions described by the images- between the artist/creator and the reader/viewer. From fantasy, to instruction manuals, from full-sized graphic memoirs that deal with the entire spectrum of human emotions, to the ingenious use of animal metaphors in hard to classify works of brilliance, such as Maus, comics can be mature, funny, moving, complex and utterly captivating, whether you are a 10-year old or not. Indeed, Eisner had great hopes for the future of comics, especially the graphic novel:

The future of this form awaits participants who truly believe that the application of sequential art, with its interweaving of words and pictures, could provide a dimension of communication that contributes – hopefully on a level never before attained – to the body of lietrature that concerns itself with the examination of human experience….As for the receptivity of the audience, this must (and will) change and become sympathetic as the product delivers more and becomes more relevant.

What better time then to talk about the deliciously funny and heartrendingly honest graphic memoir Good Eggs  by Phoebe Potts.

But I love to teach. I love having meaningful, contained relationships with other people where they are vulnerable and I am helpful. And if I didn’t teach, the only other contact I would have with humanity is……in traffic…or exchanging money for good.

Good Eggs tells of the struggles Potts and her husband face as they grapple with infertility and experience hope, letdowns and frustration. Their baby making despair is interspersed with stories from Potts’ past- her family, her relationships and her ongoing battle with depression. Somehow, she manages to make this ordeal sound almost hilarious.

We’re naming them ‘Finally’ and ‘Agony'[on naming their imaginary twins].


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