By Ann Tatko-Peterson
Contra Costa Times, February 13, 2007
HONEST. Peggy Orenstein has heard that word used a lot to describe her book “Waiting for Daisy.”
“I’m beginning to think ‘honest’ is a code word for, ‘Oh my God, what was she thinking?'” Orenstein says with a laugh.
The Berkeley author bares her soul in “Waiting for Daisy,” opening old wounds and giving readers a frank look into her personal, at times heart-wrenching journey to motherhood.
Journey is perhaps too tame a word to describe an ordeal that included breast cancer, multiple miscarriages, unsuccessful fertility treatments, a surprise pregnancy and all the resulting emotions.
It was by design that Orenstein took an intimate, no-holds-barred look at the six years she spent trying to have a baby. She was encouraged to write about her experience by her husband, filmmaker Steven Okazaki, something Orenstein found “remarkable,” considering how he values his privacy.
He had only one condition.
“I had to be scrupulously honest,” she says. “I couldn’t let myself off the hook or make myself look better than I was or make it all OK. It was an opportunity to learn from trying to be really honest in my writing. I pushed that as far as I could.”
Push is putting it mildly.
Orenstein’s narrative takes readers from her bathroom to her bedroom. It is about the process that drove her from ambivalence to obsession, fractured her marriage and led to surprising discoveries, all of which Orenstein admits with candor.
Yes, the story ends with Daisy, now 3 1/2 years old, who was conceived when Orenstein was 41 and with only one ovary and no assistance from doctors. But the happy ending wasn’t the point of her story, Orenstein says, which may explain why it amounts to only seven pages in the 228-page book.
“I didn’t want it to sound like, ‘And then we had a baby and everything was OK,'” she explains. “The baby is amazing, but it doesn’t change all the stuff we went through or all the psychological twists and turns and obsessions and undermining of self, lack of faith in self and damage to self and marriage that happened along the way.”
For the feminist author, this book was far more personal territory than her previous two, “Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap” and “Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World.”
She revisited hundreds of e-mails she had written to friends, reviewed medical records, spoke with her doctors and interviewed her husband to relive the six years and write about them as accurately as possible.
At first, she vows never to become desperate about having a child. Eventually, she succumbs to superstitions, tries new age tricks, schedules trips around her cycles and treats her husband like a sperm bank.
“I never thought that would be me,” she says. “Not only was I sure that wouldn’t be me, I actually had contempt for people who didn’t appreciate what they had. It’s made me, in a global way, a more compassionate person.”
Her fertility struggles underscore the book, but Orenstein says she wanted to write about more than just shots, doctors, procedures and disappointments. It’s a point she gets across with a subtitle she initially submitted as a joke — “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.”
As she wrote, Orenstein discovered the hardest memory to tap was the pre-baby-making days. She had to rely on her early writings and recollections from friends.
“I was chronically ambivalent about having a child when I was younger,” she says. “Once you have a child, at least for me, I had a hard time accessing that stuff again. I think to myself, ‘What, were you stupid?'”
At 35, Orenstein finally decided she wanted a child, only to discover she had breast cancer. Thus began a nightmare that included a lumpectomy and radiation, two unsuccessful in-vitro fertilizations, a botched donor egg cycle and a stalled adoption.
Despite the harrowing obstacles, Orenstein has only one real regret.
“I wish I could have gone through it with more courage, with more of a sense of what’s at stake,” she says. “I wish I had enjoyed my experiences more, instead of being in this twisted obsession with what I didn’t have.”
Today, she’s enjoying what she does have.
Thursday, her 16-city book tour kicks off in Berkeley. An excerpt of her book appears in this month’s issue of O, the Oprah Magazine. She continues working as a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine.
And then, there’s Daisy.
Not wanting to treat her like a trophy, Orenstein doesn’t allow Daisy’s photo to be published. But she readily shares photos of her in one-on-one situations.
In one picture, Daisy tilts her head slightly and flashes a bright smile, as her mother watches from the background. It’s a photo that perfectly fits how her mother describes her.
“She’s really funny, exuberant and verbal,” Orenstein says. “I think maybe when you have just one kid, you have that Three Musketeer quality. She’s just a kick.”