The following is an excerpt from Waiting for Daisy.
“I can’t believe my luck! I really hope you’re Peggy Orenstein the author!”
That was the first line of an email I’d received five years earlier from a sixteen-year-old who identified herself only as “Fish.” Girls often wrote to me in those days after reading Schoolgirls, a book I’d written about young women and self-image issues. Usually, we traded a letter or two and that was it. But Fish kept writing and so I did, too. Eventually I learned her real name was Jess Catapano. She was the only child of an elementary school aide and a construction foreman in West Palm Beach, Florida, where she attended a specialized public arts high school. She dreamed of being a journalist some day, maybe focusing on women’s issues like I had.
At first, I only responded to Jess’ letters, but after awhile, especially if we had three or four exchanges a day, I lost track of who was propelling our correspondence forward. Jess was funny and talented: I enjoyed knowing what was going on inside of her head. More than that, our exchanges made me feel that I had a hand in raising a child. I was thirty-four when we “met”; she was a high school junior. For the first couple of years, I was guarded about the details of my own life; I didn’t want to burden her with my diagnosis of breast cancer and infertility struggles–problems she was too young to understand. Once she was in college, though, I became less protective; after my second failed cycle of in vitro fertilization (IVF) I came clean about the months of treatments and multiple miscarriages. “I had no idea you were going through all that,” she wrote. “I know it sounds strange, but if I were out in California, I would donate eggs to you!”
I smiled at her idealism, at the stalwart exclamation point at the end of her sentence. She still believed life should be fair, that there was justice: what a difference a nineteen-year age gap made. “Thank you,” I wrote back. “Your offer brought tears to my eyes, but I don’t think we’d consider anything like that.”
My fortieth birthday fell on Thanksgiving, though thankful was the last thing I felt. I looked in the mirror that morning, traced the lines on my face. No doubt about it: I was old and so were my eggs. I needed to let go of my obsession with getting pregnant, but if I did, what would keep me from freefall? I’d invested so much emotion, so much money, so much time….for what? There had to be a pay-off.
Tossing away the birth control is one thing. Using someone else’s eggs is quite another. But once you’ve awakened the desire to have a child within yourself; once you’ve stoked it in order to convince yourself to submit to drugs and surgery that cost tens of thousands of dollars; once you’ve further added the fuel of frustration and despair; considering an egg donor will eventually, inexorably seem reasonable. Not ideal, perhaps, but…possible. And it’s hard to know, even now: Did I really want to have a baby that way or was I being swept along by a process—one in which, admittedly, I participated—of perpetually raised stakes and overly-inflated expectations that I didn’t know how to stop?
Either way, I began toying with a new narrative, one that felt revolutionary rather than compensatory. With a donor egg, I could still feel a baby grow inside me, experience its kicks and flutters. I could control—that sweetest of words—the prenatal environment, guard against the evils of drug and drink. I could give birth to my own baby, breastfeed it. Who knew? Maybe for the child, that would make up for the genetic disconnect, maybe it would be less psychologically complicated than coming to terms with adoption. I began to imagine a child with Jess’ kindness and my husband Steven’s artistic streak, with her silver-belled laugh and his warm eyes.
“You realize you could go through all this for nothing,” I warned Jess during one of our many subsequent conversations on the topic. “The odds are in our favor, but it’s not a given.”
“Well,” she said, “I guess we’ll never know unless we try.”
A donor cycle is like IVF, except split between two people, one providing the eggs, the other the womb. Jess and I would each go on the Pill for a month to sync our reproductive systems, then add a second drug to shut them down so the doctor could artificially manipulate them. A few days after that, Jess would start injections of ovulation-stimulating drugs, while I’d take a weekly shot of estrogen in my hip to thicken my uterine lining. She could be monitored by a doctor in Florida until a few days before the egg retrieval and would fly home the day after. Steven would do his thing with a Dixie cup, and when the embryos were ready, they’d be transferred to me. If it all worked—and there was over a sixty percent chance it would–I’d stay on progesterone shots until the end of the first trimester; at that point, miraculously, my body would kick in and take over on its own for the duration. Easy-peasy.
Adding that third person to the mix significantly upped the costs—if we were considering an “unknown donor,” who would be compensated for her troubles, it would run well over twenty thousand dollars; with Jess, whom we insisted on paying a token amount despite her protests, it would be closer to sixteen. The clinic also required a legal contract between Jess and us as well as psychological screenings by their social worker to make sure we’d worked out all the ethical and emotional kinks.
“Jess is very mature, far beyond her years,” the social worker said after their session, which she conducted by phone. “I was concerned when I heard how you knew each other—we don’t consider a mentoring relationship appropriate for a known donor—but I can see that it’s much more than that, more like the bond between an aunt and a niece. I’m satisfied that there isn’t any coercion here.”
I didn’t fully share her confidence. This woman had talked to Jess for an hour. She was hired by the clinic, paid by the doctors: what was her motivation to turn away business? Regardless of what she said, of what Jess herself said, I remained uneasy. I believed I did hold a position of power in my relationship to Jess, one I didn’t want to abuse. Was it truly possible for her to make this choice freely? I would never be sure. There were a host of issues I couldn’t resolve in advance. How could I know, for instance, what I’d feel when someone commented on how little—or even how much—the baby looked like me? Or whether I’d be jealous if the child felt some visceral connection to Jess? What if he or she turned to me some day and said, “You’re not my real mother?” What if I agreed, felt like a fraud? There wasn’t a lot of precedent here, no one among my friends whom I could turn to for guidance. I could let the uncertainty stop me, I decided, or I could stick with Jess’ own words: We’d never know unless we tried.
I woke up in a middle-of-the night panic thinking, “Would the baby be Jewish?” Although Steven is Japanese-American, since I’m Jewish our naturally-conceived child would have been one hundred percent Yid. Could the ancient Talmudic scholars have anticipated the possibility of cleaving biology from DNA?
I called one of the rabbis at my parents’ Conservative synagogue in Minneapolis. “The mother who carries the child determines the religion,” he explained. The movement’s central authority had based their position on the bonding and the health risks of pregnancy and childbirth, as well as the precedent that the baby of a gentile woman who converts mid-pregnancy is Jewish. That was good enough for me.
The next night I jolted awake again remembering a school assignment one of our nieces had recently completed: a family tree detailing her ethnic background. How would our potential child approach such a task? A friend who was a public school teacher told me that most Bay Area schools consider such assignments obsolete. “There are so many variables here between adoption, step-parenthood….” Instead, children make a tree with themselves as the trunk adding roots and branches of their choosing: step-fathers, a birth mother, an egg donor, an uncle, their pet hamster—whomever they consider family.
The morning I was to start the Pill, I wept. My feelings were so tangled: gratitude towards Jess, grief that I’d never see my smile on a child, the niggling sense that if we just tried once more on our own we’d succeed. The fear that it wouldn’t work. The fear that it would. It was this sort of indecision that had gotten me here in the first place.
Steven watched the anguish play across my face. “Okay,” he finally said. “I’ll tell you how I think of it. We have this opportunity because of you: because of the book you wrote that brought Jess to us; because you helped her and encouraged her as she grew up; because of her connection to you. So this baby would be part you, it would be possible because of you. I’d think of it like a sundae: one scoop of green tea ice cream, one scoop of spumoni and you’d be like the chocolate sauce that brought it all together.”
Maybe that was only a pretty rationalization, something he said to break through my paralysis, to help me process emotions that I couldn’t work through myself. Still, I liked the image; it was something even a child could understand. This may not be the act of love I’d hoped would create our baby, but it would be an act of love, nonetheless.
I popped the pill in my mouth, felt its sweet coating melt on my tongue.
“Then again,” Steven added thoughtfully as I swallowed. “Maybe you would be the nuts on top.”
This excerpt from Waiting for Daisy is reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.
Peggy Orenstein is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. 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, was released in paperback February 2008.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.