There's no shortage of trees along the banks of the Haw River, but a certain one near Chicken Bridge Road literally sticks out. It's sturdy enough to hold a bald eagle's nest, which can weigh up to a thousand pounds. A few years ago, the eagles' previous home—a nearby pine—was knocked over in a summer storm that also dropped a tree limb on Belle Boggs's car.
"I was much sadder about the tree," she says. She'd been watching the birds nest for years and she worried they'd relocate. They did, but only one tree over.
Boggs regularly takes river walks like the one we're on today, and she captures some of them in her second book (following Mattaponi Queen, her award-winning 2010 short-story collection). In The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, Boggs employs a range of stylistic approaches to document experiences of infertility and motherhood, including, centrally, her own. The essays chart expansive territory, moving between references to Raising Arizona and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, interviews with local parents who choose to adopt, and the 2012 gorilla births at the North Carolina Zoo, among other topics. Boggs celebrates the book's release on Graywolf Press in a conversation with Jill McCorkle at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies this week.
INDY: It feels appropriate that we're meeting here. One thing I noticed in The Art of Waiting is the way you trace the physical landscape. It sort of maps onto the landscape of the body.
BELLE BOGGS: I grew up in rural Virginia. Being outside and being in nature was this balm for me because it's been a mainstay in my life. But it's also been this reminder that I was missing something. I think when you are longing for a family in any sense, but particularly going through infertility, there are so many reminders in nature that life is cyclical and that the world is a fertile place.
What have the responses been like from others who've overlapped your path towards motherhood?
I have good friends through my [infertility] support group who read my work periodically. I've heard some really kind and generous responses from booksellers, some of whom are not at a point where they desire children in their lives, so it has been nice to hear that the book is resonating with people who have had different experiences than those I've had.
I really care about how alienating [infertility] is. The pressure of pronatalism and also the desire to have children—the way this impacts younger women has been really interesting to me. It was so interesting to read the narrative descriptions that Anna Rotkirch collected from women who felt the experience of "baby fever" was unbidden, working against their own interests. Those passages are so eloquent and evocative. They're crystallized expressions of longing.
I once saw a physical therapist and had X-rays done. The nurse asked me, abruptly, "Could you be pregnant?" It was this moment of semantic slippage. I interpreted it as, "Are you pregnant at this moment?" but also wondered if the question was referring to my capability of being pregnant.
There's that power dynamic between doctor and patient, especially if the patient is younger. Then think about patients who have any kind of difference of language or socioeconomic status or geography. There can be this gulf between doctors and their patients that I thought about a lot as I interviewed people. But I also think that you're right; there's something about the way we talk about fertility. It seems to me that we talk about pregnancy as this magical thing that happens to you that you're not supposed to have much control over, whether it's ending a pregnancy or creating a pregnancy using reproductive technology. I think that's disempowering.
You've written about North Carolina's eugenics and sterilization programs, which you revisit in this book. You also bring in Amendment One to signal changing conceptions of marriage and family. If you were still writing this book, how would House Bill 2 figure in?
Back in the spring, I read this article in STAT News about the longing for pregnancy by transgender women and the possibility in the future that they might be able to benefit from uterus transplants. The article described this longing that I was familiar with, and also this willingness to subject the body to something risky and certainly expensive.
One of the things transgender people have to think about, or are asked to think about by doctors before they transition, is, do you want to preserve your fertility? Do you want to bank your sperm or freeze your eggs? That is an expensive proposition. If you don't have insurance coverage for that but you also don't have the job that you took out student loans for because people are discriminating against you, those really aren't choices. That's something I really want to write about.
You call attention to certain words of fertility discourse, like "patient," "trying," and "waiting." What does waiting mean to you now?
I don't feel like I'm waiting for anything anymore, in some ways, and I think a lot of parents would probably say the same thing. I look at my daughter and she's speaking in full sentences and running and riding a tricycle, and it seems like just yesterday I was at the Haw River with her wrapped in a little sling close to my chest.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Worth the Wait"