PEGGY ORENSTEIN has always written about women, both as a journalist and in her two well-received books, "Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap" and "Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World." Her new book is at once a logical next move and a complete departure. Narrowing her focus from the spectrum of women to a single point, she has turned her considerable skills as a journalist -- and a storyteller -- on herself.
The result, "Waiting for Daisy," is riveting. That ridiculous subtitle ("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") goes for the cheap thrills and leaves out the anguished heart of the book: the breast cancer diagnosis at 35, the three miscarriages, the relentless cycles of hope and despair, the cracks in her marriage, the persistent fear that it's all her fault for waiting too long. It's no small feat to write a page turner that gives away the ending on the dust jacket, but "Waiting for Daisy" is more than just the Perils of Peggy. Orenstein has written a memoir, a confession, a polemic and a love story all at once, describing the most frantic and confusing period of her life with clarity and candor.
She's not always the most sympathetic character -- "I've always trended toward the anxious," she remarks early on -- but her unapologetic self-awareness keeps you on her side. After just a few months of trying to conceive she begins to lose her sense of humor about the whole project, even though she's still on the fence about having a child at all. "On the way to a last-minute yoga class, I'd congratulate myself on the serenity and spontaneity of my life," she remembers. "Then each month when I got my period I cried."
Orenstein and her husband, documentary filmmaker Steven Okazaki, see fertility specialists, fill prescriptions for Clomid and try the technique known as intrauterine insemination. The project begins to shift, subtly. "You don't notice your motivation distorting, how conception rather than parenthood becomes the goal, how invested you become in its 'achievement,' " she says ruefully. In vitro fertilization, donor eggs, acupuncture, herbs. The progression of treatments is insidious -- "the very fact of their existence, the potential, however slim, that the next round might get you pregnant creates an imperative that may not otherwise have existed." Fertility doctors are sometimes more skilled in sales than in medicine. Vulnerable would-be parents must be wary of "the allure of perpetual hope."
A chronicle of obsession can feel like a forced march, but Orenstein breaks off repeatedly for extended side trips, set pieces that allow her to pull back and consider her predicament from unexpected angles. Readers of the New York Times Magazine may recognize earlier work repackaged here, most notably her piece on a visit to a Japanese shrine honoring the souls of miscarried and aborted fetuses. The best of these vignettes is a trip to see an old boyfriend, now the father of 15 in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish household. Watching his unflappable, overworked wife, the proudly independent Orenstein is shocked to feel a twinge of envy: "I began to wonder where -- without children, without community -- I truly belonged."
This story of baby making is equally the story of a marriage. Okazaki, portrayed here as a leading contender for the title Prince Among Husbands, refuses to let Orenstein wallow. "I'm tired of how you make this all about you.... You are not the only one in pain here," he tells her. "You've got to stop defining yourself through tragedy." And when they are curled at last around cherubic Daisy and Orenstein starts to roll the credits on their happy ending, he pulls her up short: "Don't go getting revisionist on me."
Though tempted, Orenstein doesn't. Her difficult, startling conclusion is that the arrival of her daughter, however cherished, does not erase the black hole into which her late 30s disappeared. Don't get her wrong -- she adores motherhood, and watching her husband and Daisy at play, she writes, "fills me with a delight I've never known." But it "doesn't compensate for the inattention to my career, for my self-inflicted torment, for trashing my marriage." And what if all her efforts to conceive had been unsuccessful, what then? "I'd hate to think that the only way I could have righted myself was to have a baby," she muses.
Safe in the land of parenthood, Orenstein regards the wilderness behind her and wishes she could counsel her earlier, desperate self. "I would tell myself, 'This is your life, no matter what happens,' rather than 'This is your life, only if you can make this one thing happen,' " she says. For women on the path Orenstein has walked, this is wise advice.
Janice P. Nimura is a critic whose work has appeared in Newsday, the New York Times and the Washington Post.