Waiting for baby: Berkeley author talks about search for motherhood

Peggy Orenstein was 41, pregnant and on an international flight to Tokyo, hopeful that she and her husband would soon be adopting a newborn boy. One baby, two babies, no baby? she thought. She had already felt the crushing pain of losing a pregnancy. Nothing was certain.

As the plane approached Osaka, the Berkeley-based author and journalist looked out the window to see Mount Fuji’s snow-tipped cone glowing from a colorful sunset.

“It was then that I thought, ‘Huh, this might be something,’ and I started writing in a notebook,” she recalled.

Thus began the two-year process of crafting Orenstein’s third book, a memoir titled “Waiting for Daisy: One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother.”

“This is not a crazy woman’s infertility story,” she said. Neither is it about her daughter, Daisy, who is intentionally mentioned only in the book’s epilogue.

“I’m trying to make the point that she’s not the point of the story. My journey is.”

Orenstein will speak about her book with fellow author Rebecca Walker (“Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence”) Monday, Feb. 11 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. On Wednesday, Feb. 13, she will speak at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

“Waiting for Daisy” is a deeply personal account of the six years Orenstein and her husband, documentary filmmaker Steven Okazaki, spent trying to have a baby. The book reads like a friend’s diary that should have been locked when found, or never discovered in the first place.

“Steven’s only condition for my writing this book was that I be absolutely honest,” she said recently over breakfast at a Berkeley café.

Orenstein has tight curly hair and disarming blue eyes that narrow when she concentrates. She was 35 when she and her husband decided they were ready for a baby. They waited in part because Orenstein wasn’t sure she even wanted children. She had a successful career as a contributor to numerous national magazines. Her first book, “Schoolgirls,” about adolescent girls and self-esteem, was a national bestseller.

But once she and Okazaki decided to have a baby and Orenstein set her sights on motherhood, the quest — after four months with no luck — became all consuming. She took and tracked her temperature every morning, and “pored over the results like they were rune stones,” she wrote.

She tried fertility drugs, Chinese herbs, in vitro fertilization and donor eggs. She blamed herself for waiting too long. She turned sex into something scheduled, like a job interview.

Her story is not just about pregnancy. It also explores the collision between feminism and fertility, the tough choices women today must make.

“Feminism was a central struggle for me,” she said. Before she decided to have a baby and during her first few years of trying, she researched and wrote a second book called “Flux,” for which she interviewed 200 women ages 25 to 45 about their life choices.

That input, and her own personal experience, led her to believe “the world has not changed enough to allow ambitious women to become mothers easily.”

She also writes about the despair of miscarriage, noting that even ritual-rich Judaism provides no traditional framework to cope with the pain of such a loss.

Judaism is a strong theme in the book. Orenstein writes about seeking prayer as a refuge during her dark moments, and asking her rabbi for guidance during her (failed) attempt to use donor eggs.

Would the baby be Jewish? she wondered in the middle of the night. The next day, she learned from her rabbi that, according to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the mother who carries the child determines the religion.

“It was a big surprise to me that Judaism became such a big part of the book,” she said. “But I think that in my deepest self, I’m very Jewish.”

Orenstein was born and raised in Minneapolis and grew up attending a Conservative synagogue. Since moving to the Bay Area in 1991, she’s attended Chochmat Halev in Berkeley and Temple Sinai in Oakland, where her daughter is enrolled in preschool.

Daisy was born a few months after Orenstein and Okazaki returned from Japan (they didn’t adopt because of complications with immigration paperwork). Daisy is now 4, with plump cheeks and shiny black hair. She knows the simplest version of her parents’ pregnancy mission: That Mom and Dad really wanted a baby, and, after a long time, Daisy came along.

Orenstein looks forward to Daisy’s understanding of her mother’s story deepening over time. The book “will give her a chance to know me as a younger woman,” she said. “I love that she’ll know me in that way.”

Peggy Orenstein will speak 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 11 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $8 to $10. She will also give a talk 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13 at Congregation Kol Shofar, 215 Blackfield Drive, Tiburon. Free.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.