I haven't yet answered Stirrup Queen's latest question for the book she's writing on infertility. But it's a poignant one, and one that I've dwelled on before. I can't spend half my leisure time reading books from the 18th and 19th centuries without coming across suggestions of infertility. There are lots of infertile couples in Jane Austen's works. I'm working on a post about that.
This weekend, while reorganizing my childhood books in an enormous Rubbermaid container in the cellar, I came across Laura Ingalls Wilder's The First Four Years. She wrote it at the end of her life, but it was published postmortem in its original draft and not subjected to the heavy editing/glossing that her daughter Rose had allegedly insisted upon for the other books in the series.
This book has been in the back of my mind for awhile as I've pondered how, per Unsung Lullabies, my childhood ideas and expectations have affected my view of infertility. There's a very candid treatment of infertility:
"Mr. and Mrs. Boast lived by themselves on their farm. They had no children and could hardly make fuss enough over Rose.
"When at last the visit was over and Mr. Boast was standing by the buggy to see them start, he started to speak and then hesitated and finally said in a queer voice, 'If you folks will let me take the baby in to Ellie for her to keep, you may take the best horse out of my stable there and lead it home.'
"Manly and Laura were still in astonishment, and Mr. Boast went on, 'You folks can have another baby and we can't. We never can.'
"Manly gathered up the reins, and Laura said with a little gasp, 'Oh, no! No! Drive on, Manly!' As they drove away, she hugged Rose tightly; but she was sorry for Mr. Boast as he stood still where they had left him, and for Mrs. Boast waiting in the house, knowing, she was sure, what Mr. Boast was going to propose to them."
That's the end of the passage. Thank God it was never edited. As a kid, I thought it seemed far-fetched and cruel. A horse for a baby? Now this passage is only too sad and realistic.
As it turned out, Laura and her husband never had another surviving child. At the end of the book, she gives birth to a son who dies a few weeks later. Her biography mentions no other births or miscarriages.
Being a nerdy sort of kid, I loved to play "Little House." My canopy bed made an excellent covered wagon. My split-level subdivision was surrounded by cornfields tamed from the prairie. It wasn't too hard to pretend that I was a pioneer girl. Even though D. and I happily live in the city, I'm pretty sure, given historical and economic circumstances, that had we actually lived a century ago, we'd be on the farm. And given our current circumstances, we'd be like the Boasts. Wondering, probably, what was going wrong. Why we couldn't conceive. Why we were being punished. Why it seemed to be so easy for our friends. The same questions we ask ourselves now, in 2006, only we have a few more answers.
Does having those answers make it any easier? I don't think so.
I did a Google search to see what became of the Boasts. They never did have children, but they found ways to bring children in their lives. I was glad to learn that they did all right in the end.