Under the Laurel Tree: A Review
“I just feel so much shame that I can’t do something my body was made to do,” my friend said, when I told her I’d send her a copy of Dr. Nicole Rocca’s Under the Laurel Tree, which I just finished.
“If you want it,” I added. I’m self-conscious that offering a book might be as burdensome as other unsolicited fixes. It’s hard to hold the space with a friend who has shared discreetly about her fertility treatments. With my friend, it’s harder because she’s the kind of tough cookie I admire. She competes in ultra marathons and Ironman competitions. She is a step mom, a health coach, and academic advisor for at risk high schoolers. She and her husband keep faith, and they hope. And, yeah, maybe it’s just me worrying for her, but I thought I detected an ache in her voice. I imagined how that grief for the child that isn’t became a shadow in her relationship with her husband, the step kids, her mom, and her own body.
I offered to send the Audible copy because Dr. Roccas has a great radio voice. She intones the humor, hope and hurt without sounding wounded. I get the sense she’s a compassionate, tough cookie herself. Of course, part of the “voice” that makes this book such a valuable resource is that Roccas’ writing is spot-on. She establishes immediately that infertility is a grief. And we humans don’t handle grief well. We excel at stumbling, bumbling and being weird around it. Right away, Roccas walks right up to the weirdness: the lack of happy endings, the unexpected reactions of others (like a sudden layings-on of hands in prayer,) the strange prescriptions and the well-meaning busy-bodyness peculiar to this grief.
I dared to offer the book because I think it shines light and should be on a hilltop. Nevertheless I shied away from offering it to my friend because prescriptive suggestions tend to stifle healthy relationships. Nevertheless, I persisted. I think she’ll read it and I hope it helps. But, it probably would help the rest of us as much or more than the couples we know dealing with infertility. I will recommend it over and over, to priests, ya-yas, friends with quivers full of kids, and single people. Why? Because if you haven’t experienced infertility, you probably know someone who has, or you will. It’s on the rise around the world. It helps to have someone like Roccas invite us into some very intimate spaces. She uses personal quotes, diverse perspectives, healthy questions, sage advice and sound research, which she anchors in spiritual tradition. If we have ears to hear, this book will help us better empathize and make better choices about what to say and whether to offer “fixes.”
Roccas centers the struggle with infertility through of the lives of Joachim and Anna, Mary the Mother of God’s parents. Their story in the Protoevangelium of James didn’t make the canon (for sound reasons regarding text sourcing), but their narrative ties together all similar Biblical accounts–Hannah and Elkinah, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Rachel and Jacob, Abraham and Sarah. Most of those stories are fraught with jealousy, assumptions, shame, marital tension and a narrative style that renders invisible those intimate moments that could provide saintly (or unsaintly) examples of what to do, or not to do. The Protoevangelium provides a more robust narrative.Roccas unpacks it Joachim and Anna’s world, seeing them as a couple and as members of a community. She also meditates on their personal responses to childlessness and how it affects their relationship with God. We learn how men too grieve and how to hope. Roccas lets us peek into other married couples intimate thoughts. She gives us examples of how to support or be supported.
In dividing the book into two parts and providing a helpful appendix, Roccas addresses all forms of infertility, including situations that seem invisible to the rest of us. Infertility shows up in more than just childless couples. It often affects couples who have one or a few children, those who have conceived but suffered multiple miscarriages. Some singles experience a kind of infertility grief while waiting for the right partner. As a priest’s wife, I see the young men and women fretting for a godly partner and hoping it won’t happen too late to have kids. I know of couples who’ve suffered multiple miscarriages and admit a tinge of bitterness that other families grow so easily. The culture of some parishes celebrates the large family, which has a peculiar side-effect of amplifying the shame of not being good enough to have the right number of children. Dr. Roccas writes (and narrates) with grace about the awkward, painful, sometimes sweet ways that the Church makes the experience of infertility more complicated.– Along with the usual slog of kale diets, essential oils, or specialists, we church-goers add in fixes like “Have you prayed at this monastery?” “Tried this prayer?”– Then there’s small talk, ministry planning or comments from clergy or other couples about the central importance of (nuclear) families and the right number of children. (In her appendix, Roccas offers scripts and ministry planning suggestions to make space for those who cannot have families.)
In the latter part, Roccas orders the stages of infertility– shame/comparison, separation, anger, bargaining, and thanksgiving– in such a way to address both positive and negative potentials with each stage. Separation comes after shame and could result in dissolution of marriage or faith. Anger can be consumptive or healthy. Yes. Actually healthy. Bargaining, too, is not the sin we’ve been told it is. If we give ourselves permission to aim our anger rightly, to bargain with God and not give up, and to know that the danger of separation (between spouses or between individuals and God) are real, then perhaps new streams and rivers can flow, where grief can drain away. Then the energy that we wanted to spend on raising children can be channeled into thanksgiving, a new purpose as a couple and as individuals.
I could have used this book a thousand times. I’ve listened, mostly poorly, to many loved ones with various complications during infertility. One couple suffered over fourteen miscarriages, during which they spent a fortune on physicians, tests, treatments, and then adoption. They so longed for a baby, they asked whether surrogacy was an option. Another couple tried for years. They took custody of their godchildren and thought they’d spend their days parenting those kids, only to lose custody. Their heartbreak grew with the loss of their son through miscarriage, then total loss of fertility. Another couple buried three pre-term babies. Several loved ones conceived and gave birth to one child, then grieved when they realized that child would bury them alone some day. I never knew what to ask. I wish I’d started with a simple “How are you?” Mostly I stayed silent and probably gave them the sad doe eyes that just don’t help. I thought I was afraid to remind them of what them of what they probably think about daily. I think I kept quiet because I wouldn’t trust myself not to ask a more stupid follow-up question or that I would quit listening when their pain became heavy for me. In each situation, those couples have struggled but also succeeded in re-envisioning their purpose together. As I listened to Roccas talk about how couples learn to respect their different ways of grieving and how they find a new spiritual purpose together, I thought about how that’s true of my husband and me. At our wedding almost twenty five years ago, my grandfather prayed for us saying, “Give them a great spiritual purpose” and we took that to heart. It’s a conversation we’ve returned to many times- in becoming Orthodox, in going to seminary, and now with our empty nest. In one more way, Roccas instructs us through the hard-learned insights of those who grieve. It’s a reminder that our peculiar positions in life may always be used to strengthen the whole community.