Elaine Jordan on Infertility, Marriage, And Becoming a Clergywoman

Interview by Jessica Powers

In “Empty Cup,” you juxtapose the images of a woman struggling with infertility and the images of her barren marriage. How long did it take for you to recognize what was happening in your life and to do something about it?

A perceptive question! I thought babies would cure the marriage and so we adopted two infants, boy and a girl. That did not improve matters at all, of course, and we stayed married another ten years. Finally I realized that my husband was gay and I then was able to insist on divorce.

Obviously, you aren’t just making up the metaphor—it’s what happened to you in real life. But how did the two things come together to work on a literary level, as you started exploring how to explain this period of your life?

 I began the piece needing to explore the feelings around infertility. Those feelings were intensified by the need to live out expectations from the culture, to be a mother, a fulfilled woman. I’m not really sure, truthfully, that I yearned so much for babies as for a real marriage and a role fitting for women at the time. Also, I think I wanted to be like my mother, a housewife, and the idea now seems ridiculous on several levels. The barren marriage emerged as I wrote. Who knows how those things happen in the literary enterprise.

The last line of your essay is a real zinger. You bring up the point that infertility is a very complicated problem, and that an “infertile woman” deals with layers and layers of identity issues. Can you talk about the problem? How have things changed for women who struggle to conceive? How are things exactly the way they always have?

Yes. Identity is key. I loved the identity of super-teacher, which I thought I was, but wanted to change to a new identity—super-mom. The irony is that I never became super-mom. The babies we adopted were not easy to raise. I was humbled, and I think I became a writer because of the struggles. I think that women who want to conceive and who go through serious procedures to do so are like me in that they feel inadequate, which is such a shame. What has changed, though, are the options available that I hope succeed more often than they did in my day.

When I was trying to get pregnant, I remember this very subtle feeling that if I couldn’t get pregnant, I would have somehow “failed.” I wouldn’t quite be a woman. Can you talk about this emotional state?

I like to think this assumption does not prevail any more, that women are more content without children because of changes in the culture—more opportunities mainly. However, very successful women, even movie stars, feel the need to raise children. That amazes me. They think, no doubt, as I did that because they were champions in one field that they couldn’t fail. I think living with the failure to conceive is more ennobling than raising a child to prove yourself.

When did you start writing about your struggles with infertility and what precipitated it?

After I retired I realized that writing about my life was the most fun.  Imagine my surprise when old pain emerged! It took a while for me to accept that honesty about the past was the only kind of writing that mattered. And when I set about facing those old horrors I was freed from them in a way.

You’ve finished a memoir and are looking for a publisher. Can you tell us a little bit about the memoir? What else are you working on right now?

After my divorce I began teaching again and then returned to graduate school in religion—an old preoccupation of mine. I got a degree in divinity and served a small church in Arizona for five years. The tour was amazing, funny, and life-changing, and that is the subject of my memoir, “Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp: A Clergywoman’s Desert Odyssey.” Right now I’m collecting my essays into a volume that I’d like to publish.

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