Brenda Levine* always wanted to have children. When she reached her late 30s and still hadn’t met her ideal mate, she decided that with the help of a sperm donor and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) she would conceive on her own. As a result she had twins, a boy and a girl, at age 45.
“I did everything that I wanted to do in my life,” says Brenda. “I did the traveling for 20 years. And this was next.”
For more than a decade, single women choosing to parent without a partner have been popping up in plots of well-known television programs. The phenomenon first appeared on Murphy Brown, then on Friends, and more recently on the television series Jake in Progress. On the show’s sneak-preview episode, Jake’s female boss grumbles that no man would date a middle-aged woman who’s six months pregnant. She adds that the father, donor number 326A, was unavailable.
Whether television has influenced reality, or real events have sparked new program ideas, women on and off the air have decided to opt for pregnancy without a partner. Unlike women who are left alone due to divorce or death of their spouse, these women have consciously made their choice to have children on their own.
In 1997, single mothers delivered 32 percent of the 3.9 million live births in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Ten percent of these women were teenagers, and 17 percent of the births belonged to single mothers between the ages of 20 and 29. Today, one-third of all American children are being raised in single-parent homes, headed by the mother, according to the US Census Bureau. Older single women are contributing to the single mother statistic, but for different reasons and with different resources.
“The literature and my experience suggest that women who make a deliberate choice to become moms, whether it’s through conception or adoption, are different from people who accidentally become moms,” says Dr. Mary Casey Jacob, professor of psychiatry and OB-GYN at the University of Connecticut Health Center. “The women who are choosing this tend to be educated, to generally have strong support systems, predictable income—not necessarily rich—but they’re able to afford a home, childcare, and either adoption or medical treatment [assisted reproductive services].”
Brenda’s life fits the literature’s conception of these women. She has a steady career with the New York Board of Education, a large network of friends, and owns a three-bedroom home in Brooklyn, New York. Although she has hired a full-time live-out nanny, Brenda’s friends are available for her children. “They’re all on call,” she says. “If I really needed them they’d be there.”
In addition to help from friends, single women can gain support through groups such as “Single Mothers By Choice.” Founded in 1981, its membership consists of thousands of highly educated women with an average age of 35, according to its website. Fifty-two percent of its members conceived through donor insemination, 25 percent have adopted, and 20 percent have become pregnant through a “known donor” or sex partner. Half of its members chose motherhood after a divorce.
The Emotional Health of the Children
Brenda chose not to adopt. “I don’t want them to go on a mission,” she says, regarding a search for their genetic parents. She believes her children will be emotionally healthy with a single mother. “As long as they’re loved and supported and know they’re wanted,” she says. She doesn’t worry about male influence in the children’s lives. “Growing up with three brothers, I’m a little bit of a tomboy,” she says about eventually playing baseball with her son. She also expects her friend’s older sons will become like brothers to her children.
Dr. Jacob, who also counsels couples and singles at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Advanced Reproductive Services, agrees with Brenda regarding the long-term emotional health of these children. “If kids feel connected and feel that they can be kept safe, then they become resilient people and that’s really the issue,” she says. Dr. Jacob adds that genetics, unconditional love in the home, and a strong attachment between the child and the primary caretaker fosters resilience in the child. She encourages mothers to tell their children the truth about their father in “child-size bites.”
“Helping kids understand about their donor conceptions is something that takes ten or 15 years,” she says. “It’s not a one-time event.” Brenda is still developing a strategy for telling her children about their “parental” donor.
At centers such as the one in Connecticut, women are told that donors do not perceive themselves as parents. “I would want to say strongly, ‘always remember that a donor is not a parent,'” Dr. Jacob says. “Not in any sense of the word other than genetic material. They’re very different creatures from birth parents.” While a number of donors agree to be available to grown children (usually at 18) for questions, they don’t expect to have a relationship with the children.
Sperm donations have existed for hundreds of years, but historically have been kept very secret in the United States because of the concern for the legal status of the child, explains Dr. Jacob. New laws were written in the 1960s that allowed for more openness.
Dr. Donald B. Maier, Division Director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Fertility at The Center for Advanced Reproductive Services, estimates that 5 percent of his patients are single women. “There are some more people than in the past,” he says, “but it’s not a booming type of situation,” as television seems to relay.
Women who come in to see him begin with lower technological techniques such as placing sperm into a woman’s uterus. His center provides a list of sperm banks from which women can choose a donor. Women with fertility issues would use higher techniques such as medications to stimulate fertility or IVF, where eggs are harvested and fertilized outside the womb, then put back into the uterus as embryos. The biggest risks with medications are multiple pregnancies and their related premature deliveries. The high cost of an IVF cycle can also be prohibitive.
The center in Connecticut sees single women in their late thirties and early forties. Many of the women who choose to become single and pregnant would have preferred pregnancy within the context of a relationship, Dr. Jacob says. “They’re aware that being a single mom is complicated, and therefore many of them are waiting until the very last minute in terms of their own fertility, because it wasn’t their first choice.”
Brenda had put off having children, knowing she could conceive at older age and hoping she’d meet her ideal mate. “I’ll meet somebody next year,” she thought, “I’ll go to that last dance, and I’ll go to that last bar.” She is open to the possibility of meeting someone who could father her children. “When I take them to school,” she says, “You never know who you could meet—a single dad, a divorced dad.”
*name changed to protect privacy