Angie Lieber sat in front of the Gorilla Caf’ in Park Slope, Brooklyn, talking to a new friend whom she had met through her parents’ synagogue. Both single moms by choice, they conversed easily, swapping breastfeeding stories and comparing pediatrician notes. Soon they moved to heavier stuff: the decision to become pregnant without a partner, and the complications of getting impregnated by an anonymous donor. As the afternoon slipped by, the women shared a truly post-modern epiphany: their daughters were half-sisters. Incredibly, they had both had selected sperm from the same man.
The coincidence is freakish, but the underlying story speaks to the growing number of women who are choosing to have children outside of marriage. In 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 36% of babies in the United States were born to unwed mothers. In cities like New York, the number is close to 50%. A significant percentage of these single moms were not stereotypical disadvantaged teenagers (for whom child-raising would be a deep financial burden) or high-powered executives (who could easily absorb child-care and other costs), but rather typical middle-class working women. This new breed of single moms make their decision to have children neither as a grand political statement nor as a last resort, but because they don’t want to miss out on the emotional experience of giving birth and raising children.
For Angie, the single mom from Brooklyn, motherhood has always been a priority. As she explains, “My yearning for a child ran so deep I didn’t wait to get married.” And while there were men she could have said yes to, she didn’t feel like any of them were good marriage – or father – material. One month after her thirty-seventh birthday she visited a sperm bank – as she puts it, “the ultimate shopping experience.” She chose one of the few Jewish donors she could find, and was inseminated. Her daughter is now twenty months old.
When asked about the hardships of raising her daughter by herself, Angie starts by saying: “Most single women are people who are comfortable with pushing through things. They don’t fall to pieces. I’m comfortable being and doing things alone.” That said, the challenge is not so much the lack of a partner – although she’d like to fall in love and get married. Rather it’s the bills. Between daycare, rent, clothes and daily living expenses, there is very little money left over at the end of the month. As she puts it, “I knew it would be a financial hardship, but I chose to have a child over an expendable income.” Her “ultimate shopping trip” would, as it turns out, be one of her last for the foreseeable future.
As for needing a husband, observing the marriages around her, many with women doing the bulk of childrearing, Angie wonders how helpful it would ultimately be. “There are very few times that I think to myself: ‘I need a man.’ Mostly it’s when I’m faced with the cost of nursery school.” However, she still sometimes wants a partner. “The reality is that I have emotional needs, and I’d like to be in love, to have security, someone to grow old with.”
“There has been a sea change in how single moms are viewed,” says Louise Sloan, author of the book Knock Yourself Up: A Tell-All Guide to Becoming a Single Mom, herself a single mom by choice. Whereas social stigma may have dissuaded women even a decade ago, such censure is increasingly uncommon today. While it is generally agreed that divorce, as well as an unhappy marriage, can damage a child’s sense of well-being, a 1997 study conducted by Cornell University found little or no evidence of negative academic or behavior effects on the children of single moms. With donor insemination easier than ever and Generation X devastated by their own parents’ unhappy marriages, the trend towards single parenthood will most likely continue to increase in the future.
Beth Saidel, a university administrator, never dreamed of becoming a single mother. “When I was younger,” she says, “I did not think I would have to choose between being a mother or having a partner.” When, at forty-four, she found herself dating a man who didn’t want kids, she went through an intense period of self-evaluation, deciding that having a child was more important to her than being with a man. She was told her chances of conceiving were slim because of her advanced age (conception becomes much harder after forty) and other health issues. Undeterred, she was successfully inseminated on her first try. Nine months later she gave birth to her son, Oliver.
“It takes a college to raise a child,” was the toast raised to Beth by her colleagues at Barnard University. Fortunately for their little family, the university provides exceptional daycare and flexible hours for working parents, and Oliver is welcome in this progressive work environment. In addition, Beth lives in a large apartment complex in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, which has a great community vibe. “The truth is, I have tremendous support in my life,” says Beth, who continues to lead an active social life, albeit one with toddler in tow.
It had never occurred to Kimberly Forrest to get married or have children until she turned forty, when she started to feel a stirring for the sort of intimacy and fulfillment she noticed in parent-child relationships. A writer living in a tiny apartment in the West Village with a stray pit bull mix named Fanny and a bevy of“I never considered not having this baby,” explains Kimberly. Nor did she consider matrimony. friends and interests, she explains, “It wasn’t so much that my life felt empty, quite the opposite, but I started seriously considering that I might want more.” Then, two weeks after her forty-first birthday, and five months after she had begun dating her personal trainer, she discovered she was pregnant. “I never considered not having this baby,” explains Kimberly, currently nearing the end of her pregnancy. Nor did she consider matrimony. “Getting married, at this point, would feel desperate. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to bring my daughter into that sort of arrangement.”
“Of course, I’m scared,” says Kimberly, “But I feel like I have a lot of support.” While Kimberly is carrying the brunt of pregnancy and hospital costs (she was uninsured at the time of conception), Luis, the baby’s father, is attending childbirth and parenting classes, and plans on being involved in his daughter’s life, both financially and emotionally. Her friends are pitching in, coming to OB/GYN appointments, throwing her a baby shower, and planning on coordinated daily visits once the baby is born. Luis’s mother has been organizing a second baby shower for the couple. Even Kimberly’s own parents, whose conservative Christian values don’t exactly jibe with the idea of a single woman raising a child on her own, are pitching in. And while her apartment is a tiny walk-up, leaving the city is not an option. “This neighborhood is where my people are, where I have all my support, my friends and my neighbors. I’d rather die than move to the suburbs.” Besides, Clare, Kimberly’s elderly next door neighbor, would be crushed if the new mom and baby left the building.
Knock Yourself Up author Louise Sloan makes a distinction between single moms by choice (donor or adopted babies) and single moms by accident (like Kimberly), although I believe the differences are minor. While in the distorted universe of movies like Knocked Up, the word abortion is never muttered, in the real world, particularly among the urban middle class, ending a pregnancy is always a viable option, much more so than marrying someone whom you either don’t know well enough or don’t particularly want as a life partner. And while adoption and donor insemination require more money and planning, every single mom, at some level, is making a choice.
Indeed, what is truly remarkable about this single mom trend is that women are refusing to either give up having children or settle down into an unhappy marriage. They are, in essence, saying: “I want the job, the career, and the power that comes with all that, but I also want to experience domestic joys – of raising a child and connecting to something larger than myself – and if I can’t find a partner, I’ll do it anyway, even though it will most likely mean a substantial economic burden.” It comes down to this: womenIn a strange twist of the old standard, contemporary men may simply not be “marriage material.” have built strong networks of friends and support systems independently of marriage. They no longer have to settle for partners who, for whatever reason, lack suitable qualities. In a strange twist of the old standard, contemporary men may simply not be “marriage material.”
Rather than pine for Prince Charming, single women are using the skills they have developed from over a decade of working, socializing and building their lives to create a new idea of family. It would be an oversight to say that single moms by choice are soldiers for some gender cause, but there is something truly progressive about women taking a stand for the domestic, for children and the joy parenting brings to your life, even if it means giving up some of the benefits of being single without gaining the financial and emotional advantages of marriage. And while they are indeed raising children without husbands or partners in the traditional sense, they are not raising their families alone. Now that one can shop for sperm, as one would a pair of Louboutins, and social pressure for shotgun marriages is on the decline, women are finding that they are “doing it for themselves.” Maybe this is the real revolution.