If you’re nearing an age where you want a child, but whatever stars you imagined aligning in your favor to do so have not, there is a very good piece exploring the reality of going it alone by choice—AKA, “choice moms”—and how great it can be if you cook it just right.
It’s important to note how far we’ve come, though: Once all women were expected to want kids whether they could have them or not. Now not only is not having kids a mainstream position we have (mostly) stopped asking women to apologize for or justify, but so is making the choice to have a kid on your own terms, bypassing all the usual channels like a dude or even a gay best friend (though the latter still seems to be a plus).
Over at Cosmopolitan, Kate Bolick writes about her experience weighing the pros and cons of single motherhood by choice. Like lots of women, she just assumed marriage and children were in the cards for her, but found that she wasn’t particularly compelled in either direction, until one day, she was. She writes:
Finally experiencing that famous tick-tock was unsettling, I admitted, but also a relief. Now I got what other women had been talking about. Even so, I wasn’t ready to dismiss my decades-long ambivalence. Maybe it wasn’t denial, as people say, but a genuine disinclination to be a mother, my own internal voice trying to be heard above the ear-splitting din of cultural expectation.
Who can say? But what makes Bolick’s piece a good read is that she investigates her own whims, considers the facts, interviews 20 women who chose this route, and highlights the key similarities among them. To be clear, our cultural perception of the single mom still vacillates between stoic, selfless superwoman who lives for her children at her own expense, and the sad, exhausted, depressed lady who can’t get it together, whose kids will suffer. While both are true and real depictions, so is everything in between.
Dayna Evans’ recent piece over at Gawker, “In Praise of Single Mothers,” beautifully illuminates these extremes. Noting that 77 percent of single parents are women, she writes of the outsize expectations we place on all mothers, but especially solo moms:
In our culture, we want mothers to be everything: good wives, strong role models, educators, friends, and empathetic listeners. We want mothers to shed their former selves in order to carry on the role of inspiring their children to be something. We want mothers to be intelligent but compassionate; generous but self-aware; at work but at home, all at once. That responsibility is difficult enough to bear when there is another warm body willing to step into a parental role beside them.
But when there is an absence—when it is just the single mother being asked to fill in for an entire child’s life, to rise to the occasion, to do the birthday parties and the rides to school and the homework help—the strain is enormous.
And yet, those enormous strains can be incredibly rewarding for women who wrote the absence into the equation from the start. As you might expect, loving the choice mom life might be as simple as choosing it freely and having the resources to pull it off.
Back at Cosmo, Bolick writes that it’s hard to know how many women are choice moms because no national surveys make the distinction between voluntary and involuntary, but, she reports:
California Cryobank, one of the nation’s largest sperm banks, told me they’ve seen a significant growth in choice-mom clients since the early 2000s, particularly in the past five to eight years. Carole LieberWilkins, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, told me she’s counseled far more choice moms over the last decade than the previous two decades of her practice. Also revealing are surveys that track the age at which women first get pregnant. In 2014, the CDC reported that from 2007 to 2012, birth rates for single mothers over 40 surged by 29 percent.
And she notes that the 20 women she spoke with mostly fit the bill: they are largely older, better educated, more affluent, and white, but that several were “out-of-work actresses, a baker, and a singer-songwriter,” which may signal a shift in the demographic.
Though becoming a choice mom wasn’t necessarily their first choice—most if not all had at some point harbored the traditional idea of how babies enter the world—many hit an age where they realized it was now or never, them or nobody, so they went for it (two women she spoke with had been knocked up accidentally).
Take 45-year-old Eleni Mandell:
“I used to want to get married so badly, I almost could’ve married anybody,” says Eleni Mandell, 45, the aforementioned singer-song- writer, who lives in Los Angeles. “When you want the fairy tale and you’re not getting it, you judge yourself and you feel like everyone’s judging you.” At 38, she thought she’d found the right guy, but eight months into their relationship, he told her he never wanted to have children, although if she wanted to, he’d support her. “I thought, Are you a mad man?!” she says. They broke up but never grew apart. He helped her assess online sperm donor profiles and was there in the delivery room — an emotional support, if not a financial one. Today, the single mother of 4-year-old twins, Della and Rex, Mandell can’t believe her luck. “I grieved the fairy tale ... and came out on the other side,” she says. “I’m free. I love my life. I feel at peace. Now I would never marry just anybody.”
And overall, this optimistic gratitude seems to be the case. Yes, the day-to-day can be brutal; yes, being the sole caregiver for all the birthday parties and doctor visits can wear a person down—but every woman told Bolick it was the “best decision she’d ever made.”
Bolick concedes that the relentless positivity she tracked reporting the story could very well be about the fact that the types of women who are likely to mother solo (and be interviewed for a major magazine) are a particularly robust and up-tempo bunch. Plus, we have a way of creating a narrative around our choices that supports them because most of us don’t want to experience cognitive dissonance on the daily if we can help it:
Indeed, they were all so upbeat that I began to wonder if solo parenting is a self-selecting endeavor: Only those who are constitutionally positive and optimistic — as well as, in Grady’s words, “strong-ass bitches” — pursue this path. Sure enough, research psychologists describe choice moms as independent and mature with high self-esteem, a well-developed capacity to tolerate frustration, and stable family backgrounds (with the caveat that such families are often “complicated” or “nontraditional”).
Another woman she speaks with, Sasha, 41, makes the astute observation that it’s really about attitude:
Last year, after Sasha (who requested that I not use her last name) got pregnant on her first IUI cycle with donor sperm, she started speaking with single mothers in general and “noticed a huge difference in how people talked,” she says. “Women whose husbands had bailed on them portrayed being a single mom as very difficult, while those who had chosen it portrayed it as wonderful. I began to see that it’s a matter of expectations, which allayed my fears.”
This makes intuitive sense, but it’s also important that no version of motherhood renders another somehow less desirable by circumstances alone. For every terrible situation wherein a woman’s partner bailed on her, there is an equally terrible situation with a rich woman with a ton of money and a husband who is in the picture and everyone is still miserable. While we can gauge a level of resources and desire to have children that gives most people a leg up in this world, no setup in which you can bring a child is a slam dunk for your personal happiness, much less theirs.
Bolick notes that there are, of course, complaints from these women of loneliness, of not having anyone to share the ups and downs of childrearing with. But most of them were more inclined to appreciate the upside of no one else running interference:
These include no disagreements about parenting styles, no getting irritated when someone isn’t doing their fair share of housework, and nobody to question your choices. That said, most remain on the dating spectrum: not dating yet but hoping to start, actively getting themselves out there, or negotiating a live-in relationship.
And yet, in spite of the A- report card the piece ultimately grants choice moms, Bolick concludes becoming a mother isn’t for her, at least not right now. What her piece ultimately conveys is that in making the decision to do this, your whims matter as much as your pocketbook and overall constitution, that is, all the women in the story knew they wanted children so badly that it wasn’t even, in their own view, a rational choice so much as a compulsion, so the particulars would be handled no matter what.
Of course, such choices are still a luxury most women scarcely have the resources to even entertain. And I think many single mothers who found themselves there against their own will initially eventually come to feel the same way most people do about being parents: It sucks sometimes in one way or another, but it can still be incredibly rewarding.
But in the rich tapestry that is every way you can feel about doing a thing or not doing a thing as a woman, this is all something else to keep in mind as we navigate an ever-widening stream of reproductive outcomes. Bolick notes that the decision not to have a kid is, in the end, perhaps as big as the decision to have a kid. She’s right. Strong-ass bitch or not: Even when you get a baby all to yourself, you still have a baby all to yourself.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.