DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #51: No Mystery About Sperm


Dear Sugar,

I am a woman in my late thirties and still single. I never imagined this would be me at this age. I’ve had several relationships where I thought I had found “the one,” only to have the rug pulled out from under me.

The most devastating of these ended about five years ago, at the age when most of my friends were getting married or having babies. My boyfriend of three years, with whom I lived, was divorced with a child, and decided abruptly to go back to his ex-wife just as we were looking to buy a house. This was after he had spent a fair amount of time in therapy at the beginning of our relationship to reach the conclusion that he was certain he wanted to build a life with me and have children with me, something that allowed me to take the plunge, as I really wanted to have a child. What a fool I was. When he left me, he assured me that it was only for his existing child, who was struggling, and that I was still his true love and he knew that once she was off to college, he would come back and we’d live happily ever after. She was 8. Apparently I was supposed to wait 10 years, getting old while he finished up his old life.

I spent a couple of years wrecked and jaded over that relationship. I pulled myself together as best I could, though, and dated a few people casually. Last year, I met someone I connected with. Unfortunately, he was even more jaded than I, and he didn’t want to take a leap of faith with me. We split up a couple of months ago.

So now, I find myself in my late 30’s, watching the end of my fertility looming, feeling rather cynical and weary and not sure my heart can take another blow. I always wanted to experience pregnancy and birth. I’m now considering becoming a single mom. I’m not even sure I know how to go about that, but I am very aware that time is running out, and even though I would prefer to raise a child with a partner, I don’t have much faith in that happening anymore. Even if I met someone now, he’d pretty much have to want to have a baby right away, and that’s not likely. Yet, I am struggling with definitively letting go of the idea that I will find love and have a baby with a partner. I’m paralyzed. It’s hard to let that dream go and admit that that ship has sailed. If I take this step, I am deciding definitively that I will not get married and have a child like I watched most of my friends do. (Did I mention the burning jealousy every time I see their happy family pictures on Facebook, the photos from the hospital where Mommy smiles with baby on chest, the congratulations I write, accompanied by a feeling like I’ve been sucker punched?)

How can I move forward and let go of that dream? Should I start calling sperm banks? I just can’t believe that this is how my story ends.



Dear M,

I’m of the opinion that there are some things one should never advise another to do: marry someone in particular, not marry someone in particular, pierce one’s clitoris or cock, oil one’s body and run around naked at a party wearing a homemade Alice B. Toklas mask, and have a baby.

And yet, I cannot help but say that it seems apparent to me that you should seriously consider having a baby, sweet pea. Not because I want you to, but because you want to.

Oh, the dream. The god damned man + baby dream. Written by the High Commission on Heterosexual Love and Sexual Reproduction and practiced by couples across the land, the dream’s a bitch if you’re a maternally-inclined straight female and not living it by the age of 37.1; a situation of a spermicidally toxic flavor. Of course you want to bring out your six-shooter every time you see another bloated mom hoisting up another squinty-eyed spawn on Facebook. You want the dream too! The man. The baby. The whole god-damned shebang.

But, M, you didn’t get it. Not yet. Not quite ever, perhaps. That doesn’t mean all is lost. This is not “how your story ends.” It’s simply where it takes a turn you didn’t expect.

I don’t mean to downplay your sorrow. Your disappointment is justified; your paralysis understandable; your conundrum real. But please remember that the dream you have of finding a long-term romantic partner and having a baby is not just one dream. It’s two. The man dream and the baby dream are so intricately woven that you can be forgiven for thinking they’re one. It’s lovely if it is rolled up into one. It’s more than lovely. It’s convenient. It’s conventional. It’s economically advantageous. It’s hella good when it’s good.

But it isn’t what you have. So let’s see what you’ve got.

You have the strong desire to be a mother by biological means coupled with a deep regret that you don’t currently have a partner with whom to reproduce. The only thing you need to make a biological baby of your own is sperm and luck. Getting sperm does not mean that you are “deciding definitively” that you “will not get married and have a child.” Life is long, darling. Who knows what’s going to happen? You could meet your Big Love tomorrow. You could meet him in ten years. You could have a baby on your own now and another with him when you’re 42. You don’t know. The question about who you will love and when you will love him is out of your hands. It’s a mystery that you can’t solve.

There is, however, no mystery about sperm. There are vials to be had at banks for purchase. There are possibly friends or acquaintances willing to give you some for free. The time to answer your question about whether you want to try to conceive a baby on your own is upon you. The window of your reproductive viability will soon close. I agree with you that you’ve reached the point that it’s reasonable to assume that your choice is between having a baby without a partner or having no biological baby at all. Which scenario makes you sadder? Which are you going to be happy you did when you’re fifty? It’s time to do the emotional and practical work you need to do so you can make a decision. The organization Single Mothers By Choice is an excellent place to start.

I can’t tell you what to do. No one can. But as the mother of two children, I can tell you what most moms will: that mothering is absurdly hard and profoundly sweet. Like the best thing you ever did. Like if you think you want to have a baby, you probably should.

I say this in spite of the fact that children are giant endless suck machines. They don’t give a whit if you need to sleep or eat or pee or get your work done or go out to a party naked and oiled up in a homemade Alice B. Toklas mask. They take everything. They will bring you the furthest edge of your personality and abso-fucking-lutely to your knees.

They will also give you everything back. Not just all they take, but many of the things you lost before they came along as well.

I don’t know anyone who regrets having a baby and I know a lot of moms. They each have a different story, though we tend to group them up. We like to think that partnered moms have it good and single moms have it rough, but the truth is that we’re a diverse bunch. Some single mothers have lots of child-free time because their kids are regularly in the custody of their fathers. Some seldom get a break. Some partnered mothers split childcare duties with their spouses in egalitarian ways; others might as well be alone. Some mothers of both varieties have parents, siblings and friends who play active roles in their children’s lives in ways that significantly lighten the load. Others have to pay for every hour another person looks after their kids. Some mothers, single or partnered, can’t afford to pay anyone for anything. Some can and do. Others can and won’t. Some are aided financially by parents, or trust funds, or inheritances; others are entirely on their own. The reality is that, regardless of the circumstances, most moms are alternately blissed out by their love for their children and utterly overwhelmed by the spectacular amount of sacrifice they require.

What you must answer when you delve into this question about whether to have a baby alone, honey bun, is what the landscape will look like for you. Not what it looks like for “single mothers by choice,” but how it will actually play out in your own life. How will you need to restructure or reconsider your life if you become a mother? What resources do you have, what resources will you need, and how will you get them?

Knowing what I know about having babies, three of the four big questions I’d have if I were considering parenting a child without a partner are surprisingly the same questions I asked myself when I—with my partner—pondered having a baby. They were:

  1. How the hell am I going to pay for this?
  2. Who the hell is going to take care of the baby so I can work?
  3. Will I ever have sex again?

So let’s start with those.

You don’t mention financial matters in your letter, but I presume you have to earn a living. Kids cost a fortune, especially if you have to pay someone to take care of them so you can work. My kids are now 4 and 6. Preschool tuition over the past few years has nearly bankrupted me. Literally. When my kids were babies my husband and I hired a part-time nanny and juggled childcare between us the rest of the time—we both make our living as artists, so neither one of us has what’s called a “real job.” The nanny cost us $15 an hour. We hired her for twenty hours a week. When the nanny came, my husband and I would go into our shared office in the basement and ignore each other so we could each do our thing (at which point our children would invariably settle down for a long nap, strangely able to discern when we were paying someone else to look after them). Talk about writing like a motherfucker! I didn’t just write like a motherfucker in those days, sister. I wrote like a god damned fucking motherfucker. Every hour that passed I’d think, “Did I make fifteen dollars? Did I even make seven fifty?”

Often enough, the answer was no.

Which is a long way of saying that questions number one and number two are inextricably bound. More so than the man + baby High Commission on Heterosexual Love and Sexual Reproduction dream. Especially for you, since you’ll be the sole breadwinner.

Many partners are great for watching the baby while you work or shower or make phone calls that go better if a small beast is not shrieking in the background. You won’t have one—the partner, that is. You’ll have only the small shrieking beast. What will you do? Do you have any support in the way of free childcare? Do not believe all the sweet friends who say, “Oh, M! Have a baby! I’ll totally help you with the baby! I’ll be, like, the baby’s auntie!” Those people have good intentions, but most of them are bon vivants who will not take your baby. Or they might take your baby once when it’s spring and they get the urge to go to the zoo because they want to see the elephants. You need someone to take your baby every Monday and Wednesday and Friday from nine to three. One thing I’ve learned since becoming a mother is that most adults aren’t willing to spend much time with other people’s children unless there is some direct benefit to them—namely, money or the promise that you will someday return the favor and take their children.

There are, of course, exceptions. Some grandparents long to play a significant part in the lives of their grandchildren. Do you have an essentially sane, remotely physically fit, non-daytime drinking, baby-loving parent or two who lives nearby? A sibling or friend who genuinely wants to commit to pitching in? If you don’t have that sort of support, what will you do for childcare and how will you structure it and how will you pay for it?

Next we come to the question of whether your post-child life will be a dreary, sexless hell.

There will probably not be too much action for a while. But worry not: this has little to do with your partner-less status. My husband and I joke that the only reason we opted to have our second child was so we’d have sex at least one more time before we died. You’ll be exhausted, hormonally-altered, and perhaps vaginally or abdominally maimed by the baby, and thus not thinking about sex for a while, but eventually you’ll come around and be interested in dating men again. Some won’t be interested in dating you because you have a baby. Others will be fine with the baby and you’ll date them and maybe one of them will turn out to be “the one.”

Regardless of what happens with the men, you’ll have a baby. An amazing little being who will blow your mind and expand your heart and make you think things you never thought and remember things you believed you forgot and heal things you imagined would never heal and forgive people you’ve begrudged for too long and understand things you didn’t understand before you fell madly in love with a tiny tyrant who doesn’t give a crap whether you need to pee. You will sing again if you stopped singing. You will dance again if you stopped dancing. You will crawl around on the floor and play chase and tickle and peek-a-boo. You’ll make towers of teetering blocks and snakes and rabbits with clay.

It’s an altogether cool thing.

And it will be lonely too, doing all that without a partner. How lonely, I can’t say. You will hold your baby and cry sometimes in frustration, in rage, in despair, in exhaustion and inexplicable sorrow. You will watch your baby with joy and laugh at the wonder so pure and the beauty so unconcealed that it will make you ache. These are the times when it’s really nice to have a partner, M. What will you do? How will you fill the place where the man you’ve been holding out for would have been?

That is your hard question for me; the one I didn’t ask myself when I decided to get pregnant and become a mother, though of course it was naïve for me to think I didn’t have to. Not a single one of us knows what the future holds. The unexpected happens even when we’ve got everything mapped out. My friend A lost her husband in a car crash four days before her daughter was born. My friend B’s husband died of cancer when their son wasn’t yet two. My friend C’s husband left her for another woman when their baby was six weeks old. My friend D’s partner decided he wasn’t all that into being a dad a few months after his child was born, moved across the country, and sees her once a year. I could go on. I could work my way all the way down the alphabet. Even if you get the dream, you don’t know if it will stay true.

It works in reverse too. What you fear might not come to pass, sweet pea. You might decide to have your baby and find true love in the midst of that. You might search your soul and realize that you don’t want a baby after all, not if it means going it without a man.

What’s important is that you make the leap. Jump high and hard with intention and heart. Pay no mind to the vision that the commission made up. It’s up to you to make your life. Take what you have and stack it up like a tower of teetering blocks. Build your dream around that.