The ‘We’ of Single Motherhood
A few weeks before my 42nd birthday, sitting alone on my houseboat on a foggy morning in Sausalito, I watched a red cross appear on a home pregnancy test and was flooded with a rush of joy, relief, anticipation and fear. I had no husband or boyfriend to tell the news, so I first called my mom who with strange intuition said, “I knew that’s why you were calling!” I then began my usual phone circuit of girlfriends, my inner circle of women to whom I have always reached out for moral support. Whether it’s a career crisis or to commiserate on a bad date, each of them in their own way has always offered a dose of reality or a joke to lighten the fact that my date drank red wine with a straw because he didn’t want to stain his teeth or showed me a Facebook slideshow of his ex-girlfriends.
“Woohoo!” said Jen as if I had finally scored, knowing I’d been trying to get pregnant for over a year.
“Can I be your birth partner?” asked Abby, followed by “What does one exactly wear to a birth?”
With each piece of advice or offer to help, I began to see these women in a new kind of role. They became the modern equivalent of a single mother’s bridesmaids – let’s call them my birth maids. Along with my larger community of friends and family, together they formed a collective network of support and love that became the rock that was missing from my life in the form of a husband.
My journey to single motherhood began as I approached my fortieth birthday in 2009. I wasn’t dating anyone at the time and seriously began thinking about taking destiny into my own hands by trying to get pregnant on my own with a sperm donor. Before I actually took the plunge, however, I decided to make a radical change and move away from New York. A few months after my 40th, I traded in my out-on-the-town heels, rent-stabilized apartment and go-go life for a pair of rubber boots, a used VW beetle and a purple houseboat in Sausalito, a Northern California community with a long bohemian history. I hoped this change of scene might open up my chances to meet someone new, or just give me a new perspective.
After a few months of casual dating, however, it hit me that the urge to have a child started to outweigh my desire for a partner. Looking into my future, I believed I had the rest of my life to find the right love with a man, but knew I only had a precious year or so to conceive a baby. Even though I had a fulfilling career and wonderful friends, the image of being childless looked gloomy and made my heart seize up with fear. I felt devastated by the idea that I might never have the opportunity to be pregnant and give birth, that I would be missing out on one of life’s most vital experiences. Becoming a stepmom or an aunt – even with the right partner – didn’t feel like enough to fulfill this maternal desire.
And at this stage, my romantic illusions about the perfect family were well shattered since I had seen so many couples who I believed had perfect situations breaking up, often when they had a child under the age of three. So I challenged the traditional order of “first comes love, then comes marriage,” separated love and procreation, and got artificially inseminated with an “open identity” sperm donor. This choice was the least legally complicated situation I considered. It would allow my child the opportunity to meet his biological father when he is eighteen, but save me the potential complications that came with co-parenting with a man with whom I wasn’t in a healthy romantic relationship. Since there would be no social father except for a biological donor “father,” I also thought it would leave the role open for a man to step in as social father without the complications of a baby daddy in our life.
Of course, this decision was harrowing and had its own downsides. It meant having sole responsibility in day-to-day care with no father or partner for a hand off, even if that partner and I didn’t live under the same roof. My parents generously offered to pay for a full time au pair—someone many people had told me could be, in many ways, a better partner than some husbands. But in every other way, I would be the sole provider. No one else could be that irreplaceable parent and share ultimate responsibility for my child, at least until I met someone who wanted to take on the role either symbolically or in a formal adoption. And that meeting was a big “if.” Until then, no one else would care as deeply or potentially fanatically about my offspring’s wellbeing; no one else would give him the love that I would.
While most people understood that I was conceiving a child out of love, others shot me disapproving looks that I was putting a person on the earth who wouldn’t have an involved biological father. A Facebook “friend” wrote me a note telling me that intentionally choosing to conceive a child with a sperm donor was selfish and I would be putting a child at a disadvantage. I cried at this reaction, believing that this choice – and the subsequence sacrifices I would be making in order to raise a kid on my own – was the least selfish leap of faith I would ever take in my life.
I also saw the advantages of my situation. After seeing so many marriages with young children break up, I realized that while my child would not start out life with a social father, he would also not start out life with the strains of a broken family. The bright side of my having never been married is that I’ve also never been divorced, which means my kid will not know what Nora Ephron once described as “the cold reality of the D-word, that in order to see one parent, the divorced child must walk out on the other.”
So as my belly grew, so did my network of support. One by one, friends, not always the ones I expected, neighbors, and acquaintances stepped forward to play different roles. My friend Adam did a photo shoot of my growing bump; Josh played guitar and sang to my belly; and my old roommate, a burly guy from Ohio whom I would never have expected intense sensitivity, sent me a long email with advice, including that I should place cold cabbage leaves on my sore nipples when I started breast feeding. A slew of neighbors put together baby furniture, made offers of hot meals, took me grocery shopping, showed up to rub my feet, and even bought the baby a life vest so I wouldn’t worry that he might fall off the houseboat.
This network extended beyond physical proximity to my social network of far-flung friends. Good news on a genetic test meant I could text a friend and get an immediate response. I could post an ultrasound picture on Facebook and get a burst of oxytocin from seeing 27 likes and a comment from a friend from grade school or an old boyfriend who I hadn’t seen in years but still held a place in my heart. I soon began to feel heart-pounding pangs of love for my network.
And then there were my birth maids. At seven months pregnant, Julyne, my Mae-West-like Texan girlfriend, accompanied me to a fancy resort in the Turk and Caicos for a glamorous baby moon that I swore to myself I wouldn’t miss out on just because I didn’t have a husband.
Two weeks before I gave birth, Abby moved into my houseboat and stuck by my side until I went into labor. While my doula pounded my back, Abby held my hand or cracked a much-needed joke to distract me from the pain. She ended up wearing the same sweat pants for the entire three days I was in labor. In the background, I could also feel the love of my network as my phone pinged with text messages reassuring me that various others near by and far flung were there as well.
Alexander Louis Lehmann-Haupt came screaming into my life at dawn on July 26th.
“We did it!” Abby said as I gazed at my new son.
The collective “we” is what I heard, and is the reason that becoming a single mother has been nothing I imagined or feared: lonely nights, no support, and experiencing every milestone alone. Taking this leap of faith alone has drawn a network around me in numbers stronger than if I had conceived a child inside a traditional relationship and family. In the big and small moments of this new kind of passage, I’ve found love and connection in the intersecting hubs. Whether it was my best friends or distant acquaintances, it has never been just I, but this collective “we.” “We’re on a baby moon.” “We’re shopping for stroller” “We’re heading to the hospital.” It was always “we” even though that “we” never referred to the all-in-one husband and father. And now on the other side of a labor supported by this network and team birth, I now know mother love, and it is indeed every cliché ever spoken.
Rumpus original art by Rob Kimmel.