They didn’t set out to be rebels. Most of them assumed they’d eventually meet nice guys, get married, have children–all in the standard progression they were brought up to expect. Then, usually at some point in their 30s, the realization set in: they were unmarried, and by the time they could conceivably meet their special someones, get married, and be ready to have children, they’d be too old to have them. But the desire to have children remained, and being strong, contemporary women, they did something about it. They became single mothers–by choice.
These are not the unwed mothers we heard whispered about in high school, sent to visit “aunts” for a semester before returning to mumble about where they’d been. These are certainly not the ghetto children who have babies as a rite of passage, nor teens who become pregnant out of ignorance about contraception. In most cases, there was nothing the least bit accidental about these women’s pregnancies. Some spent thousands of dollars to bear an intensely wanted child. These are women whose family values are very much intact. They just don’t happen to be married.
This being the 90s, there is a support group. It’s called Single Mothers by Choice, and Fran Ramer dubs herself “the self-appointed leader” of the midwest chapter.
“I jumped into it,” says Ramer of single motherhood. “When I was 34, the guy I had been dating for two and a half years and I decided to try to have a child together. I miscarried the first time. The second time I got pregnant I told him, ‘I think this one’s a keeper.’ And he said, ‘I think I’ve changed my mind.’ He said he’d get back to me. That was eight years ago, and I’m still waiting.”
While she didn’t expect to get married, she did think she’d have some help. Instead she found herself completely on her own–and with “nobody to play with. My single friends wanted to go to bars until 3 AM on the spur of the moment. My married friends were available during the day, but not evenings and weekends.”
Seeking new chums, Ramer heard about a single mothers’ group in her neighborhood, but it turned out to be filled mostly with divorcees. “They were mourning the ends of their families. I was celebrating the beginning of mine. They were unhappy because their families had fallen apart. But I was feeling quite joyous.”
Ramer finally met a neighbor, a single woman who’d conceived her child via artificial insemination. They went looking for others, posting notices in toy stores, and organized an informal group that met once or twice a month. When Ramer found out about the national Single Mothers by Choice, the group of Chicago women joined up; their first official meeting was in early 1990. Since then, she says, “we’ve been networking with midwives, nurses, insemination places, trying to get the word out to single mothers that we’re here.”
The midwest chapter originally covered a five-state area, but that proved impossibly broad. It now draws most of its members from Chicago and the suburbs, and a few from Wisconsin and Indiana. The number of women in the group, which meets monthly on Sundays, stays at a fairly constant 50. “Women leave when they don’t feel a need for the group anymore, or when they get married,” says Ramer. Meetings are in homes, and alternate between city and suburbs. Each features a topic for discussion; “What do I tell my child about Daddy?” is a perennial. Speakers have included experts on investing, taxes, psychology, and the law, and a fire fighter who gave tips on making homes safer. “We talk about things like dating, and the best things [about single motherhood] versus the hard things, expectations versus reality,” says Ramer. “We always arrange for separate baby-sitting. That allows the mothers to talk about sensitive issues without having to be taking little hands out of the dip. And it allows children to play with other children who don’t have fathers. It makes it easier for them to regard it as normal.”
There are also one or two outings a year, to the beach or to the zoo or to a farm. “I really don’t like to think of it as a support group. That sounds like we have a problem, and I don’t think we have a problem. We’re just an information and socializing group, swapping maternity clothes and things like that.”
Along with single mothers and their children, the meetings attract pregnant singles and a third group Ramer terms “the thinkers. They’re thinking about becoming single mothers by choice, and they come to our meetings to see how we handle it. Sometimes they decide it’s not for them.”
Of the mothers, Ramer says, “90 percent are in their 30s. We have six in their late 20s and a dozen in their 40s. We all had our careers going before we had children. We did this on purpose, but with a lot of forethought. Many of us planned for this, much more than most married couples. I’m really impressed with the level of thought our members give this. I don’t say everybody should do this. It’s a very difficult decision. The amount of work having a child involves should not be belittled. I’m not an advocate at all. We help people make informed decisions–but it’s ultimately their decision.”
SMC has a baby-sitting co-op and a bimonthly newsletter that offers cartoons, announcements, free advertising for members (“Suzanne has baby items to sell!”), and reprints of newsclips (“The average father interacts with his baby for less than 38 seconds each day”). The newsletter also offers a lot of information about ways to become a single mother by choice: artificial insemination, adoption, or what Ramer terms “the old-fashioned way. We offer advice and resources on all three.”
In the past, she says, most members of SMC relied on natural insemination. “Now it’s mostly artificial insemination. I think AIDS is one reason; women want sperm that’s been screened. And women are concerned about legal issues: if there’s a known father, someday down the road he may come knocking on the door, asking for his child. Artificial insemination is convenient.”
Reactions of families vary, she says. “Some have had a lot of support from their families–‘Yeah, we’re getting a grandchild!’ One woman’s parents sent her some sexy negligees. One woman’s father was her Lamaze coach.” Others get negative responses: embarrassed parents, jealous siblings, friends who desert them.
“My friends were very supportive,” says Ramer. “My family had more trouble with it in the beginning, but my parents just dote on her now. They’re typical loving, spoiling grandparents. I have two sisters. They did not react well. They couldn’t handle it. I was concerned about the company I worked for, which was a fairly conservative group, so I hid my pregnancy as long as I could. When I finally made the announcement, they had a big shower for me.”
Like almost all single mothers by choice, Ramer works. She now has her own business, Baby Love, Inc., manufacturing and distributing baby products from her home. A few women, she says, are able to stay home, living with parents or, in one case, on an inheritance. Most rely on day care, family members, or nannies–depending on their circumstances and financial situations, just like any other single mother.
Most of the women in SMC, not surprisingly, opt to have just one child, but Ramer says that several have two “and a couple are having their third children.”
One thing Ramer says she’s noticed is that many of the children of single mothers are gifted. Her daughter, Cristina, is now seven. “There are seven girls in Cristina’s class. Three are products of single mothers by choice–and all three are gifted.” Much of this is undoubtedly due to heredity: the mothers are intelligent, and they chose their mates carefully. Some is environment: “We have more time to give the children. If we’re playing with them, we don’t have to get dinner ready for daddy. They have our undivided attention.”
It’s not all upbeat–even when you’re part of a loving couple there are difficult moments when a child is fussy or sick or just demanding. And it’s that much harder to deal with life’s emergencies standing alone. Ramer remembers the burden of being in a hospital emergency room with a very small, very sick Cristina “all alone, with no one to talk to or express my anxieties to.” With a small child “there’s a juggling act–trying to get one child and three bags of groceries into the house. And finances of course are a struggle.” When Cristina asks questions about her father, as she has since she was two, “I just answer–I give her as much information as she’s asking for.
“For the most part, having her has been wonderful–and it’s kind of nice having her all to myself. One reason I’m so happy with my decision is that I have a fabulous kid. She’s my good buddy–we get along very well, with no problems. She’s extremely intelligent, with a good sense of humor. She’s gifted musically and artistically. She writes very well. I’m just really happy that she’s in my life. Perhaps if I had a different child–a cranky child, a slow child–it would be different.
“A lot of people seem to think this is a terrible thing to do to a child. Cristina would like to have a father–but she would also like to have a twin sister, a baby brother, and a dog. I don’t think having a father’s at the head of the list!” She laughs. “To her, there are just different kinds of families.”
“I was approaching my 40th birthday and taking stock, as people do,” says Susan Locke. “I was not involved in a relationship that seemed likely to result in marriage, and I realized ‘I won’t have children.’ I mulled this over–and I woke up one morning thinking, ‘I don’t have to be married.’ Then I got a substantial raise, which raised my psychological level. I talked to my friends and family about it. I took a fair amount of time to decide.”
Like most of the women interviewed for this article–and most of the women in SMC–Locke is white, professional, and financially comfortable. “This is a phenomenon embraced mostly by women who have the wherewithal to do it without leading a life of grim sacrifice.”
Locke’s first idea was to have her child via artificial insemination. “It’s neat and tidy. But clinics don’t tell you very much about their donors beyond height, hair color, eye color, ethnic background, and that the sample’s been screened for AIDS. If you ask about their educational level and medical background, they just say, ‘Most of our donors are medical students.'”
She read a book by a woman whose husband was infertile and who had had children using a known donor. “It explored the pros and cons, the ethical and legal questions. It seemed to be the way to go. I wanted my baby to have a father he could know–not to be a daddy, but a father whose name he could know, that he could meet .”
That turned out to be a lot harder than she anticipated. “I talked to friends. They didn’t want to father a child they would not be involved with. And men are afraid of financial liability. I got really discouraged. At one point I thought I was going to have to go into bars wearing low-cut dresses, looking for somebody with a college degree and good teeth.” Then a friend gave her the name of a man who had served as a donor before, an older man with two grown children of his own. “I met him and talked to him. He was concerned that I was single, and financially more vulnerable. I persuaded him that I could handle the expenses. He had been in a long relationship with a woman. She was not thrilled about it at first, but she finally gave in.” It took Locke six months to conceive; right about the time she called a fertility clinic she found herself pregnant.
She says she had “a pretty easy pregnancy–I was incredibly comfortable and healthy,” though her water broke at 33 weeks, and a difficult labor ended with a C-section. She took her son, Nick, now two and a half years old, home a week later. “It’s been great. It’s been challenging. I’m always a little tired, but I think that all mothers of two-year-olds tend to be a little tired.
“It would be really nice to be doing this in the context of a good marriage. [Part of her definition of a good marriage is one in which the husband helps with child care.] I wouldn’t mind having the ideal. But Nick’s circumstances are not that different than a lot of other kids” who don’t have fathers in the home.
Locke belongs to SMC, though she doesn’t attend regularly. The members of her family, most of whom live in the Kansas City area, were “very supportive, both before–with encouragement, practical help, and emotionally–and after. They’re just fine with it. No baby was ever showered as much as this one. If I needed to travel for a week for work, I know my mother would come and take care of Nick.”
Locke, a former employee at WTTW, says she had her “whole life planned around working there. I lived in the area; I found a really good sitter there. Then WTTW shut down my unit in June 1991, and I was out of a full-time job for the better part of six months–which was real scary. I got by with a lot of help from my friends.” Some of them hired her as a free-lancer for projects; others gave her recommendations and networked on her behalf. Because of those friends, she says, “I feel very safe. I feel like I have family in town.” One couple with a daughter in college “decided to be special friends with Nick. They take him places and do things with him. It gives me time to do things. It gives Nick a man who is a consistent person in his life–a guy buddy.”
Her having had a child on her own is sometimes misinterpreted, says Locke. “Some people, especially men, seem to feel that having a baby is some statement about how I feel about men. It’s so cheap to rent billboard space–I think having a baby and going to all that expense and through all that angst so you can make a statement about guys would be pretty elaborate. Some of us, by embracing this new individualism and running with it, have become scary or unattractive to men. They assume that a woman who’s had a child without a husband is probably waaay too bossy.”
Having a son was not part of Locke’s game plan. “I was horrified to find Nick was a boy. Somehow when I was planning this I always assumed I would have a little girl, and I thought that would be just nifty. When I found out he was a boy, I thought, ‘Someday he’ll grow up, and he’ll be a guy, and he’ll tell a woman he’ll call her–and he won’t.’ Well, it’s up to me to make sure he doesn’t act like that. I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to make ‘boy noises’ when he was playing with his toy cars and trucks–but it must be genetic, because he does it.
“Nobody I know of thinks that being a single parent is an ideal way to have a child, but I’m very, very happy that I did this. [Early in the pregnancy] I had a CVS [test], and realized how heavily invested I was in this pregnancy. I was thunderstruck by the bond between us. I was not prepared for how vulnerable I’ve become, how the thought of harm coming to my child affects me. And I like other children more.
“My mother told me, ‘This will be the best thing you’ve ever done.’ And she was right.”
“I always wanted children and I envisioned, initially, having a traditional family. But it didn’t work out that way.” When Mimi Higgins was 35, she made contingency plans. She had been living in the city with roommates; now she bought a three-bedroom place in the suburbs and a “safe car.” She got involved with SMC. She consulted a fertility clinic and now has a 16-month-old son by artificial insemination.
“It’s a decision I have not regretted for a single second. Not ever. The ideal family is something that barely exists anymore,” she says. “I prefer to compare us to the majority of families in our society. There is a lot of divorce. There is a lot of marital breakdown. I would rather have a peaceful, loving home.”
As a teacher in a junior high school, Higgins says, “I have reasonable hours. I have the summer off. I have days off all over the place. I have a decent salary.” All of which make life as a single mother a little easier. Young Steven was her parents’ first grandchild. “My family knew about my decision before I did it, and they were very, very excited. I was happily surprised to hear my mother say that she had hoped I would do it.”
Higgins went with artificial insemination, at Michael Reese’s infertility clinic. After an interview with the head of the clinic, she was sent to the social worker for her approval. At Michael Reese the donor is chosen for single women, usually selected to match the women’s physical characteristics. It cost her about $2,000, and it took three months for her to become pregnant.
Higgins has a network of friends on whom she can call for help (“I don’t abuse them”), and her parents live about a half hour away. “If I’m going to be out late, I take Steven there and let him sleep with them overnight. Then I pick him up in the morning.
“I didn’t have any expectations of being able to maintain my life-style, but I don’t feel that burning desire to get out and experience life–I did all that. I didn’t expect my life to get more peaceful. I really thought it would get more hectic. But it’s been relaxing–when he’s up, we play. People have commented to me that they think I’ve become more serene.”
Would she do it again? “I might. But I will wait another year to decide. I will examine what our lives are like. I do love children. If I thought I would have another child as wonderful as Steven, I would do it in a second.”
Ellen Goldsmith, 42, was an early member of SMC. Five years ago she had just ended a long-term live-in relationship when the idea of becoming a single mother struck her. “I realized that to find someone, get in a relationship, and get ready to make a commitment could take years–and I was afraid to put off childbirth any longer.”
At first she thought of adoption, on the grounds that it might be more “socially acceptable to adopt–it might seem more altruistic.” But a man she was dating at the time argued, persuasively, that after a few months no one would remember if she had always been single or if she was widowed or divorced. So Goldsmith went looking for doctors willing to artificially inseminate single women. After a series of miscarriages she bore a son, Ethan, now 23 months old.
“I wanted to have my own child, to have the experience of pregnancy and birth. I considered the possibility of using a friend [as a sperm donor], and I talked to some friends about it. Then I realized that I still wanted to be married some day, and I thought it would be easier if there was no other man in my child’s life competing for his affection. I was worried about legal hassles. Artificial insemination is easier and less complicated. Your chances are better, and there’s no problem with the sperm.”
She says she had no difficulty finding a doctor willing to do the insemination. “Infertility doctors work with sperm banks, and sperm banks are in business to make money.” Her doctors, located in Lake Forest, did not require her to see a social worker. Goldsmith chose her baby’s father from the California Cryobank donor catalog, selecting hair and eye color, height, weight, blood type, and personality profile; she selected a man who matched her own physical pattern. “His father must have been one good-looking guy, because Ethan is a beautiful child. Maybe I can’t pick men–but I can pick sperm!”
What will she tell her son about his father when he’s old enough to ask? “I’ll tell him as much as he can understand at any one time. Eventually I will tell him the whole story. I would love it if some man would come into my life and be Ethan’s father–but I still would tell him, ‘Mommy wanted you so much she went to a doctor who helped her have you.’ I’ve saved the donor profile, and I will share it with him. But there’s no way for him to find his father.”
Goldsmith says, “I work hard at making sure there are significant men who are a part of Ethan’s life. I’ll always make an effort to make sure he has strong role models.” Yet she says she doesn’t do much dating, for the usual reason: no time. And that’s fine with her. “I had a very active social life for 20 years. A lot of people warned me before I had him, ‘Your life is going to change.’ They didn’t understand–I wanted my life to change. I would have looked back with regret if I hadn’t had a child.
“When I first started thinking of this it seemed like a pretty maverick thing to do, but I don’t think it is now. He’ll grow up with plenty of kids from single-parent families who don’t have daddies.
“I tell women who are thinking about this to have their resources in order before they begin. I spent so much time planning this and investigating this–I joined groups, I networked, I read books. If anything, I think I was a little overprepared. But nothing prepares you for having a baby. You really don’t know what it’s going to be like before the child gets there.
“If I could do it over, I would have started sooner. I don’t have the energy now that I had ten years ago. I would like to have more children–I have a lot of love to give. I would have liked to do this in the context of a loving marriage, but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
“When I was in my mid-30s I decided that I had no immediate options for marriage–and that I still wanted to have kids,” says Elaine Morgan, a pediatric oncologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital. Her first thought was to adopt, but that proved difficult. She looked into artificial insemination “only to be rather rudely turned down by a number of facilities. At one place they told me, ‘Just go out on a street corner and pick up someone.'”
Then Michael Reese’s infertility clinic was opened to single women. “I jumped at the chance.” Today she has three sons, ages nine, six, and two. “I always wanted four or five children, so I was starting from that premise. Number one was just wonderful, so I thought A, that he would like a sibling, and B, that I would like to reexperience pregnancy and childbirth. Then as number two became a preschooler and was no longer a baby, I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have another one? I wanted a girl, but I never succeeded in having one.” (There is, she says, “an increased incidence of male children in artificial insemination, and there is an increased incidence of male children in older women.” Nobody knows precisely why.)
Morgan says she really didn’t care much about the donors’ characteristics. “I said all I wanted was a healthy baby. They didn’t do much matching with my characteristics, and the kids don’t look alike either. Actually, we tried to use the same donor with the first two, but it didn’t work and we had to switch.”
She’s going to stop at three, in part because of her age, in part because “I’m not sure at this point that it’s fair to my kids to bring another infant into our house.” She also points out that it took her a year of trying between the first and second child, and two years between the second and third. But she has thought of adopting a toddler somewhere down the line.
Morgan bought a four-bedroom house for her family. Her mother lives with them and is available for a limited amount of child care. “The older two are in school and have care after school. The youngest is in a day-care home near work. He’ll probably go into a day-care center near work when he’s three. It’s complicated, but it works.”
Does she anticipate any special problems rearing three boys? “I’m not real good in pitching and catching,” Morgan replies, then says she’s always been very frank with her sons. “If there ever comes a time that they don’t feel comfortable discussing things with me, I’ve got plenty of male resources–the rabbi, our male friends. I’d like to point out that there are a lot of women raising boys on their own. I don’t have the complication of a man walking out on the kids. I don’t have the complication of a bitter divorce.”
Does she have any advice for women contemplating single motherhood? “If you’re going to go into something like this, you need to really, really, really, really want it. It has to be the most important thing in the world to you, because it’s so difficult. The guilt trip that mothers always lay on themselves is somehow worse when you’re single.
“It’s costly, time-consuming, and very frustrating. And it’s important that you be at a good medical center, where they will work with you and won’t give up on you if you don’t conceive right away.
“I’m very comfortable and very happy with what I’ve done. I love my kids–I can’t imagine not having them. [Along with deciding to go into medicine,] having kids is one of the two best decisions I’ve made in my life.”
Gillian Abrahams is a licensed clinical social worker at Michael Reese. One of her jobs is to meet with all of the single women who come in for artificial insemination.
“As a whole, they are women in their late 20s or 30s. As a whole, they are women who are fairly well established–financially, socially, and career-wise.” She says she seldom recommends against letting a woman go ahead with insemination. “We don’t view our counseling program as a way of keeping women out–we view it as an opportunity of ensuring that this is what they really want. We review the financial and emotional effects of single motherhood. It sometimes happens that in the course of our discussions a woman decides for herself that it’s not the right choice for her.”
Abrahams says she looks at the strengths a woman brings to the situation, including her social support system. “I help them look at their hopes and their expectations for themselves, both as a mother and as a person in her own right–and we look at how being a single mother may impact that. A significant part of the counseling process is looking at how a woman came to make her decision. Was it precipitous or carefully thought through? We look at past relationships and life experiences, and what has brought them to decide that this is what they want to do.”
Is there still a stigma attached to single motherhood, a taint of illegitimacy? Rarely, says Abrahams. “The number of single mothers is increasing rapidly. It’s become much more socially acceptable. Occasionally women are coming from a social structure where they’re not accepted–but the urge to have a child is so imperative that they live with that. A few do decide against having a child because of it, but most see themselves as strong enough.” Some, she adds, take pride in the fact that the pregnancy was planned and in the control they feel they have over their lives.
Abrahams says she doesn’t get as much feedback as she’d like, but the clinic doesn’t do any follow-up. “We stress that this is a completely confidential process. I do encourage them to get back to me about their experiences so that I can help others. So far I’ve heard only positive things. But this is a new process, and while it’s a very exciting one I’m sure some women may have some problems along the line.”
Betty Orlandino is a psychotherapist, a licensed clinical social worker who has just completed work on her doctorate. She is also executive director of Human Relations Counseling and a specialist in infertility. She estimates that she gets a hundred calls a year from single women “interested in exploring alternatives,” of whom perhaps 25 to 30 follow up with an office visit. The bulk of them, she says, “are very definitely professional women. They’ve thought it out well. They simply want to gather more information.”
Orlandino recommends artificial insemination with an anonymous donor over adoption or using a known donor. Adoption is hard enough for ideally situated married couples; single women, if they’re even accepted by an agency, find themselves offered the children other people don’t want: deformed, older, or mixed-race children.
She gives free referrals: “I refer women to clinics that use prescreened medical students for donors. The babies have a lower than average number of defects and higher than average IQs. I want to make sure that women have all the facts, particularly when it comes to donors.”
She strongly advises against using known donors, even when the man seems unlikely to want to meddle in the child’s life later on, citing the story of a lesbian who wanted a child and asked a young male acquaintance to provide sperm. “Seven years down the line the man married. He had developed an infertility problem that left him sterile–and he sued for custody of the child. What’s more, he won. That’s an extreme case, but people can change their minds. This way, the mother can rest at night. It works the other way too: with an unknown donor the child can’t come back and disrupt the father’s life.”
Orlandino depicts her clients as professional, stable, and educated. “They’re generally more open to these methods than most blue-collar women.” All of her heterosexual clients have been single; all of her lesbian clients have been in relationships. “These are dynamic, independent women–I’ve met some really terrific women over the years. They’re choosing to have a child for the right reasons. They’ve carefully considered this decision, and they really want the child, which is certainly not the case with all couples. They’re coming into a privileged condition, really.”
Orlandino thinks this kind of single motherhood is a healthy trend. “I think every woman should have the choice of how she wants to live her life.”
Antonio Scommegna, a physician and a fertility specialist associated with Michael Reese, is more compassionate than some of his colleagues, some of whom won’t work with single or gay women. “They’re more traditional,” he says. “Some of them are deeply Roman Catholic.” Scommegna considers himself a “reformed” Catholic, and he’ll work with any woman who gets the thumbs-up from the social worker. “I have no qualms about it. I cannot impose my morals on somebody else. We live in a pluralistic society, and people can make their own decisions. I want to be sure they know what they’re getting into. But if they know what they’re getting into, it’s their business.”
Once a woman is ready to get into it, her menstrual cycle is monitored to figure out when she’ll ovulate. She’s screened for genetically transmittable diseases and matched with a donor. “When she ovulates, we do an interuterine insemination. Each time she is inseminated, she has a 10 to 15 percent chance of pregnancy. If she doesn’t get pregnant after five or six months, we do more extensive testing. A lot depends on the woman’s age. A 20-year-old usually gets pregnant faster than a 35-year-old–fertility declines as we age.” A persistent woman usually has a 70 to 80 percent chance of getting pregnant this way.
She’d better have deep pockets, though. The minimum is $1,000. The initial interview and examination is $150; inseminations are $400 each; and lab work is extra. One of Scommegna’s staff recalled a really determined client who spent $10,000 to get pregnant.
California Cryobank (located in Westwood near UCLA) is, according to director of marketing Ronda Wilkins, “the largest sperm bank in the U.S. and probably in the world.” The company works with individuals and clinics in all parts of the country, shipping via overnight express, but will deliver the frozen sperm–$133 per vial–only to doctors. “That’s for the safety of the specimen. They’re shipped in mini nitrogen tanks, and if you don’t know what you’re doing you can burn yourself and damage the specimen.” She says it used to be necessary to use two or three vials per fertility cycle; now, thanks to better techniques, just one or two can do it.
A representative of California Cryobank, Latrice Allen works with women to help them choose a donor. Most married couples, she says, want someone who resembles the husband. But singles–an estimated quarter of her business–“don’t have anyone they want to match. They just want an attractive donor. They want somebody good-looking. They’ll send in pictures of movie stars or models in magazines and ask us to find donors who look like them.” About 40 percent of single women want to match themselves or someone in their families. The small percentage of lesbian couples either want “someone out of a magazine or someone who matches the significant other.”
Questions are frequently asked about blood types and about what to put on birth certificates about the father. “They ask about the donors and their personalities. We provide profiles–their SAT scores, their grade-point averages. Some describe their personalities, and the reason they want to be a donor. Sometimes they have a message they want to pass on.” A medical profile is available for an additional $9 charge; California Cryobank provides up to six free profiles every month.
Donor 341 has blood type A-positive and was born 9/26/62. He gives his ethnic origin as Irish on his father’s side and German-English on his mother’s, and put “not applicable” after the religious-heritage question. He has wavy brown hair, brown eyes that require glasses, a medium complexion, and a medium bone structure. He stands 5 feet 11 inches, weighs 165 pounds, and is a non-smoker. His college grade-point average was 3.3, and he majored in design and fine arts; he’s employed in computer graphics. His health is good, as is the health of his parents and brother, but shellfish give him hives. “I’ve been blessed with a good body,” he writes. He enjoys reading, tennis, hiking, and jogging; he describes himself as having a good sense of humor, being outgoing, and loving children.
To the question “Why do you want to be a donor?” he has written, “The extra income is my primary reason. [The company doesn’t say how much it pays.] A secondary reason is that I like the ideas of somewhat furthering my line (genetic) and helping women have children.” A request for “a message to the recipient(s) of your semen” garnered this: “I hope your baby gives you lots of happiness. I’m very glad that I could be a part of this special event in your lives. You have my most earnest wishes that destiny smiles upon you as parents and upon the small bundle of life that will enrich your lives.”
Lawyer David Grund thinks artificial insemination is the way to go for any woman who wants to become a single mother. “A known donor has the same rights as any father. He has to establish, number one, that he is the father. Once that’s established, it’s a paternity action of sorts. That means he’s entitled to [request] visitation, custody, and so forth.
“Right now, the popular thing is to be inseminated by an unknown donor, so that there aren’t these complications coming about. People cannot dispose of their rights and obligations under the law when it involves a child. Matters of support, matters of custody, are always subject to approval by the courts. You cannot contract away your rights.”
But if the donor is unknown, he points out, “there are no rights.” He cites the Illinois Parentage Act of 1983: “The donor of semen provided to a licensed physician for use in artificial insemination of a woman other than the donor’s wife shall be treated in law as if he were not the natural father of a child thereby conceived.”
Furthermore, Grund says, “A woman who artificially inseminates herself from an ‘impersonal’ sperm bank is statutorily barred from seeking support from the donor–assuming she learns his identity.”
One woman who’s contemplating single motherhood, after hearing about the costs of artificial insemination and the legal considerations of using a known donor, mused, “You know, going out to a bar and just picking up a man is sounding better all the time.”
The traditional family unit developed for the most practical of reasons: survival. In earlier times the child who had a father providing for her as well as a mother caring for her had a better chance of making it to adulthood. And the two-parent family is still a far easier way of rearing children. Some radical feminists dismiss legitimacy as a tool of the patriarchy, but illegitimacy has historically carried a stigma.
That’s just one of the things that concern Bryce Christensen, director of the Rockford Institute’s Center on the Family in America, a conservative think tank. Single motherhood, he says, “runs counter to the normative experiences of generations of Americans. I think it’s symptomatic of the erosion or even the breakdown of the normative consensus that this is happening at all.” Christensen believes that “when single women who may have the financial resources make this decision, it’s reasonable to suppose that, to the degree their choice is accepted, it reduces the restraints on the behavior of other young women who do not have such resources.”
Christensen, who has an impressive ability to call up chapter and verse of various sociological studies dealing with families, cites several that “show statistically that children in single-parent households are more likely to fail in school, more likely to use drugs, more likely to commit suicide. They have a higher rate of juvenile delinquency. Some studies show an elevated risk even when income is taken into account. You can’t apply statistics to every household, but that should tell you something. The single best predictor of problems is the illegitimacy rate.
“In polite circles the world ‘illegitimate’ has been dropped from the lexicon. People don’t use it for fear of giving offense. But language provides our moral cues. If we fail to recognize any difference between having children in wedlock and out of wedlock, we are no longer sending a moral cue. In the 19th century the Supreme Court said that the strength of our civilization depends on the purity of our marriages. I think many Americans still believe that, and I think a great many of our public communicators find that kind of thing almost embarrassing–but it’s true. In a sense, I find it almost scary that we’re reduced to quoting sociology to prove what the Supreme Court said a century ago. And once we’re reduced to quoting sociology, all is lost–people don’t make and keep marriages because of what’s written in some sociological journal.”
While many single mothers by choice hold that their children are better off for not having suffered through an acrimonious divorce, Christensen says, “There are three classes of household: single parents–which almost always means mothers–two-parent households with unsatisfactory marriages, and two-parent households with satisfactory marriages. Not surprisingly, members of the third group are doing best. Perhaps less predictably, given today’s conventional wisdom, parents in an unsatisfactory marriage do better than single parents–their relationship still confers benefits on their children.
“This is not merely a personal life-style choice. When a marriage fails or a marriage is not formed in the first place, the consequences are shared by the schools, by the neighborhood, by the community–we all bear the costs of trying to redeem the troubled child. If you live in a neighborhood with a large percentage of single parents, your chances of being a victim of crime are much higher, regardless of income level. And these patterns are generational. The child of a single mother is also likely to beget or bear a child outside of wedlock–and the spiral widens.
“I fear for the well-being of the nation when marriage is considered as important to the concept of the family as a sunroof is to the concept of a car.” He cites studies showing that fatherless girls tend to be insecure with and fearful of men, and he has even more reservations about boys in the same circumstances. “A very fundamental question that boys ask themselves is, ‘What is it to be a man?’ The usual answer, and a very satisfactory answer, comes from the father. Even when there’s rebellion in the teen years–and there usually is–it gives a pattern to come back to, and most men do.
“But when there’s no father in the household, the message is that fathers are optional and unnecessary, that males are optional and unnecessary. In some cases there may be a feeling that ‘Mom would have preferred to have a girl.’ And when your father is just a number registered in a sperm bank, it says, ‘My future role need be no more than that.’ I’m willing to predict that we’re going to see some really nightmarish problems among young men in a few years.”
What does Christensen say to the woman in her early 30s who longs for a family but has not met a man with whom she’d care to share her life? He agrees that “marriage requires deep trust, and I think that the number of young men who are worthy of trust has declined. I sympathize with their plight, but I think the acceptance of no-father households will further the problem. [This trend] is likely compounding the difficulty of the next generation of young women to find trustworthy young men.
“In general, I’d say that this is wrong, that it’s better to go through life never having borne a child than to do it this way. There may be some personal satisfaction in having a baby, but the consequences for the child are too negative. It is offensive to God–and they ought to be listening to their own ministers or priests or rabbis. When we start writing our own idiosyncratic scripts for life, we find it’s just too perilous. We cut ourselves off from every pattern of our ancestors. It’s cultural amnesia. The judgment of past generations on this, I think, is pretty clear, and I think it’s perilous to repudiate our ancestors. I see it as an estrangement, not only between the child and the father whom he will never know, but between the child and all his ancestors.” He quotes a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night at his father’s grave: “Good-bye, my father–good-bye, all my fathers.” “I think we’re going to have too many children saying, ‘Good-bye, all my fathers’–and I think it’s a perilous thing for our nation.”
“Claire Wentworth” (a pseudonym) made her decision to become a single mother 15 years ago. “Having a child is the best thing I ever did. I always, always wanted children. I was never sure I wanted to be married. The right situation never came along–or if it did, I didn’t recognize it. Raising a child by myself has been hard, but very satisfying–like doing an intensive study. In some ways it’s been simpler because there was no problem of conflicting value systems.”
She politely declines to go into any details about her decision-making process or conception–“I’ve never discussed any of that with anyone, and I’m not going to start now.” But she says, “My child appears to be a very well adjusted child. He knows who his father is, but his father lives far away and is not a part of his life. We don’t have the same trauma that people who divorce have. My son is very bright and has a lot of friends.”
Wentworth’s father was dead, and her mother had “a little difficulty” with her decision. “My brother’s family had no problems. My sister had a lot of trouble with it. She was married, and they had decided to have no children, but they changed their minds after [Wentworth’s son] was born.”
Her friends, she says, were “very supportive,” but she ran into a range of attitudes at the local alumni association of the Ivy League’s “Seven Sisters” school from which she graduated in the mid-60s. “The ones who came of age in the 50s, whose whole life goal was to be Mrs. Somebody, had trouble with it. But the really old ones–the ones who graduated in the 20s–smiled. I found myself talking to three old ladies at one meeting, and one of them leaned over and said, ‘A Wellesley girl wouldn’t have had the courage to do that!'”
Some of her acquaintances, she observes, got pregnant, then got married–and wished they hadn’t married. Many of those marriages have long since ended in divorce. When her son was young, well-meaning friends advised her to get together with other single mothers and their children. Wentworth would answer, “I see us as a family, not as something unusual.”
Her son, now 14, “sometimes wishes we had a bigger family–especially on holidays if he’s been with friends. It’s like wishing he had brown eyes instead of blue.” Having no family in Chicago, she says, “I’m not like Blanche Dubois, dependent on the kindness of strangers. But I do depend on my friends.”
Wentworth says she knows a number of other single mothers by choice. Some have been very happy, others have not. Some went on to marry and have more children. “It’s all a matter of individual choice. It may be just the way I look at the world, but there’s nothing wrong with it. This is normal for us.”
Call “Grazyna” a single mother by default. The Polish immigrant was in a long-term relationship when she became pregnant for the second time. “I can’t say it was planned, but no precautions were taken and I wanted to have a child. After I miscarried the first time, I brought birth control pills home. And he said, ‘No, don’t take them.’ I read that as an agreement to have a child.” Did he see it that way? “Oh, no. Oh, no. I still can’t understand why he told me not to take precautions.”
For two months the couple fought over whether she should have an abortion. Finally, she asked him to leave. He has never seen their daughter, and signed the paternity papers only because Grazyna said she’d bring the baby with her to their next court hearing. He has yet to pay anything in child support, though the court ordered him to pay $30 a week. “I spend more than that for baby-sitting,” says Grazyna with a grim laugh. “I cannot for the life of me figure why men are so completely disconnected.”
The Polish community is a conservative one, but Grazyna says she has had mostly positive reactions and a great deal of support for her decision to have her child. Still, one community leader said, “I didn’t know you were married.” When she replied that she wasn’t, he castigated her for her “shameless” behavior.
“I am a child of a broken home,” says Grazyna, a business consultant. “My father left when I was six. That is not untypical in Poland–there is a very, very high rate of divorce. Men are extremely irresponsible in Poland, because they are catered to by women.” Her baby’s father is a good example of that. He and his parents came to this country from the mountainous southern region of Poland, “where the people are very family oriented. You need to know that motherhood is sacred in Poland. Yet a very warm, traditional family turned their back on me. The grandparents of the child were so embarrassed they wouldn’t talk to me. His parents loved me, they prayed for me when I was in an automobile accident, but they won’t see me now. They are very traditional Catholics, and they are embarrassed. They have always wanted a girl. I have a beautiful girl, but they have never even attempted to see her.”
Her own mother has been supportive and even quit her job to baby-sit her granddaughter–without being asked. “My daughter will be two in October, and she is a wonderful child. I have no problems with her at all. She has brought a new focus to my life. I would not give her up for anything in the world.”
Artificial insemination didn’t work for Patty Redpath, who tried it for two years and discovered she had endometriosis. “I took a long, hard look at what I really wanted–and realized that it was to parent, period.” So she began exploring adoption.
“I contacted probably 20 agencies at the least, always asking if they would accept single women. They only wanted to give me a special-needs child–an older child or a multiply handicapped child–and I did not want that. It is next to impossible to adopt a white child as a single woman.” So Redpath, a 34-year-old social worker, adopted a normal, healthy black infant boy. “Black boys are pretty much unwanted. I think it comes from the stereotype of the adult black male as criminal.”
Now 20 months old, Joey has recently started to realize that he’s black. “It’s fascinating,” says Redpath. “I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. He’s starting to relate to other black people. The other day we were out walking, and he pointed to a black man who was using a public telephone–‘Baa! Baa!’ ‘Yes, Joey, he’s black, just like you.’ I’m sure the man thought I was crazy.”
Reactions to the adoption have been mostly positive, she says. “My friends had no problems at all. My family was mixed. My mom didn’t appear to have problems with it at all, although she talked to me about some reality things, like identifying a black as her grandchild. My dad told me he didn’t agree with the idea, that I was getting in over my head. He basically didn’t want me to do it, but he said, ‘It’s your decision. You know what you’re getting into.’ My biggest problem has been with my stepmother, who has basically denied us entry into their home–‘We love you, and you’re welcome in our home anytime, but your child is not.'” Redpath has chosen not to go back.
Last spring the Redpaths attended a first communion at a Roman Catholic church in a small, all-white town. “No one would sit in the pew with us until the church was filled, and at the Peace no one would take his hand. That’s his favorite part of the mass, and he knew something was wrong.” Redpath managed to keep her feelings bottled up until she got home, when she broke down and cried.
“Most people are inquisitive, and a lot ask inappropriate questions, like ‘Where did you get him?’ or ‘Did you buy him?'” When she was interviewing sitters, one woman was obviously appalled when Joey’s snowsuit was removed and his tiny black face emerged. “For the most part people are accepting. We live near Waukegan, and it’s a mixed community. I feel like I’m constantly learning about race.”
Redpath plans to adopt another black child, probably within the next two years. “I think it’ll be easier for Joey if we have another black child in the house.”
Several studies have indicated that the more education a black woman has, the lower her chances of marriage are. Elizabeth Scully’s experience also shows that the fabled extended black family may not always be there when a woman needs it.
A wryly humorous woman with an infectious laugh, Scully was “a mid-level bureaucrat for the city of Chicago,” the number-two honcho in the parking division, when she found herself pregnant in her early 40s. She says she was shocked to discover that the city wouldn’t give her maternity leave, but she realized she still wanted to keep her baby. When she returned from the brief absence she’d cobbled together from vacation and comp time, “my boss accused me of abandoning him. I had hoped to use the privacy of my office for the expulsion of milk–and he took my office away. He put me out in the middle of the [main] office. He became a three-year-old in front of my very eyes.” Scully responded by leaving her job to work as a consultant, and is now employed by the Women’s Business Development Center.
Scully’s greatest fear, she says, was of being left alone to deal with her child. “And it came true. My child’s father was a South African doctoral student, ten years younger than I am. He said, ‘I’ll see that you’re not alone,’ and immediately took off. Everybody who said they’d stay on board disappeared. My friends wound up being more trouble than help. Now most of what I do is alone. I have a full, rich working life–and I love the little guy. He makes it all worthwhile.”
Originally from Mississippi (“I’m a sharecropper by trade”), Scully is one of “almost 20” siblings. “I hate to explode the myth of the extended black family, but they haven’t been any help. There is alcoholism and some drug use in my family back in Mississippi, and I won’t have my son around that. Our visits are few and far between. It’s really a dysfunctional family–we just tolerated each other until we could get out.” One sister and Scully still have a special bond: “We’re the black sheep of the family–or should I say the white sheep?”
Scully’s son, Robert Sizwe, is named for his father and grandfather; “sizwe” means “nation” in Zulu. Now four, “he’s precocious, he’s very artistic, he sings, he’s funny, and he’s very healthy.”
Scully also has a profoundly retarded, institutionalized 25-year-old daughter. She and Robert “love each other. She was jealous–very much so–in the beginning. She didn’t understand when I was pregnant, but when I showed up with a baby–that she understood!” But the little boy won her over. “When people say to him, ‘You’re an only child,’ he says, ‘No, I’m not an only child. I have a sister.’
“I tend to be something of an advocate, a champion of those who are wronged–but I wish there was one for me. I don’t want to come across as a complainer, but I am so alone in so many ways. I’ve always been a loner, but this is ridiculous!
“I feel, like many of my people do, that children are a blessing, a connection with the future. Sometimes I feel like my back’s up against the wall, but I’d do it over. I’d just like to do it a little differently.” But she has kept her ability to laugh. “Suffering is optional. I opt for a little humor.”
“It’s always hard being a parent,” says “Marie.” “But you have a different set of problems with being a single parent.” Single motherhood for her is complicated somewhat by her six-year-old son’s behavioral problems and by her sexual orientation. She says she’s bisexual but admits, “I’m pretty queer,” adding that her life-style has led to friction with school officials.
Marie, who owns a store in Chicago, was married twice while in her 20s and had a miscarriage each time. By the time she got pregnant at 34 (“in the traditional way”), she had spent “a good three years longing for a child.” Her partner at the time, a woman she’d been living with for four years, wanted children, so Marie looked into artificial insemination and adoption. “I followed up on two leads, but they didn’t work out. After three years of being open to a child magically coming into my life, I finally decided to get pregnant.” Though their relationship was essentially washed up at that point, her ex-lover served as her Lamaze coach and is still very much involved with the boy; his “Auntie” would get custody if anything were to happen to Marie.
Her parents have been supportive, giving Marie breaks a couple of times a year by taking her son for a week or a long weekend. Before she got pregnant, she had discussed her ideas with them. “My mother thought artificial insemination was a horrible idea–‘That’s what you do with cows.’ It seemed divorced from human emotion.” Because of her miscarriages, she waited until she was four months along to tell them, then wrote them a long letter. “I talked about how confident I was, because I had such good parenting. My mother’s mother was a Polish immigrant–she had raised her children mostly alone and built a farm and boarding houses with zero education. She managed this life of incredible hardship, and I said, ‘If she could do it, I can do it too.’ Now, after six years in the trenches of parenting, I realize I was very, very arrogant.”
Her parents “took it very well. They tell me they think I’m doing very well, but they caution me against doing it again. They think I’d be nuts to do it again–and I agree with them. My son is a very different child in a lot of ways; he’s very bright, very high-spirited–and he has some behavioral problems. He’s very headstrong, and very energetic, and he has no inhibitions. He jumps right into everything with two feet, and has no fear of animals, or strangers, or anything. He’s a real bold kid.”
Marie thinks school officials and others would be much more understanding if her son had a vision or hearing problem, or if he were confined to a wheelchair. “Because it’s a behavioral problem, it’s somehow supposed to be manageable. And it’s hard for people to give much sympathy.”
She says that for all the talk about single-parent families, “out of 100 families at his preschool, there was only one other. He’d come home and say, ‘The kids teased me about not having a daddy–I was the only one who didn’t have a daddy.'” His father visited him until he was two and a half, when he stopped abruptly. The boy has a picture of him and toys from him, but has lately taken to saying, “I don’t have a daddy.”
“I feel that who I choose to relate to sexually and in my romantic life is my private business. But when you get into a school thing and there’s an attitude comin’ down, you’ve got to figure out if it’s because of your kid–or because the teacher thinks your life is weird. I feel there was real prejudice against me because of my life-style choices.” She finally removed her son from the school.
“I don’t know what he thinks about the fact that most of my friends are women. I’ve been seeing someone for the last year and a half, and I’ve had to tell him about ‘private time for grown-ups’ and not to knock in the middle of the night when the bedroom door is closed.
“We had a conversation when he was four and a half–‘When I grow up, will you marry me?’ I explained to him that you can’t marry someone you’re related to. ‘But girls have to marry boys, and boys have to marry girls, right?’ So I told him about some friends. “A and B have a home together, and share their life together, and they’re both women. C and D have a home together, and they’re two women. The choice is up to you to decide who you want to live with or if you want to live alone.’ ‘Oh, good, then I’ll marry you.’ I know the issue will come up–and he’ll probably be really angry about it. But I think at this stage, whether I dated men or women, he would be jealous sometimes and enjoy the attention from my adult friend sometimes.”
At this point, she says, “I’m really committed to staying single. I’ve arranged my life so that he is my first priority and the business is my second priority. I know enough about marriage and living together–the hassle and the time commitment–and I want to be consistent with him.” At the same time, she says, “I can’t help but wonder, if I was married, would we have these problems?”
Marie says her advice to women considering becoming single mothers has changed a bit over the last six years. “When he was a baby, I told them, ‘Oh, do it. Just do it.’ Now I’m much more cautionary. On the one hand, you could get a good kid. On the other hand, day care is difficult, and it’s a lot more expensive than you ever think it’s going to be. There are so many problems, especially if your child is premature or has disabilities or you just have a kid like mine. Anything that would be a problem for a couple is magnified when you’re single. And if you complain about anything, people just say, ‘Well, it was your choice!'”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.