As a proud Single Mother by Choice (SMC) of amazing seven-year-old twin girls it’s sometimes hard for me to remember the feelings of fear and failure I had when I embarked on this journey. In fact, like most SMCs I meet, I am so happy with my kids, so clear that single parenting (though hard) comes with distinct benefits, that I sometimes wonder if the world has changed to the point where the feelings I had have become anachronistic. But I made a documentary on the topic, and women thinking about becoming SMCs sometimes contact me to ask questions or just to talk and when they do I see my embarrassment and terror all over again.
Obviously women calling for support are a select group. I know women who say they didn’t sweat the decision. But what I see when I get these calls are smart, capable, relatively financially stable women doing important work who fear disappointing parents, fear not giving a child a father, fear whether they can really handle it, fear that they will never have sex or a romantic relationship again, and mourn the loss of a life they’d scripted long ago. Some of it is just apprehension about parenting itself, but the volume is just much louder. And I can’t help but think that, despite all the media on it, an image of just how powerful this choice can be hasn’t fully reached the mainstream.
I have two playful, smart, quirky kids, an outrageously supportive family and an old boyfriend, “Uncle Ian”, who’s become a huge part of my kids’ lives. But I have something else, something that I don’t think I could have predicted, something that I know many other SMCs have that I think is worth noting: a heightened sense of personal freedom, a confidence that I can do what’s right, both for me and my family. I’m different now and not just because I’m a mother. I’m different because I’m a single mother—by choice — and this journey has changed me.
I gave a first pass of this to my friend L and she said, “But Deirdre, is it really about becoming a single mother? You’re just brave; you’ve always lived out of the box.” But what’s different now is that I no longer hold out for refuge in a “normal life.” Yes, I used to make bold choices, but I was always thinking it’ll be easier when I get married or get a 9-5 job. It’s not that my predilections are so different now, but that my choices are less fraught, filled with more joy. I no longer want it to be different both because I went out on a limb to do something irrevocable, and because I know there is nothing second-rate about our family.
When I interviewed psychotherapist and SMC Founder Jane Mattes, a couple of years ago, she said, “To have a healthy SMC family you have to acknowledge that you are an alternative family — because that’s what you are.” For me, it took making the choice, a pregnancy in which I dated a man, followed by our break up and the first year of my kids’ life before I could wrap my head around that notion. Luckily it came before they started asking questions. When they did, I’d worked through my own baggage enough to present our family as no more complicated than a woman who wanted children and went to a sperm bank to make that possible. Passersby on the street seeing L and M with their “uncle” always assume he’s their father. But my children unselfconsciously correct them, uncomfortable not with our family configuration, but with their situation being misread.
It used to be hard for me to tell strangers, but that embarrassment has been replaced by a powerful sense of energy and pride. And this “coming out” has freed me to live the life I really want – on many levels. I didn’t have a relationship the first three years of my children’s life. There was no time and the few dates with men I met on match.com were fiascos. But when I met a woman at a party and there was a shared attraction, I suddenly felt totally different about my sexuality than ever before. For years I’d had relationships with women, but always returned to men and that sense of normality. But literally in a moment, I knew I felt different. After choosing to become a single mother, after going to birthing classes as the only single woman, after being asked repeatedly by my fertility clinic where my husband was – despite having begged for them to just put a big god damn S on my files – being with a woman no longer felt risque. Now granted the world is a hell of a lot more hospitable to lesbians and lesbian parents than it was twenty years ago when I had my first relationship with a woman. But what I couldn’t embrace even a couple of years before, suddenly felt both exciting and totally natural, and I saw how much making this choice has been transformative for me.
And this feeling of comfort, this trust in my own instincts has pervaded every area of my life. Two years ago when I saw that my video production business was becoming a casualty of the recession, that teaching full-time on the college level was no longer possible without an MFA, and that the documentary world was becoming a brave new world of web 3.0, I decided to go back to graduate school in Integrated Media Arts. Did it feel weird and scary to go back to graduate school at 49 after being out of school for 25 years and having taught as an adjunct for 15? Yes and I knew it would be. It felt like jumping off a cliff into icy water all over again. The difference is I didn’t stress the decision. I jumped fast because making a difficult change, not caring what anyone else thinks, has become a lot easier. Now, instead of feeling like the bus is leaving without me, I feel an incredible sense of being part of something cutting edge and new.
I met a woman recently who, like many people who get divorced and end up as single parents, deeply resented parenting alone. Breakups are ridiculously painful and I can’t imagine what a punch in the stomach it is to lose a long-term partner when you have a small child. But five years into doing it solo, her perspective was all about loss — despite financial security and having so wanted her child. And I was reminded again that it isn’t just having children alone that is empowering. It’s the embracing doing it alone (whether at the beginning or somewhere along the trip) that can be life changing. Perhaps society will eventually evolve to the point where being a single parent is seen by everyone as just a choice and not a departure. But for now I just wanted to acknowledge that making the choice in and of itself can be a transformative experience — whether you wind up having children biologically, through adoption or even in the case of one friend of mine – not having children at all.
I’m doing auditions for a new educational drama and interactive website, have to read two books for class, and am about to run pick up my daughter at the bus. It’s a hectic life, but it’s rich and it’s mine. Women owning their desire, controlling their destiny (reproductive and otherwise) has rarely been supported throughout history. That we can do it now is something I think is worth celebrating.
To learn more about the film go to spermdonorx.com