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.

by Rachel Lehman Haupt    Photo by Mary Small

21 thoughts on “The ‘We’ Of Single Motherhood”

  1. I’ve been married for 17 years and I’m just getting divorce. I had three ectopic pregnancies and after the last one we decided not to try any more. My husband had a son from a previous marriage (who became like my son) and he was really not interested any more on having kids. I’ve been thinking after all that has happened in the last year (I’m going to be 39 in a couple of weeks) that I’ve always wanted to be a mom. I’ve started to do some research and I found this website that seems so inspiring. I’m afraid it may be too late, but I think I owe it to myself to try.

    1. Do it! Please try. I just started my fertility treatment to preserve some eggs for later use and a couple to place in my uterus with sperm from a donor. Go for it! It will happen and it be so worth it. All my love.

  2. I’m really thinking about the donor route, but I’m struggling with what I would tell the child when questions are asked or evpen yet what will happen as the child gets older and friends start to ask questions. I don’t what the child to feel different….

    1. Donna, we talk about this all the time on our online Forum and at local chapter meetings. Join SMC and we’ll discuss it with you too!

  3. My story is slightly different but I, too, am single and pregnant (30 weeks). I must admit though, reading positive stories such as yours really uplifts me and actually gets me excited to meet my lil princess! It also makes me more appreciative of the support system I do have, without the baby’s father. So, thank you 🙂

  4. Ex-girlfriend says she’s pregnant by me. I believe her. First thing she tells me is “you can walk away.” Stunned, I say “no way, we must find a way to be a family. Counseling, marriage.” She rebuffs all rational discussion and my desperate pleas to see a counselor and discuss options. So I push for abortion, can’t imagine us raising child together as a non-committed couple living in different cities. She is offended and says no way, she’s having this baby no matter what I say. Ignores me when I ask for birth date so I can come to hospital. Does not cooperate when I suggest paternity test. I realize she doesn’t care about me, doesn’t want me involved, no hope of being a couple, I never intended pregnancy (slept with her after breakup due to my weakness and continued attraction), never wanted to have a child with her or anyone outside a committed relationship. Also, I start to have doubts about paternity. (She said my name was not on birth certificate, I don’t know who else she may have slept with after we broke up.) The thought of having a kid with this person had me in a near-constant state of panic for months. Seeing no way to resolve it amicably, plus not wanting to expose child to what had become intense hate for each other, I decide to let her have full control and I walk away (her original offer). Never saw the child. This was 12 years ago. No contact since. My family and friends, after being supportive, have turned on me saying I abandoned my child.

    Sometimes I feel tremendous guilt and shame. Other times I struggle to see how this situation is any different from a woman choosing to have a child via sperm donor. She had no intention of being a couple, she always maintained I could walk away. Feels like sperm donor to me. Sperm donors aren’t accused of abandonment, are they? I suppose I could be involved if I wanted…but I never felt ready to be a father, and definitely not under these circumstances. Also, I sometimes think being a part time dad is worse then none at all. Also, I have always been afraid of falling into my own father’s cruel habits if I had a kid. I never wanted to have a kid unless I was absolutely certain I could give it top priority. I suffer from extreme low self-esteem and doubt and have always feared infecting a child the way my father did me. I would never risk doing that to a child unless I knew I had my own shit together, which I don’t. So even though I sometimes feel guilt, I feel the alternative would’ve been years of torment and conflict for me, the mother and the child caught in the middle.

    I sometimes wonder if the child will find me one day. It would be a shock and a painful scene, no doubt. I would try to explain the reasons for my decision.

  5. Lovely story. I just had my 2nd miscarriage in 6 months… I am 39 years old. My boyfriend of 18 months decided to break-up with me around the time of the second miscarriage. He didn’t care about me, or our unborn child. He already has two children from a previous marriage and that’s his only priority.
    It is clear to me that I have to let go of the normal route of meeting a guy/dating/getting married/getting pregnant. It’s not going to happen for me at this point in time. I really want the life experience of a child of my own. I still hope to meet Mr. Right one day, but I will be as a single mom, and likely he will also be as a single dad (as many men in my age group).
    And for all people thinking a child SHOULD have a father: better NOT to have a father than a non-caring/non-loving one, or an absent one, like I did when growing up.
    A good nanny or au pair could be more helpful than any guy out there, I’m sure 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment and we’re glad you liked the post.

      Indeed, it’s sad that some men (like some women) can’t commit to and enjoy parenthood, but fortunately, some can and do!

  6. I see so much of myself in your story. Like you, I had panic attacks at the idea of being childless, so I started trying on my own at 38. Three years and $45,000 later, I finally gave birth to a boy via donor embryos. I don’t have much help from my family — my mom passed away and my dad and his new wife are only margingally interested. But I have cultivated the most amazing group of adopted family members, including my two best friends who were with me for the birth. My boy is now four. He had his first ever soccer game yesterday, and the vocal throng of loved ones who showed up to cheer for him is yet another testament to the power of created family.

  7. I can’t tell you how much I needed to read your post today. I’m 43 and just started trying to get pregnant on my own. Two days ago I was inseminated using donor sperm. For the past two days I’ve been oscillating between excitement at possibly being pregnant to absolute fear and panic about what I’ve just done. I’m hoping it’s normal but for the moment it’s REALLY scary.

  8. I chose this path a little over a year ago; its so sad to hear alk those negative comments from our so called friends. Being a mum is a very scary and tiring but such a rewarding experience! To be honest sometimes its better to do it without a man. All the best to you and little man

  9. YOU GOT ME INTO TEARS!!! Im starting this journey also, and im only 19… I know is wholee different story, but its nice to see women going through the same situation and still survive thnks for sharing. !

  10. Just beautiful – thank you sooo much for sharing!
    I am just starting on my journey and am finding myself surrounded by supportive loved ones. Thank you for the new perspective on “we”!

  11. Thank you! I loved your story and identified with so many of your decisions. I am due to try my first round of ivf this month and realised that i am now shifting out of reading other people’s stories and into creating my own. Thanks for taking the time to share such an honest but so positive and encouraging experience, i could not have wished to read a more appropriate post this week. Good luck!

  12. Wow this is so exactly like my experience, and temporally and geographically similar too! It’s always nice to hear like-mindedness. And about once a day I can’t believe how lucky I am to have been so decisive and … willful. Congratulations~

  13. This is so good to hear. I hope I will have a support system like you. So many of my friends and family are out of state. I am worried about exactly what you posted. Fingers crossed.

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