March 16, 2011
Single mom by choice
Thirty-two: That was the deadline, and Danit was sticking to it. That was the age, she’d decided, when she would finally heed her maternal impulse – husband or not.
Danit (not her real name) had always known motherhood was her calling. For years, she worked at her mother’s day care center in Israel, relishing the chance to surround herself with children. But after a long-term relationship ended in a failed marriage, she found herself in her early 30s, alone and facing some grim truths. Her dream of a fairy tale family was slipping further and further out of reach.
So before her divorce was even finalized, Danit visited a sperm bank for a donor and got pregnant.
“I had told my husband ahead of time, ‘If it doesn’t work out between us, I’m having a child by myself,’ ” Danit said in Hebrew at her Encino home recently, as her son, now 9 months old, toddled around the room practicing his first words.
Like a growing number of women her age, Danit, 33, had come to a crossroads. She could either continue waiting for Prince Charming to show up at her doorstep or she could satisfy her craving for a child on her own, before her natural fertility began to plunge. Each year, Option B wins out for tens of thousands of older, successful single women who face an unpleasant reality: The search for a soul mate might not come with an expiration date, but the ability to bear a healthy baby does.
The number of single mothers by choice has spiked in recent years, and plenty of Jewish women are joining the ranks. According to U.S. census data, about 50,000 single women older than 30 choose to have children each year, author and advocate Mikki Morrissette estimates. And single women make up about 30 percent of the clients at California Cryobank, one of the largest sperm donor banks in the world. A spokesperson for the bank, headquartered in Los Angeles, said this segment of its clientele is expected to grow the most over the next decade.
Why are so many women choosing to give birth on their own? For some, the choice is a result of having put off marriage to pursue higher education and high-profile careers, thereby reducing the pool of eligible partners. But for others, it’s just how the cards played out — and they don’t want to miss out on fulfilling a lifelong desire just because they haven’t met Mr. Right.
“Many women had always envisioned motherhood being part of their lives, but they’ve reached the deadline they had set for finding a partner to share that with,” said Morrissette, author of “Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman’s Guide” and moderator of the online forum ChoiceMoms.org, which attracts about 4,000 visitors per month.
Morrissette gave birth to her daughter 11 years ago, at 37, using a known sperm donor. She had a second child, a son, using the same donor at 41. Most single mothers by choice are in their 30s or early 40s when they decide to become pregnant, she said. The typical woman is highly educated and successful in her career. And unlike many women rendered single by divorce or unplanned pregnancies, they often have already planned ahead financially to ensure they can rear their children in a stable and nurturing home.
That doesn’t mean they don’t encounter challenges along the way, like any other parent.
“My friends with kids would say things like, ‘It’s really hard — make sure you know what you’re getting into,’ ” said Lori Gottlieb, author of last year’s New York Times best seller “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” and a West Los Angeles Jewish single mother by choice. “I didn’t realize that I was going to need help if I was also going to keep working.”
Gottlieb, who went public with her decision to be a single mom in a provocative 2008 essay in The Atlantic, said she could hear her biological clock ticking before she had her son using an anonymous sperm donor at age 38. Now 44, she relies on school and baby-sitters to care for her 5-year-old so she can work during the week. Evenings and weekends, she said, are “our time.”
“We have our little traditions and rituals and inside jokes and games that we play. We have a personality to our family that’s fun and quirky,” Gottlieb said. “If someone walked into our house and didn’t know there wasn’t a husband here, I don’t think they would know the difference.”
Becoming a single mother is not an easy choice, Morrissette said — the journey is often fraught with emotional hurdles. There are the basic concerns: Am I strong enough to handle single motherhood? Is it fair to the child? Some women wrestle with grief, as they mourn the loss of the husband-and-kids dream. And for many single women, who have been self-sufficient for so long, a big struggle is learning to welcome a support network into their lives —– and accepting that it’s OK to admit they can’t do it all on their own.
Gottlieb has had the advantage of a “warm and welcoming” Jewish community at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, she said, and she has often brought her son to the synagogue’s Tot Shabbat programs.
Single motherhood by choice is “becoming much more socially accepted and practiced,” said Elaine Gordon, a Santa Monica psychologist specializing in fertility and child development. Film and TV now regularly spotlight less-conventional family models, and off the set, more women are finding strong family support for their decision — a surprise for some.
Danit, the Encino mother, worried for weeks over how to break the news to her conservative-minded father back in Israel. One night at 1:30 a.m., when she was three months pregnant, she worked up the courage to call him. His response sent a wave of relief over her: “I’m so happy for you,” he said.
But the single-mom life isn’t for everyone, Gottlieb cautioned. High stamina is a must, and women should be prepared to spend almost every waking minute on the go. “This is certainly not the way we planned to do it all along, and it’s not ideal,” she said. “That’s not to say we’re not completely ecstatic about our children, but being a single mom was never our dream.”
In fact, many say they are still on the hunt for a husband — when they can find time between feedings, diaper changes and play dates.
Danit, who has had to cut back her schedule as a reflexologist to take care of her son, still hopes she’ll find a permanent partner who will recite the Friday night Shabbat blessings typically reserved for the father. She’s not worried about shopping for a mate while saddled with the “baggage” of a child; now, she said, she can appraise a date more calmly, her judgment unclouded by the pressure she’d felt to hurry toward ema-hood.
“Don’t pass up having children,” is her advice. “It’s the greatest experience of your life,” she said, watching her son with a smile. “Despite all the hardship, there are no words to describe the joy.”