More women are choosing the path of single motherhood. Here's why.
Like many women, Mary's dream of having a child involved visions of a house, a picket fence — and a husband. But life just didn't turn out that way.
"I was in a very serious relationship that I thought was headed toward marriage," says the 37-year-old Boston-area project manager. "He was divorced and had two kids, and he knew I also wanted children. Then two weeks before the wedding, he said, 'I can't commit to having more kids.' I was 34 when that happened, and at that point I just shifted gears."
Anxious to have a child before it was too late, Mary opted for donor insemination. Today her son is almost 2 years old. "It feels good for me to have separated the two goals — baby and husband," she says. "Being a single parent isn't ideal, but what is? I've made tough choices that for me have been the right ones."
But it hasn't been easy. "I found a birthing class run by a nurse," she says. "I called and explained that I was going to be a single parent with a friend for a labor coach. She said it would be fine. But by the last class, I was hysterically crying. It seemed like everyone else was part of a happy couple, my hormones were getting to me, and although I was fine with the decision to have a baby alone, I underestimated how difficult it would be."
For 53-year-old Eileen Moskowitz, the decision to be a single mother was made in an instant of pure clarity. "I remember the moment: At 42, I went in for a pregnancy test because I hadn't gotten my period," recalls the Los Angeles-based children's educational content developer. "The doctor said, 'You're not pregnant — you're starting menopause.' I was devastated; then I ran to the nearest fertility clinic." Three years later, after enduring what she terms "fertility hell" and an adoption roller coaster with three different birth mothers, she adopted Mariah, now 8.
A Growing Trend These days, single women are redefining the family — and turning the stereotype of unmarried mothers upside down. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the childbirth rate for unmarried women ages 30 to 39 rose from 31,000 in 1980 to 58,000 in 1998. (Some of these women are living with partners but are not married.) And 35 to 40 percent of the sperm samples distributed by California Cryobank are for use by single women.
They might not have met Mr. Right, but these women are determined to not miss out on motherhood. And celebrities from Madonna to Rosie O'Donnell and Jodie Foster are putting a decidedly public face on the decision to parent without a partner. "Single motherhood is much less shocking today," affirms Jane Mattes, C.S.W., a psychotherapist and single mom who founded Single Mothers by Choice in 1980 after her son was born. "When I did it, people would ask if I was a man-hater or gay — as if those were the only reasons you would do this."
It Still Takes a Village For most single moms, raising a child alone is a delicate balance of equal parts love, commitment and creativity, with a little chaos thrown into the mix. "You really have to understand what's involved," Moskowitz says. "It's the hardest job you can ever imagine but also the most worthwhile."
A single mother's juggling act never ends. As a result, having a support system is vital, whether that connection is with family, friends, a single-parents networking group or an online community. If a support network doesn't exist, these women say, reach out and create one. When Mary wanted to start a baby-sitting co-op, she approached couples at her son's day-care center. "As a single mother," she says, "you could talk yourself out of doing this by saying, 'They're a couple; they've got each other, they won't want to do this.' But everyone liked the idea, and it's worked out great."
Because single mothers are truly doing it all, it's essential that they take care of themselves. Scheduling a play date or sleepover for their children can provide some much-needed downtime to recharge. "You have to make sure your needs are met, too," says Moskowitz. "If you're not whole and happy, you're not going to be a good mother — and your child deserves nothing less."
Despite challenges, these women say that in some ways it can be easier doing it alone; in their families, there's no disputing that mom's the boss. "The only person I argue about childrearing with is myself, so I ultimately win," says Moskowitz.
The Daddy Issue One major concern single mothers have is the impact that growing up without a father will have on their children. And rightly so, says Mattes, who emphasizes that both boys and girls benefit from male involvement at an early age. She notes that a male role model need not be the child's father but simply a caring, reliable man who is — or would like to be — part of the family's life.
As a child gets older, Mattes notes, mothers can encourage involvement in organizations such as Boy Scouts of America or Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. They also should emphasize the positive male figures in a child's everyday life — from uncles, cousins and grandfathers to family friends, teachers and coaches.
We Are Family In the end, what matters most, these moms say, is not what their families may be lacking but what they have in abundance: a loving, committed parent who is engaged in her child's life.
"There are grandparents raising kids, single-dad families, adoptive families where the kids are racially or culturally diverse," says Moskowitz. "They all came into this world the same way — a sperm fertilized an egg. And family is really where the heart is, no matter how it came to be."