I was ready for kids at age 28 — and well aware that women’s fertility starts to plummet at 35. When I saw my doctor that fateful year, she asked me if I wanted children. “Yes,” I replied. “Definitely.” With a stern look, she snapped, “Well, you’re not getting any younger!”
Thanks for the news flash, I thought. What kind of idiot does she think I am?
I was a romantic, procrastinating idiot, to be exact. Despite my clear intellectual understanding of the issues involved, it took me until age 38 before I seriously started thinking about single motherhood, and even then, I had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming by my biological clock, which was starting to sound more like a car alarm.
How did I get to this point? Thirteen years earlier, I dragged my then–life partner, Joan, to a six-week gay and lesbian parenting seminar in San Francisco, where we lived at the time.
We learned about the legal, medical, and logistical issues around having kids outside of a heterosexual marriage, then joined a monthly brunch group. Over coffee and potluck in Berkeley or Bernal Heights, 15 or 20 of us would sit around someone’s living room discussing our childbearing dreams.
Here was mine: Having grown up without a dad (he died before I turned two), I really wanted a known donor to assist in my solo pregnancy— a friend who would be in my baby’s life.
Joan and I would then each bear a child, performing the inseminations at home, by candlelight, and we’d all live happily ever after. Right.
Ten years and three breakups later, I was single, living in Manhattan, and no closer to motherhood. I joined another parenting group: Single Lesbians Considering Motherhood. We were all 38. This being the big city, there was neither potluck nor living room. Twelve of us sat around a grim conference table and talked about the terrors of being single mothers.
My biggest fear went something like this: Was it fair to the child to have only one parent and no dad? Month after hideous month, I spun out elaborate scenarios of my future 15-year-old’s painful psychological struggle with his or her unusual birth circumstances, and I’d cry for him. Or her.
Sure, everything I’d read about alternative families said the kids do just fine—studies show most have a surprising lack of angst, or even interest, regarding their unusual roots. But try telling that to the black hole of worry that had taken up residence in my psyche.
When I wasn’t keening over my potential child’s imaginary angst, I worried about myself.
Was it fair to me to become a single parent? Could I even do it? Would I die of loneliness? Or die young — leaving my as-yet-unborn child alone? Would I become a crazy over-involved mom with nothing else in my life? Would I ever have a romantic life again? What if I couldn’t afford it? What if I didn’t sleep for 10 years?
One of the 43 women I interviewed for my book put it perfectly: “When I first made the decision, I’d go to bed and worry about what I’d cook for my 5-year-old.”
I worried away the better part of three years. Then, when I hit 41, with my fertility window closing fast, I finally got my act together.
Romancing Potential Dads
My first task was finding a father. Even if he wasn’t my partner, I figured, he’d be in the picture as an uncle figure. Uncle Dad. I summoned my courage and asked a close friend, my gay ex-boyfriend Xavier, to father my child, envisioning the tall, handsome half Latin off spring he’d give me.
Xavier was a sensitive intellectual, the kind of guy who, in college, could be found pureeing squash for a soup or reading Rilke—in the original German. In my fantasy, he’d introduce the kids to high art and literature. Plus, he was smart, sweet, good-looking, and I loved him. (I had this crazy idea about wanting to make a baby with someone I actually loved!) And Xavier was a slam dunk—he’d offered to be the donor for Joan and me years earlier.
After I popped the question, I sat back and waited nervously for his “yes,” falling more deeply in love with my fantasy children, imagining their trips to South America to visit their cousins. I’d have to learn Spanish, of course. But a few months later, Xavier said no. He’d had a distant father, he said, and didn’t want to repeat that pattern.
I was crushed, but I was also on the clock. After a month of licking my wounds, I worked up the nerve to ask my good friend Jim, the only other man I could imagine taking this huge step with. No again. I calmly thanked him—then began sobbing the moment I got off the phone.
I was heartbroken: I knew this meant I had to give up on the dream of giving my child a father, and I so badly wanted my child to have what I had not.
With a real dad for my kid off the table, I became totally immobilized. In fact, I might have stayed frozen forever if it weren’t for Roberta, my straight, married best friend from high school.
She, proud mother of a one-year-old, hounded me, prodded me, called me long distance (incessantly) to say, and not gently: Do it. Do not wait another minute. You could lose your chance.
Courting Perfect Strangers
So I scraped myself off the couch and started looking at sperm banks. It turns out there are dozens sprinkled all across the country, and most have websites. Searching for a donor from a drop-down menu feels like online dating meets 10th grade biology (remember Mendel’s hybrid pea plants?) meets the American Kennel Club.
I hated the idea. It seemed cold and weird and unnatural — even threatening. A stranger’s sperm entering my body, and not only that, potentially creating a life. It was anathema to me to make a baby with a serial number instead of a human being. But it was my best Plan B.
A random known donor or an accidentally-on-purpose pregnancy were too risky. And I didn’t want to adopt; like many women, I had always wanted to experience biological motherhood—pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, a genetic connection to my child, the works.
So, instead, I shopped. My first-choice donor was an allegedly cerebral, good-looking performer. I ordered him right up. But he had hit his maximum of 15 families and his semen was no longer available.
My second select was tall, dark, and handsome. Blue eyes, on the ski team in college, liked to dance and cook. “He sounds dreamy!” my mom said. “Can you get his number?” (Inappropriate, Mom!) Still, all that, and he was available! Sounded too good to be true.
And it was. After eight months of intrauterine inseminations (uncomfortable affairs at the doctor’s), I learned donor McDreamy was shooting blanks.
Donor Three was a tall, green-eyed actor, again handsome, musical, and athletic. His life goal, he wrote, was “to impact the world by artistic means.” I was impressed. Most of all, he seemed like a nice guy.
Turned out, he was The One. I got pregnant on my second try, but was told it was questionable from the start. “Well, you’re pregnant, but…” were the nurse’s exact words. A few weeks later, I lost the baby.
Signing for the Stork
Labor Day weekend, one year and one month from the time I first started trying to conceive, it was time to inseminate again.
I never dreaded the process, but it did get harder as time went on, and I had to sweep aside doubts like: Was the fact that it was taking this long a sign that I shouldn’t do it?
This time, since my doctor’s office was closed for the holiday, I had the sperm bank FedEx the semen to my mom’s summerhouse in Maine. The two-foot-tall stainless-steel tank full of sub-zero liquid nitrogen (to keep the sperm frozen) arrived on schedule to her charmingly painted front porch, looking for all the world like a bomb.
I come from a nice, conservative, Southern Republican WASP family. Receiving packages containing the frozen sperm of perfect strangers is definitely not What We Do. But, by this point, the process was so old hat for all of us, nobody even blinked.
When the ovulation test-stick announced my egg was on its way, I collected the essentials from the kitchen—mixing bowl and ziplock bag, for thawing the vial of semen, and bright yellow dishwashing gloves to protect me from the frozen gas. Then I climbed the narrow stairs to my sweet attic bedroom overlooking the ocean and did the deed.
Becoming a Family of Two
Nine months—and one last insemination attempt — later, I was listening to a nurse shouting: “One more time, push, push, push!” With a painful tear, my son, Scott, was in the world, and the doctor put him immediately on my chest.
“Hi, baby,” I said in a soft, quavering voice, tears running down my cheeks. I held him close, stroking his tiny head over and over. At the end of the long, strange process, lying in bed in the warm summer light, with this beautiful, cuddly little boy, seemed so easy and natural. After 41 years of waiting, I had my baby at last.
It’s now a year later, and Scott is walking, waving bye-bye, roaring like a lion, and laughing hysterically when I try to tell him no. Despite the fact that the process of conceiving him was, in every possible respect, the way I didn’t want to do it, I can tell you that I don’t think about any of it now, and haven’t since he was born.
Even my reaction to his anonymous “dad” is very different than what I’d feared: I have a few pictures of his donor at age 7 or 8, and as it turns out, Scott looks just like him. But now this man I know only by a number isn’t a stranger anymore. “I know you!” my heart says fondly when I see the photos. “You look like my baby!”
Scott’s a gregarious little guy, charming and flirting, batting his blue-gray eyes at everyone. And motherhood’s actually been easier than I expected, so far.
Still, with every passing day, he’s more of a handful, and when I have to take a 40-pound suitcase, a 23-pound child, and a 12-pound stroller up five flights to my apartment by myself, single parenthood isn’t exactly a cinch. (And I’ve lifted weights for 15 years; I don’t know how wimpy moms survive.)
At the same time, with every passing day, Scott becomes more of a companion to me. He brings me joy with the joy he finds in everything. The playground. A leaf. A balloon.
The first time I came through the door after work, and he headed straight for me as fast as he could, as if his life depended on it, babbling, “Ma ma ma ma ma,” I don’t think I’d ever heard a more beautiful sound.