Lisa Levey shares the story of Jennifer, a single mother by choice. The interview includes how she came to the decision, the process and everything she’s learned along the way.
Eager to tell the real-life story of a single mother by choice, I interviewed Jennifer, a Boston area real estate professional. She’d always wanted to get married and be a mother but by her late 30’s the pieces were not coming together. She had recently ended a long-term relationship and been operated on for endometriosis. Her doctor, with whom she had a strong, long-term professional relationship, was direct telling her, “You have a window of time. You might want to think about your options.”
Jennifer had never really considered having a child on her own until a girlfriend started down that road. “My friend announced she was pregnant with artificial insemination. I was close to her; we were like twins. We were the same age and from the same family background. We both had been in long-term relationships. I related to her socially and economically.”
Jennifer began attending a program at one of the major Boston hospitals which provided information, assessment, and support for women considering parenting solo by choice. She found a key part of the process was meeting with a psychologist on the hospital’s staff who assessed if a woman was in the “right state of mind” for making this life-changing decision. The program provided access to support groups for women during the whole process of trying to get pregnant, being pregnant, and transitioning to motherhood. Jennifer said, “You realize there are a whole group of different types of families. It makes you feel like you are not alone.”
The Experience – Joys and Strategies
Over the more than a decade during which Jennifer has been raising her son, she has delighted in the experience of being a mother. Like many women in their 40s, Jennifer’s readiness to become a single parent was facilitated by career satisfaction and the opportunity to engage in passions such as traveling for many years prior. She said, “I don’t know if I were 30 and had a baby on my own if it would have been a much different experience.”
Some of Jennifer’s joy has been aided by key strategic life decisions along her parenting journey—where to live and how to approach money management. Jennifer and her son John live in a townhouse complex where there are several families; they are part of the community and partake in social events just like any other family unit. They’ve also lived in the same place since her son was born so their home environment has been very stable through time. Their town can be described as a cross between urban and suburban with their particular school district known to encompass diversity in family structure and composition. While the majority of children are in two-parent heterosexual families, there are also children being raised by gay couples, several adopted children, and a number of single-parent families. In addition, families range across the socio-economic spectrum. When asked what has helped in raising a child on her own, she replied, “I absolutely picked the right place to live.” Involvement in the broader community has also made a big difference. Jennifer indicated her son’s participation in multiple sports, a deep love of his, provided the opportunity for him to develop wonderful relationships with men.
Jennifer has been intentional in managing her career as a mother so as to create flexibility and time in her life. During the first few years of John’s life, she had a high-paying, high-stress position with a substantial commute. She described the job as “killing me.” She landed a new job closer to home—which seemingly had everything she was looking for—but within weeks could see the job had been misrepresented. It turned out to be far higher intensity with expected regular travel and a strong dose of political maneuvering required. She quit after just two weeks indicating, “it was not the right fit for my lifestyle as a single parent” and soon began working in a contract position, minutes from her home, in a far more flexible and family-friendly work environment. She described the change as “the best thing I ever did.” She could leave at lunch to go to her son’s kindergarten class and then easily return to work. She was hired on a permanent basis and six years later remains working for the same organization, greatly valuing her ability to comfortably integrate work with her life as a single mom.
Jennifer chose not to own real estate, saying she never wanted the financial pressure or the burden of a house. She intentionally kept her home life very stress free. She’s managed her financial commitments in such a way that money hasn’t been the driver of her decisions.
The Experience – Challenges
Parenting is a challenging job no matter the circumstances, one requiring resilience, perspective, and flexibility. Being a single parent by choice comes with its own unique set of complexities, prime among them managing the questions and explanations of this non-traditional family structure. Jennifer described her experience of perusing donor profiles, “It seems surreal. You make your wish list. You get a 20-page background of the person, everything from their medical background and geography to their profession and educational background. You go with what feels good. It is not a hard and fast thing.”
Those lucky enough to conceive and get pregnant are quickly immersed in the day-to-day care of their baby, many contemplating the best way to talk about being a single mother by choice to their child and the world at large. For Jennifer, the question from her son first came when he was about 3 years old and started becoming aware that many of his friends at daycare had dads. One night he asked, “Where is my dad?” and Jennifer told him, “You don’t have a dad.” He became very upset in response, crying hard and saying emphatically, “But I want one.” Jennifer found that her son didn’t fully understand what it meant to have—or not have—a father in his life as much as reacting to being different from other children. Nonetheless, she found all her guilt come rushing in.
Situations continued to arise regarding John’s father. When he was a young school-age child and had friends over to his house to play, one boy asked, “Where’s your dad?” The reply came, “He’s dead.” Later that evening when the friends had gone home, Jennifer explained that the doctor had helped her to have John and that it was the best day of her life. Recently his coach asked each of the kids on the team to say something about themselves at a first meeting of the season. The coach’s wife told Jennifer that John’s curt response—“I have a mom and I don’t have a dad”—broke her husband’s heart.
Jennifer admits to having been private about the circumstances of John’s birth, not wanting others to know something that John did not. She hasn’t been likely to share details, unless someone asked point blank, in which case she typically replies, “John never knew his dad” OR “His dad is not in his life.” With the teen years just around the corner, Jennifer is contemplating counseling with her son to help him talk more openly about his feelings. While John’s father was not an open donor—meaning, willing to be contacted at some point in the future—he, like many donors, recorded an audio interview as part of his profile. Jennifer has stored the tape with other important information for safekeeping in case someday John wants to hear his father’s voice and better understand his decision to become a donor.
Dating is another one of those areas potentially fraught with complexity for single mothers raising children alone by choice. She describes never having felt any pressure to “find” a father for her son and reports that while she has been asked out through the years, dating has not been a priority. In contrast, the friend who inspired her “by example” to become a single mom by choice exerted a great deal of energy on dating, being convinced in the early days of being a mother that she needed to bring a father into the picture. But Jennifer does share that social activities with only couples can be far less comfortable.
I close my interview by asking Jennifer what advice she would give to women potentially considering going it alone as a single mom. Her initial emphatic response is, “If you are hesitating because of the what if’s: What if the baby is not healthy? What if I never meet a man to raise the baby with? Then don’t.” Jennifer said she thought things would work out and she’d be able to handle what came her way and she’s discovered she was right. She’s found the majority of women she knows who have chosen to go it alone have similarly felt able to manage and extremely happy with their choice.
A second piece of advice was the importance of support and connection. Jennifer said, “It takes a village and even though you are doing it on your own, you do have to open yourself up. You cannot be insular. Make sure you have a network of friends and family that support you. Make sure you are in the community. Make a point of those interactions and develop those relationships.”
She concluded by saying, “I think it is the best thing I have ever done. I knew I wanted my son. I was very confident because of my age. It makes you more realistic. I would say if you really want to do this—if you’ve thought it through but you’re hesitating because of the buts—don’t hesitate any longer.”
Single Mothers By Choice is a wonderful resource for women thinking about parenting solo by choice and has been providing information, education and community for three decades.
Note: The mother in this story has chosen to be anonymous, thus small details and the names of the individuals have been changed in order to protect their privacy.
Lisa D’Annolfo Levey is a consultant, speaker, and writer on work-life and diversity management. She spent many years as a Senior Director of Advisory Services at Catalyst. She is the author of The Libra Solution: Shedding Excess and Redefining Success at Work and at Home, focused on a gender-flexible approach to career and family management.
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