Mikki Morrissette became a single mother by choice in 1999 when her daughter was born. She lived in New York City at the time and knew of many other urban professional women like her who were opting to build a family on their own.
“As a journalist by training, I knew there were few resources available to women who wanted to learn from experts about the impact of this choice on their children, the smartest steps toward enhancing fertility chances at an older age and picking a sperm bank, and understanding the financial and emotional implications of this lifestyle from women who had come before,” she says.
So Mikki began interviewing hundreds of experts whose feedback she compiled in a 400-page book – Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman’s Guide. The founder of Choice Moms LLC and ChoiceMoms.org is still passionate about offering other women like her information and advice on everything from fertility to adoption to childrearing. Here, she offers her insight on the common misconceptions about choice moms, the challenges facing women who decide to have children without a partner, and more. Read on:
What is a Choice Mom?
A Choice Mom is a single woman who proactively decides to become the best mother she can, either through adoption or conception. Sometimes, she finds a partner after she marches toward her goal of building a family; sometimes she doesn’t.
I coined the term because “single mother by choice” seemed to place an emphasis on being single. Most women I know didn’t proactively choose to be single – they chose to become mothers who happened to be single. They knew they had a time limit for becoming a mother – more so than for finding the right partner. In my case, I was divorced in my early 30s, was making $100K in my publishing career, and simply knew it was a smarter choice for me to have children while I could, rather than rush into another relationship for the sake of having children.
How common is it for single women to seek out motherhood today?
In my book, I cited census data statistics that indicated more than 100,000 single women over the age of 35 deliver a baby. There is no data that indicates how many of these women proactively chose to become pregnant, how many accidentally became pregnant, how many “accidentally on purpose” became pregnant, how many have a lesbian partner and were not able to be legally married, and how many were living with a partner but unmarried.
I extrapolated that roughly half of these single women proactively chose to become a mother through purposeful pregnancy – and were of an age to know about birth control for prevention. Even if the resulting number of 50,000 single women choosing each year to conceive on their own seems generous, factor in that many single women choose to adopt internationally, domestically and through foster care; and that a large number of women are thinking and trying to become pregnant each year. So I believe it is safe to say that at least 50,000 women are making this choice every year in the United States alone.
I hear from women in many other countries who are making a similar choice. And the traffic on my website bears this out. I now consistently have 3,000 subscribers to my e-newsletter and sitting in on the Choice Mom discussion board, and 5,000 new visitors to ChoiceMoms.org, each month – unsolicited. Most of these are women seeking information at the early stage of Choice Motherhood, who are less involved after they become mothers and begin figuring out their new life on their own. This is double what it was even five years ago, when I was more involved in promotion through my Choice Mom workshops. Many of these women are in the large urban areas – New York City and San Francisco are consistently top markets – but they are all over, including Toronto, London, Sydney and Singapore.
How has the nature of single motherhood evolved in the past 10 or 20 years?
First, it is far less taboo to make this choice than it was in the 1990s, when “Murphy Brown” – a fictional TV character – did so and it became a national scandal when then-Vice President Dan Quayle talked about what a poor choice that was. Since then, we have so many thriving single-parent households that I think people realize it is the make-up of the circumstances and parenting style that has a greater impact on the child than the structure of the household itself. Which is not to say it is not a difficult lifestyle; parenting on one paycheck is logistically, financially and emotionally challenging. But most women who make this choice are aware of the challenges when they go into it and think about it carefully. At least, those who seek my book and find my website through Google searches do.
Second, it is interesting to me how many more women I am hearing from, and who are joining the discussion group, who are in their late 20s and early 30s. I think education around fertility statistics, and sheer independence of more financially and emotionally secure women who know they want to be mothers, is growing those numbers. I did an article on the website a few years back in which I interviewed many of these women about why they were making the choice as early as they were.
Third, I also hear from many more women who are in partnered relationships with people who do not want children, or are ambivalent, or they realize might not be a good parent; so these women are choosing to leave and do it on their own. In the past, I think we had many more women who would take this step in a relationship with an unwilling partner and it hasn’t turned out well. Today, there are more women who realize they have the option to do this on their own – and it is less messy and traumatic for all parties, including the eventual child, than if they pushed ahead without the permission of a partner.
What are the most common concerns of single women who are hoping to become mothers?
For many women I’ve talked to, it’s purely financial. They want to have sufficient income and/or savings before going forward. This is especially true of the many women who are now choosing to raise more than one child. On the other hand, many Choice Moms make enough income in their community to get by – some are well over $100K and $150K (we have many doctors and lawyers among us) – and this doesn’t concern them. Others hope a partner might be around the corner, and struggle with deciding how long to look, or need to grieve before letting go of the dream of a partner and kids. Many women wonder if it is fair to the child to be raised without a father, and they need time to weigh those concerns.
I find that in time, after motherhood, most women who were concerned about what their community might think don’t really care anymore. The stress issues can be strong, in the first nine months in particular; but as a woman adjusts to each stage – finding childcare, getting back to work, devoting time to her child, having conversations about “why no dad?,” juggling it all – she is far less concerned than she was pre-motherhood. The details can still be difficult, but she has the rewards of motherhood to help balance her. And in general, Choice Moms are resourceful, independent women who raise children to be the same. In time, we tend to figure out how to get things done in a healthy way.
What are the biggest myths or misconceptions associated with being a Choice Mom?
Because of data about teenage single moms and those unexpectedly suffering from divorce, the image is that most single mothers are impoverished, overwhelmed and emotionally tapped out. My “Choosing Single Motherhood” book goes into detail, for example, about the results of a 30-year divorce study by Mavis Hetherington about why 20 percent of kids in single-parent families end up suffering long-term issues. Self-involved, immature or depressed parents, wracked by emotional issues and financial worries, tend to neglect their kids. That’s the basic explanation for those statistics. And the typical Choice Mom – who tends to be older, well educated and more well paid than many unprepared single mothers ¬ – are quite focused on the needs of their children.
The typical Choice Mom is in her 30s and 40s when she becomes a mother. Most of those I surveyed reported making at least $60,000 a year, and a large percentage of us have a post-graduate degree. We tend to have strong family values or we wouldn’t have made the decision to go ahead. We are extremely devoted parents who do have the best interests of our children at heart and want them to feel as inspired in life as we are.
Another common misperception is that a woman makes this choice because she doesn’t like men, or thinks they are not important for her and her child. This is not true. There is no lack of women who long to have a solid man in their child’s life. The simple truth is, however, that raising a family is a deep desire for many women who cannot find the right responsible partner to share it with. And many of today’s women consider it more responsible to have a child alone than to marry simply for the sake of having children. If they cannot find a partner “in time,” women are increasingly willing to become a parent and hope to find the mate later.
What are the risks associated with being a single mother?
The kids I have talked to tend to be very secure and confident. As most child experts and teachers will tell you, being able to devote individualized attention to a child has an enormous impact on self-esteem. The downside to that is that the relationship between mother and child tends to be intense, making it important to find ways of separating in healthy ways. And all children need time with male role models.
Personally, my youngest – a boy – has been matched with an excellent young man from the Big Brothers program. It’s been a wonderful relationship they’ve now had for a few years. My father, the fathers of friends and my own male friends have been great options for my kids to share time with and learn from. It’s important they have quality time with someone in addition to me. My kids are now 16 and 11, and I think they are thriving partially because of the conscious community we have developed over the years with people who have been important in our lives.
It is just as important that I nurture my own time, as a non-mother, for my kids’ sake as well as my own. I do find that many women, especially in the beginning, tend to think only of our children and lose touch for awhile with other ways to keep our balance through friendships, hobbies, and “me” time. I’m already mourning the day my oldest will be off to college too soon. It is important that I keep developing my own non-mom social outlets.
What can single mothers do to help mitigate these risks?
Because women who make this choice tend to be very independent, driven women, many of us think it is a sign of weakness to ask for or accept help. But as we know, it takes a village to raise a child; and the sooner we get over our determination to do this “on our own,” the better for everyone. As I often say, “the goal of a single parent is not to raise our children alone. The goal is to consciously create the village in which we and our children will thrive.”
What are some of your favorite resources for women who seek single motherhood?
Well, of course, at ChoiceMoms.org women find e-guides focused on particular topics that help them understand anything from how to pick a sperm bank to considering embryo donation (when eggs are less than optimal) to using home insemination methods. We have tremendous information about fertility, including a survey I did this year with hundreds of women about how long it took them to conceive, so we have a better understanding of the stats. There are podcast interviews with experts in the field and fellow Choice Moms, as well as discussion boards, including one for women over 40.
I am also a fan of the work Dawn Davenport does at Creating a Family – another excellent resource for families built in non-traditional ways. She does excellent work with adoption and relieves me of the responsibility to be as thorough with my own coverage of that option.
A funny, breezy personal story about choosing single motherhood is Louise Sloan’s Knock Yourself Up.
And decades ago, Jane Mattes started the Single Mother by Choice support groups, which are very helpful for women seeking personal connections in their city with other women making this choice.
What advice do you find yourself repeating over and over to those who want to be a Choice Mom?
1. It takes longer for women over the age of 35 to conceive than we tend to realize. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met at Choice Mom workshops around the country who are emotionally struggling because of the difficulty it takes to become pregnant. Not only is it expensive – most women are spending money on doctors for insemination or in vitro fertilization, as well as for sperm and shipment from the sperm bank of their choice – but it takes an emotional toll. It can be especially difficult for women who tend to have postgraduate degrees or have succeeded in demanding careers and are used to setting and achieving goals in their life, as well as for women who have wanted to be mothers since they were young (at an age when they were rightly warned how easy it might be to get pregnant). It’s heartbreaking for those who find it takes six, ten, or more cycles to conceive that child they’ve now decided they are capable of raising. And unfortunately, many women find their eggs are no longer viable, sometimes at a much younger age than expected. It is also common, because of age factors we don’t consider to be “older,” to experience miscarriage. My advice is always that any single woman by mid-30s should do fertility testing to assess her odds based on data, and talk with a trusted and supportive doctor who can help create a plan and timetable for having a child. (And not all doctors are on board, so find the right one who proactively works with you.) Those numbers change dramatically after age 37. And remember that even though you might not think so at the beginning, many Choice Moms would like to have more than one child. The most common regret I hear from women is that they wished they hadn’t waited so long to start trying.
2. The other important advice is to have a game plan for alleviating stress. Coupled or not, nurturing a human being until they become mature enough to be on their own requires a very unselfish, responsible, level-headed approach; and it’s stressful to be that person every day. Choice Moms sometimes have fewer outlets for reducing the stress. They don’t have a partner to unwind with after a bad day, or to give them “mom’s night off” every week. My big message of “Choosing Single Motherhood” is that anyone considering Choice Motherhood must be able to connect to new people in her community, to find male role models, to give herself predictable and emergency breaks from parenting, to take advantage of the help of her inner circle, and to create meaningful rituals with others outside of the home. In short, you need to be as proactive about building a support network as you are in creating a family.
Deciding to become a parent is only the first in a long series of choices a single woman will need to make.
Click here to contact Megan Cohen, the only adoption attorney in the country who is also a birth mother. We’ve been there. We can help.