Diluting the Mother-Child Family
Joy McFadden, whose story opens the book, had reorganized her life to better accommodate the growing number of baseball, basketball, and soccer games that occupied a substantial portion of her children’s time. One of the few women to have two children when first interviewed, she preferred to be in the cheering section at those games than to be at the workplace. At the time of the update, not only had she figured out a more flexible way to make a living to accommodate her kids’ schedules, she had also made time to campaign for a seat on city council. She had sold her first home to buy a new, larger house in the same community. Over the years, she had managed to not only raise her two children but also embed herself within the community; she now felt that her life was full, even though she had not ruled out someday finding a companion when she wasn’t so busy with other parts of her life.
Even though she was still without a partner, Joy considered her family complete, as she had told me when I first interviewed her after the birth of her second child.3 The other women that I interviewed fulfilled the need for completion in the intervening years between the first interviews and my update calls. Many women by that time had followed Joy’s lead, adding a second child to their family A To them, the way that their families felt finished would be through the addition of another child. Some adopted, while others gave birth to another child. These mothers often voiced that the mother-child dyad that they had been living in needed another participant to feel balanced. Sienna’s story was unremarkable insofar as she was one of several mothers who had adopted a six-month-old from China.5 When her first daughter was seven years old, she returned there to adopt a second child, a toddler. Even though money was tight then and she was still paying off the expense of a second child, what she termed her “MasterCard baby,” she said, “You need to take a chance to get a chance.” She wanted the chance to expand her family, to complete it. To her, two people were only the start of a family. Her daughter was becoming more and more independent, but Sienna said, “I’m not done yet stomping in puddles and struggling with how many more times down the slide until we have to go home.” She wanted her older child to have a sibling to mentor, struggle with, and love. For herself, a second child gave her the chance to “continue the challenges and adventures of childhood” and to not separate so quickly from her first daughter’s early years. Further, Sienna hoped to build a team, leaving the relationship of a twosome behind. As a family of three, she told me, they all had to renegotiate their lives and reconfigure them, “from the dog on up.”6
In the first interview, the vast majority of women expected that after the child, they would reenter the dating scene, looking for a third member to add to their pair—a companion for themselves who would also become another parent for their child. Rosalie, now married and the mother of two more children with her husband, was still adamant that when she became a single mom, she formed a functioning family, though she almost contradicted herself when she explained the transition:
It was equally as complete when I was a single mother. You are a family once you have a child with or without a man in your life. I never thought I would meet anybody who would want to take on a young woman and a child. I had resigned myself to being a single mother. But I met my husband and we fell in love.
I thought, “This is the person I want to share my life with.” He closes the circle. Now I have someone to share the burden of parenting with, as my oldest son’s father isn’t involved on a regular basis, seeing as how my son only spends a couple of summer months with him.
Both single motherhood and married life have their pros and cons. A partner brings new negotiations about daily life and adds another dimension that can be challenging. Other women who had not added a partner or another child also said their lives were complete, and they wanted it noted that it did not take a partner to feel that family life was fulfilled.
However, among those women who found partners, some did say that a partner made a big difference in their family life in various ways. Kerry, who became pregnant with an anonymous donor, represents a new sequencing to family formation. Kerry fell in love with a wonderful woman and welcomed her into her family as both a second parent and partner, expanding the mother-child dyad. She and her partner went to Vermont in order to obtain a civil union (a substitute for marriage, then not yet allowed in Massachusetts) around the same time that her partner adopted her child in Massachusetts. Kerry explained an important way in which her partner completed a missing element in her child’s life: “Elizabeth is the perfect addition. It is great to have a partner, but it really fills out that side of our son, as they both share a similar mind-set.” Their child’s interests were more similar to his new mom’s, and this helped Elizabeth forge a bond with him that was central to their family. In Kerry’s case, completion was about the quality and dynamic of change that occurred with the addition of a new family member.
While it is often within a woman’s control to add a second child, and thus easier than finding a partner to share her life with, both kinds of additions create a similar shift in family dynamics, especially as it pertains to the mother-child relationship. The intensity of the mother-child dyad was a recurring theme that women expressed to me in the updates.7 Many women told me that their family
donor agreement) so that Charles could adopt. However, Sam, the known donor, did not remove Zoe from his family health insurance policy, a symbolic act for everyone. Sam retained that special “spot” for Zoe, as Jennifer hoped he would. The two families, which came to include Charles’s daughter from his first marriage and Sam’s wife and two children, saw each another a few times a year. Jennifer considered this entire group kin, with varying obligations to Zoe.
Lori-Aim, whose story opens chapter 3, found her life partner right under her nose. She ended up marrying the “Wednesday woman,” one of the group of friends who volunteered to take care of Andrew during the gap hours between the end of day care and Lori-Ann’s return from work. The “Wednesday woman” also adopted Andrew. However, Lori-Ann and Andrew still maintained contact with Pennsylvania Bob, the donor. Pennsylvania Bob, despite Lori-Ann’s belief at the time that she asked him to be a donor that he never wanted to be a dad, subsequently married and had other children to whom he was an active parent. Lori-Ann emphasized that Bob was still important in Andrew’s life: “He never articulated missing a dad because he had Pennsylvania Bob and he knew he had a special closeness.” But the second parent to Andrew was indisputably the woman she had been with over the previous few years, who had been a daily presence in his life since early childhood. Unlike Jennifer, Lori-Ann and her donor kept their families separate, but Pennsylvania Bob still visited Andrew without his family when he was in town.
By contrast, Annette’s relationship with her child’s known donor had not worked out so neatly. John, the known donor, had had a relationship with their child that escalated to informally sharing custody. In the years between interview and update, John went from the best example of an escalating dad who became a co-parent to a distant dad in sporadic contact with his son. Annette, who had been initially ambivalent about resuming a romantic relationship with John and becoming a family under the same roof, allowed him to move in with her after they wrent to counseling and things seemed to be working. But when he lost his job and became deeply depressed, they parted. Their child, now thirteen, continues to see his dad regularly. When we spoke, she was currently involved with another man, but her son was not so welcoming.*4 Annette tried to make the genetic family work—but as much as she loved her child’s father for giving her her son, she needed to move on, and found another romance that was more satisfying.
Some women maintain less contact and more distance from the beginning than Jennifer, Lori-Am, and Annette. Althea, whose child’s known donor lived an ocean away, arranged a visit when her son was in preschool, described in chapter 4. The summer before the update, she had arranged a second encounter, traveling with her now middle-school-aged son to visit the donor and his family in Ethiopia, meeting his other children and extended family. During the interim years, he and Althea’s son e-mailed from time to time. Hillary’s two sons by a known donor were content with an occasional glance at a picture, expressing no
interest in meeting him.*5 The donor likewise had not approached Hillary for contact with the children. Althea and Hillary illustrate the variation between relationships with known donors and reinforce how with the passage of time women who become pregnant with known donors no longer feel at risk because of their route to motherhood.
Women who chanced pregnancy, discussed in chapter 5, likewise settled into a routine regarding their child’s father and his extended kin. Ellen and Gavin, featured in chapter 6, were still disagreeing over Skyler and who was responsible for what, including setting boundaries for their daughter. When I called, Gavin, who had married the woman he was dating, had recently taken Skyler on a family vacation, but he usually saw her when it was convenient for him. Ellen continued to make plans for Skyler to spend time with her dad through her child’s stepmom. In many ways, nothing had changed—they were still bickering. Brandy, also featured in chapter 5, eventually took Alex to court for child support after he got out of jail. The routine paternity test shocked them both, revealing that Alex was not the father. Regardless of genetic parenthood, their daughter, Ali, remained a part of AIex’s extended kin, and Alex continued to let her refer to him as “Dad.” The paternity test absolved him from back child support and future mandatory child support, but he still occasionally bought gifts for Ali. Though Brandy had no child support, she prioritized having a social dad for her daughter over tracking down a genetic father. In essence, nothing had changed for Brandy either, despite the shocking news of the paternity test.
Beyond fathers, siblings and half siblings were an interesting twist to these women’s updated stories. Naomi, mentioned in chapter 5, blew from the time that her son was an infant that there was a half sibling, the result of her two-timing then-boyfriend. Naomi, who never married or had more children, remained in contact with the mother of her son’s half brother, as they had originally agreed upon when they met for the first time when their children were under a year old. The two families continued to meet from time to time, though Naomi unlisted her phone number to keep her son’s father away.
For women who used anonymous donors, half siblings take on a new importance as well. While most women have abandoned the hope of contact with their anonymous donor, many have posted on donor registry Web sites in search of genetic half siblings. One of the pieces of information they were given from the sperm bank was the number of other children sired by this donor, a figure taken from self-reporting on the part of other mothers. They hope that eventually another mother who shares the same donor will happen upon their posting, bringing their children who are genetic half siblings into contact. Something I never anticipated was the way in which half siblings become important links to genetic identity for children of anonymous donors. Abby, who called on her college friend Nina to help select an anonymous donor, was among the first women to register her child’s donor number on a new donor registry Web site. Abby, whose child was in elementary school at the time of the update, couldn’t
their family. Women are not magicians who can produce genetic or birth parents out of a hat when their children start asking. However, the children of these women must eventually reckon on their own with the master narrative of the two-parent heterosexual nuclear family that is considered normative. Children become weavers of their own stories, using the birth narrative their mother gave to create their own explanations of how they came to be. When they were young, the mothers spun the stories of fathers they had never met, or they became the gatekeepers to those who lurked around the edges of family life. However, at a certain point, children must articulate on their own answers to the barrage of questions as to where they came from. During early school years, children developed pat answers. One woman told me when her adopted child was in preschool she would say to her friends, “I have a mom in America and my birth father lives in China.” Children who are adopted usually indicate that they have birth parents elsewhere, and this seems to cover the issue of fathers—at least that everyone has one, even if he is not a dad. Other children from donor-assisted families reiterate their mother’s version of their birth stories. In the case of anonymous donors, they tell their friends that they have a genetic father (whom sometimes they call their donor) and maybe they will meet him someday; in the case of known donors, they say they have met their genetic father, but he lives elsewhere.
The father question is really about a tangible dad, though young children are answering it by conflating biological fathers with social dads.16 Children’s answers became more sophisticated in the elementary and middle school years, sometimes diverging from the story their mother gave them. When asked about his “other parent,” one male child conceived with an anonymous donor would boldly comment, “There is no father and my mom did not have a boyfriend when I was born either.” This child is making a definite claim: that no man is his father and the subject is closed. Other children give vaguer statements to their friends.1? In fact, often the language of donors is made commonplace in preschool and kindergarten classrooms, where children are expected to describe their family, as is the possibility of adoptive and birth parents. The complexity of these family structures may have eluded children initially, but the presentation of these structures by children as possible and even normal has expanded acceptance. As harsh as kids’ peer groups may be, as they age they begin to find common ground and shared interests with their classmates. Their athletic abilities, their beautiful singing voices, their humor, or their leadership becomes the stuff that results in friendships and admiration of one’s peers. Further, the curiosity over birth stories becomes stale and the questions eventually stop. Since these families did not move around, consistent relationships and stable communities with many different forms of family save the children from having to continually explain themselves. Diversity of families has made the single-parent home just another structure in the spectrum rather than an oddity. In short, women’s fears that their child would be ostracized because of their family structure (including the way their family was formed) never materialized, partially because of their commitment to weaving
back to school in the evenings in order to completely change their employment (to earn an ЛІВА in order to broaden career mobility in engineering and to transition from a financial analyst to a massage therapist). Two women had also completed four-year college degrees and another the police academy, which gave them larger paychecks (and allowed at least one woman who had been piecing together employment to finally land a single adequate job). Other women took on more at their jobs as their children became heavily involved in school. Naomi, for example, a real estate broker, increased her work commitment to seventy hours a week, with some weekends. When I spoke with Naomi last, she was a property manager with another firm, but she took her lead from other women in the organization to jump at this career change, doubling her paycheck. Valerie took control of her employment as well as taking a new step in her career—she expanded her own business, increasing her paycheck and diversifying the kind of work she was taking on. When I spoke with her over the phone, her small business had recently won a major government contract, a feat that will keep her employed for several years. Even though she had married, Valerie was still the main breadwinner.
Because most of the women had completed educational and career goals before having children, I was not surprised to hear that employment had not drastically changed. Work remained an important part of their identity, though women continued to downshift and transition in the ways I observed in chapter 8. While I was cheered to hear that several women who had just been getting by at the time of the earlier interview had now completed their educations and found good jobs, the fact the most women’s employment was relatively stable in the intervening years is reassuring—it shows that educated women can make it financially on their own. However, I did find it disconcerting that home ownership, which is the security blanket for many of older women, was simply out of reach for the younger women. To be fair, with the rising cost of living and raising a child today, doing what these women do is becoming more costly and therefore more difficult. For this generation of single mothers, though they might not be able to afford luxuries or have college funds for their children, the future looks stable. In short, single motherhood did not become a career death sentence, though it definitely entailed rethinking time commitments and reinventing themselves.