Single motherhood begins with a conviction and a secret. The conviction is to become a mother. The secret is the possibility of becoming a single mom. The secret comforts the conviction: it is there on dates, in relationships, in the workplace, and when single women see mothers with their children. Knowing they have the option and that they could exercise it if need be eases the pain of not yet having what they want.
Imagining single motherhood, women challenge themselves and test their readiness to become single mothers by setting progressively higher hurdles. Each hurdle is higher until they convince themselves that they can handle anything— even motherhood without a co-parent. Lily, for example, who talked about timing and weak relationship commitments in chapter i, unthinkingly accepted the propriety of marriage as the first in the order of events. But in her late thirties, Lily dreamed of being a single mom—all the while marveling at her own defiance of convention:
Daring to consider getting pregnant on my own just seemed like such an outrageous thing to do. And from that point of thinking about it, to doing it, was the longest stretch because I was kind of shocked that I would think that way, and I wasn’t sure if that’s what I really wanted to do.
Like Joy and Claudia, she talked of being stuck, but each time she considered the option of single motherhood, the stuckness gave way a little more. Lily thought she could overcome the remaining obstacles to her decision to move ahead if she received approval from the various key leaders in the communities that were central in her life. She told me, “My faith is a really big part of my life, and I started really praying about what to do. I thought if I start talking to people about it, and explain that I really care about doing this, then I would have an answer.” She remained alone with her thoughts until she felt comfortable enough with single motherhood that it didn’t feel so much against everything she believed and valued. Only then could she speak these thoughts aloud to important people in her life.
Women often weigh their decisions to postpone motherhood against fears about diminishing fertility. At several points Nadine rethought the choice to have children alone, balancing it against continuing her education and enhancing her engineering career. A biography she had read years earlier about a female scientist who elected to have a child on her own in her early thirties steeled Nadine’s conviction that she too could have children and stay successful at work, even if she did not find a man to marry. Nadine felt an affinity with the female scientist whose life she admired. The scientist, who studied migration patterns of sea turtles, led an adventurous and comical life, overcoming all sorts of obstacles. Nadine, whose own work was confined to an office, vicariously enjoyed the experiences of this scientist, whose decision to have a baby followed a pattern of thinking outside the box. It fueled her imagination to think that she also could follow the example of this scientist, if only to have a child on her own. The story of the scientist allowed Nadine to imagine a context for having kids that she hadn’t previously thought probable without disastrous consequences. She recounted:
I always had in the back of my mind that if I was thirty and not married, then I’ll have children on my own. Then it was when I was thirty-two. Then it was when I went back to school at Princeton to get my master’s degree. Then it was when I left school. And then it was thirty-six, and I had just broken up with another man.
Babies gestate in far less time than it takes most women to initiate the campaign to have a child. Most women keep postponing having children alone; often they think about it for five to eight years before acting. Even though, as I will go on to describe, the time seems short for those who become mothers “accidentally,” by chancing pregnancy, some of these women have been thinking about having a child for years.
For the women in this study, single motherhood was never a snap decision. Virtually every woman postponed the decision at least once in hopes of a revelation. з They thought about whether to become mothers without partners. Nadine held close the biography of a scientist who became a mom without a partner. It gave her a new context for imagining motherhood. Once a new context is imagined, it opens possibilities for unfolding the sequencing of choices—including motherhood without marriage. Despite worries that single motherhood might not be something they could do, they also quietly began to think about paths toward motherhood without a partner and which path might be the best one for them to pursue.
The women I interviewed also pointed to a last relationship that blew the lid off the continued search for a partner to come before a baby. Anew partner meant starting over, and why invest in starting over when there was no guarantee that this new partnership would result in a child? The risk that another man would reject them or reject having a child with them outweighed the potential benefits of the investment.