First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes baby in a baby carriage. Or maybe not. Suppose love falters or a marriage dissolves or a careerist lifts her head momentarily in the mad dash to professional success only to notice that she’s all alone. What then? What about baby? Does the progression halt, leaving a woman (or a man, for that matter) stuck forever in a liminal state, alone and childless with no clear prospects for a baby, a family?
Apparently not: in 2005, single moms head a fast-growing category of family. And they are the subject of constant public debate. One out of every three children today is born to an unmarried mother.1 While popular belief paints these single mothers as young and poor, not all are in their teens and on welfare. In fact, only 25 percent of all nonmarital births occur to teenagers.2 More – over, the percentage of births to unmarried women over thirty years old doubled between 1970 and 1993, declining slightly to 12 percent as of 2004.З And these statistics do not include single-mother families created through adoption.
This book is about women are who single by chance and mothers by choice.4 They are among the growing segment of women with jobs, often high-paying professional ones, who have elected to bypass the storied progression from love to marriage to motherhood. They have taken matters into their own hands, as it were, to fulfill a familiar dream in an unfamiliar way.
Just who are these single moms? Why did they reverse the traditional order of love, marriage, and children? Where are the partners in their lives? Are the families they’re forming transient phenomena—detours, as it were, around
temporary roadblocks to a more conventional arrangement? Or is the mother – child pair a finished family?
To answer these questions, I interviewed sixty-five women in depth, asking them about motherhood, men, and how they manage their lives and families as single mothers. I deliberately sought out women who had taken a range of paths to motherhood because I was well aware that there are other ways to have children besides accidental pregnancy. Thus I talked with women who bought anonymous sperm from fertility banks and others who had called upon men they knew to donate sperm. I discussed becoming a mother with women who adopted from all over the world, as well as those who chanced pregnancy, sometimes calling motherhood an accident. Finally, because I wondered just how durable their improvised families were, I called them back years later, in winter 2005, for an update.5 I asked them how their lives had changed. The surprising things I learned are recounted in this book, where I explore single moms and their families sequentially: from their prehistories as unattached women through the critical factors they incorporate into their decision making, their routes to motherhood, and building a family. Suffice it to say here that these women give us a unique window on the future of family.
As interesting as it is to learn who these women are, it’s surprising to find out who they are not. Given that they matured in an era of dramatic change— feminist struggle, rapid advances in reproductive technology, accessible labor markets—it might be reasonable to expect that the kind of woman who chose pregnancy without a marital partner would be at the leading edge of a women’s movement. Indeed, as I began the research I suspected that I would find women actively involved in creating new work relationships, publicly announcing their decisions without a lick of defensiveness, and advocating a new language of family roles and relationships.
What I found, however, was something quite different. Instead of ideologists, I found women who blend easily into their communities and who, because they are self-supporting, do not get—and do not seek—the attention of government agencies. They are neither the older woman who missed motherhood to have a career nor the teenager who happened upon it too soon.6 While they might have more in common with the former than the latter, they are not regretful careerists lamenting the lack of children. These women did not forget about motherhood, and neither did they let it slip away. These women cover a wide range in age, from older ones who waited for their last moments of fertility and sometimes even the end of their eligibility as adoptive mothers to younger women who did not put motherhood off and took advantage of sperm banks, turkey basters, and other reproductive technologies as well as chanced pregnancy.
They are our neighbors and co-workers, literally the girl next door, a sister or a sister-in-law, and we may have listened as they struggled with what they should do. Or they may be ourselves, either having already embarked upon single motherhood or seriously contemplating it. Instead of mothers who wore their singlehood as a badge of honor, I found a category of women who denied that they were at the leading edge of anything and who assiduously shunned the spotlight. They aspired to acceptance in a middle-class milieu and alignment with conventional definitions of mother, child, and family. At the same time, they often concealed the decisions they made, except to the closest of kin and friends. Most preferred anonymity precisely because their decisions bent gender norms to the breaking point. Some chose routes to motherhood, such as adoption, that concealed their agency in a shroud of altruism—for example, taking on an “unwanted” child is an unselfish act in the eyes of society. Others chanced pregnancy, often telling their partners they were doing so. And then there is the group that selected donor-assisted routes to motherhood. Yet regardless of the route they chose, these women all wanted children. They may have been silent, but they were hardly passive actors.
These women are both straightforward and paradoxical. Having tossed out the rulebook in order to become mothers, they nonetheless adhere to time – honored rules about child rearing, ones that are rooted in dominant notions of the nuclear family. For example, once children arrive, women strive to reconcile the route they took to pregnancy with myth and folklore about the role of genetics in child development and family life. Women who use sperm from an unknown donor often start out assuming that nurture will trump nature, but over years of watching their children, many end up building a case for the power of genetics. Because all they know about the donor is what he jotted down on a form at the sperm bank, single moms end up crafting speculative biographies in order to explain the origins of a child’s temperament and talents. Similarly, women simultaneously protect themselves and their children from claims of the father (or birth parents) and seek out functional substitutes for the father—such as strong relationships with the men in their families (including grandfathers, uncles, and cousins), male teachers, coaches, and close family friends—in order to conform to middle- class notions of the “right” family environment for a child.
Part I focuses on how women move from contemplation to action. How does a woman decide to become a single mother? How do personal story and social history intersect to enable these women to pursue their dream for motherhood without marriage? Facing alternative routes to pregnancy, how do women decide which one to choose? This section of the book demonstrates that choosing motherhood alone is a complicated process, one in which women engineer ways to counter existing laws and use medical technology, neither of which was meant to address their circumstances.
Part II explores how fathers fit into these families and how the families fit into the world around them. It still takes a man to make a child. So, once children arrive, what becomes of these men? Are they lost and forgotten, or do they have a place in these families? How do women who settle on using donor sperm involve the genetic father of their child, whether he is physically present or not? For women who chance pregnancy, how do they monitor men and negotiate the law’s
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expectations of fathers? How do women who adopt negotiate identity and geographic location as they fit children and birth parents into their families? In Part II, women confront the borders and boundaries of family, wading through the confusion surrounding genetic and social kinship in America, unable to ignore either.
Part III examines how these mother-child families navigate daily life. What does it mean to be single in terms of romance and parenting? How do women juggle earning a paycheck and parenting their children? What creative ways have women devised to shore up these families? Finally, beyond fathers, how do women incorporate men and gender into their child-centered families? In this part we learn how the mother-child pair centers itself in a constellation of connections to others, finding love, providing other sets of hands for help, and creating chosen family.
The bottom line of this book is clear: we can no longer deny that the core of family life is the mother and her children. Marriage was once the only socially sanctioned way to have a child, just as sex was once coupled with procreation. Even though it still takes both sexes to create a baby, only the availability of both sets of gametes is essential. This sea change is rendering sexual intimacy between husbands and wives obsolete as the critical familial bond. One story from many in this book captures the essence of the changes taking place: Heather Johnson and her lover, Mike, enjoyed a caring and satisfying physical relationship. She, however, wanted children, and he was adamantly opposed. She deemed his reluctance unfair but had little hope ofchanging his mind. After months of talking, he agreed to donate his sperm but forswore any interest in being a dad if Heather conceived. For both Heather and Mike, the child was an entirely separate matter. To take another example, Nadine Margolis created a donor-assisted family, but only she is the caring and loving parent to the child. While this begs the question of where men fit in, it is the reality of the new family, built on the assumption that romantic ties are no longer the foundation of family life. Caregiving and nurturing, which have always long been the responsibility of women, are at the center of U. S. family life in the twenty-first century. This book explores the intricacies of middle-class single motherhood and the reconstruction of the family, with or without men.
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I am grateful to Wellesley College for its commitment to a world-class student body. This project has benefited from Wellesley’s undergraduates who worked on parts of this research in various capacities. Wellesley College’s generous research award, the Luella LaMer Chair Funds, and the National Science Foundation under grant number SES-0353604 have been critical in my ability to hire these (now former) students. I especially thank Christina Lapointe-Nelson, Jennifer M. Silva, Nina Botto, Lyle Cates Pannell, Emma Sydenham, and Kara Gooding, who worked on different parts of this book in varying capacities. I also thank the women in my seminar in 2004 and 2005 for reading parts of the
manuscript, especially for their thought-provoking political views on single motherhood. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wellesley College, NSF, my former students or my colleagues.
Jennifer O’Donnell deserves special mention. Her organization, enthusiasm, and creative input in reworking the manuscript during this last year pushed me to finally complete this project. When I began this project, Faith I. T. Ferguson, then a graduate student (also a Wellesley alum), interviewed half of the initial group of women. She wrote her dissertation on part of these interviews. She is an outstanding interviewer whose colleagueship shaped the first years of this project.
I have benefited enormously from a small group of sociologists who have made up a virtual scholarly community. I thank Kathy Charmaz, Jane Hood, Peter K. Manning, Jane Attanucci, Robert Alford, Marjorie DeVault, Naomi Gerstel, and Kathleen Gerson for reading various chapters and parts of this work along the way. I am especially grateful to Anita Garey and Karen Hansen, who read several drafts of parts of the final manuscript and whose colleagueship over these last years has been invaluable. I thank Susan Reverby, my women’s studies colleagues, and the members of the Feminist Inquiry reading group, who have listened to bits of research talk wedged between other college agendas. Wellesley College professor Dennis Smith clarified my futurist biology questions. The expertise of colleagues Esther Iwanaga and Jessica Irish in the final stages of manuscript work was invaluable. Cherie Potts has been a key player in my interview studies. She expertly transcribed the audiotapes on each woman. Pierre Chiha took the author photo.
My friends and family can’t wait for this project to be over. They have passed along media articles, listened to me talk about why these women’s stories should be told, and even suggested women they’d met in the course of their lives and thought I might want to interview. As some of their own family members decided to become single moms, the subject of single moms became part of the dinner conversation in a way that was not simply an exercise in our usual work banter. I thank them for cheering me on from the sidelines, and I apologize in print for my need to say, “I can’t go out—I have to finish this book.”
I approached Dedi Felman, my editor at Oxford, with this project. I wanted to work with her again, as she is the only editor at several presses that I have worked with who actually reads, comments on, and critiques what I write. She does so with great energy numerous times over multiple drafts. Dedi’s sage advice, copious notes, and ideas have made this a clearer, richer, and more engaging book. I also thank the first-rate production team at Oxford, including Michele Bove, Sue Warga, Lelia Mander, and Betsy Dejesu.
Finally, my family is the cornerstone of my life’s work. Alyssa Raven Thomas, my daughter, was in kindergarten when this project began. She has grown up with this project as background to her own life. Her insight and questions to me about this study have always given me pause. Alyssa has become an incredible writer, helping me make editorial decisions including finding just the right word.
Bob Thomas is the best sociologist I know. Ilis gift to see clearly the main points of an argument is in every chapter in this book. He has always shared his insights freely, caring more about how to make a project reach its best presentation than about reserving credit. This is the mark of a great colleague. Bob also continues to believe in the old adage that hard work pays off. He pushed me to work hard and to persevere. I thank him especially for telling me the truth on each chapter. Despite his own work schedule and book writing, he always takes the time from his work life for our life together. We made a perfect decision some twenty-two years ago!
Finally, I thank the women who told me their stories. They wanted me to get it right, and several who wish to remain anonymous read parts to make sure that I understood. I was most encouraged by their generosity when out of the blue last January I called the women I had interviewed and asked for updates on their lives. They can’t wait to celebrate this publication. I appreciate all that they have shared with me, from their most personal soul-searching to great laughter over the twists and turns in all our lives.