A generation or two earlier, Gina might reasonably have assumed that the men she was dating were both potential partners and potential fathers. However, when her latest relationship ended, she concluded that she faced two pursuits: one for a child and the other for a partner. In her case, as in most of the women I interviewed, baby came first. Time would run out on having a child, they reasoned, but noton finding a mate. And having a child would not impede finding a mate. Thus, women stepped forward into what I call a liminal state: a period of uncertainty that can last for months, even years, during which a woman’s identity is suspended between the person she was and the person she wants to be: between being childless (but determined) and being a single mom.
The term liminality is derived from the Latin word for “threshold” and is used by anthropologists to refer to the transitory phase in a rite of passage between two concrete and socially accepted roles (see, for example, Van Gennep i960; Turner 1967). For example, in Judaism a bat mitzvah is a well-known public ritual with set stages. When a girl reads from the Torah on this occasion, she is at the threshold between adolescence and adulthood. Once she completes her portion, she is recognized as a full-fledged adult member of the community and is subject to new but established rights and obligations.1 Atone level, this concept describes nicely the situation facing Gina, Joy, Claudia, and the other women I interviewed. However, unlike initiates to a sorority or adolescents on the brink of full membership in a community of adults, these women were entering unfamiliar territory. They knew where they wanted to be, but they didn’t know how to get there or whether they would be welcomed once they’d arrived. In other words, single motherhood was not then a socially accepted destination.
Rather than treat liminality as merely an interlude, I believe it’s a profoundly important time in which individuals—unmarried women in this case—actively entertain alternative realities. Certainly it begins as an individual venture, but it can also be a seed for social change, particularly when other people notice the decisions these women make, see that alternatives can be pursued successfully, and thus find it easier to imagine a similar destination for themselves.2
Without romanticizing the situation of women who want a child but can’t find a partner, it is important to recognize the courage that’s required to sustain a positive self-image in the liminal state. Even the simple act of imagining carries risks. For example, the women I interviewed risked their identities as “good girls” with parents, friends, and communities that mattered to them when they began to verbalize their innermost desire to become mothers on their own. Facing the unknown consequences of breaking deep tradition (though they would still fulfill another—the cultural obligation for women to reproduce) required the “real courage” novelistTom Robbins once described in Another Roadside Attraction: “Real courage is risking something that you have to keep on living with, real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and
suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s cliches” (P-25i)-
What are the common events that trigger a redirection? What makes single women realize that they have to take control of their lives and stop waiting for men to carry them across the threshold? The process in almost every case begins with imagining a child in a new context and testing the idea on important people in one’s life.