Social Nesting: Making Connections While Waiting for Motherhood
During the months they wait for their child to arrive, women take stock of a web of connections, strengthening bonds that they hope will cushion their new family.1^ They ask people to participate in their birthing classes and labor, seeing this experience as a gift they want to share with those closest to them. Women who adopt abroad make arrangements with close friends or family members to accompany them on their journey, while other friends remain on the home front, preparing for mother and child’s arrival in the States.
The irony of “when baby makes two” is that, with the exception of an isolated few, the women I studied celebrated motherhood by including their close friends and families in the early milestones of parenthood. They were not mother and child against the world but part of a broader group of people chosen (and willing) to support them as they transitioned across the threshold. By talking through the sticky points with friends and family, letting them in about how they felt and what they did, they orchestrated a network to substitute for a man.16 This is not to say that women who have partners do not make these arrangements, but the women in this study consciously went about this process in order to ensure that their needs would be met.
Lori-Ann is an interesting case in point. While pregnant, she restructured her life. Though still living by herself in a small apartment, she wanted her baby to be surrounded by loving people from the beginning. She enjoyed living alone as a single woman, but she desired to craft a different life for her child. By strategically locating people within her broad social network who wanted to be involved in the birth and upbringing of her child, she embedded her new family of two in a network of many more. These people became a part of her pregnancy experience, and knowing that she had a wealth of encouraging friends and family in the area facilitated her decision.
Actually, part of the process of deciding to get pregnant was thinking about who were the people in my life that would be able to be supportive of me, and what
kind of support I would be able to get from whom. In some ways, I feel like he’s not just my kid. He has this whole group of people who have different kinds of connections.
Lori-Ann may have valued her privacy when she was childless, but with a child on the way, she came to value the closeness of community of friends and family. This desire motivated her to change her living situation:
I had been living by myself and I kind of knew that I didn’t want to live by myself and do this because I felt like I would be too isolated. And I lived in a very small apartment. Alaggie and I decided to move in together—we also work together— it was sort of a big relief because I felt like she was a person I knew and she was into me having a kid.
Maggie was not a stranger; Lori-Ann chose her because of her willingness to become involved in her pregnancy and her child’s birth. Maggie and Lori-Ann split the rent, and because they worked different hours, Maggie agreed to help with child care.
Twenty-six women in this study had at least one roommate, rented space from their own parents, or rented out parts of the multifamily dwellings they owned. The majority of these women had roommates or were landlords for people who were also actively involved in their child’s life. Some women reduced the rent in exchange for hours of child care per week; others made less formal arrangements and treated roommates as family members who could help out if needed. Ellen, whose mother allowed her to live in the large Victorian house that she already rented out to several boarders, took advantage of the variety of people living in the house to create a surrogate family for her child. The common living room was fair game for anyone living in the house who wanted company. These strategies fostered early ties to other adults and created routines as children age. However, mothers remained the central decisionmakers.
Friends became witnesses to each other’s lives. When Claudia went to claim her adopted son abroad, she asked a very close friend, Chloe, to accompany her.
[Chloe is] a very old friend of mine I’ve known for about thirty years. She lives in Northampton. She’s been married for thirty years, has a son. Aid when I thought of going abroad, I thought, who did I really want to come with me?
Aid I had two friends in particular who I could imagine asking, both of whom were married, had kids. … So I asked these two friends, and my friend, Chloe, told me she wanted to go. Aid since then she’s been a very major part of our life.
Her friend captured on video the moment her son was first placed in her arms. The start of an adventure to create a family hooked Chloe, who also fell in love with Claudia’s child. Claudia consciously chose not to ask her lover to accompany her. The relationship was too new, she did not want to compromise his
status as a lover, and he did not want to be a father. Chloe and her husband were also named in Claudia’s will as her son’s legal guardians. As this study shows, godparents are a common way for women to tie adults to these children, with the understanding that godparents are not simply symbolic but will also provide for the child and be consistent participants in the child’s life.
Extensive networks may begin even prior to birth. Lily activated hers once she found out she was pregnant. She wanted to divide up the responsibilities among several friends, all of whom had their own work, relationships, and volunteer activities. Lily astutely decided that asking several of her close friends would give her enough cover and would not overburden one particular friend with the responsibility, which was ultimately hers.
So I asked those four to be my team during the pregnancy as well, knowing that I couldn’t rely on one specific person to go to my childbirth classes. And by picking four, someone would be available at every point. And that ended up being a really good decision. And I had four childbirth classes, and so each team member came to a childbirth class. And I picked a friend of mine, who is a doula, and she was going to be my specific birth partner. But what happened is, during the birth, all the team members were able to be there, and the doula, so I had five women with me in the room, holding me and pushing my feet, and breathing with me, and screaming with me.
Other women describe the celebration that their friends and family brought to the hospital. Sometimes this gathering even includes the father of their child despite the fact that he is no longer involved with the mother. Take, for example, Evelyn’s experience:
His godmother was one of three people in the delivery room. I had wanted one friend and the godmother really wanted to be there. And she was so important, and my ex-boyfriend helped me deliver, he wanted to do the baby. And then a friend who was a massage therapist came because I was going to have induced labor. So she came to help me and stayed. She had been asking if she could be in the delivery room anyway, and she and I had been friends for almost twenty years. It turned out that a bunch of other friends found out that I was in labor and showed up at the hospital. So, there were by the end, when the baby was eight minutes old, twelve people in the delivery room. They brought chicken and champagne.
These women’s words illustrate the diverse ways in which single mothers form support networks, weaving together family members with friends, whether these friends are strategically planned or hastily gathered at the last moment. Women alter living situations in order to reduce their financial costs and to facilitate relationship building. Shared housing that began as part of early adulthood independence becomes a lifestyle choice made to foster a more stimulating life centered on people who genuinely care for one another. Women may have moved into apartments of their own but often return to roommates or family, as this more
cooperative arrangement provides mom and child with a broader base from which to craft strong adult-child ties.
Birth becomes a celebratory event centered on building family instead of limiting it, and for this reason, some women include the fathers of their children. Yet these biological fathers, as women’s accounts indicate, are the least stable participants in the family groups that women build. Birth or adoption becomes the foundation upon which others celebrate the numerous ways in which children come to be part of these families. These celebratory moments mark the entry of these children into their new community openly and without shame. By sharing their struggles on the path to parenthood, women gather together a sympathetic group with whom they can spread the joy and hope of a new life and who will in turn welcome the child.