Testing the Secret
Women’s private thoughts eventually become conversations—first with their most intimate family and friends, then widening to include other important people in their lives. These people play a vital role as enablers. Women want their approval so that if and when they become mothers, they will have a welcoming community that will not disown them. They carefully craft new cultural norms that can allow’ their future children to be accepted members of a family-centered middle-class community. Approaching others with their story makes their situations known, and therefore not shocking or shameful.
They set about drafting their confidants to become part of the decision, giving them space and opportunity to process and accept what they were doing. This conscription of intimates does not necessarily translate into automatic acceptance of all single mothers; these women are asking permission to be the exception to the “rule” against out-of-wredlock births. They distance themselves from the stereotype of the welfare-dependent woman with children and make their claims to motherhood on the basis of demonstrated self-sufficiency, the cornerstone of the middle class. They test the waters in the hopes that having a child will not marginalize them from their work, extended kin, and neighbors. They do not want to be seen as rebels, even as they reshape family life.
Women often talk to their own mothers first, expecting them to be more sympathetic to their wish to become mothers themselves, but also because their mothers were the emotional centers of their family lives in their childhoods. Joy’s mother’s emotional bond to her children was an attribute that Joy wished to replicate in her own life. Her mother translated these needs to a sometimes emotionally silent father. As they did when they were little girls, women hoped that their mothers would smooth the way so that their dads could accept their decision if they chose to go forward. Alothers became pivotal supports. By including their own mothers as they wrestled with what to do, they ensured a future place in their extended family for their imagined children.
Lily continued to practice her faith, an important part of her childhood in a small town. When she moved to Boston to become a teacher, she found a church community in which she became very involved. Bubbly and outgoing, she never lost her midwestern friendliness and directness, but even she hesitated before she approached the pastor of her church with her “crazy” question: should she become a mom on her own? She fully expecting her pastor to reprimand her for defying church tradition.4 But she was stunned by his reaction: 
The pastor characterized Lily’s wish as logical, rational, and well thought out. He also recommended that she talk to the church elders, officials who were elected by the congregation.
And I went to talk to them about it when I was more sure I was going to do it and I was thinking the same thing—they are not going to approve of this. … I was crying as I was talking about it because it was bittersweet. I really was torn.
I wanted to be a mom, but I didn’t want to do it this way. You know? And I finished telling them what I was thinking about, and there was this silence. And then the woman who hired me ten years earlier, she reached over and grabbed my arm and said, “Well, bless your heart! That is so brave.” And then there was silence and she said, “I’m getting goose bumps thinking that we might get to support you in this.”
While Lily clearly wanted their approval, she sought more than just consent. She feared not being aligned with the core people in her life. She wanted her child’s birth to be a joyful community event, greeted in the same way that other members’ children were received. Acceptance was essential to her. The leaders in her church agreed with her thinking, and they were united in their support.
Like other women in a liminal state, Lily sought others’ opinions before she truly made up her mind. She did not go to them seeking approval for a decision she had already made. She asked them to share in her decision and to become supportive players should she choose to go ahead. But at the same time, vocalizing her thoughts made them seem a little more real.
Lily also consulted the principal of the middle school where she taught. She worried that if she gave birth outside of marriage the school board would question her fitness as a role model for students and perhaps even fire her. Her worries were acute, since she taught young teenagers. But again she found that the principal and her department head were sympathetic. The principal asked her to think about how and what she would tell her students. This gave her pause. She decided that if she went forward with her plan and if she became pregnant, she would tell the students that she had been inseminated in a doctor’s office. She especially wanted to convey to the students that there was no sexual “misconduct” on her part: she had not made a mistake but had instead chosen a sexless route to motherhood.
Gina, whose story opened this chapter, imagined her future life without a child as a scary scenario in which she would need to move away from her friends and family. Often women seek help from therapists and self-help groups. At self – help groups women meet other women—“thinkers,” as they are called—who are at a crossroads. Together they imagine what their futures will be like, whether with a child on their own or forgoing motherhood. They find comfort that other women feel the same way—having no one to marry but still uncertain about having a child on their own. At workshops and self-help meetings women learn about different routes to motherhood, including the best fertility clinics, adoption agencies that will work with single mothers, and things to look for in choosing a donor, as well as phone numbers and Web sites of various sperm banks.
Self-help groups pool information and pass it on to others in similar situations. Each woman’s experience adds to the collective knowledge: Women discuss doctors to avoid, how to navigate insurance coverage dilemmas, what to bring for journeys to foreign countries when adopting babies, and so on. But more than swapping knowledge, each group supports its members: women call each other to find out how an insemination went; they are excited when a woman becomes pregnant or a notice arrives about a child available for adoption. Sharing the same goal, members of the group root for one another as they try various ways to become mothers. Women who become mothers and remain in the group offer evidence that single motherhood is possible. A positive by-product is friendships that continue for years, even when women stop attending group meetings. Though they may live in different towns, these friends continue to socialize over dinner. Having shared the experience of becoming moms together, they eagerly look forward to intimate evenings catching up with these friends.
The evening she went to a “thinkers” workshop, Lily also met some of the children of single mothers who were in another room for a different workshop. Getting acquainted with women who were considering the same option she was and seeing the healthy, beautiful, and well-adjusted children of women who had acted on motherhood alone gave her hope. She left the workshop feeling that alternatives existed. But she was not yet ready to change her plans.