Why Choosing Single Motherhood Still Means Breaking All The Rules
For the second year in a row, Bustle is bringing you Rule Breakers, a celebration of women and non-binary individuals who defy expectations at every turn — and are making the world a better place for it. As a lead-up to our Rule Breakers 2019 issue launching Aug. 27, we’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces by and about those who refuse to do what they’re told. Because challenging the status quo isn't just a once-a-year thing, it's an ongoing mission. These stories prove it.
Every year, Evita Robinson, an entrepreneur from Newark, New Jersey, schedules doctors appointments to coincide with her birthday. When she turned 34 in 2018, she asked her obstetrician-gynecologist about having a baby alone. “I’ve always wanted to become a mother,” she tells Bustle. “What I’ve been wishy washy on is marriage.” Her OB told her, “You can’t just walk into Target aisle four and pick a guy off the shelf to have kids with,” and they discussed what unpartnered motherhood would require — the deep desire to mother, to start, then money, a robust support system, and a healthy body and mind.
Robinson left the office, cried, called her mom, and then posted to social media that she was considering becoming a mother by herself. Robinson founded and heads Nomadness Travel Tribe, a community uniting (mostly women) travelers of color. “I’m an influencer, and I know it means something when somebody of my stature comes out and says, ‘Listen, I’m in tears. These are the things I’m contemplating. You’re not alone.’ That’s what I did,” says Robinson. She was deluged with encouragement, including from single moms who live and travel all over the world.
Then, she began preparing. Robinson opened a “motherhood” savings account, and researched the best countries to give birth in. She’s also leveling her blood pressure, changing her diet, losing weight, seeking dental care, and practicing yoga to strengthen her core and her pelvic floor — parts of the body integral to pregnancy and childbirth. “You plan your career. You work your ass off,” says Robinson. “I’ve never operated from a place of helplessness in any other part of my life. Why would I do that with this?”
Robinson belongs to a new generation of women claiming their right to motherhood, sans coparent. Single mothers by choice, or "choice moms," as they have been called, have existed as long as mothers have. However, women doing it today are sharing their decision-making process with their communities online and in real life, to work through the complexities publicly, to lockdown support, and, notably, to help other women see the possibility, too. To them, it is less of a backup plan — which is also the name of the 2010 Jennifer Lopez movie about choice motherhood — than a forward-thinking decision. Choosing unpartnered motherhood is still a pathbreaking, patriarchy-threatening choice for women who are circumventing men to create families on their own. Most households still include two (married) parents, and lawmakers are increasingly legislating control over women's bodies and reproduction. But the women doing this say that there’s much to be gained, not least of which is a newfound assertiveness in their lives, and confidence in themselves and their ability to care for others.
The increasing visibility of choice motherhood — in online platforms, and in life — inspires more women to do it. The idea occurred to Amy Benedum, a 39-year-old attorney in Salem, Oregon, when she saw two older female colleagues, who she described as accomplished, successful, and happy, adopt children as single mothers. Benedum was out for a walk with a friend when he pointed out how frequently she stopped to interact with the babies that they passed. His comment helped her see what she wanted to do. “At 35, I bought a house, had a fertility workup, selected a sperm donor and then a month after my 36th birthday, I made my first attempt at trying to get pregnant,” says Benedum . Her family was supportive, though they live a plane ride away. She got pregnant at 37, and gave birth to her daughter Ruby at 38. Ruby is now 15 months old. “It was so empowering to realize that I could make my own dreams come true,” she says. “Prior to becoming a mom, I was a pretty ‘Type-A’ person who was fairly rigid about how I wanted things to go. Motherhood has changed me completely — I'm the most relaxed and the happiest I think I've ever been. It shocks me constantly how easy going I've become, how much patience I never knew I had, and how much love I can feel for another person.”
“People asked me why I hated men. Didn’t I understand that my son was going to be an addict or go to jail?”
Rhonda Tankerson, a 43-year-old social media strategist in Las Vegas who has worked a number of high-pressure jobs, decided to begin fertility testing and attempt pregnancy after watching a friend in her 40s end a serious relationship and become a mother alone. She sees herself as part of a movement. “It’s a choice I’m making conscientiously. It’s absolutely a different way of approaching family than what we have been traditionally expected to do,” she tells Bustle.
There are nearly 8 million single mother households in the U.S., according to the 2016 census, but it’s unknown how many of these women chose partnerless motherhood. Most — more than 6.5 million of them—are in the workforce, meaning they aren’t teenagers. And 1.5 million are classified as outside the labor force. They could be students, retired, or doing unpaid family work. Unlike the offensive stereotypes of irresponsible single mothers and “welfare queens” of the 1990s, relatively few single moms are unemployed. It’s notable that those who track population have never asked the question of who is choosing this, and why.
Still, researchers and advocates believe choice motherhood is on the rise. Modern developments allow more women to become mothers, and later in their lives, than in the past. For the first time in history, women in their 30s are having more babies than women in their 20s. Reproductive technologies and the burgeoning fertility business are extending the window of baby-making for women, as is the prevalence of donor assisted pregnancy. Also, women’s rising income can finance fertility treatments, adoption, and the increased cost of family life without spousal support. All the women Bustle spoke to for this story said financial security is their top priority, followed by a supportive community — according to researchers, fertility workers, and moms themselves. Women accessing motherhood on their own terms are choosing it younger than their mother’s generation did (many because they want more than one child), they’re doing it outside of urban centers, and, unlike most of the aspirational cultural stereotypes in TV and film — they aren’t all white. They’re also facing less stigma than their counterparts did even a decade ago, as what constitutes a family has shifted.
“I think that the decision to have a child is always selfish, in that it comes from a place of wanting something for yourself.”
Most women who become mothers without partners do so deliberately, and yet the independent, unmarried woman making motherhood happen for herself is less common in cultural tropes than the accidental single mom. In 1992, fictional journalist Murphy Brown (whose reboot premieres in September) became pregnant by accident. Brown’s “lovable bitch” character, who obsesses about work and can’t even keep a plant alive, references the irony that her single friends are flocking to fertility clinics to get pregnant when she gets knocked up at 42. The show challenged the notion that this kind of woman — careerist, independent, “a man in a skirt,” as creator Diane English tells Bustle — couldn’t also be a good mom. 8 million people watched the episode in which she gives birth — more than that year’s World Series final.
Not everyone agreed with Brown’s route to motherhood. Vice President Dan Quayle attacked Brown and single moms. “Bearing babies irresponsibly is wrong,” he said during a 1992 speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. “It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice...Some things are good and other thing are wrong.” This was perhaps the first time the executive branch provoked a spat with a popular television show. However, deriding mothers as selfish or amoral for not having and raising kids the way society deems best is as ancient as it is still pervasive.
"Women are saying at younger ages that if I don’t find a partner I’m going to do it and I can do this alone.”
The debate that ensued, roping in politicians, the Moral Majority, the Catholic League, the National Organization of Women, and others, revealed the tension inherent in women “claiming the right to motherhood,” as sociologist Rosanna Hertz refers to it in her 2008 book, Single by Change, Mothers By Choice: How Women Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family. Hertz interviewed 65 moms, who, to her, represented the future of family by raising children without a spouse. “These women claimed the right to motherhood because it represented a promise of ultimate fulfillment that is unique to women,” Hertz writes. “However, these women had to first confront the role of men in their process of becoming mothers. Society still jealously guards men’s connection to children when they choose to assert it.” The absence of motherhood has long been presented as the key that unlocks female empowerment, but what if choice motherhood did, too?
Choice moms today don’t necessarily see themselves as part of a feminist movement, but they do describe their decision as empowering. They not only challenge men’s role in reproduction, but the centrality of the heteronormative nuclear family — mom, dad, kid, pet, and white picket fence. This was eroding in the 90s, as Murphy Brown knew when she addressed Dan Quayle directly on the show, stating that families were simply people who loved each other. Hertz, chair of Gender Studies at Wellesley college, shows that episode of Murphy Brown to her students. “It’s easier to do it today than it was then. Women are saying at younger ages that if I don’t find a partner, I’m going to do it and I can do this alone,” Hertz told me. “You’re not the bad role model Murphy Brown was in the 90s.”
The taboo surrounding choice motherhood wasn’t only a political talking point; it impacted women’s lives. Hertz recounted that landlords wouldn’t rent apartments to single moms, and that women felt they needed permission to become mothers without partners, from their parents, school principals, or their church. Psychologist Jane Mattes became pregnant by chance at 36. Her relationship ended, but she had always wanted to become a mother and did so in 1981. “People asked me why I hated men,” she tells Bustle. “Didn’t I understand that my son was going to be an addict or go to jail? I was seriously asked these questions.” Women in Hertz’s study wanted their names withheld to prevent similar treatment. The prevailing wisdom was that there was something wrong with women who chose to embark on motherhood by themselves. They were undesirable to men, and would raise troubled children. The notion that childbearing — no matter who does it — is inherently selfish still afflicts women, and perhaps choice moms most of all. “I think that the decision to have a child is always selfish, in that it comes from a place of wanting something for yourself,” say Benedum. “But the act of parenting? Entirely selfless.”
“The older that your child becomes, the less important your marital status at that child’s birth will be.”
The vast majority of women becoming choice moms aren’t using known donors; they employ anonymous ones. Some 75 percent bought sperm to get pregnant, which can arrive on ice in mere hours. Of those who used donor sperm, half conceived using Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) and about 44 percent did so with In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Only about 4 percent adopt their children. Adoption has becoming increasingly difficult and costly due to countries like China and Russia, once major sources of U.S. adoption, closing their doors. Some countries prevent single mothers or gay couples from adopting children with discriminating policies. Others have age limits for adoptive moms.
Kirsten Hoyte, a high school teacher and fiction writer in Concord, Massachusetts, gave herself a deadline for motherhood when she was 30. “I didn’t think much about the marriage issue,” she tells Bustle. “I was much more focused on the age issue.” When Hoyte learned about the research suggesting that fertility declines and pregnancy complications increase when women turn 35, she worked to get pregnant by that age. Hoyte had two successful IUI inseminations — her son Sterling was born a week after her 35th birthday, and her daughter Ridley two years later. They are now 12 and 14. “Being a single mother is...being a mother,” says Hoyte. “The older that your child becomes, the less important your marital status at that child’s birth will be.”
It’s still common for women debating partnerless motherhood to hear from family and friends that they should just wait — perhaps they’ll meet someone? However, it is the lack of control inherent in waiting that many women are rejecting. They want to choose for themselves. “People still urge women not to do this. ‘You can’t do that’ really means ‘I can’t imagine myself doing that,’” says Mattes. “One of the advantages that nobody talks about is that there are advantages.” She started Single Mothers by Choice, a group for choice moms to connect with each other, in 1981, when she was seeking other women like herself. Major cities have local chapters that meet regularly, and there are forums and a Facebook group where SMCs can connect online.
“I hear from friends and acquaintances about co-parents who are not contributing as much as they’d like them to. I don’t have to experience that frustration — we just have stability and happiness.”
Benefits to single motherhood that women mention are the ability to mother the way they want without consulting a co-parent, and avoiding the complications of that additional relationship. “It is sometimes easier as a parent not to have to negotiate domestic tasks with your partner or think about adapting your parenting style to your partner’s preferences,” says Hoyte. “I’ve always felt pretty free to parent the way that I want, and sometimes I observe my friends fighting with or complaining about their partners and I am so glad to be out of it.” Alicia Allen, a 38-year-old mother to 3-year-old Lochlan and a professor and researcher at the University of Arizona, says the logistics of parenting are easier than she expected. “I get to make all the decisions and I get to receive so much love,” she tells Bustle. “I hear from friends and acquaintances about co-parents who are not contributing as much as they’d like them to. I don’t have to experience that frustration — we just have stability and happiness.” Others add that they feel it’s better to mother alone than to enter into a parenting relationship with the wrong person.
Motherhood of any kind is not without challenges. Choice moms say they struggle with the logistics of being the only one to care for their child around the clock, and also with not being able to share the joys of a child’s successes and developments with another person who loves their child in the irreplaceable way a parent does. “I don’t have a second set of hands, a second income, a second opinion to weigh in on some of the hard decisions — it’s all on me, all the time,” says Benedum . She doesn’t miss having a partner, but says, “I do wish that there was another person on this earth who felt as amazed, humbled, and delighted by my daughter as I do.”
Allen shared that the highs are higher and the lows lower than she had anticipated. “The loneliness, the anxiety were unexpected and at times difficult to deal with,” she says. “The happiness, the love, the joy are so much greater than I expected. Luckily these extremes have become less extreme as time goes by.” Some choice moms live near family, while others don’t. Being partnerless not only means lacking an extra set of hands to read books and make lunches, but also the existence of in-laws, who can be helpful. The “Daddy Question” as Mattes calls it, or “what are we going to say when the child asks about daddy” is a quandary that choice moms approach differently. Many tell children their birth stories from day one, which include a donor or a doctor, not a daddy, to normalize it. Allen created a book to read her son. “It basically says how I had a great life before I had him, but I knew that I was missing him. So, thanks to a helpful donor, I was able to have him on my own,” she says. “I’m sure he will have questions about it in the future, but for now my goal is to make him aware of his origins and also create a relationship with him in which he will always feel comfortable asking me questions.”
“Do it sooner rather than later. Don’t do as I did."
Rachel Sklar, a media entrepreneur in New York City, chanced pregnancy with a boyfriend and gave birth to her daughter Ruby at 41. She’s building a platform called The Luckiest to share her adventures in single motherhood. Her advice to women considering this is not to wait. “Do it sooner rather than later. Don’t do as I did,” she tells Bustle. “I got so lucky. I don’t truly know if I would have gotten my act together to do this for myself. The regret is the worst. I know because I had it and it was crushing.”
Robinson will decide if and how she’ll pursue motherhood when she turns 35 in March. “I’ve been setting up my life in my 20s for freedom later. I control my money and my time—that’s a powerful position to be in,” says Robinson. “Today, we have the ability to curate everything. I feel the same way about motherhood.”
Correction: A previous version of this story identified Jane Mattes' organization as "Single Moms By Choice." It is "Single Mothers By Choice."