Going it alone: Choosing to be a single parent

Single women who choose to have kids on their own have come a long way since Murphy Brown.

Five years ago, Loretta Merritt had a good — no, a great — life. In addition to her top-of-the-heap job as a partner at a high-powered downtown Toronto law firm, she travelled the world, scuba dived, rode horses and made time to go for long cruises on her motorcycle. She lived in a lakefront condo and didn’t even know it had a fabulous view of the sunrise because she was never up early enough to notice.

But she was pushing 40 and still single, and one of her good friends, who is also a business partner, suggested to her that she might want to start thinking about kids — gently reminding Merritt that she is the type of person who would regret going through life without having a family.

“I realized she was right and, since I wasn’t in a relationship, I started looking into doing it on my own. I had no idea what I was in for. I think I figured it was like getting a cat,” Merritt laughs.

In 2003, after numerous attempts to get pregnant using artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, the then 41-year-old learned she was carrying fraternal twins. It could have been sobering news for a single mom, but Merritt was thrilled: “Chances are I’ll only do this one time and, if I’m not going to have that whole single life back, why not have two kids at once?”

It’s been 14 years since the infamous Murphy Brown brouhaha, when then US vice-president Dan Quayle criticized the popular TV show for violating “family values” with its plotline about the anchorwoman choosing to become a single mother. Today, women who decide to become parents without a partner make their decision in an atmosphere of — if not across-the-board acceptance — ready access to reproductive technology and adoption services, and the widespread acknowledgment that it’s an entirely viable option. There are single mothers by choice (SMC) support groups, books, online chat groups, websites and even an international organization. What was once considered the realm of the radical is now so mainstream that Hollywood actresses like Calista Flockhart and Jodie Foster are feted in the tabloids as proud single mothers by choice.

Generally in their 30s and early 40s, financially secure and independent, these women are taking charge of their reproductive lives in a way that would have been unimaginable for their own mothers. And by most accounts, they’re doing rather well. In fact, one recently published study out of Israel suggests SMCs actually have a significantly higher quality of life, when looking at psychological, physical, social and cultural components, than their married counterparts.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many women are making the decision to become parents on their own — Statistics Canada doesn’t distinguish between single mothers by choice or chance — but there are some indicators that their ranks have grown significantly. Over the last 25 years, StatsCan has documented a leap in the number of older single women having children. In 1981, only 4.5 percent of 40- to 44-year-olds who had babies were single; in 2003, not only had the number of women having children in this age range jumped, but the percentage who were single had risen to nearly 13 percent.

Another gauge of the prevalence of SMCs is the rising number of single women using sperm banks. According to Heather Brooks, president of Toronto-based Outreach Health Services, between 30 and 40 percent of her clients are single women. Brooks’ company is an affiliate of Xytex Corporation of Atlanta, and staff in the US say that their numbers are even higher, with 50 percent of their clientele women without partners.

Jane Mattes, a New York psychotherapist, author and founder of the Single Mothers by Choice network (mattes.home.pipeline.com/index.html) has been witness to this cultural change from the beginning. In 1981, when she was a 37-year-old single mom with a 10-month-old son, she found a group of seven other women in similar situations and held a get-together in her living room. Today, that support group is an organization some 2,000 members strong (though she estimates 10,000 women have been involved over the years), with 25 chapters in cities across the US and Canada, including Vancouver, Edmonton and London.

“These days when you say I choose to become a single mother, people understand; they often even know someone else who’s done it. Originally, it was like ‘Huh? What are you talking about?’” she explains. “I hear from lots of moms with partners who are actually a bit jealous because they don’t have the kind of network SMCs do.”

When 40-year-old Elizabeth Mackenzie* was considering single motherhood three years ago, she turned regularly to Mattes’ Internet support subgroup for “Thinkers” — women thinking about taking the plunge. “Each morning, I would sign on for a few minutes. It was my little treat to myself,” she says. “It was incredibly helpful because other women were going through the same thought process I was. There’s a fair bit of grieving that goes on at the beginning — leaving behind the fairy tale, the idea that you’re going to meet Mr. Right just in the nick of time and have a family.”

Today, the Toronto accountant has a two-year-old son conceived in her first try at doctor-assisted donor insemination. “People ask me all the time how I do it by myself,” she says. “One part is that I don’t know any differently. The other thing is I don’t waste any energy resenting someone else for not cleaning up the kitchen or folding the laundry or picking up the kids. I only have to think about the baby and myself. The flip side of that, of course, is that there’s no other adult to share all the joys and frustrations of parenting. When I come home at night, he runs to the door, saying ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ It’s the highlight of my day. But it’s hard sometimes when I’m tired or need to go get milk at the corner store. I can’t just leave him and whip out when I’m the only one at home. This was especially difficult when I was on maternity leave and I would sometimes go for days at a time without seeing another adult.” She smiles. “The Starbucks at the corner was my social life.”

For exactly this reason, finding a consistent and available support system is vital for these moms. Mackenzie relies on family and a shared nanny for help with her son, John, but she’s also hooked up with two other SMCs who have kids the same age. Although they only see one another once a month now that they’re all back at work, they keep in touch by email.

“ The truth is, no one really knows what it’s like unless they’re in the same situation,” she explains. “Also, we really want our kids to know each other, to see other children who are growing up in the same way. I think it will help, especially, when he has questions about where he came from.”

These days, the trio’s emails are revolving around whether or not to try for a second child. According to Jane Mattes, this is one of the biggest differences between her generation of SMCs and the current crop of moms: “I hear about a lot of women through the website who are thinking about a second. They just assume that they will do it because they always wanted two kids, whereas we were thinking, ‘Omigod, how am I going to pull off one?’”

Mackenzie is currently struggling with the decision, weighing all the responsibilities, logistical complications, not to mention costs, against her long-time desire for a large family. “I see John with his cousins and he just adores them. I’d love for him to have a sibling, but I’m terrified about taking on too much. And all those folks who were so supportive the first time around are now saying, ‘Are you crazy? What if you had twins?’ They’re much less sure about another child — more cautious altogether.”

For Ekua Asabea Blair, the support of her extended Jamaican-Canadian family was a given when she adopted her daughter from Children’s Aid three years ago. “I come from an upbringing where parents always looked after other kids. The sense of community was very real in Jamaica,” she explains. “I just saw so many good examples of people being single parents, I never thought I couldn’t do it.”

Executive director of a large community health centre in Toronto, Asabea Blair was 43 when she adopted then two-year-old Nyamekye. “We had a magical bonding when we met,” she recalls. “The worker had warned me that she might not respond to me very much at first, but when I walked in the door she took my finger, walked me to the couch, sat in my lap and never really got up.”
Nyamekye also connected strongly with Asabea Blair’s parents, with whom they lived. “Buying a house with my mom and dad was really key to creating a community of support for her and for me. She’s even picked up some of their ways. They were good for her and she was good for them.” (Asabea Blair’s mother has since died, but her father is still an important member of the household.)

But even with such strong family and community support, Asabea Blair faces the perennial struggle of working parents everywhere, single or otherwise: how to reconcile home and work life. “As a single parent, you don’t have a lot of options,” she says. “You have to work and, though you don’t need to have a lot of money, it helps if you have a reasonable income, since it’s the only one. I love my job and I also want to give my daughter as much attention as possible. She demands that and she deserves it. I’m always trying to find the right balance.”

This past summer, the five-year-old started asking the questions all single mothers by choice — whether they have given birth or adopted — prepare themselves for: Who is my father?

“We’re very open about the fact that she’s adopted,” explains Asabea Blair. “She sees her birth grandmother at least once a year. I know how important it is to know where you come from. I explained to her that she does have a father and maybe one day we’d find out who he is.”

For SMCs who chose anonymous donors to conceive their child, the so-called “daddy question” can be even more thorny. But Mackenzie and others say honesty is the best — and only — policy, with the amount and type of information tailored to the age and maturity of the child.

As for Loretta Merritt, these days her life is still great. She and her 16-month-old twins, Marleigh and Spencer, live in a house she bought with her mother (who still keeps her motorcycle in the driveway).

And the self-proclaimed “lone wolf,” who once saw it as a sign of weakness to ask for assistance, now not only says yes when help is offered, she seeks it out — enlisting a friend to join her and the twins in a parent-and-tot music class, for instance, so each baby could be held by an adult. “You learn that things are so much nicer when you take help from others,” Merritt explains.

It’s just one of the ways the twins have enriched her life. “My love for these two kids is far beyond anything I knew before,” she says. “It’s hard, physical work on your own with twins, hauling them and all their equipment around, but I don’t even want to do those things I used to. I frankly can’t even imagine caring. I wouldn’t miss being a parent for anything.”

*Name and identifying details changed by request.

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