That happy-ever-after narrative we’re sold as kids doesn’t always work out. But there are alternatives.
Say you are a young woman in your 20’s established in your career of choice. For as long as you can remember, you know you’ve wanted a child. There is not a long-term partnership in your semi-near future. Do you:
a) Do nothing; resent every monthly period and each birthday that ticks past;
b) Wait for the right partner to show up, tell yourself if that doesn’t happen by, oh, 35, you’ll consider becoming a single mother;
c) Look into freezing your eggs for future use;
d) Get a catalog from California Cryobank and start shopping for donor gametes.
I was twenty-nine when I found myself at the fertility clinic, saying yes I really do want to become a single mother and yes I really do want to do it now. I talked to the doctor for a long time while she hatched a plan for my assumed-to-be-fecund ovaries and escorted me across the hall for a routine pap smear and breast exam. Then she told me she thought I was ovulating and sent me upstairs to have my blood drawn.
For the next few months, I found myself in the strange space of being a fertility patient for social rather than medical reasons. Without easy access to sperm, I ironically suffered from “male factor infertility,” no different than a woman whose partner suffers from low sperm count so she needs to use a donor to conceive. When I went to a local meeting of single mothers by choice (SMC), they assured me I was young, not to worry, I’d get pregnant right away. I listened to the tale of a 48-year-old who had been trying to conceive for the better part of a decade, finally pregnant with twins via donor eggs, and felt queasy at the thought.
Even now in 2013, I think single motherhood is still perceived primarily as a backup plan. I mean, if you want a partner—male or female— great, go for it. I am not making an argument that single motherhood should become the norm. But I have seen too many women travel through what Melissa Ford rightly calls “The Land of If,” because they got married late and started trying to conceive even later, and it makes me incredibly sad.
Yes, some women can conceive in their early 40’s. Statistically, it’s not likely; my reproductive endocrinologist described 37 as the age that, for most women, fertility becomes something akin to Cinderella trying to make it home from the ball before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin. There is a reason age 30 is the cutoff for egg donation at most clinics. Some women have trouble conceiving in their 20’s, and who is to say which group any young woman falls into.
I am the cautionary tale of why young women should consider single motherhood.
Turns out, I didn’t have it easy. I did six treatment cycles in six months and celebrated my 30th birthday with what I used to call the longest miscarriage in human history. (I’m sure it wasn’t, but it was almost 12 weeks of being pregnant and not, and by the time my doctor reluctantly opened me on the table for a D&C I was far enough along that I started lactating after the procedure.) She tested me for markers of recurrent miscarriage and sure enough, I came up positive. When I started trying again, I took baby aspirin and twice-daily shots of heparin, and when I finally conceived my daughter, I brought the moniker high-risk with me to the obstetrician’s office.
So why am I writing this? Because that happy-ever-after narrative we’re sold as kids doesn’t always work out. Because I believe in reproductive choice and what that really means is not just access to abortion but the ability to try to have a baby (or not!) on one’s own time and in one’s own way.
As a university professor of women’s literature, I see a lot of young women come through my classes. As an active member of the ALI (Adoption, Loss, and Infertility) community, I wouldn’t wish the indignities and traumas of infertility treatment on any of them. I want them to make informed decisions about whatever their desires for fertility and family (and, yes, that includes living child-free by choice as well as adoption and alternative family building of all kinds).
Single parenthood is not for everyone.
But the simple biological fact is that reproduction carries a timetable that dating and partnership do not. Telling a young woman “wait, you have time” is doing her a huge disservice. The truth is, she might not.
And, recent discussion aside, egg freezing, at least now in 2013, really isn’t a viable option for most young women.
What I told my first reproductive endocrinologist—in that wonderfully right-wing state of Texas, with her teeny gold cross around her neck and wedding ring on her finger—was that I wanted to have two children and I wanted to have them about five years apart. She described me as bold and steered me through the emotional and physical ups and downs of more than a year of treatment.
When my daughter was 4, and I committed myself to trying for the sibling she kept asking for, I naively thought it would be easier the second time around—I was, as my RE liked to say, only 35 years young. But I could not have been more wrong. I have three charts three inches thick saying that if I’d done what I was “supposed” to do (get a partner first and then have a baby, or get tenure first and then have a baby) I probably wouldn’t have conceived at all. Among my many diagnoses: ovulation dysfunction, diminished ovarian reserve, low progesterone, two clotting disorders, uterine polyps, both primary and secondary infertility. And let’s not forget the mother of them all: recurrent pregnancy loss. In the end, it took me three years, multiple failed attempts at IVF, and, finally, giving up on my own DNA in order to have my son, conceived with the generosity of donor gametes.
These days, it is becoming more commonplace, if not acceptable, for women to become single mothers, but mostly that’s a choice still taken by women 35 and older—at the moment fertility declines precipitously.
In the meantime, you tell me: What are you really waiting for?
Robin Silbergleid is the author of the chapbook Pas de Deux: Prose and Other Poems (Basilisk Press, 2006) and the forthcoming memoir Texas Girl, about becoming a single mother by choice (Demeter Press, 2014). She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, where she writes, teaches, and raises her two children. Now that she’s joined the twenty-first century, you can also find her on Twitter at @rsilbergleid.