December 6, 2005


Established, older women tackling parenthood solo

A story published today in the Chicago Sun Times reports that a growing number of women are choosing to become single mothers.  Here is what the story has to say.

Single women call it Plan B -- as in "baby," with the emphasis on a plan.

"I spent three solid years planning for this. I completely changed my lifestyle. I socked away every bonus I got. I stopped taking vacations. I knew I would need the resources to take care of this child by myself," said Lisa Morrell, 41, mother of 2-year-old Krista.

A generation ago, single, successful career women who hit a certain age resigned themselves to lives without motherhood. Today, more women are choosing to become single mothers, planning and saving for it and making it happen through adoption or donor insemination. And it's not costing them their jobs, the love of their families or respect on the block.

The social taboo against out-of-wedlock birth and single motherhood seems not to apply to this elite segment of unwed mothers. In their case, economics trumps old-fashioned morality. Their devotion to and financial responsibilities for their children defuse most criticism. Amid a landscape of divorce, absent fathers, blended families and split custody, these mothers seem oddly traditionalist, describing motherhood as their "destiny" or their "fate."

"It was a countercultural trend for elite women when I began to notice it," said researcher Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. "Now it's gradually seeping into mainstream thinking, at least as a consideration for a lot of women who are unmarried and established and don't want to miss out on motherhood. It's becoming not only more acceptable, but thinkable for a lot of women."

"We're not teenagers who got knocked up in the back of a car. It was not something impulsive," said Ellen Goldsmith of Wilmette, mother of two boys, 15 and 10. "We're women who, due to careers or being picky about the kind of men we want, just decided to do this. We do it with money in the bank, a job and a plan for how we're going to take care of these children. We're more mainstream. That has given us legitimacy."

In 2004, births to unmarried women hit a record high 1.5 million in the United States. Nearly half were to women in their 20s, an upward trend in the age of unwed mothers as the teen birth rate declined. Meanwhile, the birth rate for women 35 to 49 increased.

"Twenty years ago, people were shocked, surprised and worried. These days they say, 'My friend's sister did that and it sounds like it's working out fine,' " said Jane Mattes, founder of Single Mothers by Choice, a 2,000-member organization with chapters nationwide. "The way women looked at themselves changed so dramatically in the late '60s and through the '70s. Women were becoming prime ministers, they were leading countries, they had high-powered careers, were earning more money, and seeing themselves as potential heads of households."

'Very wanted, very loved'

Mattes, 62, a social worker, accidentally got pregnant at 37 and decided to go ahead solo. In 1994, she wrote Single Mothers by Choice: A Guidebook for Single Women Who Are Considering or Have Chosen Motherhood (Three Rivers Press, $15).

"These kids are very wanted, very loved, and are coming out well for the most part," she said. Her son, now 25, "didn't drop out of high school, he didn't go to jail."

Morrell agrees that single moms can nurture happy kids.

"Do I think my situation is better than a well-adjusted two-parent family? No," said Morrell, a management consultant with an MBA, who works from home with a full-time nanny. "Do I think it's better than an unhealthy or rancorous environment where people are divorced or not getting along? Yes. Bottom line, my daughter is happy and healthy."

Morrell underwent physical and psychological tests before donor insemination (DI). She chose a donor with a high IQ and an MBA. She has a childhood photograph of him, and a tape of him talking. She became pregnant on the second try.

When she was six months pregnant, Morrell moved from her singles "party house" on Clark Street to a house facing a park in a family-oriented city neighborhood. Her parents stayed with her for several months after Krista was born. In April, they moved to a house across a courtyard from a close cousin, her husband and their 5-year-old son.

Need family support network

"I felt it was not a choice, it was a mandate," Morrell said. "It's really tough to be a single parent when you don't have a family support network. The difference for my daughter here is amazing."

Morrell learned through an online donor registry that Krista has about a half-dozen siblings, but says she'll leave it to Krista, when she's old enough, to decide if she wants to meet them.

Wendy Love's path to motherhood led her to an orphanage in Belarus. The infant once known as Svetlana is now 5-year-old Brianna Jean Love.

"I had been divorced almost 12 years at the time. I was 45. It just kind of came upon me gradually that I wasn't going to be a parent unless I did something myself about it," said Love, a senior vice president at Golin Harris Communications. "The more I researched, I thought 'This is really something I want to do.' "

"From the minute I got there, I picked her up, she snuggled in, and we were attached. She reminds me of my younger sister, who is blond with hazel eyes," Love said. "Now that we've been together all this time, she's adopted my walk and my mannerisms somehow."

With planning, Love was able to accumulate a three-month leave. Her family, a host of friends with children, even her ex-husband, are her support system. Love hired a full-time, in-home baby-sitter. This year, Brianna started kindergarten.

"There are people who don't like the idea of raising a child without a dad. They think I'm somehow depriving her of half a family," Love said. "But nobody who knows me, who knows my specific case, has given me any trouble. She's the best thing that ever happened to me and I'm trying to be that to her. People raise children at all socioeconomic levels. There are a lot of children who need a better home than an orphanage or foster care provides."

With high-powered jobs and high-energy kids, these single mothers admit they are stretched every which way.

"I definitely thought I was going to have another child," Morrell said. "Then, when I saw how it's taxed me to the max -- in a good way, this is what I wanted to do -- but I couldn't imagine how much it requires in terms of resources, financially, and it's physically really taxing. I have this wonderful thing in my life, but huge worries about being the breadwinner. The best thing that has happened to me in my life is this little girl."

Shift toward acceptance

Researcher Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, is a surprising supporter of these women. She wrote the essay "Dan Quayle Was Right" in response to the former vice president's strident opposition to the fictional TV character Murphy Brown's choice of single motherhood. In the intervening 13 years, she wrote Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the Single Woman (Broadway Books, $15), a book on the collapse of traditional courtships, and watched the cultural shift toward acceptance of the single motherhood choice.

"I think there was an economic calculus there that made it OK from a public policy/public values standpoint. Moral arguments were much weaker, even when they involved a child's desire to have a father, or the evidence that kids did better if they had two parents. Those were not as persuasive arguments, ultimately, as it being a private decision. We are a pretty libertarian country, and afford you a lot of freedom in your private life as long as you are responsible financially and not a burden on the public."

'I figured it was my fate'

Lana Johnson, a Cook County public defender, had a surprise pregnancy when she was 38. With 17 years on the job and a strong support system of friends, "I figured I was in a good place financially and emotionally, and although I was not married to her father, I figured it was my fate" to become a mother, Johnson said. "As time has gone on, I have become more convinced that it is my place in the universe to raise this child," Johnson said. "I think she is going to make a difference in the world. She's something else."

A roomful of women were present for when Johnson gave birth to Catherine five years ago, and friends have remained a key source of help and support. Johnson's mother, who is retired, "comes up and stays for weeks at a time, particularly if I'm doing a jury trial." Despite a helping "village," Johnson admits single motherhood "is a challenge, it pulls you in all directions."

"There is no way I would have another child," she said. "This one I want to do it right."

Still, she says, "I come to work and see all these ugly things that happen to people. Then I come home to my daughter and it's unconditional love. It's so rewarding."