My preparation for single motherhood began when I was a child. I started saving money for a baby when I was 14. I stowed away children's books, sentimental toys and baby clothes I once wore or bought on clearance or from thrift stores. My magazine subscriptions were to Seventeen and Babytalk. While my friends yearned to find the right man to marry someday, I fantasised about finding lost babies in the woods or adopting a child as soon as I turned 18 (the youngest age allowed in Massachusetts).
So when I became a single mum recently at age 31 - after a decade and a half of preparation and 11 cycles of trying to get pregnant (I used various methods: known-donor in-a-cup vaginal insemination, my own anonymous bank sperm, and intrauterine insemination with a midwife) - it was no accident. When people ask me "Where's Jessey's dad?" I often get perplexed, sympathetic or tight-lipped responses to the answer: He doesn't have one. Those responses surprise me because loving families exist in so many different configurations and come about in so many different ways. But our culture tends to pity and shame single mothers. There's an assumption that single motherhood results from women's poor decisions and that parenting alone can't possibly be a fit way to raise children. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe a child needs both a mother and a father to grow up happily. Seven out of 10 think single women having children is bad for society.
I've never seen it that way. Being a single mum is an experience I have craved for as long as I can remember. Women who become single mothers against their desires have a different story than mine. As a young teen, I romanticised even the mundane experiences: balancing night classes with kids' homework and tucking them in bed (leaving on a soft light). I imagined walking, with socked feet, into our tiny living room, picking up a car or a doll from the floor and wiping oatmeal from the arm of a chair, before spreading my homework or a book I was writing on our table. Raising children alone didn't seem like a struggle to avoid, but rather an exciting opportunity to come up with creative and clever solutions for daily living. I might not buy my kids new clothes or send them to expensive summer camps, but we would sleep in forts and make scavenger hunts and learn new languages. I didn't imagine we'd be rich; I imagined we'd be happy.
For me, being the best mother I can be means being a mum alone, at least for now. I want to devote myself to motherhood, something I fear I can't do with the additional demands of a partnership. Romantic relationships can occupy a lot of mental and emotional energy. I'm not sure I could balance being both a solid partner and mother right now.
Single motherhood also eliminates the stress and complications that arise from incompatible parenting approaches and values in a two-parent home. Thinking of my friends and acquaintances with inadequate partners, I wonder why more people don't choose single motherhood. Parenting alone allows me to make the best decisions for my son without needing to compromise for a partner's differing personal beliefs, needs or career demands. I understand that this might sound like I'm a dictator needing total control, but that's not my motivation. I want to have the freedom to always act in my son's best interest. Because I've spent a lot of time preparing for motherhood, I can be very opinionated when it comes to where he should go to school, the type of health care he should receive and what kinds of values and beliefs are important in guiding our family.
There's an assumption that a child raised with one parent suffers because that adult can't devote as much time and energy to the child. I'm a single mum precisely because I want to give my son more of my time and energy. Outside of the eight hours each weekday that I spend working as a paraeducator and running errands - when he's either in daycare or with my mum - Jessey is my focus: We're playing, eating, reading or doing chores together.
Skeptics point to the higher rates of poverty, school dropouts and behavioural problems among children raised by one adult. But single-parent families differ in important ways not acknowledged in these generalised statistics. There can be significant differences between children growing up in intentional families and those in unplanned families. Intentional families get a running start, regardless of how many parents there are. To be clear, I don't intend to imply that children in unintended families will necessarily be worse off. There are many resilient parents and children who develop secure bonds and loving families. But when a parent plans to have a child, they're more likely to have the resources and mindset necessary to raise a supported and well-adjusted child.
Research backs this up. Financial insecurity, more likely when a family is unplanned, accounts for up to half of the higher risk of negative educational outcomes for children in single-parent families, according to a report from the Center for Law and Social Policy. Divorce, remarriage, sudden uprooting and weak connection to adults outside of the home accounts for even more of the risk. These are all things that I can mitigate. From birth, Jessey had a village of friends, aunts and other adults to welcome him. In her 2012 New York Times piece "In Defense of Single Motherhood," Katie Roiphe notes that research suggests that a stressful, conflict-ridden home with two parents is more damaging than a stable home with one parent. She rightly concludes that "What matters most, it should go without saying, is the kind of parent you are."
Single motherhood is no longer an unusual choice, and many single mums don't reflect the stereotype. Most do not live in poverty, use food stamps or go to food pantries. In fact, 33 percent have annual incomes above $50,000, according to Census data (that's well above the poverty level). About 42 percent have some college education. For those of us single mothers who have trouble making financial ends meet and may receive assistance, to be socially stigmatised and shamed generates a negative psychological trend.
The challenges I face are the same as many coupled parents who work. It feels like there's never enough time. I've gotten used to filtering essential needs with things that can wait. It is not unusual for me to have four or five loads of clean unfolded laundry stacked in a corner, and a pile of it-can-wait mail on my desk. Nutritious dinners, time to read and sleep almost always get bumped before folding laundry. I am very conscious of the precious time I have when Jessey naps and the occasional golden 20 minutes in the morning when he sleeps later than me. Those are the times when I rush to brew a cup of coffee, organise his bottles, repair a broken toy or Google a nagging question.
Yes, there are times when I get swallowed by everyday stress. But in my attempt to juggle it all I'm learning to engage Jessey in the process. At 20 months, he already helps me with household tasks. Washing dishes is his favourite. At first, he would sit in a bucket in the sink, rinsing dishes that I had washed. Now he stands in a safety stand in front of the sink with a soapy sponge and scrub brush of his own. Sometimes he hands me the rinsed dishes to load into the dishwasher. As he gets older, I want to further instill this idea of family work and have him be part of planning a business and use money for things he wants to buy, save for, or give to others. Kids learn life skills and gain confidence and respect by contributing to the house in meaningful ways.
After two decades of pining for a child, it finally happened. I am older than I envisioned; I have the first of my grey hairs and wrinkles. But as I did in my youth, I still question the assumption that the nuclear family is the best way to raise kids. As a single mum, I feel freedom in being able to choose where Jessey and I will live and the ability to devote my focus to his well-being. I can't say with certainty that I will never want a partner. But for now, my focus is on raising a child, and I am still at the beginning of that journey.