The Single Most Important Thing to Know Before Becoming a Single Parent
S1: This was not plan A. It wasn’t like I grew I was growing up and thinking one day I’m going to buy sperm on the Internet and that’s how I’m going to have my family that was never planning what really.
S2: Welcome to How To I’m science writer David Epstein, deciding whether or not to have a kid that might be the most anxiety inducing decision imaginable. We actually did a whole episode on it a while back called How to Decide Whether to Have a Baby. We brought in author Cheryl Strayed to help our listener decide if it was the right time for her and her husband to have a kid. Spoiler alert we heard back from a few months ago and they now have their very own bundle of joy. But all right. That was a couple. The decisions much tougher when you’re making it solo. And that’s the situation our listener this week finds herself in.
S3: My name is Stacy and I am a 32 year old woman who is living in Washington State. And I am getting my masters in special education.
S2: Stacey reached out to us now because she was diagnosed with a medical condition that makes it more difficult to have children.
S3: So I have endometriosis and I went to a new doctor and basically he asked me, would you consider getting pregnant in the next six months to a year? And that was a huge question to be asked. I’m a single woman and I just started thinking maybe I would want to be a parent by myself. Maybe that would be a consideration. And that is kind of a big, brave new world for me.
S2: Stacey always imagined herself having kids, but not quite like this.
S3: I thought, you know, oh, I would meet somebody, would fall in love, get married and a couple of years later have kids. But if I go by that long timeline that I imagined in my teens and 20s, that might not be realistic.
S2: And so what sort of the array of options that you you are considering? I mean, you know, with adoption on the table are sort of what’s what would you consider
S3: all of them? I mean, adoption, fostering, maybe trying to have, you know, my own biological children with a sperm donor. I mean, there are a lot of ways to create a family, and I am open to all of them.
S2: Stacey’s putting a ton of pressure on herself. It’s not just the biological clock booming in her ear. She’s concerned that she might pass down some of her health issues. She feels conflicted about the ethics of bringing another person into a world facing challenges like climate change. But most of all, she worries about whether she can raise a child on her own.
S3: Is one parent enough? You know, I. Was lucky, I not only have two parents who love me, but I also have an extended family and I don’t know, I I’m not sure if you know what I be creating a family that starts out lacking something. That would be my biggest fear.
S2: As Stacey wrote in her original email to us, Am I crazy to choose single motherhood? Thankfully, we’ve got another solo mom to coach Stacy through the process.
S1: Well, I think so many people would say to me, you know, after I had my son, you’re so brave. You’re so brave to have done that. It’s sort of the way that people talk about people with cancer. They’ll say, you’re so brave, but I don’t know that it’s bravery. I think what we are is we’re loving or people who love.
S2: On today’s episode, How to Be a solo parent, therapist and author Lori Gottlieb opens up about her own decision to go it alone. And she’ll share parenting advice with Stacy that all of us can use no matter what form your family takes. We’ll be right back. Our listener, Stacey, always knew she wanted children back when she was in her 20s. She didn’t even have to say anything for her boyfriend to notice it.
S3: My younger cousins, I think they were toddlers at the time, and he saw me interacting with them. And he’s like, wow, you really want kids someday, don’t you? And I was like, Yeah, I do. I mean, obviously not any time soon, but yeah, someday that’s the plan. And he was like, I don’t know if that’s anything I would ever want. You know, it kind of became a fracture in our relationship. And so that was a big part of our breakup. I’ve always seen myself as a mom and I don’t want that role to disappear just because I haven’t found the right person romantically.
S2: Boyfriends aside, Stacy was surrounded by parents and kids who served as models for the kind of relationship she wanted to have.
S3: I think the most influential person I have in my life is my family friend, Amy. She and her husband Travis had a baby a couple of years after they got married. He had had cancer and so they had to do in vitro and they had their daughter and he passed away about six months later. So they had always planned on having a family. And, you know, a lot of those plans don’t just disappear when you lose your spouse. Right. And she had one embryo left. She thought, well, I’m either going to try this or it’ll work or it won’t end. Yeah, no, we have her son and he is seven.
S1: You know, Stacy, you said now we have a son. When you were talking about Amy’s second child, as in you are part of that village.
S3: And I wonder I didn’t realize I said that to you
S1: because I thought it was beautiful.
S2: This is psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb. She writes the Dear Therapist column for The Atlantic, and she’s the author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.
S1: And I wonder who’s who is in your village, would Amy be in your village if you were to do this, or who are the people that might say we in your case?
S3: Yes, Amy would be in my village. My parents say my dad’s been joking. He’s wanted grandchildren since I was about 20. My family just loves kids. And I was lucky because I grew up with a village. I know my extended family were definitely. Be there for me and help me,
S1: so Stacey is really clear that she has always wanted this and very much wants this. So I think that that is step one for me in my story. That was the same thing. I always knew that I wanted to be a parent. In my case, I didn’t have the same kind of medical timeline that was in my 30s. A friend had told me about online sperm banks that I had never heard of, though. So my son is now 15. So this was before it became very common knowledge. And so I thought she was kidding. She’s like they’re like dating sites, but for sperm donors. And I really thought she was making that up. And it was the first time that I thought this could be possible.
S2: At the time, Laurie says she was in a relationship that didn’t feel quite right.
S1: I think we both felt that way. And we’re both too afraid to kind of end the relationship. But I felt like maybe if we got married, we’d probably end up at some point either not getting along or having the same kinds of, you know, issues between us or even getting divorced. And then the child is going from household to household and then maybe there are stepparents involved and just all those complications. And I thought the more stable thing would be for the family to already be intact, meaning me. And then if I meet someone later, I meet someone later. And this gave me the courage to say, wait, I can do this. Ending this relationship won’t mean that I won’t become a parent.
S3: That really speaks to me because if I want to be a mom, I don’t want to have to settle to find a husband who might not be a great match for me.
S2: Realizing that she, like Lori, shouldn’t just settle for a not great match in order to have a kid, that’s an important lesson for Stacy. But what about the impact of solo parenting on the child?
S1: Yeah, what would it be like for that child to grow up with without a father, at least in the foreseeable future? I talked to a lot of other single parents about their experiences. And the kids that I did talk to were really reassuring. You know, would they want a second parent? Almost unanimously, yes. But did they feel this this emptiness or this whole or this like I wish that, you know, my my mother had never done this. Not at all. And so that was reassuring to me. I also knew, though, that, you know, my child is going to have one parent as a result of my desire. And I really struggled with that. So I think and I think that’s one of the things to Stacy about being a single parent, is that every decision you make, even if you have a village around you, is ultimately yours. And on the one hand, that might seem like very liberating, but on the other hand, I think it’s very paralyzing because there’s so much pressure to feel like you don’t have somebody else to run that by. And I want to say I’m I’m really glad that I made the decision I made it was literally the best decision of my life. But you have to go in eyes wide open.
S2: This brings us to our first thing to keep in mind, acknowledge that solo parenting, it’s inevitably going to be harder than dual parenting and not just because of the logistics, but you don’t have another person to share responsibility for making decisions. No passing the buck. But if you want children, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker. Examples of wonderful solo parent families about.
S1: Don’t worry about what other people think about your decision, if you want to have a biological child that’s valid, if you want to adopt, that’s valid, it doesn’t matter. This is your life and your family. So then the question for you is to really sit with how do I want to become a parent?
S2: So Stacey knows she wants to be a parent, but as Laurie will tell her, she should be ready for certain unique challenges, both public and private, that solo parents inevitably face. Stay with us. We’re back with Stacey and solo parent and therapist Lori Gottlieb. Lori says she still remembers the day not long after her son was born when she decided to go check out a museum opening.
S1: I took my son to the museum and I had him in the little baby carrier on my body. And I was looking at the art and an acquaintance saw me there and called from behind Hillary. And I turn around and there’s this baby. And the person was very confused because it was like, did I miss the wedding? What happened? And, you know, when I explained the situation and you’ll have to do a lot of explaining of, you know, I had him on my own. This person was like, oh, you’re so brave. You know, I could never do that. If I were married, the person would have said, oh, my gosh, congratulations. That’s amazing. Right? So there’s a lot of people who you have to get used to people’s reactions and know that it’s more about them and their own history and experiences than it is about you.
S2: Research shows that the number of single mothers by choice has risen in recent years, but solo parenting is still considered an unconventional route to parenthood. Did anyone try to persuade you not to have a child on your own when you were going through this decision process?
S1: Everybody, I will say everybody again, because it was so uncommon back then, people who really love me said things like, I want you to know what you’re doing here because it’s really, really hard and I can barely do it with my husband or my wife. Then there were people who very much had a moral difficulty with it. You know, they would say, how can you do this to the child? It’s so selfish they wouldn’t use those words. But that would be basically the speech. I think that the one thing that I really wanted to do was to raise a child in a loving household. And in my son’s case, I had to say, OK, who are going to be those other people in his life? So he has like he went through like the Jewish Big Brothers program and he has, you know, other male figures in his life. He he plays basketball. So he’s had coaches and and people like that. And there’s this great I want to say, I think it’s maybe like a YouTube channel. There’s this guy who does these videos of like if you don’t have a dad here, here, here’s all this information that maybe you don’t have, like how to tie a tie and how to shave and, you know, all those things. And my my father died last year, but up until then, my father was like, you know, his best friend.
S2: I mean, that’s a great piece of advice. Like, you intentionally sort of diversified relationships for your child anyway. I mean, that seems kind of beautiful. And by the way, I still suck at times. And shaving like YouTube is definitely a better father than I am for certain things. And and, you know,
S1: I will say something about about community, which is that the two parent households, it tends to be just the immediate family. They don’t really have the village in the same way. So, you know, there are certain ways of growing up. There are going to be different. But there are certain things that are going to be incredibly enriching to the experience of being a single child. That’s unique to the fact that there was one parent in the house.
S2: So here’s another insight. Remember what your child is uniquely gaining by having you as a parent, parenting is in a way like Twitter. No matter how great you’re doing, there’s always someone who has no stake in your life but who’s eager to make a disparaging comment. You can’t do anything about that. So focus on the good that you’re bringing into your child’s life and the people who are entirely supportive of you. Stacey, in thinking about the the village, do you have thoughts about who might sort of fill in any potential sort of relationship gaps for for your possible future child?
S3: I guess I’ve seen it with Amy’s kids, my dad and my brother and my uncles and my cousins. I mean, when her daughter was in elementary school, there was a father daughter dance and she went every year and everybody took turns. And I think there was a rock, paper, scissors bottle. At one point, you know, there was never a question that she would go to the father daughter dance. It was a question of who would go with her.
S2: Oh, that’s so sweet, Laurie. Are there sort of tips for that village building that you think are worthwhile sharing?
S1: When I was pregnant, I wrote to various guy friends that I was close with and asked them to have a role in my son’s life. I was really worried about sending them because I thought that they would think that I’m asking them to kind of be a surrogate father, which I wasn’t. And the responses I got were just so meaningful. And I’m really glad I did that. And I would say that even though there was a lot of, I think planning in my mind going on, the people that my son ended up being most close to, people he met along the way.
S2: Here’s another tip rely on the village of supporters you already have and keep an eye out for ways to expand it. You don’t have to plan that out ahead of time like Laurie did when she wrote letters to her male friends. You just have to be open to the possible relationships that might develop organically in your child’s life. So as Laurie has talked about the after the decision and actually having a child in the question you sent in, you mention does it make dating harder? And I think that’s a very legitimate concern, too. And I’m curious, Laurie, how you think about that?
S1: Well, I think it depends on your age. So I think, Stacy, you said you’re in your early 30s right now. Yes. When you’re in your early 30s, it might make dating harder because I think that a lot of people are not ready to take on a family that is already existing at that age. Of course, there are people. So I don’t want to say there aren’t any. I just I just I’m I’m giving you my realistic assessment and experience. But I think that once you get to about 40 people start divorcing and you become just like one of the many people out there who comes with a kid, you become very appealing when it comes to the people in the dating pool who do have kids because you don’t have all that all those complications of an ex
S2: says could go from like a competitive disadvantage in dating to a competitive advantage with like a modicum of age.
S1: It’s also it’s also a competitive advantage for people who want kids. But they never had their own kids. And I think ultimately, when you find the person that you want to be with, whether they have kids or they don’t have kids or they have exes or they don’t have exes, people make all kinds of accommodations. When they are, they found the person they want to be with and they know they want to be with them.
S2: So just like you’re setting up your child for new relationships, trust that you’ll find them to, again, the people you really want in your life. They’re not the ones who are going to be deterred because your family doesn’t look like a Norman Rockwell painting. This is just listening to Lori’s experience. Does it tweak your thinking at all about, uh, becoming a solo parent or I’m just curious what you’re thinking listening to Lori.
S3: Um, it sounds so familiar. I mean, every thought I’ve had, it sounds like you’ve had it to Lori. And I feel like I’ve spent so much time thinking about all of the options and I don’t know, is there something I’m missing? Is there a question I’m not asking? Is there something I don’t even know to know?
S1: I’m going to make that really easy for you, Stacy. There is no such thing as the perfect parent. If you want an exercise in humility, become a parent. You will find out there is so much that we don’t know. And that has nothing to do with your status as a single parent or a married parent or partner. Parent kids are all about uncertainty. And I think that that’s the the issue with this decision for you is that you’re waiting for like this perfect alignment of no ambivalence of being 100 percent sure about everything. And when you’re when you have a partner, people don’t kind of wring their hands over this so much. Right. They’re like, yeah, we want to be parents. And, you know, when when you find out your friends are pregnant, we’re not like, why did you decide to have a biological child? We never say that to people.
S2: I’m going to try that, though.
S1: It’s just it’s so unfair. You start to see the discrepancies between what what solo parents are put through and and what couples parents are asked. And I think being a parent is really a job of discovery. It’s discovering who your child is. It’s not making assumptions about who they are, but really going through that process of discovering who is this person and how can I support this person in who they are. And that doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. It means you have to let that child be who that child is. And sometimes I think that’s the hardest part of being a parent.
S2: That’s that’s beautifully put, Lori. And that actually reminded me of something I thought about a long time. But I wrote a book some years back on genetics and didn’t really write about behavioral genetics, but went through a lot of that literature in preparation. And it actually made me feel a lot more comfortable becoming a parent because parents often aren’t micromanaging aspects of their child the way they may think they are as like, you know, carving them from a from a blank slate, so to speak, and much more, helping them discover who they are and fit the environment around them to that.
S1: Person, right, the part that makes a difference is that you’re giving that child the environment in which to thrive, and that’s very different from micromanaging. It’s about really being emotionally present for the child. I think it’s one of those gratifying aspects of being a parent is to be that way because we’re not really that way with anybody else when you think about it.
S2: This brings us to our final insight. Any kind of parenting is going to feel incredibly uncertain and nobody’s got it all figured out. You can’t perfectly plot out the future for your child. And realizing that can actually be somewhat free no matter what stage of parenthood you’re at.
S3: It seems less scary knowing that there’s other people out there and somebody who has been doing solo parenting for 15 years and seems to have a happy, healthy son who, you know, loves her. And it’s really reassuring to have somebody tell me it’s not selfish to want a kid.
S2: Lori, just last question for you. Have you ever talked with your son about your decision process to become a solo parent?
S1: Oh, from the very beginning. OK, so here’s here’s a funny story. When he was in preschool, they had a tradition on birthdays that you come in with your parents. I say plural. You come in with your parents and you talk about and you tell the story of the day you were born. So my son and I are on these chairs, these little tiny chairs. You know, it’s preschool and you can barely fit on them as an adult. And and he’s telling the story and he’s like, so then my mom got these magic seeds. And from a nice man, like, I did not know he was going to do this. This was not I thought was going to be like, you know, and then, you know, he was born and then, you know, like I wasn’t going to, like, tell this whole story. So he’s he’s just going on and on about the magic seeds and the man. And then somebody asked a question about like, well, did your did your did you grow in your mother’s tummy? And he said, no, I grew in her uterus because it was like, you know, for not wrong.
S2: I like this. This kid is going to be OK.
S1: Right. But it was it was really funny because he was telling the story and the other kids, instead of being judgmental, they were like fascinated by this. And so I think, you know, before people take on the cultural ideas about what is OK and what is not OK, they were like, that’s so cool. Right. You know, and the fact that, like, he knew all of this and he was fine with it and he was so unselfconscious about it
S2: as he’s gotten older, have those conversations change? Like, do you update it every few years to be like from magic seeds to like, you know, like more biologically? I mean, maybe no.
S1: I mean, he’s 15, like, he gets sex, right. So, I mean, it’s an ongoing it’s not like you have one conversation, you have a sit down every year and you say, let’s talk about the circumstances of your conception. Right. Just it’s integrated into your life. You know, I think when they’re little, it’s like, well, why don’t I have a dad, right? Or like, why do some families have two moms or two dads or one dad or one mom or they have a multigenerational family. So being able to tolerate the fact that your kid probably would want another parent and also that they have a great life and being able to sit with my son and be able to hear, yeah, it would be nice in this circumstance to have a dad. And also I’m a really happy kid. And to be able to to hold both of those things for him, I think is really a gift that you give your child.
S2: Thank you to Stacey for sharing your story with us and to Lori Gottlieb for all her useful advice. Be sure to check out her book. Maybe you should talk to someone. And if you happen to be dreading a certain annual conversation that Laurie alluded to, check out our episode, how to Talk to your son about sex. Do you have some other parenting question or just any other question? Send us a note at how to add Slate dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. How TOS executive producers Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Harness Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director, Charles Duhigg is hanging out with his kids.
S4: I’m David Epstein. See you next time.