I have always wanted children—always.
Not in the kind of way that involved carrying baby dolls as a child or writing a list of names by 8th grade, but rather, in the “this child is the result of our mutual love” kind of way.
In all my fantasies from a young age, having a child always involved love with a partner first.
But the right timing with the right partner hasn’t happened. The marriage I had in my early 30s that I thought would include starting a family ended in a divorce when I was 35. And now I am 40.
Does motherhood matter enough to me to use a sperm donor to bring a new life into this world as a single mother? For the past few years, I have been wrestling with the idea.
Unfortunately when I pose this question to myself, my mind and body pull in opposing directions. My inner compass spins as if it’s at the North Pole.
Biology is a B*tch.
A week after my 40th birthday this past October, my body became possessed. My boyfriend snuggled up behind me in a perfectly normal and suggestive way. My response? I became hysterical. He had told me bluntly that he never wanted children soon after we met earlier in the year and I thought I was okay with it, having gone through this decision the previous year.
But my mind and body were in disagreement.
I started weeping uncontrollably and every feeling I ever felt about wanting to be a mother came rushing out. It felt so urgent and important. My tears didn’t stop for weeks—I told him we couldn’t be together anymore. I needed—and I mean needed—to have a baby. I was surprised by the intensity of feeling as I thought I had settled this question after similar drama on my 39th birthday.
At that time, I took my longing very seriously. I went on a voyage of inquiry by looking through donor banks, buying fertility books, reading single mother forums, talking to other single mothers, taking supplements and tracking my ovulation. I came to the decision that I wanted to be in a committed partnership more than I wanted motherhood as a single person.
Through all this, I always kept coming back to this: Who is the person that really matters here? It really isn’t me; it’s the child.
And I realized the question that was really burning for me was: Does fatherhood matter?
The catch is that I believe fatherhood matters tremendously. In the summer of 2015 I left New York City after living there for 15 years to move to California to be closer to my aging father.
My parents were divorced in 1980 and two years later I moved with my mother from California to Washington, D.C. Subsequently, I grew up almost entirely with my single mother on the East Coast. Flying as an “unaccompanied minor” I visited my father and his new family only on alternating holidays. This is was the early 80s and it seems coparenting and therapy had not actually been invented yet. And for many years I deeply resented this aspect of my childhood.
Yet as an adult I knew I could create a new experience for my family—and part of that is to have the relationship with my father I felt I never really had earlier in my life.
In August 2015, I moved to a house that’s a 15-minute walk away from him in San Francisco. I help drive him to do his errands. I see him at least once a week. And it’s been a tremendous gift in my life. I have spent more time with my father in the last three months than I did combined over the last decade. It’s also a challenge as our relationship has shifted from an email-and-phone based one, to an in-person one. And it turns out both me and my father have extremely strong opinions, often opposing, about a whole lot of things.
However, no matter the ups and downs, I value the experience of knowing my father in this regular kind of way. The decision to deprive another person of that experience would be a difficult one. Who am I to say my needs to have a child are greater than the needs of a child to have a relationship with his or her father?
Then there is the research. There are studies that talk about “genetic bewilderment” and identity confusion among kids who have a sperm-donor father.
There is also part of me that does not completely believe that motherhood matters—or at least that it matters less. It is a baffling thing to acknowledge. I moved further away from my mother when I left New York City; we argue on the phone and she is hurt that we’re not better friends. It’s a difficult relationship for both of us.
Even as I muddle through my own complex feelings about motherhood, I know my own mother’s experience of single parenting can be bittersweet—and part of that is because I can be a temperamental, moody brat of an adult only-child at times.
What is parenthood anyway?
These days it seems that I know as many gay couples having children through adoption, donors and surrogacy as I do straight couples. I know single parents who have adopted and gone down the donor route; I know singles and couples who have fostered. I know people who step-parent. I know parenthood is available to me if I want it.
So why can’t I pull the trigger?
One afternoon several years ago I was walking home after work up Sixth Avenue to the Upper West Side, and I caught a reflection of myself in a store window and I had a complete and pure understanding of a single thought: Motherhood will disappoint you.
That intensity of insight that I experienced in that moment was singular. It was so jarring and unlike all my other thoughts it has stayed with me ever since.
The message was Tarot-like. A kind of underhanded and spooky way to show me that everything I want out of the experience of motherhood has nothing to do with a child at all.
What I really seek, beyond the physical or tactical act of motherhood, is simply to have a sense of intimacy with life. To deeply care for and know another being, to offer oneself selflessly and without reservation. To be another daisy in the daisy chain of life.
In my experience that happens in many different ways—sometimes for a moment (that stranger with whom I shared the most sorrowful hug in the days after 9/11) and sometimes for years (my relationship with my dog Wayne) and always through my spiritual practice.
I envy the child-free women who knew from an early age that motherhood was not going to be their path. And I envy the women who are happy mothers, single or partnered.
For those of us who find ourselves with a foot in each camp, it’s a road that requires a lot of spiritual work in the form of awareness, acceptance and action. We have to dig and dig and dig to find those single truths that burn like pilot lights—and then trust that those will illuminate the right path.
Just as I have mentally noted all the women and men who chose to venture in parenthood in alternative ways, I have been collecting stories of those who did not.
A friend of mine, who is now in her late-50s, spent a decade trying with her husband—miscarriage followed after miscarriage—and they never had a child. As we walked in the woods one fall afternoon she said she felt happy that it had never come to be. I hold on to that—especially when the tears come like they did after my birthday—to know that one day it won’t feel as intense.
What I have come to is this: The thing that really matters for me is present-hood, not motherhood. And that is the place, at age 40, of shedding of the old ideas I have about what it means to be a mother or not be a mother, or to have a partner or not have a partner, and to be a woman.
The work is to accept the life I am in rather than trying to change it.
If intimacy with life is what I seek, I can do that without the gymnastics of becoming a single parent or spending the next few years doing more dating (an excruciating undertaking). I expect that my biological compass may continue to spin for a few more years.
For now though, I am staying in what matters: the now.
Author: Catherine New
Assistant Editor: Lindsay Carricarte / Editor: Travis May
Image: Hernán Piñera/Flickr