Having It All
No Dad? No Problem. Meet the Moms Who Opt In Forever—and Aren’t Complaining- by Paula Szuchman
At 35, Talia Braude left her job at a high-end architecture firm in Manhattan to be her own boss.
At 38, she bought a vial of sperm, via the California Cryobank, from a guy with blue eyes who is an avowed atheist.
At 39, she became a single mom.
Talia and her baby boy, now 10 weeks old, live in a fourth-floor walkup with a cat named Jini, in a Brooklyn brownstone she renovated with her business partner. As her own boss, she doesn’t exactly get paid maternity leave, so she went back to work pretty quickly, her sister helping out with the baby before a part-time sitter was hired. In a few weeks, the baby will go to day care.
If this isn’t the life Talia dreamed of back when she was 23, dating men she thought she might one day settle down with, then it’s a pretty f**king good alternative.
“It’s been great,” she told me recently over dinner. “My social life is better than ever. The baby sleeps, he never cries, I’m enjoying working, I’m enjoying everything more.”
We were at a restaurant in Park Slope, and Talia had walked there from her house in Bed-Stuy, pushing baby Rian in a stroller—that’s a 4.6-mile walk, if you’re curious. We ate, we drank wine, and at the end of the night, she hopped on a subway home, carrying Rian and about 15 pounds of gear.
I’ve known Talia for more than a decade, and I always considered her a hard worker (the woman not only has her own business, she makes her own clothes and churns her own butter). But it wasn’t until she told me she was having a baby by herself did it occur to me that “hard worker” doesn’t quite cut it. Unlike the much-maligned, married moms of the “opt-out generation,” Talia is what you might call an extreme opt-inner.
She can’t quit her job to stay home with Rian; there’s no one else around to pay the mortgage. She can’t go part time, either—at least not until he’s out of college. And let’s say she wanted to opt-out of parenting instead, just a little bit, just enough to focus on her career. Then who would pick Rian up from day care, or take him to the doctor when he wakes up with a 105-degree fever?
The amazing thing is that Talia’s not alone—in fact, there appear to be more Talias in this country every year. While birth rates for unmarried women age 34 and younger have fallen since 2007, they have actually been rising among women 35 and older. These are women who are more likely to be independent, financially stable, and making an active choice to raise children by themselves.
Jane Mattes started Single Mothers by Choice in her living room 32 years ago. Today, the group has chapters in roughly 35 cities and a database of 30,000 women who have been or are now members. Many are well off. According to a 2009 survey, 22.4 percent of SMCs, as members call themselves, earn between $100,000 and $149,999, and another 16.2 percent earn more than $150,000.
“I had an accidental pregnancy, whereas 90 percent of our membership now is using donor sperm,” says Mattes, a psychotherapist and single mother of a 32-year-old. “At the beginning it was more like 60 to 70 percent. Others were accidentally conceiving. Over the years, it’s become more and more purposeful.”
That sense of purpose is reflected in the group’s philosophy, which has its own section on the website:
The word “choice” in our title has two implications: we have made a serious and thoughtful decision to take on the responsibility of raising a child by ourselves, and we have chosen not to bring a child into a relationship that is not a satisfactory one.
“The beauty of being an SMC is we don’t have to be beholden to anyone else’s decision making about our lives. Whether they’re right or wrong. If we make mistakes, they’re ours to make,” said Jennifer Whitney, a 41-year-old New Jersey single mother I interviewed for this story. Whitney has a 6-month-old, and is a devoted follower of Suze Orman, whom she credits with making her a better saver (“I have a solid eight-month emergency plan in place,” she told me). “The flipside,” said Whitney, “is that you don’t have that extra support and you don’t have the luxury of a decision to stay at home and be with your kid even if you want to.”
Not that Whitney wants to opt out. She works from home, and her son goes to day care down the street. “In my 30s, a lot of friends were getting married and starting families, and some wouldn’t go back to work, and I would look at them and say, ‘How do you give up the freedom of having income to match your husband’s?’ Maybe it’s a control issue. I would have a hard time being fully dependent on someone else even if I were doing all the housekeeping.”
“We don’t have to be beholden to anyone else’s decision making about our lives. Whether they’re right or wrong. If we make mistakes, they’re ours to make.”
Cheri (who requested I use only her first name) is an SMC in Kansas where, she says, it’s not easy finding others like her. “My best friend and I were pregnant at the same time and the first year of our kids’ lives, she would say to me, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ I said. ‘I don’t know how you do it. I get to come home and focus on one thing, which is taking care of this very important person in my life. You have to do that and also maintain a marriage.’ So I really admire people who do that.”
Cheri’s son is now 9 and she’s 44. She said she read the recent New York Times Magazine piece “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” profiling three women who regretted their decisions to stop working a decade ago in order to be home with their kids, and mostly it made her feel good about the choices she’s made.
“It was a kind of validation of my choice and of the path I chose. Work for me is fulfilling, and the article reminded me that I don’t need to feel bad that I wasn’t always home when my son was little.”
The article has been a hot topic on SMC message boards in recent weeks. But people in general seem to react far less critically than the professional critics have (The Atlantic called it “bad social science”).
Maybe it’s because SMCs are naturally more accepting of other people’s decisions after years of people criticizing their own. It took Melessa Anderson three years, three rounds of IVF, and about $30,000 in out-of-pocket expenses before she got pregnant with twin boys at the age of 38. The market researcher works full time and has a nanny. She also has family nearby, and friends she knows she can count on in a pinch. But she still remembers the pain and isolation during those years of battling infertility. “I got pregnant quickly after the second round of IVF and I lost that baby very early, and there were people who said maybe that means you’re not supposed to have a kid. I had people say that.”
Rosanna Hertz is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wellesley College and the author of Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice. Hertz says one of the defining traits of SMCs is how much they planned for, and thought about, life as a parent before they took the plunge. “You rarely hear married women say, ‘Should I have a kid?’ When you’re married, you have license to do it. When you’re single, you ask around first. You ask friends and family to get on board and help you out. You’re already creating a village and not expecting to do it all alone. That’s a very different thing.”
Jessica (first name only), a single mother of two toddlers in Virginia, told me she talked about doing it for years with her close friends and family. She researched foreign adoption, then domestic adoption. Then decided to give it a shot on her own. She knew she wanted two, and that she wanted them spaced two and a half to three and a half years apart. Would she opt out if she could?
“If someone else was providing an income and I could work 25 hours a week, I’d love it. I’d love to be able to meet the bus after school and find the dance class that starts at 3 or 4 o’clock instead of 6,” says Jessica. “But would I want to be home full time? I’m pretty sure I’d lose my mind.”
Denise Koller worked on her budget for months before she started trying to get pregnant. “I have my savings and my retirement fund. I’m not well off but I’m OK. I own my apartment. I live a modest lifestyle. I probably have nine months of monthly expenses in the bank for an emergency. When you’re on your own, it’s a little more nerve-racking,” says Koller who, at 42, gave birth four months ago to a baby boy. She hired a nanny, which costs her $300 more a month than her local day care would—a cost she recoups by biking to work, bringing lunch, and curtailing vacations.
“At one time before I had Sam, I thought I’d love to take off time and travel and use my savings to do that. But clearly I don’t have that option. I’m a mom now,” says Denise, who works in risk management at a New York City reinsurance company (and is another fan of Suze Orman—what the heck, Suze?). “Sometimes my mind drifts back to that and how can we make it work. I think, maybe we can rent an RV!”
For Abigail Wolfson, nothing beats being a single mom, even if it means having to pay all the bills and work for the rest of her life. The pediatric nurse practitioner works at a New York public school, so she has summers off and a predictable schedule. With any luck, she can take her now 2-year-old daughter, Calliope, to work with her when it’s time for kindergarten.
“My life is totally drama free,” says Abigail, 38, who says she originally wanted to have a partner, but she never found the right person and the clock was ticking. The upshot: “I get to raise my child however I want. There’s no stress, no tension about child-rearing choices. Now I’m happy all the time. There’s not the emotional up and down. There’s never going to be custody disputes. She’ll never be taken away from me. I’ll never have that worry. It’s not as hard as people imagine.”
Are you a single mom—or the child of a single mom—who’s decided to opt in alone? Share your stories with us in the form below. Your name, email, and state are optional. If you provide an email address, an editor may contact you for a follow-up.