I was ready for kids at age 28—and well aware that women's fertility starts to plummet at 35. When I saw my doctor that fateful year, she asked me if I wanted children. "Yes," I replied. "Definitely." With a stern look, she snapped, "Well, you're not getting any younger!"
Thanks for the news flash, I thought. What kind of idiot does she think I am?
I was a romantic, procrastinating idiot, to be exact. Despite my clear intellectual understanding of the issues involved, it took me until age 38 before I seriously started thinking about single motherhood, and even then, I had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming by my biological clock, which was starting to sound more like a car alarm.
How did I get to this point? Thirteen years earlier, I dragged my then–life partner, Joan, to a six-week gay and lesbian parenting seminar in San Francisco, where we lived at the time.
We learned about the legal, medical, and logistical issues around having kids outside of a heterosexual marriage, then joined a monthly brunch group. Over coffee and potluck in Berkeley or Bernal Heights, 15 or 20 of us would sit around someone's living room discussing our childbearing dreams.
Here was mine: Having grown up without a dad (he died before I turned two), I really wanted a known donor—a friend who would be in my baby's life. Joan and I would then each bear a child, performing the inseminations at home, by candlelight, and we'd all live happily ever after. Right.
Ten years and three breakups later, I was single, living in Manhattan, and no closer to motherhood. I joined another parenting group: Single Lesbians Considering Motherhood. We were all 38. This being the big city, there was neither potluck nor living room. Twelve of us sat around a grim conference table and talked about the terrors of being single mothers.
My biggest fear went something like this: Was it fair to the child to have only one parent and no dad? Month after hideous month, I spun out elaborate scenarios of my future 15-year-old's painful psychological struggle with his or her unusual birth circumstances, and I'd cry for him. Or her.
Sure, everything I'd read about alternative families said the kids do just fine—studies show most have a surprising lack of angst, or even interest, regarding their unusual roots. But try telling that to the black hole of worry that had taken up residence in my psyche.
When I wasn't keening over my potential child's imaginary angst, I worried about myself. Was it fair to me to become a single parent? Could I even do it? Would I die of loneliness? Or die young—leaving my as-yet-unborn child alone? Would I become a crazy over-involved mom with nothing else in my life? Would I ever have a romantic life again? What if I couldn't afford it? What if I didn't sleep for 10 years?
One of the 43 women I interviewed for my book put it perfectly: "When I first made the decision, I'd go to bed and worry about what I'd cook for my 5-year-old."
I worried away the better part of three years. Then, when I hit 41, with my fertility window closing fast, I finally got my act together.
Romancing Potential "Dads"
My first task was finding a father. Even if he wasn't my partner, I figured, he'd be in the picture as an uncle figure. Uncle Dad. I summoned my courage and asked a close friend, my gay ex-boyfriend Xavier, to father my child, envisioning the tall, handsome half Latin off spring he'd give me.
Xavier was a sensitive intellectual, the kind of guy who, in college, could be found pureeing squash for a soup or reading Rilke—in the original German. In my fantasy, he'd introduce the kids to high art and literature. Plus, he was smart, sweet, good-looking, and I loved him. (I had this crazy idea about wanting to make a baby with someone I actually loved!) And Xavier was a slam dunk—he'd offered to be the donor for Joan and me years earlier.
After I popped the question, I sat back and waited nervously for his "yes," falling more deeply in love with my fantasy children, imagining their trips to South America to visit their cousins. I'd have to learn Spanish, of course. But a few months later, Xavier said no. He'd had a distant father, he said, and didn't want to repeat that pattern.
I was crushed, but I was also on the clock. After a month of licking my wounds, I worked up the nerve to ask my good friend Jim, the only other man I could imagine taking this huge step with. No again. I calmly thanked him—then began sobbing the moment I got off the phone.
I was heartbroken: I knew this meant I had to give up on the dream of giving my child a father, and I so badly wanted my child to have what I had not.
With a real dad for my kid off the table, I became totally immobilized. In fact, I might have stayed frozen forever if it weren't for Roberta, my straight, married best friend from high school.
She, proud mother of a one-year-old, hounded me, prodded me, called me long distance (incessantly) to say, and not gently: Do it. Do not wait another minute. You could lose your chance.
Courting Perfect Strangers
So I scraped myself off the couch and started looking at sperm banks. It turns out there are dozens sprinkled all across the country, and most have websites. Searching for a donor from a drop-down menu feels like online dating meets 10th grade biology (remember Mendel's hybrid pea plants?) meets the American Kennel Club.
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