A woman ran after me as I left a friend’s party and asked if I thought she should be trying to get pregnant. This happens to me a lot.
When I was 38 and single I started fertility treatment, and a month after turning 39 I had twins. In the three years since, single women in their late 30s — at the office, at baby showers, on the phone after friends pass on my number — have been seeking me out for advice.
It is hard to counsel someone you have known for 40 minutes, but I tried to answer the woman from the party with the questions I had asked myself at that stage. Did having a baby matter more to her than finding a partner? If, 10 years from now, she found herself with a child but no partner or with a partner but no child, which would be the worse outcome?
I didn’t ask if she’d considered the possibility that having a baby alone undermines the sanctity of marriage, offends God, contributes to the rise of “designer babies” and is leading us on a path to the death of men and, ultimately, the extinction of the species, because louder voices than mine have these bases covered.
“Maybe I should just try to get pregnant with the next man I date,” she said gloomily, and I felt my face go full sucked lemon.
“I wouldn’t. Apart from anything else, they can smell the desperation.”
This was not, it seemed to me, the kind of conversation adult women should be having in 2018.
Most of us understand, at least in theory, that marriage is not an achievement but a choice. We have learned to value ourselves apart from the value the dating market puts on us. We own our power and, in some cases, our apartments. We try not to go around saying things like “all the good ones are gone.”
And yet for women who want children and find themselves single or kind of single in their late 30s, the options remain limited. You can get lucky. You can get promiscuous. As essayists pop up every few years to remind us, you can “settle” for someone you’re not really into, if you can find someone abject enough to agree.
You can, as I have seen friends do, jump at the first sign of romance, moving from New York to St Louis or the West Coast or Bali to be with a man. (“I win!” said the one who went to Bali.) No man I know has, in the early stages of a relationship, ever moved to where his girlfriend was living.
Or you can pull the emergency cord and have a baby alone.
It was easier for me, because I had recently embarked on a same-sex relationship. I didn’t know if it would last, but I knew that whatever happened, I would probably be needing a sperm donor and could at least shelve the anxiety that having a baby alone would “put off” a man down the line.
And yet while I very much liked the person I was seeing, neither of us wanted to have a baby together. I’ve found that this decision — to be sort of with someone, but neither to live together nor to be a co-parent — is more baffling and annoying to people than the decision to have a baby alone. It is perverse. It is “selfish.”
“Why don’t you move in together?” asked a male friend, and when I replied, “We don’t want to,” he said glumly, “Nobody wants to. You just have to.”
Make no mistake: Choosing to conceive a baby alone via fertility treatment is a luxury afforded the few. Single parenthood is, for the most part, not a matter of choice. Of the 10 million single parents in the United States, most of whom are women, more than 40 percent have children who live below the poverty line.
There is still something thrilling about the fact that single women now outnumber married women in the United States. I have a fantasy that, 10 years from now, it’ll be the men who will be scrambling to lock down a woman to have kids with before she ups and has kids on her own. The increased availability, affordability and social acceptability of elective single motherhood should radically change the dating landscape for women in their mid- to late childbearing years, evening out the balance of power with men.
This is probably optimistic. Early studies suggest that the children of single mothers by choice are just as well-adjusted as children of two-parent households. And yet having kids alone is hard, and expensive, and still too marginal a choice to be considered by a vast majority of women.
Nevertheless, sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that in lots of ways it’s easier than the alternative. You make decisions more quickly. (There is nothing more satisfying to single parents than watching a couple with a baby try to arrive at a decision: “Should we take his temperature? What do you think? No, what do you think?”) No one’s career thrives at the expense of her or his other half’s, and there is no chance of a custody suit. There are no fights about who should get up in the middle of the night, because that person will always be me.
If these are Pyrrhic victories, they confer real psychological benefits. It takes a certain amount of courage to have a baby alone, and the relief of reaching the other side has never worn off. Being a single parent pushes you outward. I lean on my neighbors to a degree I never would have in a two-parent unit; my friends are family in deeper ways than they might otherwise have been. I have finally learned, at the age of 42, to ask for help.
I wanted to tell that woman from the party that the hardest thing about parenting alone isn’t doing it but deciding to do it. I wanted to tell her that whatever decision she made, there would be women, and men, who would receive it as a rebuke to their own choices, and that this would continue to be the case until women cease to be valued on the basis of whether they’re in relationships or have children.
Mainly I wanted to tell her that while I am always exhausted, frequently broke and occasionally sensitive to the judgments of others, my choice to have children is the best thing I have done or will ever do, and that if she wants to do it, it is eminently doable. “I’d get on with it if I were you,” I said.
Emma Brockes is a contributor to The Guardian and the author of the forthcoming “An Excellent Choice: Panic and Joy on the Solo Path to Motherhood,” from which this essay is adapted.
Originally published in The New York Times.