The New Moms on the Block

By Lise Funderburg

New Woman
January 1994

For Elizabeth*, a lawyer, the biological clock chimed when she was 37 years old. “I had just broken up from a very serious relationship,” she says, “and I realized I missed the potential father in Aaron more than Aaron himself.” Marriage might come along in a few—or 30—years, but in terms of having children, “the clock was ticking very loudly.”

Despite the breakups of marriages and careers demanding more and more of women’s time, the urge to have a family, to nurture and love children through adulthood, seems to be unconquerable. Indeed, in 1991 single mothers accounted for 29.5 percent of the 4.1 million babies born in this country, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Surprisingly, making the decision to become a parent may be easier than figuring out how to become one. Single women have more options than ever before but still face obstacles of access and attitude from a society that too often assumes marriage is a prerequisite for parenting. For all single women contemplating parenthood, it’s best to research all possibilities now rather than take a path you might later regret.

Getting Pregnant: The Search for Sperm

Of the 1,800 women who belong to Single Mothers by Choice (S.M.C.), a New York City-based support group with chapters in 20 cities, two thirds gave birth to children they conceived through sexual intercourse. “Many are like Murphy Brown,” explains Jane Mattes, a psychotherapist and single mother who started S.M.C. in 1981, when she was 38, a year after she gave birth to her son. “They were in a relationship and it was an accidental pregnancy, and they decided to go on with it. For others, it was a planned pregnancy, and then the couple broke up—maybe because of that, maybe not. The rest used artificial insemination [A.I.].”

For the past three years, Elizabeth has been trying to conceive through A.I. “I find that women who start out alone have given the decision whether to parent a lot more thought than married couples I know,” she says. But still, she was surprised by how emotionally draining the experience has been, constantly hoping the A.I. would be successful and, so far, constantly being disappointed. Her doctors have no explanation other than bad luck. “It never occurred to me that the attempt would take so long.”

Elizabeth is taking the conventional A.I. route, which means being inseminated twice monthly by a doctor who uses anonymous sperm from a sperm bank. Elizabeth left finding the sperm bank up to her doctor. (See box, “How to Find a Sperm Bank.”) Other women choose the sperm bank first, then either find a doctor to perform A.I. or, with training from some of the more progressive sperm banks or women’s health cooperatives, do it themselves at home.

According to the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, physicians reject four out of five women requesting insemination. Fifty percent are rejected because of their sexual orientation or marital status. And if the bank doesn’t have rules that require marriage, be warned that some doctors who perform A.I. do.

Sperm banks, which make it their business to collect sperm from donors who are usually paid a small fee for each “deposit,” are a booming business. In 1987 (the most recent year recorded by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment), 65,000 births began with A.I. Many banks provide donor catalogs, which detail eye color, height, weight, blood type, hair texture, even occupation and hobbies. In Los Angeles, California Cryobank claims to be the country’s largest resource for racial minority sperm. Its donor catalog has separate race categories, including African-American, Asian, and mixed race. Clients can send a photo they would like the bank to match (Denzel Washington is in the top three for popularity among African-Americans).

Each vial of frozen sperm, good for one insemination attempt, may cost $100 to $200, plus the cost of shipping to the doctor or fertility clinic, which can add on another $100. On top of that, doctors charge for related exams and, of course, the insemination procedure.

Elizabeth’s medical insurance has reimbursed most of her costs: through each ovulation cycle, her two inseminations total $800, and the fertility drugs she takes (first Chlomid, now Perganol) have run tabs up to $1,500 monthly. The emotional costs are hers alone to bear. “Every test I’ve ever had says I’m normal,” she says. “I’m tired of hearing that. I kind of wish they’d find something wrong—then I could mourn that and move on. It’s hard to call it quits.”

Known versus Unknown Donors

Mattes took a different path: “I conceived through intercourse with a man who had been a friend for a long time,” she says. But odd as it may sound, knowing the biological father has its own risks, whether conception is through intercourse or by being artificially inseminated with his donated sperm.

New York City attorney Iris M. Darvin suggests that single women and prospective biological fathers draft an agreement that will clearly outline their responsibilities and involvement (or lack of), spelling out everything from whose name will be on the birth certificate to who’s going to pay for college. She strongly urges prospective mothers to get help from a lawyer who has expertise in family, especially custody, laws.

While using a known donor may give the prospective mother some comfort, Darvin says that women considering this should keep two points in mind. First, any known parent has a shot at visitation and custody of the child, despite what the parenting agreement might state. “Women have come to me after the birth of a child where initially there was no interest or involvement from the man, but all of a sudden the child started to look like him.” Sperm banks have special legal provisions to keep the identity of donors anonymous and therefore free of any financial obligations or custodial rights.

Second, Darvin says, knowing the donor doesn’t guarantee the health of his sperm. “It’s a very risky business now, with H.I.V. At least many banks freeze sperm for six months and then test [the donor for genetic and sexually transmitted diseases]. Although testing for any viruses and diseases can be written into an agreement and most donors are probably willing to undergo such tests, estimated incubation periods for H.I.V. make fresh sperm perpetually an unknown.”

The Adoption Option

Elizabeth Bartholet is a Harvard University law professor and author of Family Bonds: Adoption and the Politics of Parenting who sits on the ethics advisory committees of two Boston-area fertility clinics. She has three children: one biological son with her previous husband and two adopted Peruvian-born sons.

“I know that there are a lot of people who say they would never consider adoption—and I’m not sure I want those people to end up adopting—but I also think they’d see things differently if they lived in a society where nurturing was thought to be the major part of what parenting was about, not getting their genetic product.

“I am glad that I had [my] pregnancy and nursing experiences. On the other hand, they’re not the mountaintops. To me, it’s parenting . . . that I’m really grateful for. If I look back on my life, that’s the essence of what it’s been about.”

More and more of the 100,000-plus children adopted each year in this country go to single women. But difficult choices confront all potential adoptive parents: How long are you willing to wait for a child? How much can you spend? How flexible is your idea of the child that’s “perfect” for you? Should you go to a public agency, a private agency, a private adoption attorney, or choose none of the above and do all the legwork yourself? Some basic facts:

Adoption agencies may charge fees ranging from nothing to $20,000 (the average fee is $9,000) and often provide (or even require) pre- and post-adoption counseling services. Private adoption attorneys may mean faster action and less red tape than an agency, but they can also cost more.

For single parents, says Suzanne Nichols, an adoption attorney based in White Plains, New York, “international adoption is a very good choice.” Some countries, like Korea, may not allow singles to adopt, but many do. Also, unlike domestic infant adoptions, where birthmothers have the right to specify religion or marital status of prospective parents, the foreign adoptions Nichols arranges are through orphanages. “There are no birthmothers saying, ‘I want a couple for my baby.’ ”

Unlike fertility clinics, child-welfare professionals tend to welcome single mothers. “We’re in favor of single parenting,” says Leora Neal, executive director of the New York Chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers (N.A.B.S.W.) Child Adoption Counseling and Referral Service. “Half of our families are single parents,” she says. “A lot of them are professional women and homeowners. They want kids, but they don’t want to get pregnant.”

Single people frequently adopt children of color for a variety of reasons: because they themselves are of color, because Caucasian babies are very hard to find, or because, like Caroline, they prefer to adopt a child that may be difficult to place, and nonwhite children are considered hard to place.

Caroline, 40, an urban planner, started thinking about having a child when she was 30. Single and a lesbian, she thought adoption made sense. “I didn’t have that urge to give birth,” she says, “and so I figured why do that if there are all these kids who need homes?”

Caroline, who is white, originally considered adopting a girl from India. “I thought, ‘Well, women are at the bottom of the ladder in India, why not get a girl from there?'” But when she actually started to investigate, she found that previously fruitful sources had dried up. “Then I refocused and thought maybe a black child. It’s usually hard [for whites] to adopt a black child in the United States,” says Caroline, “because there’s a lot of opposing opinion.”

The most vocal opposition has come from the N.A.B.S.W., which, since 1972, has taken the position that transracial adoption denies essential role models for children of color. “I could maybe buy the N.A.B.S.W.’s statement if all these children were being adopted,” Caroline says, “but there’s a generation of kids being raised in foster care.”

Betsy Burch, who heads the Natick, Massachusetts-based group Single Parents for the Adoption of Children Everywhere (SPACE) agrees with Caroline. “SPACE supports same-race adoption when possible,” Burch says. But she’s concerned about children who languish in foster care while social workers try to find same-race families.

In transracial situations, Burch suggests adopting more than one child of his or her same background so that they’re not alone in the family. Burch started adopting when she was 25, in 1971, and is the mother of four African-American children, ages 8 to 28. “I felt it was important that my children be of the same cultural and racial background for one another,” Burch says. “And although we’ve had issues of adolescence and issues of adoption, we do not have many issues of race. I think that’s in large part because they have one another. We have five people in the family and I’m the only white person.”

Burch cautions prospective transracial adopters to be sensitive to differences between themselves and the children. “What makes me very nervous is when I hear white people say, ‘I look at my child and I don’t even see black.’ You have got to see that this is a black child! How else can you possibly make them feel wonderful about themselves if you don’t recognize who they are?”

Through the network New York Singles Adopting Children, Caroline found an agency in a Southern state willing to consider her request for a black baby girl. Within four months after Caroline filed her application, three-week-old Sasha arrived at the airport in the arms of a social worker.

Caroline believes she made the right decision in adopting Sasha, now 3½. “I’m not saying it’s not important to raise a black child with cultural identity. I just think in the hierarchy of needs, it falls after some others.”

“There are no perfect roads in adoption,” says Burch. “You usually just have to pick one and run with it. There’s also no perfect time to adopt. People think they’re going to wait until they get a larger apartment or until they get a promotion at their job. You have to ask yourself, ‘What is life going to be like five years from now if I don’t adopt in the next year or two?’ ”

Rubye Bulluck, director of adoption services for New York City’s Harlem-Dowling West Side Center, sums it up: “If you can provide love and you have a genuine commitment to nurture and mold a child into adulthood, then I would say you’re ready.”