A wave of sadness washed over me one day in 2004 as I was driving to work. I pulled over to the curb, dialed my boss and asked for a day off. I was mourning the end of my seven-year marriage and with it, I feared, my plans to be a mother.
I was in my mid-30s, and figured odds were slim that I'd be able to get back "out there," meet the right person and get married again before my biological clock stopped ticking. But then, it hit me:
I can be a mom on my own.
Within days, I had set a deadline. If I wasn't in a relationship with "the one" by the time I was 38, I'd start looking for a sperm bank.
And that's what happened.
Now, it appears, I'm part of a trend that's going mainstream, dubbed "single motherhood by choice." Hollywood has caught on, with Jennifer Lopez, Tina Fey and Jennifer Aniston starring in movies as women in similar situations. North Carolina's largest fertility clinics, which include Reproductive Endocrinology Associates of Charlotte (REACH) and the North Carolina Center for Reproductive Medicine in the Triangle, say they're seeing increases in single female clients. Both now say nearly 1 in 10 of their patients is a single woman.
Recent statistics show 40 percent of babies are now born to single moms; there's no reliable number for how many of those are single by choice rather than chance. But it appears certain that "choice moms" are a fast-growing category.
I'm hoping that telling my story might help others - unpartnered parents who need support raising their children, and children who need to know that every form of family is valid.
A minority of Americans these days live in the traditional view of a nuclear family. One census measure found less than 25 percent of households consist of a mother, father and their biological children.
I started mentioning single motherhood to family and friends not too long after I made the decision. Some doubted I knew what I might be in for. (But really, what parent, single or married, truly knows what they're getting into?)
Everyone was generally supportive of the idea, in theory. And then, after several years of dating didn't lead to a serious relationship, it became clear that the idea was moving from theory to reality.
My family realized I was serious when, in the summer of 2008, my beach-reading books were "Choosing Single Motherhood," by Mikki Morrissette (mandatory reading for anyone considering this choice), and "Knock Yourself Up," by Louise Sloan (a title every bit as self-explanatory as you think).
I wrestled in particular with the daddy issue. This decision has nothing to do with devaluing fathers. Having a child within a marriage was my first choice, but that didn't work out. There are many men in my life - my father, stepfather, three brothers, and many more extended family members and friends - who will be men in my daughter's life, too.
Some critics say single moms like me are selfish for depriving their children of fathers. I've done the research, and I'm confident that the quality of parenting is more important than the quantity of parents. My goal in this is to make a positive contribution to the world - create and raise someone who I believe will make a positive impact on others.
As Morrissette writes: "A home without a father is not the same as a home without values."
How I went about it
And now to the part you really want to know about: The sperm.
I did consider adoption. But it is unpredictable and not particularly welcoming to single parents. I didn't have reason to believe I'd have fertility problems. If it turned out that I did, adoption was Plan B.
I started with Spermcenter.com. The site compiles the donor profiles of more than 20 sperm banks across the country into a searchable database. I could plug in criteria including ethnicity, hair color, eye color, height, weight and more, and get a list of candidates to research further (the site has a small membership fee).
My research on single motherhood had persuaded me to choose an open identity donor. This means he has agreed that children conceived using his sperm can contact him when they turn 18.
Yes, plural children - one donor can help conceive up to 20 or 25 children, depending on the sperm bank's guidelines. And there are donor sibling registries - the best-known at donorsiblingregistry.com - devoted to helping these families connect. Open-identity donors are in the minority - and some banks charge women a premium for them.
I decided it shouldn't be my call whether my child can contact the donor I chose. Many children are curious to know their genetic history, and this curiosity seldom has anything to do with turning a donor into a father figure, Morrissette's research has found.
My child can decide for herself if she wants this contact. I plan to tell her about the donor as soon as she can understand it, so she'll be comfortable explaining it to other children. Among my friends are mothers of other donor babies, and other single moms - so she won't be unique in her circle.
'I went with my gut'
So what else was I looking for? I didn't look at it as finding someone with the characteristics I'd choose in a mate. Instead, I wanted someone with traits similar to mine. I was hoping my child would look like me, and we wouldn't have to field questions along the lines of "Where did that red hair come from?"
My search was for open-identity donors who were Caucasian, tall, blond-haired, hazel-eyed and college educated or better (some banks charge extra for Ph.D. donors). After I clicked "search," my grand total of results from across the country was a mere four choices. I broadened the pool a bit by expanding hair color to brown.
Most sperm banks make brief profiles available free, but if you want to know more you have to shell out from $15 to $30 for each extra item. In some cases I could see handwritten essays, hear audio interviews, see photos of the donor as a baby, look at the results of a personality test, read a detailed description of facial features and even read the impressions of the sperm-bank employees who had met the donor.
Some women have "swimmer parties," inviting friends and family over to review information about sperm donor finalists and vote on their favorites. I decided I'd rather go with my gut - though I did give my mother a chance to weigh in on my finalists.
I ruled out one candidate whose audio interview was a dud. Another candidate's baby picture just didn't click. Then I found one whose baby photo resembled one of my nephews. And his audio interview sounded like someone whom both my child and I would like. I was sold.
Cost: Nearly $600 per vial, each good for one insemination attempt. The sperm bank was running a special: Order six vials, get a year of free storage. I clicked on the deal, and called REACH to launch the series of appointments for an insemination attempt.
When I got the news
I braced myself for a months-long, roller-coaster ride. I'd talked to other sperm-bank moms who'd endured multiple failed attempts. Some of them had to graduate to fertility drugs or the more expensive in-vitro fertilization procedure, in which eggs are removed and fertilized outside the body and the resulting embryo or embryos implanted.
But I was starting with a pretty basic procedure, intrauterine insemination. It's only a little bit removed from the old turkey-baster joke. Just sperm delivered via syringe at the right time.
During the two weeks after that appointment, I tried not to think about it too much. I didn't feel any different - but I was counting the days until I could use the earliest type of pregnancy test I could get in the drugstore.
As it happened, I was lucky. Improbably lucky. That first test was positive. (Never envisioned I'd have to consider what to do with five vials of sperm I suddenly didn't need.) My due date, confirmed a few days later, seemed to be a sign: Thanksgiving Day.
I was lucky for another reason. My mother, Marsha Kelly, a retired nurse-midwife, happily agreed to be my labor coach, and to go with me to childbirth classes (my sister-in-law went to some classes too). I didn't have to go through any of this process alone.
Twelve weeks later, I went public with co-workers and some professional acquaintances.
Happy to talk about it
I marshaled some snappy comebacks in case anybody had a problem with my single-motherhood choice.
But nobody did. The only funny reaction I had was from people who clearly were dying to know about the donor and the insemination process. They struggled to ask their questions without appearing unseemly.
I'm happy to talk about it. I want my daughter to know there is nothing embarrassing about her origins.
Only once during my pregnancy did I encounter the question, "What does your husband do?" My reply, "Oh, I'm a single mother, by choice," seemed to surprise the questioner, but that was it.
On Nov. 24, 2009, two days early, Avery June Dyer was born.
And while it has not been easy - I never expected it to be - since that day I have not felt alone, or lonely, thanks to my friends and family.
I'm not sure what the future holds, but not once have I questioned my decision. I'm sure many challenging times lie ahead, but I have no doubt that Avery and I can face them together.
Leigh Dyer is editor of SouthPark and Lake Norman magazines, which are published by the Observer.
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