Motherhood Reimagined: A Conversation About Fertility and Single Motherhood with Sarah Kowalski
The choice to have a baby on your own — either with a known sperm donor or one found through a sperm bank, is starting to become less taboo as more women tell their stories openly and publicly. Recently, the New York Times published an opinion piece entitled “Single at 38? Have that Baby!” by Emma Brockes, a journalist and author of the new book An Excellent Choice: Panic and Joy on my Solo Path to Motherhood. “It takes a certain amount of courage to have a baby alone, and the relief of reaching the other side has never worn off,” she writes. “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 think it’s important not to think of it as a Plan B,” says Kowalski. “I want to think of it as an amazing model of how to have a kid.”
The Reality of Single Motherhood in America
Sarah Kowalski, another amazing woman who made this choice, joined me on my July 18th Egg Whisperer Show, to talk about the decision and her new book, “Motherhood Reimagined: When Becoming a Mother Doesn’t Go As Planned.” The number of women in their 30s and 40s who are prioritizing children over a relationship and conceiving via donor insemination, is growing. From 2007 to 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their numbers rose by 29 percent. But it’s important to understand, however, that as hard as the choice is, it’s a privilege to have the resources to choose it. Fertility treatment is a luxury that not everyone can afford because it’s not always covered by health insurance. The majority of single mothers may or may not have chosen their situation, but it’s a fact that of the 10 million single parents in the United States, nearly 40% are women who live in poverty.
At the same time there are now more single women in the US than married women, and this means as Brockes, writes that “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 a good thing!
Sarah Kowalski has now devoted her life to helping women make this choice as a life coach specializing in the journey to motherhood when it’s not taking shape as planned. After struggling with infertility, she conceived her son as a single mom with both a sperm and egg donor. Through her organization, Motherhood Reimagined, she now offers courses, support groups, community and individual coaching for women who are contemplating single motherhood or struggling to conceive.
EW: Is it hard for you to talk about this decision so publicly?
SK: I feel passionate about my path. It’s been incredibly rewarding, and I also struggled to make the choice. Now I feel like I want to like to rejoice to everyone about how amazing being a mother is, how great and rewarding being a single mother is, and how using an egg donor is not even part of our equation now that he’s born.
EW: You’ve completely changed your life because motherhood is so transformative. How has it changed?
I was a corporate attorney. I went to law school because I wanted to focus on women’s reproductive rights and health law. I ended up in a horrible corporate job with a repetitive strain injury. I quit to rebuild myself. When I felt like I was strong and healthy and ready to make the next choice, I started thinking about whether I wanted to become a mom. I was already in my late 30s, I had no partner and thought there might not be a partner in the near future. I had to make the hard choice to become a single mom by choice.
An excerpt, Motherhood Reimagined.
I drifted in and out of a strange dream-like state, blissed out and calm. Then [Chris’s] voice, [my mentor and Qigong master] calm and gentle, jolted me out of my daze, “You are going to be forty next year, if you want to have children, you better get focused and get on with it.
“I’m not sure I want to have a baby if I have to do it alone,” I said. I could remember how badly I’d wanted children when I was younger, but my rational adult mind dreamed up every reason under the sun to avoid motherhood. “I’m afraid I’ll end up single forever if I have a baby alone. Who wants to date a woman who already has kids?” I implored.
EW: Since you didn’t have a partner, what resources did you take advantage of?
SK: I didn’t realize that there were a lot of resources out there. I really struggled alone with the choice. My Qigong master, which is a Buddhist Taoist practice that starts as a healing practice and becomes a thoughtful meditation, said, “You haven’t been asking yourself this question, and I think you need to ask yourself whether or not you want to be a mom.” I’d been operating under the assumption that my mom had children late. I knew that many women had fertility issues after 35, but I brushed those thoughts under the rug. I thought it would be easy to get pregnant in your 40s, so I was not asking the questions. I was focused on finding a partner.
EW: Were you afraid to become a mom without a partner?
SK: You know honestly I was worried about whether I would ever date again if I did it alone. I worried no one would want to date someone who already had a kid. Once I got over that, I realized I could meet the guy of my dreams tomorrow, or if we got pregnant together, he could leave me. You know there are really are no guarantees in life. I just had to move forward to be a mom. I’m pretty independent and tenacious, so I wasn’t terrified once I made the decision. It took a long time to make it, but once I did, I was not super worried.
EW: Did you feel acceptance from friends and family?
My sister said, “Oh, of course, you’ve always wanted to be a mom. I’ve been waiting for you to tell me this.” I was really blown away. My parents had the same reaction. I think they were relieved that they were going to have a grandchild.
EW: How was the decision to use an egg donor in addition to a sperm donor as a single mom?
It was a laborious process. My FSH was ridiculously high — it was like 23.5. So my doctor said from the beginning that I needed to use donor eggs, but I did not want to go there. At first, I thought I’m not going to have a kid if I have to use donor eggs, so I turned to every alternative practice known to man. I gave up gluten, sugar, wheat, dairy, alcohol, coffee, you name it. I saw spiritual healers. I did about five or six IUIs at home with a midwife.
When nothing worked, I finally went to a reproductive endocrinologist and did some tests. I got even worse news that my AMH was undetectable. I had one resting follicle on each ovary, and she said I would need an egg donor. So I tried one more cycle with Clomid and nothing happened. Instead, I ended up with cysts. What finally made me shift course is that my uterine lining wasn’t thickening and the doctor told me that there may be something wrong with it that would completely prevent me from getting pregnant. The idea of not being able to be pregnant at all helped me put the donor egg plan on the table, and I said, Ok, I’ll do whatever it takes. I just want to be a mom. My mentor told me that I needed to get closure on this path and feel like I did my best so that I could put it down and move forward without regret.
An Excerpt, Motherhood Reimagined.
Clarity was on its way, however slowly. [With lots of introspection,] I’d gotten over my fear of using a sperm donor; accepted the uncertain nature of life and partnerships; and decided that dating under the extreme pressure to procreate was a dead-end street while dating after having a baby could be liberating. I could see interesting and exciting ways that I might construct the support and structure I would need to raise a baby and take care of myself financially. Though fears continued to surface, looping around in my brain, they had less power each time. I could see that having a baby alone would be hard, but it might actually be feasible. Now I had to decide once and for all: Do I really want to do this?
EW: In the end, these donated eggs are your eggs. How did you choose an egg donor?
Choosing a sperm donor felt like it was the most important decision I ever made in my life. When I got around to the egg donor, I already had experience with the choice, and it felt less foreign. I looked at it as a triad between me, the sperm donor and the egg donor and chose the donor who felt right. My mentor helped me, and I also ranked my top five choices and asked a considerable number of friends. Everyone of them came back with their picks for me, so that really helped. The choices were pretty consistent, so I know I made the right one.
An Excerpt, Motherhood Reimagined.
The answer would come in late January, during one of Chris’s weekly Qigong classes…. [A] a vision came to me: a young baby girl dressed in bright pink on a swing. She was surrounded by a green, grassy field, which provided a beautiful contrast to her pink dress. She smiled and laughed as I pushed her on the swing. It was an easy moment of joy between the baby and me. And suddenly, just like that, my mind was made up. I wanted a baby. The reasons not to simply vanished. The years of indecision melted away. In that moment, the truth was so obvious, so clear that I was jolted by the idea that I ever could have thought that I didn’t want a baby.
EW: How did you plan your birth? What kind of tips do you have about that?
SK: I had this massive team lined up and a very elaborate birth plan. I had so many ideas about how it was going to go, and I ended up having a very long induction. I realized I couldn’t ask my friends to be there the whole time, so I ended up hiring a labor doula. I think that would be one of my most significant pieces of advice to a single mom. You want someone who’s required to be there to support you because you don’t know what’s gonna happen. You need someone who’s going to manage the personalities in the room.
EW: What are the top concerns for women considering single motherhood?
SW: Finances. Social support. Childcare. These are the essential things to think about even before you start the process so that you’re prepared and feel strong.
EW: Do you actually feel alone?
SK: I feel both alone and incredibly supported. I don’t see the single part as a negative. I think there’s actually a wonderful simplicity to single motherhood. I don’t have someone that I’m hoping is going to do things, and I don’t get disappointed that someone is not helping as much. I don’t waste any mental energy on who’s gonna do X, Y, Z. I just know it’s going to fall to me, and that’s both empowering and can be exhausting at times. I think it’s mainly empowering. My mom community is impressive — it’s an unspoken club that comes together to support each other. Any woman who is considering this decision can definitely find it if you’re willing to look for it.
EW: Tell us about the programs you offer and why you think they will help women who are considering this choice.
SW: It’s important not to think of this choice as a Plan B. I want to think of it as a fantastic model of how to have a kid. I want to date again and be in a partnership. I also believe there are many great things about this choice and it’s not a consolation prize. It took me so long to decide, and I was whittling away precious fertility time so I would also say togo get checked by someone like Dr. Aimee and find out about your fertility as earlier as possible. Don’t leave it to the last minute. But if you do have to rely on donor eggs or you decide to adopt, it’s also a fantastic path. I have no regrets.
This fall Sarah is launching a comprehensive membership site for women at any phase of the journey to motherhood. Join her free Facebook Support Group for support and updates.