Nestled among happy birthday cards, wedding and anniversary congratulations, and get well soon wishes, there’s a new “life event” category in the aisles of your local card shop: Birth Single Mother. It’s now official — being a single mom is in.
According to Statistics Canada, there are more than 1.6-million female-headed households in Canada, an increase of 63 percent in 20 years. A growing number of these women are single moms by choice — not your stereotypical bitter divorcee or accidental teenage pregnancy struggling to get by. The majority of these new single moms are university educated, in their 30s or 40s and have well-established careers. They’re breaking out of the conventional life pattern — go to school, fall in love, get married, buy a house, have babies …. Instead, they’ve skipped some steps and added others. In the process, they’ve taken control of their lives, not to mention that infernal, nagging internal clock.
“It’s a stronger force than me,”says Jill*, a 33-year-old editor in Vancouver who is considering donor insemination (DI). Since she started thinking about DI, Jill says she feels calmer. The pressure to find a mate, chiefly to mate, is gone. “You get into your 30s and you want to be this baby machine and you’re not meeting anyone,”she says. “Then there’s this generation of women in their 40s who find out they can’t have children.” Jill vows she won’t be among them. “As much as life is about destiny or fate, this gives me something to grasp onto. It makes me feel much more sanguine about not meeting someone. I feel somewhat sorry for men; they don’t have this choice.”Jill is not alone in taking advantage of that option. According to Dr. Sam Batarseh, director of IVF [in vitro fertilization] Canada, the number of single women coming to him for DI has tripled over the last 30 years.
The biggest shift for single women who plan to become mothers is in separating having children from being married. “You can marry anytime, but it’s not always possible to have a child or adopt a child. So for practical reasons, women need to separate the two things,”explains Jane Mattes. A New York psychotherapist and single mother, Mattes founded Single Mothers by Choice
(www.singlemothersbychoice.com) in 1981 after she accidentally became pregnant at age 36. She wanted the child, but the dad opted out. Of her estimated 3,000 members, only a small minority become moms unintentionally. Seventy-five percent choose insemination, and 25 percent go the adoption route.Montréal photographer Heidi Hollinger has discovered that in addition to the satisfaction of having children, there are other unexpected benefits to single motherhood. “You think you’re never going to find someone because you have a kid, but it’s the complete opposite. People see you as feminine and fertile,”she says. “Guys see it as an instant family and they’ve practically proposed to me on the spot.”
Hollinger is in her mid-30s, very attractive and speaks four languages. She says she has had more dates since the birth of her son, Luka, now two, than before his birth. Other pluses for Hollinger are that, as a lone parent, she makes all the calls — from choosing her sister as her birthing coach to picking a name to deciding on whether to circumcise or not. “I’m used to doing things on my own, so it’s great to be on my own with Luka,”she says.
Although single moms by choice are becoming more commonplace, there’s still a widespread assumption that Daddy is in the picture. Kathy Scott, a business analyst at BMO Nesbitt Burns in Toronto, travelled to the Anhui province of China to adopt her daughter, Robin, now three. Scott, who is Caucasian, is stupefied by the number of times she has been asked “Is her dad Chinese?”As Betsy Israel, author of Bachelor Girl (HarperCollins), explains: “Even if you are not in a relationship or married, these are still ultimately the categories that are acceptable. There is a terrible negative stereotype against any woman who finds herself single.”Single moms by choice get a kind of “special circumstances pass”and this is “one way you can overcome the single stigma,”says Israel. “You’re allowed to step outside of that box of the classical spinster or working girl.”But this doesn’t mean single mothers by choice are completely accepted. Instead, she says, “the world smiles on single women with children in a very artificial way. “With one foot in the conventional world of species propagation and the other foot in the domain of the marginalized female singleton, Israel thinks this growing segment is in a kind of limbo. “You’re better respected than if you didn’t have a child, but at the same time people don’t know what to make of you.”
Scott has experienced this connection first-hand. Drawn together by the experience of adopting, her closest friend is a woman she travelled to China with; subsequently their daughters are best friends. Their travel group meets regularly, and in Robin’s daycare there are two other girls who were adopted from China.
What was once considered an alternative family is now becoming more of a standard. As Cutts travelled through China, her oldest daughter’s Grade 1 class got a combined geography and social studies lesson. On the Internet they followed Cutts through China and received updates on Olivia’s adoption. “It’s amazing. What you grow up with becomes the new norm,”says Cutts. *Not her real name.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's bi-weekly newsletter