Private life September 2005

The XY Files

Forgoing a trip down the aisle, our correspondent heads straight to the sperm bank. But does she want the Truffaut aficionado or the mentor to underprivileged kids?

The morning I found out I was pregnant, I ran out of my gynecologist's office, whipped out my cell phone, and dialed my therapist's number. I didn't know who else to call. After leaving the good news on his voice mail, I decided to tell my friend Amy, my friend Linda, and then the clerk at Whole Foods, who directed me to the prenatal vitamins. By day's end I'd told everyone from my mother to my manager to my mailman.

I didn't, however, tell the baby's father. I wanted to, but I have no idea who he is. I'm not married, don't have a boyfriend, and hadn't recently returned from a drunken one-night stand. Instead I got knocked up by half a cubic centimeter of defrosted sperm that had been FedExed in a nitrogen tank from an East Coast donor facility to my doctor in Los Angeles. Now, if all goes well, my dream will become a reality: I'll be a single mom.

This wasn't my dream growing up, of course. Nor was it the dream of the other members of Single Mothers by Choice, a national group for women who want to have children but won't shack up with the wrong guy to do so. Its members—mostly attractive, smart, successful thirtysomethings—subscribe to the "somebody isn't always better than nobody" theory of marriage. Many, including me, have turned down engagement rings from eligible bachelors even as our biological alarm bells started sounding. As a friend put it, we're paradoxically "desperate but picky."

I first learned about Single Mothers by Choice at the end of 2003, when I was thirty-six and almost two years into a relationship with a handsome, intelligent policymaker. Our personalities had been clashing, and I sought counsel from my married friends. "If relationships are work," I asked, "when do the benefits kick in?" It's not that I was looking for perfection; I just wanted a core connection. Was that too much to ask?

One married friend, a feminist-studies professor with two degrees from Stanford, surprised me by suggesting that I marry my boyfriend and have children while I was still fertile. "You can always get divorced," she said. "Maybe you'll marry someone you're in love with later."

In other words, instead of "for better or for worse" I should go with "for better or for now." Before women achieved financial independence, they often had to choose between love and money. In the new millennium my choice seemed to be between love and offspring. Granted, if I broke up with my boyfriend I might meet the love of my life and have kids soon thereafter. But I didn't want to date under that kind of pressure. Besides, what if I didn't meet the right man in the next five years? What if I met him in ten instead? To bear children or not to bear children—that was the question.

Late at night there were others: Was I willing to pretend that a man who couldn't even begin to fathom my soul was my soul mate? What did other women do in this situation?

One day I asked my friend Amy (not her real name), who was single like me. We met during our freshman year at Yale, when we were still naive enough to believe we'd be married with kids and a fulfilling career by age thirty. As adults we were both in a series of relationships, and although I was aware of our age, it never occurred to me that we'd fall through the marital cracks.

Apparently, it occurred to Amy. For more than a year, she told me, she'd been a card-carrying member of Single Mothers by Choice.

Jane Mattes, a New York psychotherapist, founded SMC in 1981, after choosing to become a single mom herself. An online support and information resource with local chapters that hold meetings, the group consists of women at different stages of the process: those considering single motherhood, those attempting to conceive, pregnant women, and those with kids.

The average age of SMC members is thirty-five, and nearly all have completed college or beyond. Membership has risen by 33 percent over the past ten years, but that figure underestimates the group's reach, Mattes says, because most members leave soon after they have children. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of babies born to unmarried women in their thirties and forties rose by 290 percent from 1980 to 2002.

If single motherhood by choice isn't yet considered mainstream, it's widespread enough to appeal to a mainstream audience—or so the current crop of television executives believe. In the ABC series Jake in Progress, which had its premiere last spring, the title character's boss is a single woman who says she is pregnant by a sperm donor. This year both Fox and NBC developed drama series set in fertility clinics and involving single women, while the WB and Bravo created sitcoms about sperm donors' meeting their offspring. (NBC's Inconceivable makes its debut this month; the WB's Misconceptions will air in March.) And the producers of Big Brother are working on a reality show called Make Me a Mum (think The Bachelorette with sperm donors instead of dates). Meanwhile, the actress Halle Berry, who is thirty-nine and single, has said that she is considering using a sperm donor, which makes the phenomenon seem downright trendy.

Amy and I never wanted to be trendy, though. Certainly we're grateful for the option to become a parent with or without a spouse. But had you said to us back in college, "In twenty years, girls, you'll be buying a nineteen-year-old's sperm off the Internet," I think we might have gotten in a car, Thelma & Louise—style, and driven off a cliff.

I guess you could say I was cheating on my boyfriend back in 2003 when I logged on to the Web and typed in a sperm bank's URL. Or maybe it was more like viewing Internet porn: I wasn't scouring dating sites for actual boyfriends, but I was certainly fantasizing about what was out there. Could I find someone younger, taller, more athletic-looking, and mathematically gifted—but who also wasn't "real," and therefore wouldn't shoot icy stares at me across the dinner table?

These mating sites, as I began calling them, ranged from high-end, FDA-registered cryobanks to, believe it or not, discount sperm providers. (I'll skimp on toilet paper but not on sperm.) After entering some basic criteria into one of the banks' search engines, I had dozens of matches. Did I want an M.B.A. or a Ph.D.? A lacrosse player or a violinist? A Truffaut aficionado or a mentor to underprivileged kids?

Eerily, donor profiles read much like online dating profiles, but with the addition of health histories and SAT scores. Without charge I could click on the short profile (eye color, hair color, height, weight, race, religion, interests, and summary health stats). For $19 (digitally transmitted by PayPal) I could order the long profile (detailed multigenerational health report) and donor essays ("What is the funniest thing ever to happen to you?" "If you could spend a week with any women [sic] in the world, who would it be?"). For an extra $33 I could also hear an audiotape ("What is your idea of a romantic evening?") and see a photo of the donor as a baby.

Sometimes the amount of information felt overwhelming. In the facial-features section alone each body part (eyes, eyebrows, nose, cheekbones, mouth, teeth, chin, ears, hair) was further dissected into several subcategories (the nose was broken down into size, width, length, bridge, nostril flare, and septum; the ears into size, set, angle, lobe size, and attachment). There was also a long list of "favorites": food, car, sport, color, animal, pet, movie, musician, song, play, book, holiday, season, ice-cream flavor, childhood memory, even vacation destination.

Many of the guys sounded like men I'd want to date. Maybe, I thought, the sperm banks should just have a big singles party and cut out the middleman. Then I remembered my boyfriend—I'd met him through an online dating site, where I'd selected him, too, based on a written profile. On some level I must have been attracted to the same Darwinian characteristics.

The thought saddened me. Whatever happened to love? Or was believing in love today akin to believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and age-defying cosmetics?

At the same time, it felt liberating to have the pick of the genetic crop. Without the emotional context, finding a donor seemed less like the intimate act of choosing my child's father and more like buying a car. I could select a basic model (tall, good-looking, healthy) and then accessorize with options (musical, adventurous, likes museums). Besides, the more I read, the more I was reminded how young these donors were. Responding to a question about what message he would like to pass on to the recipient of his semen, one donor wrote, "Start a college fund early, so your child doesn't have to sell his sperm for tuition." Another replied to the query about what he hoped to accomplish in twenty years with "To be the top recording producer in the world." Another wrote, "I see myself with a successful practice in a rural setting with two to three kids, married, and enjoying life."

My single friends and I used to be that idealistic too. How the heck did we end up this way?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett may claim to have the answer, but I don't believe we're single because we focused on our careers to the detriment of our love lives. We're Gen X, slackers who rebelled against Baby Boomer careerists. Unlike women a decade or two our seniors, we took it for granted that we could do anything we wanted—which explains why a lot of us became paralyzed by indecision. With so many choices in jobs, relationships, and geography, we didn't know when it was time to pick something permanent.

Even so, my various stints as a film executive, a medical student, and now a writer didn't prevent me from finding a potential mate. Rather, they put me in interesting situations where I'd be likely to find one. I never lacked for boyfriends—I just never found the right one. The way my generation sees it, if you're not forced to compromise, why should you? But sometimes we forget that if you don't choose anything, eventually you're left with nothing. And although having a baby alone might not have been my first choice, by mid-2004 I was starting to realize that it might not be my last.

So I got out the phone book and made an appointment.

Presented by

Lori Gottlieb is the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

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