What I’ve learned in becoming a single mother by choice
I have always wanted to be a mother. That was something that was in my bones, my DNA and my being. Ask any of my friends from college or graduate school and they would tell you that I had the “baby fever.” I dreamed and fantasized about matching outfits, morning cuddles and baby talk, wishing that the dream could be a reality now; “this will be a year” was a common mantra in my mind. I have no doubts that my natural skills suit me for a career in psychology; however my purpose is to be a mom.
As I approached my late 20’s I became even more anxious that my “biological clock” was ticking and that my opportunity would slip away if I didn’t get serious, find a partner and make it happen. Another major concern nagging at my brain was my diagnosis of polycystic ovarian syndrome, an endocrine disorder that is one of the leading causes of infertility in women. How long would it take to get pregnant once I started trying? Would I have to worry about and cope with the increased risk of miscarriage? What if I couldn’t get pregnant? So on and so forth, a million “what-ifs.”
Keeping these time tables in my mind I naturally had mixed feelings toward graduate school. Yes, earning my doctorate would advance my career and provide me with countless opportunities that would not have been possible if I had just stopped at my B.S. However, it did put a block in my personal life and significantly contributed to my decision of delaying having children. Could I give adequate attention to my studies, clinical rotations and a child? How would I pick, let alone pay for, daycare? What would I do if there was an emergency and no one was available to help? Ultimately, like many students, I begrudgingly put my studies before family year after year though it ate away at my soul.
It’s been said before: life is about choices.
And sometimes to seek the life you want you need to take a leap of faith.
So at 28 years old, single and entering my post-doctoral year, I decided that it was time to try artificial insemination. My budget and my heart were willing to handle four attempts and should it be unsuccessful, I would accept that maybe now wasn’t the time.
Not to ruin the ending, but I did ultimately become pregnant and the mother of a wonderful diva of a child. Here is what I learned along the way:
Becoming pregnant is a big bucks business: Most insurance companies do not cover infertility treatments. Let me repeat: most insurance companies do not cover infertility treatments despite the increased need of these services over the decades for both male and female infertility diagnoses. Although I pursued artificial insemination and not in-vitro fertilization, there were still significant costs I needed to budget for such as: frequent and time-sensitive doctor’s appointments, multiple ultrasounds to assess egg size and readiness, medications, shots, donor profiles, donor sperm, and other tests to rule out if there could be complications with the pregnancy. Now, if a woman does not become pregnant on the first go around, these costs are then repeated until she does get pregnant or decides that she is done with the process. Then there were the legal expenses. Since I am the only parent for this child I needed to set-up protections to ensure that if any life-threatening complications occurred my child would be placed in the care of my parents, rather than the probate system. Cryobanks will provide the mother with a letter that documents that the donor waived parental rights of the child. This can then be used to set-up one’s will, obtain a passport for the child, etc. None of these things were cheap, but I have to admit they were 1000% worth it.
The process is stressful; and then they add medications that play with your mood: It is safe to say that I have a high baseline of anxiety, however I have learned to use most of it for good. It is a natural sequelae of having polycystic ovarian syndrome, and in my case, could also be attributed to other causes as well. I knew that trying to get pregnant would be trying socially, emotionally, physically and financially on its own. I was unaware of how the medications would dramatically increase my feelings of anxiety and depression, making everyday activities even more taxing and draining. I am eternally grateful for my therapist for helping me make the connection between my mood and the medications, which allowed me to take a step back and push through with the process.
Discretion (and support) is key: I intentionally only told people I knew would be supportive. Unfortunately this meant that many important people were hurt when I announced my pregnancy and how I got pregnant. I did not want to hear the reasons why I shouldn’t go through with insemination - I knew those concerns and had already accepted or pushed past them. I also didn’t want to have to comfort others and calm their fears - I was plenty busy helping myself. I ultimately did have to disclose my decision to my supervisor because the frequent, often last minute appointments affected my postdoc work schedule. I was extremely fortunate to have a supervisor who was as supportive and understanding as he was. This allowed us to work together to make sure my schedule minimally impacted my clinical work. As mentioned before, I was engaged in therapy while conceiving. My therapist was instrumental in helping me ask questions and predict consequences that I wanted to avoid, and therefore forced me to confront in a safe space. Yes it would be easier for me to pick a closed donor; but was it fair to take away an opportunity for my daughter to seek out her other biological family if she ever wanted to? My therapist wisely pointed out: people want to know why they are who they are. Where did my eyes come from? Why to I cross my legs a certain way? Etc. As much as this was a personal journey, I don’t know how I would have coped without the support that I did have.
Women tend to understand, men tend to want to mansplain: When I did start becoming more comfortable sharing my story, I tended to receive support and understanding from women, and many shared a story of loving their child but wishing they could change their “baby daddy.” Men on the other hand tended to want to ask me questions they assumed I hadn’t already asked myself before. “Have you thought about the consequences of a child not having a dad?” “It’s not fair to place that responsibility on the other males in your family,” etc. It was as if I was setting my child up for disaster by not waiting for a man to get me pregnant the traditional way. It was as if many men assumed there was only one kind of family and that other lifestyles are ultimately roadmaps for failure, which I wholeheartedly disagree with. It was interesting to hear the inflation of the male role in raising children because it subsequently minimized the female parenthood role - scientific and anecdotal research will show that even when both parents are involved in their child’s care, the mother takes on the majority of the workload. Finally I was offended at the notion that I needed a man to achieve my dream, as if my previous accomplishments (including a doctoral degree) were meaningless. As a result I tended to not tell many men of my decision unless they asked.
This will be the first lesson in letting go of control: I am a planner. Always have been always will be. I was used to not having much control of my schedule during graduate school, however I was not used to having to drop everything in order to make it to a doctor’s appointment. Infant children require the same amount of “drop everything now” if not even more.
As difficult as this process was, I am eternally grateful for my daughter and can’t picture a life without her. For me it was the right decision to have her when I did, even if it wasn’t under the perfect circumstances, as if perfect actually exists.
Tammy N. Torres, PsyD
Blog Contributor - Families in Psychology Project
The decision to start a family is never easy. There are several factors that influence this decision, and nearly all of them can be intensified with the added stress of continued schooling. For Tammy, her decision to start a family was made before she began. Tammy knew her path would not be easy, but she also knew motherhood was essential to her happiness and view of her future. There is little research into family planning decisions while in graduate school, so people who would like to get pregnant don’t typically have much guidance around making their decision, aside from peer support and their own desires. There is research, however limited; into the social pressures people feel to begin their families by a certain time, which Tammy certainly addressed.
It is not uncommon for women to face similar problems described when choosing to begin their families in graduate school; scrutiny from peers and advisors, condescension from others, and a lack of understanding from those around them. This is especially apparent for single parents in graduate school. In an article by Genine Hook (2015), she examines testimonials from single mothers, who often cited their feelings of frustration on discrepancies between time and emotional requirements of graduate schoolwork, and the amount of time and energy they could provide based on their parent status. Many women pointed to this discrepancy as causing other issues in their professional lives, like lack of support from their advisors (especially if those advisors were male) or lack of professional opportunities (Hook, 2015). These academic struggles are not much different than parents in committed relationships. Being a single parent is not easy, and pairing that with the commitment of graduate school, postdoctoral training, or other early career demands makes the stress exponentially higher. A lack of support can leave women feeling like they are stuck at a crossroads: further your education/career or become a mother. You can have one, but not both. While research (including studies done by FIPP) is mixed with respect to the level of impact that professional and personal support has on making the decision to start a family in graduate school, it helps to reduce the high level of stress associated with it. This plays a big part of why it is crucial to normalize parenthood while pursuing a degree, regardless of how a family is formed.
But any simple Google search of “becoming a parent in graduate school” or “having a baby while in graduate school” brings a slew of articles and blog posts of women sharing horror stories; male advisors who discouraged women from having a child because they would never find success with one, professors who lacked understanding of the needs of a pregnant woman in school, and even stories that were much, much worse. This stigma against women, more particularly women without a partner, who are trying to make these difficult decisions are only furthered by these negative stories. While we cannot assume whether this is the norm, they are certainly highlighted more than neutral or even positive stories. Tammy’s story is therefore that much more important to highlight. She has had a wonderful support system to carry her through her early days as a mother, in her parents, friends, and advisors. She emphasized how important support was to her, and how important it is for any woman considering becoming a single mother in graduate school or during postdoctoral training, and Hook’s article, and several others only further confirm this point.
One way to reduce this stigma and fear associated with parenthood while in graduate school is to have people like Tammy share their stories, and to feel comfortable discussing the obstacles and joys they experienced in association with their choice. With a lack of research into parenthood in graduate training, it is important for women in STEM fields of study to identify with other women who may severe as role models. In a 2018 article by Peitri, Johnson, Ozgumus, and Young, the importance of female role models is highlighted as essential, particularly if women know they face a gender bias in their chosen field. With the guidance of a successful female role model, women in STEM fields, especially those beginning their families, can feel more certain and confident in their choices.
Throughout their continuing education, women can feel uncertain about their decisions with parenthood, especially when they do not have a partner. However, parenthood is not a decision that is made based on the opinion of others as it is truly a matter of the heart. That’s why Tammy’s story is important and needs to be shared. Women who may be questioning a decision like Tammy’s, can find comfort in her story and opportunities for learning as they continue in their decision-making process. Ultimately, this decision is left up to the person or people who make it, and not their advisors, employers, or peers. That autonomy over her body and her choice makes Tammy a wonderful example of parenthood and a strong advocate and role model for women (including her own daughter) who may choose this path in the future.
Blog Contributor - Families in Psychology Project
Hook, G. A. (2015). Recognition and accountability: sole parent postgraduates in university conditions. Gender & Education, 27(2), 114–130. https://doi-org.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/10.1080/09540253.2014.992301
Pietri, E. S., Johnson, I. R., Ozgumus, E., & Young, A. I. (2018). Maybe She Is Relatable: Increasing Women’s Awareness of Gender Bias Encourages Their Identification With Women Scientists. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 42(2), 192–219.