I Became a Single Mom by Choice at 40—Here’s All the Stuff No One Tells You
I first had to grieve my dream of having a baby with a partner.
“I’m not infertile,” I told the receptionist. “I’m just single.”
I had driven an hour and half from my home in northern California to a cheaper fertility clinic for the maddeningly expensive medical procedures I was about to undergo in an attempt to get pregnant—and the receptionist had just informed me that it was unlikely my insurance would cover them unless I could prove a fertility problem. I could not. Where was the insurance coverage for those of us who were just doing it on our own?
At 39, I was among the countless women who hadn’t managed to have the right relationship, at the right time to start a family. I spent my 20s with wonderful men, but wasn’t ready to settle down then. I had books to write, countries to visit. I assumed falling in love in my 30s would be as effortless as it had been in my 20s, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. I spent years juggling 6- to 12-month relationships without finding a solid partner.
But just because I was still single, I wasn’t about to surrender my destiny to have the baby that every cell in my body believed I was meant to have. No matter what people said to discourage me—that the world was already overpopulated; that the biological clock was an impersonal function designed for evolutionary purposes; that I would be sacrificing my freedom, career, and romantic life—the wild beast of desire inside my heart would not let me out of its grip.
Sometimes I woke up in the morning with tears streaming down my face. I took detours around playgrounds so that the sight of young children wouldn’t crack my heart. When a client from my psychotherapy practice or a student in my yoga class announced she was pregnant, I felt my face burning with envy.
I felt like the only person in the world who didn’t have a family. For years during my mid-30s, I prayed, went to therapy, and tortured myself to figure out why: Was it karma, a broken psyche, or punishment for having left good men? The shrinking dating pool certainly wasn’t helping. Nor was the fact that my judgment seemed to decelerate as my biological clock sped up. I kept attracting men who were either unemployed, noncommittal, non-monogamous, vasectomized, or very rough around the edges.
My desperation was getting in the way too. Three months into a new relationship, I’d ask, “So, do you see this leading to a family?” Men would run the other way, no doubt intuiting the somewhat impersonal nature of my interest in them as progeny bearers.
I bought a statue of the Hindu deity Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and abundance, and started doing little rituals to her. I lit a candle every day, burned incense, and offered her gourmet jelly beans that reminded me of fetuses. I prayed so hard that once I suddenly heard the response, “We got it already. You can stop asking. This is getting a little repetitive.”
I understood. I was getting tired of it, too.
Going it alone
When I turned 37, I decided to get seriously proactive. A friend returned from a conference of single mothers by choice, fired up and empowered. “There are all these women doing this!” she said, as if she’d found her secret, hidden tribe—and I realized that I could, too. I didn’t necessarily want to separate having a child from finding a partner. But I wasn’t willing to gamble my deepest wish on finding the right guy before my eggs expired. “People partner up at all stages of life,” I told myself. “But this is the only time I can have a baby.”
I started reading the few books that existed on becoming a single mother by choice. Although informative in terms of one’s options, I found them incomplete in terms of how to navigate the fear, loneliness, shame, and vulnerability involved in becoming a single parent. Ultimately, I recognized that I was going to have to create my own map. I made a four-year plan. I’d take three years to pull my finances together, and a fourth year to somehow get the baby.
I spent hours researching adoption, foster parenting, and fertility treatments; and studying everything I could find on becoming a single mom by choice. Somewhere among those pages, I read that in order to truly open up to the possibility of becoming a mother, you need to “grieve the dream” of the way you believed you would have a child.
Those words stopped me short. At some point, I needed to let go of the full-package dream I had been envisioning my entire life. I asked my therapist to help me figure out how.
“What was the dream?” he asked.
“To meet my partner at 32 or so, after having traveled the world and becoming successful,” I said. “We’d have our first child two years later, and the second one a couple of years after that. We’d be financially stable. I would write books. My husband and I would grow old together, living happily in love and in our shared pursuit of truth.”
Though that hadn’t happened, many other wonderful things had. I had earned degrees, written books, traveled widely, loved deeply, found lifelong friends, and spirituality. Yet all the gifts and milestones in my life felt like meaningless detours and missed opportunities.
I was stuck, and in order to get unstuck, I needed to experience my grief, as if mourning the loss of a dying friend. Only in this case, the loved one was my own unlived life as I thought it should’ve been.
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During long, sleepless nights, I released each detail of that dream into waves of sorrow and remorse—and came to fully accept that my baby would not be conceived during spiritual sex with my husband and best friend, who would be by my side through labor, childbirth, and the decades ahead of raising our child.
It’s when we turn towards painful or uncomfortable feelings that alchemy happens. As a psychologist, the most amazing thing I have discovered about emotions is that when felt and met with love, they have a beginning, middle, and end. Even my terror, when I faced it with enough tenderness and patience, turned into something else: an unwavering determination, focus, and the resolute conviction that my child would come to me, whatever the means. It might cost more money, or take longer than I wanted. But I knew my child was a certainty.
I now had a new dream: to be financially stable and professionally fulfilled, have a healthy and happy child, and find lasting love after his or her birth. The more I voiced this aloud, the more support I felt from friends and family. Something huge had shifted: I’d gone from shame to empowerment, from panic to surety. I was getting this baby. I knew it.
I underwent five inseminations with sperm from a sperm bank, and one attempt at IVF—along with a horrible, hallucinatory 36-hour amnesia from fertility medications gone haywire.
Then, a friend of a friend asked me out on a blind date. “You probably want to rethink that,” I told him. “I’m 40. I’m in the process of trying to get pregnant, and I don’t plan to stop.” A fascinating, successful and attractive author and public figure, he was the kind of man who would have otherwise captured my interest. But I was in the middle of my solo baby-making mission.
A few days later, he called me. “I’m willing to help you get pregnant," he said, "and you could keep the baby if it doesn’t work out between us." While I’d had other sperm donor offers by that point, this one melted my heart in a way the others hadn’t. It felt genuine, and born of real feeling. After first donating his sperm for my second botched IVF attempt, we tried the old-fashioned way—wine, romance, and relaxation—with a small dose of fertility medications.
A month later, he moved in—and somehow, miraculously, at 40 years old, the universe gave me the ultimate gift: I was finally pregnant.
He and I didn’t last much longer as a couple. But in my son, Zion, I have the exact child meant for me. And Zion has a father who loves him and supports him, emotionally and financially.
After all those years of longing, and the procedures and money spent in an effort to conceive (a total of $50,000), it’s funny to think that my tow-headed Zion, who’s now 7 years old, was ultimately conceived in an almost traditional way.
But had I not been so utterly committed to getting pregnant—and communicated this to every man who wanted to date me (ultimately prioritizing my desire for a child over my dream to have a conventional family)—I wouldn’t have him. And I would never have known the boundless love that is now with me day and night.
Becoming a single mother by choice is not an easy road. It involves unique challenges. Yet, I have not once looked back on my choice with ambivalence or regret. And choosing to have a baby on your own doesn’t mean you’re destined to be a single mother for the rest of your life; it just means things don’t happen for you in the usual order.
Whether you want to call it fate, karma, or faith, when my child was finally in my arms, I understood with all my being that my life was unfolding exactly as it was meant to. All the bumps along the way were leading up to this perfect moment. And I am exactly where I am meant to be.
Mariana Caplan, PhD, MFT, is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and author of several books, including her latest, Yoga & Psyche. She is the founder of Yoga & Psyche International, and counsels individuals considering becoming single parents by choice.