I grew up with one parent. My mother raised me with help from her mother. It was not her choice to be alone, but she did make a conscious decision not to remarry while I was still a kid. I am grateful for that and glad that she and my father were not together while I grew up. I believe it was because she made the decision not to commit to anyone else that I had such a well-supported and peaceful childhood.
We lived in a medium-size town in northern Wisconsin, in a small lime-green house with a yard. My grandma, a college professor (herself twice divorced), lived no more than a few miles away throughout my childhood and for a while even lived on the same block as we did. My mom worked as a public-school teacher. During summer vacation I played outside while she tended to a vegetable garden. In winter we baked cookies and made snow sculptures we’d paint with food coloring. We always ate well. We took vacations. It was hardly a conventional childhood in the traditional sense, but in its own way it was quite idyllic.
I’ve realized recently that when I picture myself with my own child, there’s no father in the frame. I imagine it being just the two of us—a team, like my mom and me. Perhaps because of how I was raised and how happy my childhood was, I often wonder whether I wouldn't rather just have a kid alone.
An article in last Saturday’s New York Times talks about the struggles faced by single mothers under the age of 30. With limited education and largely unplanned pregnancies, their situation now represents the majority rather than the exception in the United States. As a 30-year-old college-educated woman, I fall into the opposite demographic, the one statistically more likely to have children while married.
Despite this, I feel apprehensive at the idea of sharing parenthood with another person. Having never experienced the traditional family unit, raising a kid in tandem with someone is as difficult for me to imagine as having another set of limbs. I can’t help but think that having a partner there with an equal stake in the matter would complicate the process.
Rather than being a force of stability, the times my own father did show up served only to temporarily disrupt the pleasant routines my mother and I had established. He arrived unannounced at our back door one day when I was 8, and I thought he was an escaped convict who’d come to bludgeon us to death. I’d screamed, and my mom came running, pausing for a moment to laugh, “No, honey, that’s just your dad.” My father came to see us several times over the course of my growing up. I remember these visits as short and uncomfortable. (His large beard embarrassed me to no end.)
Despite all indications otherwise, I was actually planned, and my parents were married when I was born. Having initially left my mother while she lay pregnant in the hospital (he came back and left again several more times before I was 2), and having since paid child support only one time, I think my father kept his distance in part to avoid his guilt. But there was really no need, as my mom never said anything negative about him to me and for most of my childhood I never really thought about him either way. Once his second wife had a baby, he stopped coming to visit or calling us altogether.
My mother was born in 1956, at the tail end of a generation that grew into adulthood during the ‘60s and ‘70s. It is the first generation in which divorce was a prominent, even accepted state of being. Children born of that generation, like me, are the first to have grown up without the stigma of divorce or having one parent. Now that we’re having our own children, we have an entirely different perception of what a family unit consists of. There is a large cohort of people now in their 20s and 30s for whom a healthy family can mean one parent along with a supportive base of friends and relatives.
It isn’t conventional wisdom, but in many ways it seems easier to raise a kid alone. Being a single parent by choice would mean not having to deal with another person's sets of demands or expectations of what child-rearing means. I wouldn’t burden a child with the emotional baggage of divorce or the highs and lows of an unhappy relationship. It would just be the two of us and a supporting cast of extended family.
I believe that there must be a small demographic like me: people who would choose to be single parents not because their biological clock is ticking and they can’t find a partner, or because birth control failed, but because they simply want to raise a child alone. (I say this not as only as a woman. I’ve also known men who’ve raised their children alone quite happily.)
Perhaps all of this sounds selfish to some people, but there is no conclusive evidence that I would be giving a child any less possibility for success than a kid with two parents, as long as I am mature and have the financial means. Much of the research that supports having children within marriage is about opportunity, not the physical presence of two parents.
The problems that single mothers face in the Times story would not be mine. I wouldn’t suddenly find myself pregnant. I would plan. Because of my career, I would be able to work from home. I’d be able to provide a child with a stable life, surrounding myself with a strong support network. My mother’s career as a teacher was ideal for our situation because her hours roughly matched my own time spent at school. For other women whose jobs require late hours in the office or do not provide enough income, or who live far from reliable family and friends, single parenthood may not be a viable choice.
There are other complications, of course. I would want to make sure that my kids were raised with strong male role models, something I lacked growing up. There is also the issue of my personal life. Throughout much of my childhood my mother dated a man who was much older than her with grown kids of his own. He had a relationship with me, but it did not come with the disciplinary privileges (or burdens) of a parent, and we never lived with him.
It might not be realistic to forever banish the idea of a serious long-term partner. I mean, things happen, people meet and fall in love. While I don’t need to have a partner to raise a child, as a person outside of motherhood I may want a serious romantic relationship at some point, and in doing so I would have to open up the relationship to include my child.
I guess I believe that when I have a kid, my love for him or her will eclipse the love I’ve felt for men and that choosing between the two would never be an issue. I could have men in my life on the periphery, but I would place my child securely in the center.