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Moms the Word

May 10, 2012 By:
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Shari Botwin and her son, Andrew

Marla Leigh had always planned on having children.

"Others dreamt about that wedding," said Leigh, a 42-year-old human resources consultant from Lower Merion. "I dreamt about being a mom."

But she got busy with an aggressive career track, "and time just really got away from me. All of a sudden, I was 40 years old."

So she did what any resourceful, modern woman might do: She found a sperm donor and had a baby on her own.

On Sunday, she celebrates a double simcha -- Mother's Day and the first birthday of her daughter, Aubrey.

While single motherhood might still be shunned by some conservative groups, Leigh and two other local moms are among those who have found support within their circles of friends and Jewish communities. It's still difficult to explain themselves sometimes, they said, but the stigma of being a single mom seems to be lifting as more women proudly tackle the job all by themselves.

"It's not so much of an unknown anymore and people are generally getting it, that these are competent women," said Jane Mattes, a 68-year-old Manhattan psychotherapist who runs Single Mothers By Choice, a support group with roughly 2,500 active members around the globe.

That was far from the case when Mattes convened her first Single Mothers By Choice meeting 30 years ago. Women who came would often say that they'd never heard of anyone else like them, Mattes said. "We don't hear that anymore."

Now, she said, those considering solo adoption or donor insemination usually know of someone else who did it. Women have also been coming at a younger age and often with the intention of having at least two children.

"In the early group we felt it was some sort of miracle if we could pull off one alone, but two is almost becoming the norm," she said.

More than 14,000 women have been involved with her organization to date, though the number of members actively meeting to exchange tips, go out for social events or vacation together, discuss sperm bank lists and perhaps even sell leftover vials of sperm, has dipped. Mattes takes that as a positive sign that single moms are finding mainstream acceptance. By the time their kids get to elementary school, "they're just another mom," Mattes said.

Technically, it's impossible to measure how many single mothers by choice, also called choice moms, exist. While fertility doctors track age and other factors to calculate success rates of their treatments, there's no medical need to document marital status. Census data counts the number of children born to unmarried mothers, but that, too, doesn't distinguish whether those moms are raising kids alone or as part of a couple.

Still, even fertility doctors attest to rising numbers of single mothers by choice.

Jackie Gutmann, a specialist at RMA of Philadelphia, said she used to see maybe 10 such patients annually when she started out 20 years ago; now she'll have 40 to 50. Who knows how many other women don't even come through fertility clinics because they buy sperm online or get it free from a friend and inseminate at home, Gutmann said.

Then there are those who adopt, though Mattes said that's never been as widespread because the process is so expensive, tedious and often biased against singles.

Anecdotally, Mattes and several moms interviewed for this story say they've also noticed a disproportionate number of Jewish choice moms, at least in Philadelphia and New York.

That makes sense because motherhood is considered such a major achievement in Jewish families, and it would be a loss to miss out on that, said Mattes, who is also Jewish. Even the Orthodox community seems to be supportive, she said, "though you have to look harder to find somebody there."

Narberth social worker Shari Botwin said having her son, Andrew, now 1, actually deepened her spirituality. Botwin said she'd figured there was no such thing as faith after enduring years of sexual abuse as a young adult, which she believes led to her accompanying struggles with eating disorders and depression.

"The miracle of being able to conceive him changed that," said Botwin, 41.

Because of her history, Botwin said, "I really wanted to prove to myself that I could be a mom."

She'd planned to get married first, but relationships didn't pan out. When doctors treated her for thyroid cancer at age 35, she joked with friends that if she wasn't in a relationship after surviving that, she wouldn't wait any longer.

"I don't think I believed I was going to actually follow through with it."

Just to make sure she could take care of another life, she first got a King Charles Spaniel named Chloe. Still, she said, it was daunting to think about raising a child with no partner or family support. Her father died and she's not in contact with her mother or sister. She wondered if it would be selfish to have a baby without a dad, since she knew firsthand what it was like to grow up feeling neglected. She thought caring for a child would help her heal from her traumatic past, but friends worried that she might feel stranded or overwhelmed.

Then, the maternal pangs got stronger.

"Something clicked, and I thought, 'Why do I have to be so traditional about this?' " Botwin remembered.

Decision made, she began sorting through potential sperm donors. She looked for one who was Jewish, she said, but her choices were severely restricted because of an autoimmune medical condition.

"It bothered me but honestly so slightly. It's just a donor. Hopefully someday he'll have a father and we'll raise him Jewish."

Then came countless trips to the doctor: five tries over 10 months before she became pregnant. Even if insurance companies cover the procedure, each vial of sperm can cost up to $650. Botwin estimated that some women pay anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 before becoming pregnant, depending on how many cycles they go through.

Without family in the picture, Botwin went to appointments by herself. A close friend accompanied her in the delivery room. The bris and that first Mother's Day passed by in a blur, Botwin said. As the sole breadwinner, she couldn't afford to stay home longer than six weeks. When she's working, Andrew stays with a babysitter. In a few months, he'll start daycare at Har Zion Temple.

"People say it's so hard" to raise a child, even with a partner, Botwin said. "To be able to just love a baby and take care of its needs, to me, it's not hard."

Sometimes, Botwin said, people will ask her what she plans to say when Andrew's old enough to ask about his dad. She doesn't have an answer yet. Others don't bring up the circumstances of his birth, but Botwin said she can tell they're a little uncomfortable or even sympathetic.

"They are thinking more than they are saying," Botwin said. "Those who know me are like, 'That's so cool.' I am very proud about it and I don't need any pity."

Botwin said she was right about the healing effect of having a child, and her fears of shortchanging Andrew have subsided.

"My heart's more open now than ever. I know that I love him to the fullest capacity and I think he'll feel that. Being able to carry the pregnancy and going through our lives together has made me the happiest I've ever been. I can't imagine having not done it."

Candice Polsky, 42, an accountant from Havertown, echoed that sentiment. Unlike Botwin, Polsky has supportive parents living close by. She was even in a relationship when she realized it was now or never. Her boyfriend, however, already had three small children from a previous marriage and didn't want another one.

Getting pregnant took two long, arduous years. She tried six times with one donor before moving on to another. She briefly considered adoption, but "I really wanted to be pregnant. I wanted to be in control of the process of my child from start to finish, making sure I was being healthy."

As if having a baby wasn't emotionally draining enough, Polsky's boyfriend was killed by a tractor trailer that backed over his motorcycle just two weeks after her daughter was born. Polsky said she was lucky to have her parents to lean on while she grieved with a newborn at her side.

Natalie, now 3, goes to preschool three times a week and spends other workdays with her grandma. Polsky's parents will even be moving in with them soon.

Polsky did try for a second child, but gave up after two more years of disappointment.

Like Botwin and Leigh, Polsky considers her daughter Jewish even though her sperm donor is not. That jibes with Jewish law, which states that religious lineage passes through the mother. Polsky said she'll eventually send Natalie to Hebrew school.

Though religious texts don't say anything about single motherhood by choice, Polsky said she figures "anything to do with bringing Jewish children into the world can't be a bad thing."

Rabbis of all denominations generally agree that modern technology is permitted under Jewish law when it comes to helping infertile married couples conceive. Articles about Judaism's view of fertility treatments often don't even mention the idea of single moms seeking pregnancy.

The way Reconstructionist Rabbi Julie Greenberg sees it, Judaism can be flexible enough to suit non-traditional families, however they may form.

Judaism values family and continuity, so "there's a lot of interest in making families work for you rather than, there's one right way and you have to step up to that bar," said Greenberg, the spiritual leader of Leyv Ha-Ir -- Heart of the City, which meets in the Ethical Society Building on Rittenhouse Square.

As a licensed marriage and family therapist and a choice mom herself, the 55-year-old Mount Airy rabbi gets plenty of calls from women debating the process.

"When I started planning my family, I felt like I was expanding the norms, but very much in line with Jewish values," Greenberg said. "Being a mom was a huge priority for me. I felt like I was ready to be a mother way before I was ready to be a partner. I never saw them as sequential activities."

Compared to other choice moms, Greenberg certainly bucks trends with five children ranging in age from 12 to 24. She gave birth to the first three using two donors who both happened to be rabbis and Holocaust survivors. Greenberg said she didn't go out looking for survivors, but perhaps they were happy to help because their horrifying experiences gave them a deeper appreciation for life. She adopted the next two children from Guatemala.

"I wanted a batch of kids close in age who could play together and support each other," Greenberg explained, "and I was just going to do whatever needed to be done to make it work."

Going into parenting can't be taken lightly, though, Greenberg said. "It's kind of a major piece of life's work, so you better really want it if you're going to do it."

Desire wasn't an issue for Leigh, who asked to substitute her middle name for her last name for fear that prospective employers doing online background checks would discriminate against her. Her mom and sister had urged her to focus on meeting a husband first. Then, a close friend from New York who was also single called to announce that she'd gotten pregnant. That was the last push Leigh needed.

"I was worried that if I didn't give myself the opportunity to become a mom, then I would regret it for the rest of my life," Leigh said.

When she was first showing, Leigh said, she didn't know how to explain that there was no dad. People would ask, " 'Oh, are you and your husband trying to figure out a name?' " Leigh remembered. "I would say, 'Oh, there's no husband,' and they'd kind of look at me funny, like, 'Hmm, what does that mean, that you got pregnant because you're sleeping around?' "

Other than those awkward encounters, Leigh said most people have "'been like, 'Wow, that takes a lot of courage and strength.' "

Most of all, Leigh said, it's taken immense organization to balance caring for Aubrey and a new, demanding job. As hard as that is, Leigh said motherhood has been spectacularly fulfilling.

"When you want something bad enough, you make it work," she said. "Every day I can't believe how lucky I am. Really, that's the way I look at it."

Leigh, Botwin and Polsky share only one regret: not starting sooner.

Well, Polsky added, "except for the fact that I wouldn't have the most awesome, perfect daughter that I have."

Their advice to other women who find themselves doubting their capacity to raise a child alone: Don't let anything get in your way, including being single.

"I have the rest of my life to find my soul mate and there's going to be someone out there who's perfect for me, but I didn't have time to do it first," Leigh said. "So I'm going to do it in a different order."

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