I cried for nearly a year after ending a serious relationship when I was 34. In retrospect, I wasn’t mourning the loss of the relationship — the emotional turmoil had become overwhelming, and lots of counseling hadn’t been able to repair what was broken. My tears were largely about the baby I assumed I’d eventually become pregnant with and the prospective family I’d hinged upon the success of that partnership. It wasn’t just a breakup for me, it was motherhood drifting further out of sight. It’s predicament women face all the time.
The story of a precipitously declining fertility rate (in the U.S. and globally) is often told as one of women in couples marrying later, trying to conceive later, and having fewer babies, along with an increasing number of people choosing to be childfree. But alongside this reality, there is a different group who are less understood: Single women nearing the end of their childbearing years who say they want children but have not had them yet.
Many of these wanna-be mothers forgo parenthood (through decision or indecision) because they are not married or partnered, a situation academics sometimes refer to as “social infertility.” Research shows the factor most responsible for the increase in childlessness in the late 20th century is the increasing proportion of women who are not married by age 40.
This is the landscape I was navigating when at 35, I froze my eggs in a bid to buy a little more time to meet a future partner, and so that if I didn’t, I’d have a better chance of having a child on my own someday. As it turned out, I fell in love at 37, and at 40, we had a baby. But initially, I wasn’t willing to put all my eggs in one basket (pun intended).
For years I navigated two different paths, preparing myself for a solo journey to motherhood while simultaneously dating someone I thought was very likely to become my long-term partner and my child’s father. For me, thinking about becoming a solo mom involved some fear and mourning, but it also stirred a deep sense of relief to acknowledge that my desire for motherhood was not contingent on whether a relationship worked or not.
A study by Karen Benjamin Guzzo, director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University, found that 42% of childless women between the ages 40 and 44 (in other words, the end of their childbearing years) wanted to have a baby. But if you compare the percentage of women who want a child with the percentage of women who actually intend to have a child, a more complicated picture emerges: Less than half of those who wanted to have a baby intended to have one. Although the study does not speculate why this gulf exists, the space between wanting and intending to have a baby is emotionally fraught terrain, littered with concerns about money, fertility issues and many hoped-for partners who never materialized.
Melanie Notkin is an expert on the emerging demographic of childless, single women, sometimes referred to as PANKS, Professional Aunts No Kids. She describes the group as consisting of “child-loving, affluent women without children of their own by circumstance, choice or challenge.” In a 2018 survey, she found that nearly half (49%) are childless by circumstance. Why? “Most expect, hope or had expected to have a child but the majority remain single, or were single during their fertile years.” Her report showed that 47% of partnerless PANKS would not consider single motherhood.
The fact that so many women hinge parenthood on something as mercurial as the promise of a lifelong romantic partnership makes some sense: Mainstream culture still pushes us toward a “soulmate” as a prerequisite to starting a family, and concerns about the potential loneliness of being a solo parent, and the ability to afford a child on one income are real. Life can be quite hard for solo moms, but it's important to remember that so much of that hardship is not inevitable, but rather, by design. Our culture encourages nuclear families and discourages single parenthood; it’s an ideological bias still enshrined in law and policy, and one that needs to be tackled head-on.
[T]hinking about becoming a solo mom involved some fear and mourning, but it also stirred a deep sense of relief ...
In other ways though, forgoing parenthood specifically because one does not want to be a single parent constitutes a logical fallacy. Being a single parent isn’t necessarily a permanent identity, and many are single for a period of time, before romantically coupling and raising children together (often in blended families). Many single parents build networks of support and community to help care for their children that are even deeper and more robust than another parent could provide. Nevertheless, this personal calculus about prospective family life steers many single, wannabe parents away from trying, and causes a lot of existential angst, along with some profound sadness and deep regret.
While there is no easy answer for single women who want children but would prefer to have a partner first, we could begin by shifting focus from what we cannot ultimately control (finding a romantic partner) to what we typically can (conceiving a baby). Fertility, after all, has real time constraints, but finding a romantic partner does not. This should not be a radical provocation.
This concern — helping women have children on their own — might seem frivolous against the terrifying backdrop of a powerful forced-birth movement poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. But it's the flip side of the same coin. Both the right to end a pregnancy and to conceive a child on your own terms are issues of agency and self-determination, a spectrum of choices encompassed in a reproductive justice framework.
Plus, helping single women have the children they want is a good idea on a macro-level for those concerned with boosting fertility rates, but more importantly, for the well-being of wannabe parents, some of whom forgo parenthood entirely and others who have children within unhealthy and fragile partnerships out of fear of a missed opportunity. Helping these folks have more agency and fewer potential regrets seems at minimum like a humane response.
Some will respond to this suggestion with credulity, and worry about the welfare of children, but concerns about the well-being of children raised by single mothers tend to be deeply exaggerated. The overall conclusion of a meta-analysis of the data by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is that the causal effects of sole parenthood on child well-being, if it exists, is small — that’s the only conclusion to be asserted with confidence. A European study specifically comparing the well-being of children growing up in “single-mother-by-choice” and heterosexual two-parent families, meanwhile, found no differences in terms of the parent-child relationship or child development. It did find that single-mothers-by-choice had greater social support networks.
This should be the starting point for a new conversation that accounts for the reality of emergent demographic trends (i.e., declining fertility rates and increasing numbers of single, childless women), centers the well-being of children, and harnesses a cultural zeitgeist supporting families of all types.
Our culture encourages nuclear families and discourages single parenthood; it’s an ideological bias still enshrined in law and policy, and one that needs to be tackled head-on.
From a policy perspective, there are some obvious starting points. The high cost of reproductive technologies like IVF (and even IUI), which make dreams of motherhood prohibitive for so many, ought to be covered by insurance for all women, so that choosing to become a solo mom is no longer a privilege exclusively for the affluent. Where this coverage is available it is almost always indicated for treating “infertility,” but insurance has historically relied on a heteronormative definition of infertility, based on having heterosexual intercourse for some period of time that does not result in a pregnancy — a definition that leaves out all single women (and LGBTQ couples). We need to be advocating for legislation that defines infertility in the most inclusive manner, along with having more public conversations about the rights of unpartnered adults to form families, which includes non-discriminatory access to fertility treatments.
We also need to pass the caregiving provisions of the stalled Build Back Better agenda, including reinstating the expanded Child Tax Credit, making historic investments in childcare to make it more affordable, universal free preschool for 3 and 4-year-olds and paid family and medical leave. These policies would help all families, but are particularly critical for single parents.
There are also a host of single-parent penalties within our policies that could use fixing. For example, the child tax credit had a lower phaseout for those filing as Head of Household (largely single parents), which is nonsensical when you consider that its purpose is to offset the costs of raising a child — costs that are the same if not more for single parents who must secure childcare to work outside the home. Paid leave laws, admirably designed with a sex-neutral approach in order to encourage more fathers to take leave, have the unfortunate practical effect of disadvantaging children born to solo parents, because they are eligible for only half as much leave as two parent families. These parents are more likely to be working-class or poor and people of color.
It’s time to let go of outdated and inaccurate ideas about how families should form
We should also take on housing policies, like single-family zoning laws, that make it harder for multiple families to share space and costs (something some single moms are already doing). Workplace culture, in general, must do much more to respect the boundaries of home life and employees’ caregiving realities. Something as simple as offering stipends to cover childcare whenever evening events or work travel is required would go a long way in helping solo moms.
This is not a comprehensive list of solutions, but rather a selection of examples to highlight all the obstacles women face when considering having children on their own.
Working toward a culture where everyone who wants to love, nurture and raise a child has the opportunity to do so is a worthy, admirable goal. It recognizes the inherent dignity of choosing to parent, and the right of adults to form the families of their choosing. It frees adults from romantic entanglements they might be wise to avoid by untethering having a child with finding a partner or co-parent. It’s time to let go of outdated and inaccurate ideas about how families should form and create a culture and policy landscape that helps all women have the children they want.