Monday, March 20, 2006

"Wanted: A Few Good Sperm" Needs More than A Little Common Sense

From Ash:

The cover story of yesterday's New York Times' Sunday Magazine is an article, "Wanted: A Few Good Sperm," written by Jennifer Egan. The piece profiles single women who are choosing to give up on finding the right guy, but are instead opting for the right sperm donor -- i.e., they're becoming pregnant via sperm banks and artificial insemination. I was outraged by the article and an On Point radio interview of the author. I couldn't stop ranting about it -- until Po asked why this was upsetting me so much. An entirely reasonable question.

I'm not making any moral judgments here against single mothers. I don't object to single mothers who become pregnant via sperm banks. But do I object to the way this story was told.

If Egan's to believed, being a "single mother by choice" is socially-accepted, morally-acceptable, and technologically-successful. It’s the new thing to do.

I disagree. It's still rare. It's still controversial. And it's very expensive. And most importantly of all -- getting pregnant is the easy part of single motherhood. A scant few paragraphs of the very long article touched on the challenge of raising the child alone. By limiting her focus to the pregnancy narrative, Egan presented an idealized, glamorized view of single parenting -- a view that ignores the fact that a child's life is at stake. It was irresponsible, and it just can't go unchallenged.

By choosing to tell the stories of wealthy women, Egan made the process of having a child seem much easier than it is (and by making it seem easy, she encouraged women to try it). The first woman she introduces us to is an executive who compares herself to Sex in the City's Carrie Bradshaw. Later, we meet an heiress with a graduate degree. These are women who can afford nannies. Most of us can’t afford day care – we beg our mothers and neighbors to watch the kids while we’re at work.

Meanwhile, Egan does not include a single opposing voice in the entire article. Not a family member who's upset, a sociologist who is questioning, a minister who says it's a sin, a bio-ethicist who's worried about the biological and moral implications, not even a boyfriend who's pissed that his girlfriend wants to have a stranger's kid and not his. Not one person ever says, "This is a bad idea."

Egan blithely says the social stigma of unwed motherhood is largely gone, and offers no real support for this statement. Did she ask anyone in the Bible Belt how they felt about this? Does she know that single parents stay out of churches because they fear being shamed if they go inside?

If the social stigma is gone, then why did no source for the article let Ms. Egan use their real name?

This was the paragraph that angered me the most:

"Discussion of single motherhood nearly always leads to talk of divorce. More than a third of American marriages end that way; often there are children involved, and often the mothers end up caring for those children mostly on their own, saddled with ex-spouses, custody wrangles and nagging in-laws. Considered this way, single motherhood would seem to have a clean, almost thrilling logic — more than a third of the time, these women will have circumvented a lot of pain and unpleasantness and cut straight to being mothers on their own." (emphasis added)

Egan fails to recognize that the women she’s interviewing - educated women in their 30s and 40s - have a lower likelihood of divorce, and that couples with children are also less likely to divorce. So the justification of "you may as well start as a single parent because there's a one-in-three chance you'll end up as one" is a disingenuous non sequitur.

Egan and the mothers she profiles seem largely unconcerned about anything post-pregnancy. The first woman profiled is an executive, who works extra hours to have the baby, and lives in a Murphy-bed single room. Egan never asks, "So where's the baby going to sleep?" or "You took on a promotion to have the baby -- but what are you going to do when the baby's born?" (Those questions must have been asked during the interview, and the absence of answers in the piece is suspicious.)

Another of Egan's subjects feels free to have meaningless sex now that she's going to rely on a sperm bank. Another, who already has a young child, has a long-term relationship that she knows is doomed -- but she doesn't seem concerned that her son might be hurt when the couple ultimately separate.

Still another one of Egan's mothers is choosing her donor based on his weight, because "If I have a girl, she wants to be skinny, and if she can eat what she wants, that's perfect. You don't have to get in fights about food." And she wants the child to have "a darker skin color so I don't have to slather sunblock on my kid all the time. . . . mixed dogs are always the nicest and the friendliest and the healthiest? If you get a clear race, they have all the problems. Mutts are always the friendly ones, the intelligent ones, the ones who don't bark and have a good character. I want a mutt."

That bears repeating. The New York Times is holding as representative of a new wave of motherhood a woman doesn't want to "deal with the father," and who is trying to genetically engineer her baby so that she will have less arguments with the child over food, she won't have to waste time with the child's suntan lotion, and so that the kid will be friendly and not bark much.

If she's representative of a growing trend, it's a Huxleyian nightmare that I hope no one will applaud.

Speaking of Huxley, I was chilled by the ways in which some mothers chose the donors, then began forming "families" with other children born of the same sperm donor. But wasn't the whole idea of this that the fathers weren't necessary -- so why is genetic make-up enough for these women to search for their children's siblings? Still others are happy not to have the burden of a partner, agreeing not to know who the donors were -- but they have already decided they'd find the donors later on, always intending on them to involved with their children anyway. It's a shotgun wedding a la Brave New World.

These women feel free to have meaningless relationships, because they removed the reason to have a meaningful relationship for themselves -- ignoring the fact the children might also benefit from such a relationship. They don't want to wait. They don't want to "deal with the father" . . . until they decide they want to. They don't want to deal with other relatives. These women aren't willing to put up with the most minor of inconveniences to have kids. They can't even deal with sunblock.

News flash: kids are inconvenient. If frequent applications of sunscreen are the worst of your concerns, you are either incredibly lucky or neglecting your child.

In other words, I see little difference from these women and the teenagers who have children because they want to feel important. They're both equally immature, with the same irresponsible reasons to have children. And Egan never calls them on that.

Of course, ultimately, it's how the kids turn out that's really important. And again, Egan doesn't attempt to address the issue. Instead, she admits that little is really known about how they'll fare, but she then optimistically refers us to an unnamed study saying that, so far, they turn out better than children of divorce. That's not a legitimate basis for comparison: children of divorce often do terribly, in large part because of the trauma of the divorce. Show me a longitudinal study of these children compared to those raised in couples, that is controlled for parental education and economy, and then we'll have something to talk about.

I don't think experts can make or break a piece, but if she can't find an expert, then you'd expect that she'd include the reaction of adult children of these women. But there isn't any at all.

Again, when you leave that out of the story -- especially one as long as that piece -- that to me, seems like advocacy.

Now, as I said, I don't have anything against someone being a single mother. They're braver than I am. And I know that single mothers can and do a fantastic job with their kids. But to assert that single motherhood has a "thrilling logic" because it avoids "nagging in-laws," while never addressing the other issues that come with single parenting, is asinine.

And I really worry that there are women out there who are going hear of this report, think it's a growing trend, and look to the examples of these women. They'll consider going to the sperm bank because it's now apparently a viable option.

If you're headed to the sperm bank to be a single mother, bravo. But don't do it without knowing the true plight of single mothers in our country:

1. Half of the unmarried women who gave birth last year are in poverty.

2. Their kids are disadvantaged in terms of psychological functioning, behavioral problems, education, and health. They're significantly more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed and are more likely to have a child before the age of 20.

That Egan's article completely ignored this is why I'm so mad. Younger women will read her article and think, "Hey, this is doable -- look at the internet support groups ready to help me -- no one will criticize me -- and it's easy -- Egan says it's no harder to buy sperm than it is to buy shoes."

My heart breaks for what lies ahead for those women. And I'm really worried for the children.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good points. The NYT has become the national paper of record for the hopelessly BoBo. However, this article will largely be read by women of a certain class who can in fact afford life as a single mother.

I do wonder how the kids will grow up. These aren't moms by accident or lesbian couples--these are women who chose to raise a child alone.

9:23 PM  
Anonymous tirzah harper said...

It's tempting, I'll admit, even for someone like me who's ecstatically happy with her partner. Just because the logistics of finding a good partner, or of having a child, are plenty to negotiate without trying to combine them both.
But...I, as an involved stepmother, don't get the luxury of ignorance when it comes to thinking about raising kids. Mine are long past the age where even their tantrums are adorable. I have had the most educational in-your-face experience of a great deal of what it really costs to raise children: The money, the irritation, the restriction, the cost of love as they grow to independence.
I cannot imagine taking on the full burden of that alone. I cannot imagine taking on that responsibility without an enthusiastic partner, short of extreme desperate need on my part. When it comes to parenthood, even a willing partner wouldn't be enough for me - they would have to want this as much as I did.
Sometimes my stepmom friends and I joke about one of us having a child and sharing custody with each other. We could share the costs and the rewards.
It's not likely to happen, but sometimes it eases the pain of knowing what we don't want to get ourselves into.

6:13 AM  
Anonymous Shiri said...

... not even a boyfriend who's pissed that his girlfriend wants to have a stranger's kid and not his.

If she had such boyfriend, then she wouldn't go to sperm bank! The problem is, they fail to find good men, who would make interested fathers. And no father is better than a messed up one.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

I understand your comment, but my point was really that there were no people who disagreed with what is obviously a controversial topic. But I specifically included the remark about boyfriends particularly since there were a number of women who seemed to be in relationships while they were pursuing the sperm bank option. One man may even have been involved with the child a woman already had. And Egan didn't include any reaction from the men about the issue. I have to imagine they had to have some opinion on the matter. If it wasn't regret that they weren't the fathers of the children, perhaps it was that they didn't want the women to have children at all, who knows. It was just the complete absence of any opinion that I found troubling.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

11:59 AM  
Blogger Choice Mom said...

Women have been actively making this choice for about 25 years. And for the most part, these older kids (I've talked to many for my book about "Choosing Single Motherhood") are very self-sufficient, intelligent and balanced -- like their mothers tend to be if they actually went through the work to actively CHOOSE this lifestyle. The focused attention these kids tend to get helps them feel wonderfully secure and loved.

Yes, there are issues: separation can be difficult, especially because of the tendency for an intense mother/daughter bond; boys tend to wish they had more of a male influence in teenage years, if they didn't. But none of the kids I've talked to feel their mother was selfish in making this decision.

Of course, it's still a work in progress. I'm continuing to stay in touch with these families over the years, for another book that focuses specifically on how the kids are turning out. We don't know yet what happens when they fall in love and have kids of their own. Perspective about childhood is often best in your 30s. The bulk of kids I know are still under the age of 20.

I'm biased, as the Choice Mom of two young kids. But from my ongoing conversations with Choice Moms around the country, it makes sense to me that having a loving, focused mother who consciously WANTS to parent can be a very good thing for the child. As I write in my book, these mothers need to have a support network (which sometimes is tough for women accustomed to 'doing it alone'), they need to find long-term male role models to provide a balance of styles, they need to establish rituals in their family life so daily logistics don't simply wipe out connections, and they need to encourage separation and 'having another life' by example as well.

Most women who choose parenting are very eager to be this kind of conscious single parent.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

I agree with you, Mikki - I felt that these particular women in the article came across as self-centered, but from my own interviews I felt every one of the single mothers by choice I interviewed were selfless and generous mothers and their children would have a very positive environment to grow up in.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Rachel said...

It's fascinating that you chose Brave New World as a literary metaphor for the type of "shotgun wedding" you profess will occur regarding Single Motherhood by choice...has it been a while since you read the book? The children in Brave New World were made in factories, the adults in the society (save the savage) wanted nothing to do with a serious relationship, let alone a child or marriage.

6:20 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

I'm sorry, but I don't understand your critique. Am I missing something? First, I said "a la" -- as in, influenced by or suggestive of. And your comment is exactly the point I thought I was making.

In the case made in the article, we heard of children produced in a clinical (i.e. a factory) environment by a father's sperm: the male has no interest in becoming involved in a relationship or having any dealings whatsoever with his progeny -- but wanting only a financial reward. And the women promise never to have any relationship with him. Several of those profiled don't even want a relationship with anyone at all -- they're in relationships only for the sex (soma).

Then comes the shotgun: some of the fathers are forced into a relationship later on, by the sheer presence of the child, because the women band together his gene line and declare him part of the family.

Pretty Huxley to me.

10:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was offended by the comment "It's not like they are lesbian couples" I am a lesbian and I am looking for a sperm donor in order to concive my child and i feel if you have the love and affection a child needs to live and thrive on then money is no object.If you keep your child close and be honest and open with them then they won't stray and have kids before they are ready or hang out with wrong crowds. Before you people judge think about your readers and how they feel. Beyond everyones beliefs the gay and lesbian community have feelings too. So think before you speak out on them without knowing the background. Thank you for your time. I hope everyone has a fantastic day...

11:54 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman said...

From Ash:

I didn't write the comment that you objected to, so I can't say for sure, but the article was about women in relationships with men. I don't think the earlier comment was suggesting anything negative towards lesbian women - it was just pointing out that the women in the article have a choice, compared to lesbian mothers who don't same options. So if anything, I read the comment as being more sympathetic to a lesbian mother's situation than to those women profiled in the piece.

10:07 AM  

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