(I originally wrote this for Bay Windows (December 13, 2007), an LGBT newspaper, and focused on the commonalities between single straight moms and lesbian moms, coupled or not. Most mainstream coverage of the book, however (e.g., Newsweek), has focused on the issue of whether a woman can or should raise kids without a father if she doesn’t have an appropriate man in her life. Take the discussion here any way you choose….)
Louise Sloan’s new book, Knock Yourself Up: No Man? No Problem: A Tell-All Guide to Becoming a Single Mom (Avery: 2007), is something of a novelty. It is perhaps the only parenting book by an out lesbian mom that is directed at a mixed audience, lesbian and not. While some books about single motherhood are inclusive of lesbian moms to varying degrees, and some books about lesbian parenting state they are also appropriate for single straight moms, Sloan goes beyond them and weaves the experiences of herself and other lesbians with those of straight women in an even-handed way that makes neither group feel like outsiders.
The book features her own perspective as a single mom by choice, as well as the voices of 43 other women whom she interviewed at length, representing a wide variety of backgrounds and choices on the path to parenthood. Sloan says she wanted her book to be “a lively support group in text form, offering a diversity of perspectives,” and in this she succeeds. Chatty, informal and at times laugh-out-loud funny, there is nevertheless much practical information in the women’s stories and Sloan’s asides.
Some people, of course, feel single moms by choice are selfish and view men as unnecessary, the same argument many throw at lesbian moms. Sloan, however, argues “What the straight women in this book rejected was not men or marriage – it was the idea of getting into a bad marriage, or the wrong marriage, just to have kids. . . . In fact, many have made the decision to bear a child out of wedlock because they respect marriage too much to enter into it lightly for reasons of social and procreational expedience.” For lesbians, the marriage situation is somewhat different, but the idea is the same: Don’t force yourself into the wrong relationship just to have a parenting partner. The de-linking of marriage and procreation, however, is one of the many reasons the book has already garnered a number of far-right detractors, who also seem to believe the lack of a dad means a troubled life for the child — an assertion disproven by credible research. Straight single moms by choice and lesbians, coupled or not, may find common cause here, an alliance that in my opinion has yet to be fully explored.
Sloan herself spends little time on the politics of this debate, however, except to cover it briefly in her introduction. Most of the book is devoted to personal stories, with a sprinkling of general information about insemination and pregnancy. The women discuss the soul-searching that led them to go it alone, their individual methods for choosing a donor, inseminating and financing the endeavor, and dating and sex as single moms-to-be. Post-birth topics include talking with children about their biological fathers, “coming out” about single motherhood, and the impact of being a single mom on self, family, and career.
The women share a range of experiences: known and unknown donors, quick conceptions, infertility, easy pregnancies, difficult ones, healthy babies and those with medical problems. They burst stereotypes like “all single moms by choice must be liberals” and “all single moms of color must be on welfare.” Sloan presents the women’s choices, such as using a known vs. unknown donor, with commendable neutrality, even when also sharing her own story. If there is one message that comes through consistently, though, it is the importance of knowing when to ask for help from friends or family, and realizing that “single” shouldn’t mean “isolated.” Wise words indeed.
In the chapter “Coming Out About Single Motherhood,” Sloan most clearly shows the value of communicating across the lines of sexual orientation. Talking about one’s single-mom status is a lot like coming out as a lesbian, she says. Just as mentioning one’s (straight) husband makes people think of a social relationship, but mentioning a same-sex partner makes them think of sex, telling people your child’s “father” was a donor makes them think of sperm, a similarly awkward subject. Confront the awkwardness, she advises: “I feel it’s important to live one’s life openly and honestly. More importantly, what message would it send to my son if I tried to hide his origins? It would suggest to him, and to everyone, that it’s something to be ashamed of. So even though it might be a little uncomfortable for me at first, I think coming out is important.” We lesbians have heard the argument before, unrelated to kids; I, for one, am glad if others, especially potential allies, can benefit from it as well.
The book ends with a “Donor Insemination and Fertility Glossary” and an extensive bibliography about single motherhood and parenting. There is little to criticize about the work, except to note its self-imposed boundaries. It is not a how-to like Mikki Morrisette’s Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman’s Guide (Be-Mondo: 2005), nor a rigorous sociological study like Rosanna Hertz’s Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice (Oxford: 2006), both recommended to help round out an exploration of the topic. Sloan does not deal with adoption, noting its unique issues and choosing to focus on those who want to bear children. For anyone considering knocking themselves up, however, or even lesbian couples wanting to inseminate, Knock Yourself Up is a warm, funny, and useful read, and a heartening example of bridge-building across the queer/straight divide.