06 September 2008
By Louise Sloan
Published by Avery Publishing Group
ISBN-10: 1583332863, ISBN-13: 978-1583332863
Buy this book from Amazon UK
Were it not for the unconventional way she conceived her child, Louise Sloan would otherwise seem like a characteristic New York yummy mummy. Author and magazine editor, she manages to balance her family life with her young toddler with her busy work schedule, with the help of a live-in nanny and flexible working hours. However, single and lesbian, Sloan became pregnant with her son Scott through donor insemination, and her experience of assisted reproductive technology as a single woman is the focus of her book. The cover proudly declares 'No Man? No Problem!' against a pink background: 'Knock Yourself Up' is the do-it-yourself guide to motherhood. Sloan interweaves her own experience of becoming a single mother with the personal histories of other 'single mothers by choice' or 'solo mothers', a growing demographic in America and Europe. Through interviews with over forty women across the United States, Sloan builds a self-titled 'girlfriends guide' to single motherhood, offering advice and support to women considering single motherhood. By its own admission, the book is 'subjective as hell', mainly consisting of personal anecdotes from Sloan herself and her interviewees, but does also include an extensive list of resources, from recommended sperm banks to academic research papers on single motherhood. Sloan approached her interviewees through a 'solo mothers' support group of which she is a member. The book provides a lighter counterbalance to the more comprehensive and educational literature on assisted reproductive technology and single motherhood, namely Mikki Morisette's Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman's Guide, and Jane Mattes' Single Mothers by Choice, both of which Sloan highly recommends.
Sloan's own story is typical of the women she interviews: forty and single, her biological clock 'sounded more like a car alarm'. With some reluctance she abandoned her dream of starting a family in a loving relationship - 'I was holding on with white knuckles to that dream' - and made the choice to become a solo mother by donor insemination. She talks about the difficulty she had coming to terms with donor insemination, the alienating and uncomfortable process of shopping for sperm, and the bizarre 'eugenics of Buying Dad'. She is realistic about the frustrations and difficulties of donor insemination - for Sloan it was many failed attempts and thousands of dollars later before she had a successful pregnancy. Other women in the book have had a range of experiences: some conceived on their first attempt, others are still trying to conceive after miscarriages, others underwent many cycles of IVF treatment. Her account of the process is experiential - she vividly relives her attempts at home insemination in a romantic candlelit bedroom and 'trysts with the turkey baster' - but the few details of the medical, legal and financial aspects of pregnancy by donor insemination are vague.
While the tongue-in-cheek exclamation on the front cover attracts controversy, inside the book is predominantly a collection of stories and accumulated advice. The women that she interviews have a similar profile: they are educated, responsible, career-driven, financially secure, predominantly heterosexual, older women. Some were divorced or single after a long relationship; many had left their male partners because they were not ready to commit to parenthood. As Mikki Morisette explains, they are 'educated adult women who have the resources to do it alone...and got pregnant on purpose'.
Sloan discusses questions unique to donor-conceived children and solo mothers: choosing between anonymous or identity-release sperm donors, and having confidence in your decision and conveying this to your children. 'What message would it send to my son if I tried to hide his origins?' She says she had the same concerns as her critics while considering single motherhood: 'Is it fair to the child? Shouldn't a child have two parents? Shouldn't a child know its biological heritage? These are a lot of valid questions.' She goes on to explain her own choices and the views of the other women she interviewed, but falls short of engaging in a wider debate.
It is difficult to remember how contentious some of these issues are outside of the book. Sloan manages to introduce difficult ethical issues that have been the centre of political debate without alluding to the political climate. In some ways, this subjective personal approach is refreshing, her depiction of these mothers is of real women making personal choices about their future families. 'At a family level, it can transcend politics,' Sloan says. Though Sloan makes no claims that her work is based on thorough research, these ethical concerns are not explored in any depth, and anyone seeking an informed opinion is left unenlightened.
What about these hotly debated issues, such as the need for a father or co-parent, recently the focus of a parliamentary vote in the UK? Sloan's answer to 'the Daddy Question' is that all single mothers, lesbian or heterosexual, recognize the importance of male role models for their children, but most have also opted against a male partner being the legal co-parent. She cites research that boys growing up in fatherless families are well-adjusted and just as masculine as boys with fathers, but also more communicative and empathetic. The women in her book find these men as male role models in their fathers, friends, their extended community, or a new partner. All of the women she interviewed agonized over their decision to become a single parent, and are devoted to their children. 'Unlike so many married couples, single mothers by choice meticulously plan their pregnancies and how they're going to raise and afford the children.' Sloan summarises her opinion on the single motherhood debate with her bumper-sticker slogan: 'Every child a wanted child'.
In interviews, Sloan is more vocal about her critics: 'They're clinging to this idea, disregarding families and marriages in the real worldÖ They are not looking at the reality of what happens between Mom and Dad.' She suggests that a difficult divorce can be more damaging to children than a single-parent family. Sloan points to research comparing the psychological adjustment of donor insemination children with their peers, which suggests that children are happy, regardless of the number of parents, except where there is conflict in the family. In single parent families, the children are more curious about their donor, but do not perceive him as an important person in their life, and would not necessarily want to meet him. In general, children born from donor insemination are positive and comfortable with their origin.
Sloan and her interviewees weigh up the pros and cons of anonymous versus identity-release donors, and the prospect of meeting donor siblings through the Donor Sibling Registry. In the US, a sperm donor has the option to remain anonymous. In the UK, as of 2005, all children born from HFEA-licensed clinics have the right to access information about and contact their biological fathers at 18 years of age. In both America and the UK, the biological father - anonymous or identity-release - has no legal rights, responsibilities or obligations to the child, and is not a named parent on the birth certificate. Some women want their children to have the opportunity to meet their biological fathers, while others feel that it is prudent not to involve the donor in their child's life.
To critics who are concerned that single motherhood represents a selfish exercise of single women with baby fantasies, these mothers appear conscientious, responsible and organised. Sloan depicts donor insemination as the responsible choice for single mothers, and advocates against 'accidental' pregnancies, going on to describe horror stories involving child custody battles and unhappy relationships and unstable families. Sometimes one wonders if Sloan glosses over the more difficult aspects of single motherhood: did all women have such a happy experience? She manages to put a positive spin on negative experiences: hostility or reservation from family members is invariably reconciled after the baby's birth; acknowledging lonely moments, at least 'There's no arguing over "I got up the last time to change the diaper"'. Perhaps because their children were so wanted and planned for, these women are able to overlook and put behind them the more difficult moments and struggles and enjoy their family life.
For any reader looking for information on donor conception and assisted reproductive technology, the book is by no means thorough, exhaustive, or educational. It is less 'the tell-all guide to becoming a single mom' than an encouraging, pocketbook support group: where other resources spell out your options in detail, Sloan offers encouraging advice.
Buy Knock Yourself Up: A Tell-All Guide to Becoming a Single Mom from Amazon UK.