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Motherhood as a single woman

In “Three Wishes,” three journalists share their stories of wanting families and finding love after disastrous relationships. In this excerpt, Carey Goldberg writes about her decision to become a single mother.

Chapter one: The decision
Carey

“Hello?”

The phone rang just as I happily settled into bed with a thick novel and a box of cereal. Once I freed myself from a day’s deadline pressure, nothing restored me better than eating while I read, or reading while I ate. But the airy bedroom of my Cambridge town house was no real refuge. The New York Times copy desk could still call with urgent questions about an article I had written for the next day’s paper, and I had to be available, always.

“Hello?” I said again. No answer. “Hello?”

Still no reply. Pressing the receiver harder against my ear,

I made out the muffled voice of my boyfriend, a cosmopolitan scientist I’d been seeing for nearly a year.

It had been on and off, with a start so strong that I swore we were in love by the third date, then a crash followed by a long limping. I was usually rational to a fault, but with him I couldn’t seem to let go.

It slowly dawned on me that I was listening to a conversation between my boyfriend and a female friend of his, a doctor I’d met and liked. I deduced that he must have accidentally pressed the Send button on his cell phone, and that it repeated the last number he called: mine.

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“So what’s up with you romantically?” I heard the doctor say.

“Oh,” he said, “I’m back with Carey, and it’s certainly not issue-free.”

“Why don’t you see other women, then?” she asked.

“I don’t want to hurt Carey ... I really don’t want to hurt her.”

“Well, what do you think you’re looking for?”

“First of all,” he said, “it would have to be somebody who really attracted me.”

I felt my body start to shake, as it registered the depth of the rejection before my mind could absorb it. I would like to note here, in my own defense, that I am in fact generally considered attractive, and have occasionally even been called beautiful, but I am by no means to everyone’s taste. I am tall and cello-shaped, with high cheekbones, a broad, even smile, and thick dark curls or frizz, depending on the weather. (He ended up marrying a buxom redhead so petite she could wear girls’-department clothes.)

I paged him — his cell phone was busy, obviously — and broke up with him, my limbs shivering so hard that it was difficult to talk.

* * *

There are more where that came from. Rejections of me. Rejections by me. All leading to the moment when, the night before I turned thirty-nine, on assignment in a remote town in northern Maine, I lay alone in an anonymous motel room bed, staring at the ceiling, and faced the biggest decision of my life.

It was biological midnight, at least as I had defined it for myself. I was a professional success, Boston bureau chief of the New York Times, and a romantic failure, dating doggedly into middle age and still incurably single. Now, my self-imposed deadline had struck. If I really wanted to have a baby before it was too late, I would have to do it on my own. It was time to give up on romantic love, and try to become a single mother.

It was a bad, but not all-bad, moment. What had seemed like such a depressing thought, such a failure, for so many years, suddenly started to seem like something that was hearteningly doable, unlike the endless frustrations of trying to make love work. It was a decoupling of the desire for a man and the desire for children, and it carried sudden, surprising relief.

It was also sad, sad, sad to plan to become a single mother. It was standing against the wall at the biggest dance of all. I had not been chosen. I was not desired. Not loved. For nearly seven years, I lived out my long-standing dream of working as a Moscow correspondent, reporting mainly for the Los Angeles Times right through the climactic years when the Soviet Union was collapsing. I could have stayed longer, but when I was thirty-four I came home to work for the New York Times with the very explicit idea of Getting a Life.

I was aware of having an agenda, painfully aware. I knew that some of my failed relationships, if given more time and less pressure, might have turned into love. But there was no time. No time. I had always been a goal-getter. But now, having the goal got in the way of achieving it. I analyzed the problem to death.

“What I want most in life now is to fall in love, marry, and have a family, but that is not the sort of thing you can make happen,” I lamented to my best friend, Liz. “You can’t go to school for it. You can’t get on a waiting list for it. You can’t directly apply. You can try to prepare for it, but what else?”

Time ran out before I could find an answer. My own parents were separated before I was born. Their split was so rancorous that, family lore has it, my mother didn’t want to allow my biological father into the hospital to meet me when I was born. He was a successful physician, professor, and author. He also had a violent temper, a two-pack-a-day habit, and the kind of superiority complex that led him to conclude, from personal experience, “Remember, Carey, a man never hits a woman unless she makes him feel totally powerless.”

My mother, a supremely warm and hilarious woman, moved back into her parents’ house and raised my brother and me on her own until I was two. Then, to our great good fortune, she married Charlie Ritz, the loving, wise, patient man who would become my stepfather — but who was really my dad, my father in every sense of the word except genetics. He always said that he could not possibly have loved us more if we had been his own biological children. When a car accident left my mother in a permanent coma in her midfifties, my dad spent hours with her shell of a body virtually every day for nearly two years, gently watching over her as the hope that she could recover slowly faded. He held her hand as she breathed her last breath. To this day, he wears his wedding ring.

Perhaps I would have my mother’s luck in late-found love.

At least I could think about having a child on my own as skipping the ugly divorce. Two days after my birthday, I told my dad that I had decided to become a single mother.

“No matter what you do, I’ll support you,” he said firmly, sad-eyed. “I’m sure you’ll make a great mother.”

I could see the crumbling of a vision he’d had for me. On the other hand, I thought, my mother met him when she had a one-year-old and a two-year-old, so he couldn’t think this was truly the end of all hope for love, could he?

I went to see the gynecologist at a women’s clinic, the kind of inclusive, groovy place that would be accustomed to helping lesbian couples and single women get pregnant. We sat face to face in a tiny exam room. I wondered if he was single. “Fertility varies tremendously from woman to woman,” he said, “so the consequences of waiting longer in hopes of meeting the right man are hard to predict.” But he had evolved a rule of thumb for cases like mine, he said: “If you think you could well end up heartbroken because you let your chance to have a child go by, you should do it now.”

I went to see a wise older therapist who specialized in fertility issues, a fragile-looking woman revered by her clients. Another office the size of a walk-in closet.

“It’s the morality of it that’s troubling me,” I said. “How can I knowingly bring a child into a situation that is less than optimal from the very get-go?”

“Well,” she said, “what do you think a child needs?” I had never tried to come up with a list.

“Love,” I said. “A safe and stimulating environment. A circle of people who care, who can help her reach her potential, that kind of thing.”

She was silent, smiling slightly, letting what I had just said sink in. Then she asked me, “Can you provide that?”

My mother, who would have been an ideal grandmother, all twinkle and fun and unconditional acceptance, was dead. But I had my dad, living just a few blocks away in Cambridge. He was in his midseventies, but still healthy, and would make a world-class grandfather. My brother and sister and best friend, Liz, lived in distant cities, but I had some close friends in Boston, a few dating back to my teen years. I had the money to hire excellent childcare, thanks to my late mother, my savings from Moscow, and the stock market. My job was demanding, but I was reaching the end of my stint as Boston bureau chief and was ready to ratchet down my career for the sake of a child. I had been blessed with a certain serenity all my life, and I thought it would morph easily into maternal stability.

“Yes,” I finally said. “I can offer all of that.”

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