by Rachel Lehmann-Haupt @rlehmannhaupt
excerpted from DIY Mom: A Solo Parenting Adventure (Shebooks, 2014)
On my 39th birthday, two years after I froze my eggs, I decided that if I wasn’t in a serious relationship by the time I turned 40, I was going to start intrauterine insemination with the poker player’s sperm. Even though my eggs were frozen, the urge to become a mother was becoming stronger — almost stronger than my desire for a relationship that would bring me a child.
A few months before I turned 40, still single and knowing that my self-imposed deadline was approaching, I headed off to the doctor’s office to get inseminated. My friend Jainee met me there, and for one hour we sat on the floor in the hallway outside the office, with me hyperventilating while I watched a father walk his two-year-old around in circles—an omen, in my mind, that a kid deserved a father and that this choice was wrong.
I went into the doctor’s examination room, and shivers ran down my spine as I lay down on the table and put my feet into stirrups. The doctor came into the room with my donor’s sperm collected into a syringe, and I burst into tears. “I can’t do this,” I said, jumping off the table. I wasn’t ready.
I spent my 40th with my parents and brother, clinking champagne glasses in the Pool Room of the Four Seasons, and then a few weeks later, I made an altogether different kind of choice. I decided to go live in Northern California.
I needed a change and a new perspective. I have never been a person who chose to follow the straight and narrow, and at this point that’s how life in New York felt. Even though it’s where I was born and the city that shaped my childhood and values, I have always struggled with the stiffness of the East Coast establishment. I was frustrated that even though I had spent the previous six years traveling around the world as a successful writer, I had not successfully joined the establishment of traditional marriage and family.
I was sick of being in pain over all the relationships that for one reason or another hadn’t worked out and my failure to join my parents’ and friends’ club. Sure, I had a lot of single girlfriends, too, and we lived our own Sex and the City episodes, but our dating-and-men-dominated conversations felt desperate, and I think many of us believed our single status was second class. I needed a new scene and a new attitude.
To really shake things up, I decided to move to a houseboat in Sausalito. My new floating houseboat life, not quite on land, not quite at sea, was as much metaphorically liminal as it was physically. I was in a space of indecision, not sure what I was going to do next, not sure whether I would become a mother or not.
During those first few months, I thought a lot about what a mentor had told me about New York and the Bay Area: New York is about power, who’s up and who’s down, while the Bay Area is about new ideas. He was comparing New York City’s worlds of establishment finance and media to the disruptive do-it-yourself culture of technologists tinkering in Silicon Valley garages.
I have always been fascinated by Northern California’s counterculture. My uncles had both moved here in the 1960s to be a part of Ken Kesey’s experimental psychedelic scene on Perry Lane in Palo Alto, and later Uncle Sandy, a sound engineer, joined Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters for their cross-country bus trip to shake up post–World War II America. I liked being in the place that had inspired not only this counterculture, but also the current DIY movement of tool-building geeks and crafters.
For a brief few months, I reunited with an old flame I had dated in graduate school. He was going through a divorce, and though I hate to admit it, I found his pain comforting. Seeing his life fall apart gave me a kind of solace. We bonded over our mutual sadness: he was losing his traditional family, and I hadn’t yet found mine.
But spending time with him taught me a lesson. I saw that many people who had achieved the traditional family structure that I felt I’d failed at were actually miserable, and that though their lives might look enviable on Facebook, their foundations were crumbling. I hadn’t created that kind of life or family, but I had built a foundation for myself, as a writer with a strong community of friends. As my mom had once advised, I’d found my passion and found myself, and the internal security that gave me was rock solid. I could only believe that this would serve me in a future relationship—even if the timing might not be in sync with my biological clock. When our affair ended, I wasn’t devastated; throughout it, I kept a mantra in my head that made me feel empowered: if this relationship doesn’t go anywhere, I’m going to have a baby on my own.
Ultimately that’s what I decided to do. I considered having a kid with an ex- boyfriend or co-parenting with a friend, but in the end I decided to embrace the culture around me and take the means of production into my own hands by choosing a sperm donor from a bank. I even decided that rather than getting inseminated in a sterile doctor’s office, I would have a midwife help me do it myself at home on my houseboat. I finally felt free and ready to take charge of my life.