Paths to parenting: Choosing single parenthood through pregnancy

Smiling mother and young child lying down on a couch, mother has arm around child, who is laughing

Depending on your age and generation, you might not remember a time when single parenthood wasn’t considered a conscious choice for women. Yet years ago, women most often became single mothers due to divorce, the death of a spouse, or an accidental pregnancy. Today, if you’re considering becoming pregnant and having a child on your own, you are certainly not alone — you may know others who have taken this path to parenting, and you’ve certainly seen celebrities do so.

While this path is increasingly common and more widely accepted than in the past, deciding to pursue it can be lonely. This blog post attempts to reduce some of the isolation you may feel and to address some questions you may be asking yourself. (As a therapist, my experience has centered on women choosing single motherhood, and some of my wording reflects this.)

Why choose this path to single parenting?

Some people in their 20s and early 30s prefer to become pregnant, have a child, and parent without a partner. Other people in their late 30s and early 40s who had hoped to enjoy pregnancy and parenting with a partner may not have found the right partner. They may find themselves worrying more and more about declining fertility, which makes dating increasingly stressful. As one woman put it, “Every first date became a ridiculous job interview. I didn’t say it outright but I was thinking, ‘Will you marry me in five minutes and have a baby right away?’”

Do I want to be a single parent?

In my experience, women who consider single motherhood are clear that they want to be mothers. Most tell me that being pregnant and having a genetic child is a priority for them. For this reason, they are willing to consider going it alone. The wanting to be a mom is clear; it is the single part that is not. You may be asking yourself, “Will the challenges of being a single mom outweigh the joys I anticipate in parenthood?”

Years ago, a colleague told me that choosing to become a parent is like jumping off a cliff. It’s hard to clearly envision where or how you’ll land. Like everyone who becomes a parent, you will be jumping off a cliff not knowing the child you will get. As a single, the leap can feel more perilous because there is no one beside you to help cushion your landing.

Can I do it on my own?

When asking this question, people tend to focus on two things: financial security and the support of family, friends, and community.

While one need not be rich to be a parent, raising a child is expensive, and a single-parent household is a single-income household. It makes sense to look at your income, job security, current costs, and anticipated additional costs to see if the math works as you hope it will. Not surprisingly, single mothers report that they feel much more confident moving forward if they have confirmed as best they can that they will not be financially stressed and stretched.

Confirming that you will have help and support from family and friends may be more complicated than tallying up your finances. While some people exploring single parenthood begin the process by checking in with those closest to them, others postpone telling family and friends until they feel secure with their plan. There is always the fear that people you care about will respond negatively.

If you’re concerned about the response, you can’t know for sure whether or how others will be there for you. However, you can probably make some good predictions based on how close you live to them, how much time and energy they have, and whether any family members might have the resources and inclination to help out financially.

What are my next steps?

In most instances, when you feel ready to move forward toward becoming a single mother through pregnancy, it makes sense to begin with a doctor before a donor.

Your fertility is probably on your mind. Hopefully a physical exam, imaging tests, and blood tests will yield reassuring information. You can find a reproductive endocrinologist through your local branch of Resolve, a national organization that offers guidance, advocacy, and support to people experiencing infertility. Another option is the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technologies (SART). This organization assembles yearly statistics for fertility clinics throughout the US. While their website won’t direct you to a specific doctor, it will help you choose your program, and then you can follow up by seeing who is recommended within that program.

It may feel odd to contact a doctor who specializes in infertility when there is no evidence that you are infertile. It is important to know that infertility clinics treat large numbers of women whose only fertility "issue" is being in need of sperm. Your doctor will be able to guide you a bit in your decision-making regarding your donor.

For example, a doctor can explain medical and legal issues to be aware of if you decide to choose a known donor. If you are going through a sperm bank, your doctor can advise you on which cryobanks to contact and what is important to know. This will include cytomegalovirus (CMV) status and genetic and medical conditions of your donor, and how sperm should be processed for the IVF procedure you will receive.

Companionship for the journey

Making the decision to become a single parent should not mean that you go it alone. You will want support and companionship along the way. I suggest choosing a few close family members and friends who you feel will “get it” and be there for you in the ways that you need them. Be aware that a wider circle may expose you to too much input and interest at times when you may need privacy.

You can also find companionship in fellow travelers. One organization I encourage you to check out is Single Mothers by Choice (SMC). It serves “thinkers,” “tryers,” and “mothers” throughout the US, Canada, Europe, and beyond through local chapters and a 24/7 online private discussion forum. If that feels too big, ask your health team if they can connect you with other single women going through IVF.

Choosing to become a single parent is a huge decision. Be prepared to move slowly, to take one step forward and another backward. Expect questions, doubts, and anxiety along the way. This all goes with the territory and is part of the process. Give yourself a lot of credit for having the courage to begin to explore this path.

Poor housing harms health in American Indian and Alaska Native communities

A scattering of housing on American Indian tribal land in Monument Valley; blue skies with fluffy clouds and red rocks in background

Robbed of ancestral lands, American Indian and Alaska Native tribal communities face an unparalleled housing crisis that pleads for national housing reforms. As victims of centuries of intentional government policies to remove and reallocate lands and resources, many live in third-world conditions that have led to sky-high rates of health problems, ranging from diabetes and cardiovascular disease to chronic liver disease, obesity, unintentional injuries, substance use disorders, violence, and suicides. This paves a path to extremely high rates of disability and prematurely shortened lives.

Poverty and poor housing harm health and drive disability

The stark reality of poverty became obvious when I traveled to my reservation home in Mescalero, New Mexico as a child. There I saw discolored, fractured, or weather-tattered homes, and yards littered with old, rusted, and abandoned cars. According to the National Congress of American Indians, substandard housing makes up 40% of on-reservation housing compared to just 6% of housing outside of Indian Country. On reservations, almost one-third of homes are overcrowded.

In 2019, an estimated 20% of American Indian and Alaska Native people lived in poverty compared to an 11% national poverty rate. Poverty, low education levels, and harsh conditions mean that many American Indians and Alaska Natives lack the foundation for basic survival: stable, secure, adequate, affordable housing.

As historian Claudio Saunt so eloquently wrote, an “invasion” of approximately 1.5 billion acres occurred in the United States from 1776 until the present. This loss of traditional homelands has had devastating, lifelong effects on housing and living conditions. Poor health outcomes soared among the millions displaced over the past 300-plus years.

Today, as a result of poor housing conditions, American Indians and Alaska Natives struggle from environmental ills that include lead exposure, asthma from poor ventilation, infectious diseases due to contaminated water, sanitation issues, and overcrowding. Mental distress is common. Exposure to pollutants raises risk for lung disease, cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke, and many other illnesses.

Disability and housing

American Indians and Alaska Natives have disability rates 50% higher than the national average, and among people ages 55 and older mobility and self-care disability rates are especially high. Housing that is old, in poor repair, or crisscrossed with physical barriers may not be accessible for many people, preventing them from living independently within their homes and participating fully in community life. This can cause isolation and exacerbate distress and despondency. In addition, unreliable electricity could pose life-threatening risks to people with disabilities requiring ventilator support, and threaten the safety of power wheelchair users (wheelchair batteries must be kept well-charged).

Fair housing feeds health equity

Housing is a well-known contributor to health outcomes and a meaningful lever for health equity. Despite the United States’ promise to assume responsibility for housing and health for American Indians and Alaska Natives in exchange for billions of acres in conceded land, little has been done to achieve positive change. Outsiders may assume that Indians are getting rich from tribal casinos, but that is far from the truth. Many tribes do not have casino revenue. Those who do often struggle to break even, with any earnings canceled out by their tribe’s needs.

Conditions on tribal lands sadly reveal the consequences of historical trauma, poverty, and insufficient federal government support. Each sovereign nation must create sustainable housing projects for its members as determined by its tribal government and housing departments. Federal support varies depending on tribal financial status, resources, and competition from bordering communities.

Seeking national support for these measures could go far:

  • The most viable way of improving environmental conditions on American Indian and Alaska Native lands is through Congress and the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (S.2264). This act provides guaranteed, inflation-adjusted funding to our nation’s tribal communities. All of us can lobby Congress to reauthorize this Act through 2032 by contacting our congressional representatives. Funding from this Act has been available for years, but the meager increases have not matched inflation rates.
  • Tell Congress and state representatives that new housing on tribal lands must support health through structural features such as good ventilation and temperature controls, reliable and clean water throughout, and eliminating barriers that impede access into and within the home. Given high disability rates of American Indians and Alaska Natives, housing must be designed to support independent living needs of all residents. Following universal design principles in developing new housing benefits people of all ages and abilities by acknowledging changes that can occur over a lifespan.

The US government has a moral obligation to ensure that American Indians and Alaska Natives are allowed to acquire lost tribal lands, and afforded the best housing possible to be successful, join fully in community life, and remain healthy. Last year the US Interior Department reauthorized the regional directors of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to review and approve applications to place land into trust. This represents one important step forward, though hopefully not the last.

Moving to wellness while practicing body neutrality

view from behind of two women exercising along a city waterfront, passing under a bridge, woman on the left is jogging while woman on the right is using a wheelchair

Most people want to feel energized and experience a sense of vitality. In the 1970s, Dr. John Travis created a spectrum of wellness, with illness on one side, a point of neutrality in the middle (when a person has no signs or symptoms of disease), and on the other side wellness.

Wellness is a state of health and flourishing beyond simply not experiencing illness. In this state people feel confident, open to challenges, curious, and thirsty for action. They are thriving. People who experience wellness may seek to hike a mountain, read a new book, learn how to play a new instrument, or actively connect with new people.

The most common health conditions facing people today include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. When people are experiencing these (and other) conditions, they fall into the illness side of the spectrum. Lifestyle factors that put you at risk for developing these conditions include smoking, alcohol substance use disorder, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, and a diet rich in processed foods, sugar, saturated fat, and artificial flavors. An unhealthy weight is another factor that can put one at risk for these conditions, especially carrying extra weight around your midsection.

To move to the wellness side of the spectrum, you can include more movement in your day; enjoy a whole-food (unprocessed), plant-predominant style of eating; avoid smoking; sleep seven to nine hours a night; practice stress reduction techniques like deep breathing, yoga, meditation, tai chi, and mindfulness; and spend time with family and friends.

Think about what your body can do for you — and what you can do for your body

People of many sizes and shapes can be healthy and well, especially when they are connected to a calm mind that is practicing mindfulness, self-compassion, and a growth mindset. A body that is in the neutral point on the wellness spectrum can move to the side of thriving and flourishing when healthy lifestyle habits are adopted and sustained, and that has little to do with your body’s shape or size.

The body neutrality movement emphasizes the incredible functions, actions, and physiology of our bodies without regard for how our bodies look. We can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. We can jump, skip, sing, hug, and dance. Our muscles have mitochondria that give us energy.

Our digestive system is one example of the wondrous process of the body. The digestive system has billions of microbes living in it that help us to ferment fiber from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and create short-chain fatty acids that help us with energy metabolism, glucose metabolism, lipid metabolism, inflammation, immunity, and more. This is why it’s important to eat fiber, including whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.

Connected to our bodies are our brains, and they are full of neurons (brain cells), synapses (connections), neurochemicals, and hormones that help to protect brain cells and make new ones. Moving our bodies helps to increase these chemicals. In addition, moving our bodies regularly helps us to increase serotonin, which may help us feel less anxious and depressed. Hugging increases oxytocin in the brain, and this “love hormone” helps us feel a sense of belonging and bonding. The body’s actions have a powerful impact on the brain, and vice versa.

Body positivity versus body neutrality

Body positivity is a movement that invites people to appreciate the body size and shape they have now without worrying about unrealistic body standards. With body positivity, society’s unhealthy standards for body shapes and sizes are challenged. It’s also important to remember that cultural norms and what’s considered an ideal body change with time.

The goal with body positivity is to honor and appreciate all body types, especially your own body. Feeling confident about the way you look feels good and can be empowering.

With body neutrality, the focus is on the function of your body: finding happiness and fulfillment, appreciating the power of our muscles, the strength of our bones, the protection our skin offers, and the rewards of the dopamine system in our brains. Connecting with friends and family, reaching small, meaningful goals, and enjoying physical activity are healthy ways to approach your body. A focus on finding pleasure in the wellness journey will serve your body — at any size — and your brain.

Remember all the things your body can do for you

  • Transport you from one place to another (quickly or slowly)
  • Release neurochemicals that give you pleasure, like from hugging a loved one
  • Move your arms and/or legs with joy following the rhythm and beat of music
  • Take deep breaths to calm your mind
  • Perform stretches that release endorphins
  • Practice yoga, tai chi, or qigong, which can help calm the body and mind.