what your therapist really thinks

Should I Have a Baby Alone If I Can’t Find a Partner?

Illustration: James Gallagher

Dear Therapist,

I am single. I am happy single, despite my friends/family/etc., who want me to find someone to pair up with. I am not opposed to finding someone, but I do not view it as a requirement for my life.

However, I do want children. Obviously, parenting with two people is easier than parenting with one; however, as I get older (40 is not all that far away), I have accepted the fact that if I am going to have a child, there is a decent chance it will be as a solo parent.

But the thought of doing it alone, while completely possible, is absolutely terrifying. I keep thinking about the logistics of it. How do I work full-time with a baby? How do I make sure I spend enough time with my child while working? Am I good enough to parent on my own? I have been reading books about single parenting. (I do not know any single parents, but I have talked to my not-single parent friends about it.)

I would love any advice you have.

Maybe Baby  

Dear Maybe Baby,

The best advice I can give involves what you may consider to be tangential to your question, but that will turn out to be central. I want to help you consider not just the logistics of being single (work, child care) and its impact on your parenting, but your relationship to being single (your emotions) and its impact on your parenting.

Though you want advice on single parenting, the first thing you tell me is that you’re not just single, but happily single. You go on to say that people who care about you — friends, family — want you to find somebody to go through life with, and that while you’re “not opposed to finding someone,” it doesn’t seem to be a priority. But I’m not sure that’s the whole story. Because when it comes to what we want in life, rarely are we so indifferent.

While it’s true that having a partner isn’t “a requirement” in life, there’s a difference between “I don’t need” and “I don’t want,” just as there’s a difference between “I want” and “I’m not opposed to.” And sometimes, these semantics mask something else: the difference between “I want” and “I’m afraid to want.”

Single parenthood is a lot like coupled parenthood in the big ways. It makes you see the world through a broader lens; it surprises and delights one minute and asks you to stretch farther than you imagined possible in the next. It opens your heart so wide that sometimes you will physically ache from all that expansion. But in other ways, single parenthood is quite different from coupled parenthood, and one of the most important ways to prepare for that is to take an honest accounting of your feelings toward being single.

Though it may feel uncomfortable, I’d encourage you to dig deeper into the space between “wanting” and “not being opposed to” and see what you discover. I wonder if what you’ll find is that you do want a partner — and in a stronger way than “if he happens to show up one day.” I wonder if you might believe, like many people do, that “not being opposed to” protects you from the pain of what you don’t have, without realizing that this supposed protection actually exacerbates the pain.

You say that you have “accepted the fact” that you’ll likely be a single parent, and the word “accept” struck me because “acceptance” implies a loss, and also happens to be a stage in the grieving process. If you’re “happy single,” I’m curious about this idea of acceptance. If everyone else is trying to partner you up, but you don’t care either way, what, exactly, have you had to “accept”? I want to help you consider the meaning behind your language. I think you “want” a partner — or you wouldn’t have to “accept” not having one.

You’re very clear that you want a child, perhaps because it’s less risky to boldly desire the things we feel we have more control over. If we say we want something and it doesn’t happen — if our desire is greater than the odds — we start to feel too vulnerable. In those situations, hope itself can feel too vulnerable. Nobody knows if or when you’ll find a partner. But if you want a child, there are concrete steps you can take right now to try to make that happen.

Why is any of this relevant to your question? Because if you notice your singleness now when you’re around peers who are coupled, you’ll notice it to a far greater extent around fellow parents who are coupled — which are, as you’ll see, most new parents. Even in a city where nobody blinks at single motherhood, you will be surrounded by coupled parents and reminded of your singleness everywhere you go — in the waiting room at the obstetrician’s office, in the hospital giving birth, in the baby groups you’ll likely join, at the park by the swings, at the urgent care when your baby burns with fever, and in your own home when your baby needs a diaper change at 2 a.m. or when she reaches a milestone and nobody else is there to share in your joy.

If you’re truly happy single, you may not be bothered by any of this. But if you’re telling yourself that having a partner doesn’t matter to you, and it actually does, it’s going to make parenting alone feel lonely. If you bring an underlying but unacknowledged unhappiness into this venture, then your experience of single parenthood will likely be tinged with this sadness. And while every parent — coupled or not — feels lonely at times, your loneliness will be inherently different if you haven’t sorted through the shades of “I want” and “I’m afraid of wanting” and “I’m not opposed to.” Because the loneliest feeling of all is pretending away your desires.

One byproduct of being a parent is that we give up the luxury of fraudulence. I say “luxury” because it’s convenient to tell ourselves stories about who we are and why we do what we do and let them go unchallenged. A child, on the other hand, will hold up a mirror to you in a way nobody else has. A child won’t only tell you if you’re “good enough” to be her parent; she’ll also tell you in various ways if you’re “aware enough.” If you tell your child that you’re not interested in the “friends/family/etc.” trying to set you up (but in reality had “to accept” your single-parent status), she’ll either see through your fraudulence, or feel the burden of pretending to believe your story for you.

I’m not trying to make single parenting sound depressing — it’s not. Parenting — single or not — is a profound and life-changing experience, not to mention a lot of fun. But if you claim not to want something that you actually want, you’ll be more strongly affected by what you don’t have, and that will make the experience of parenting harder than it needs to be for both you and your child. Whether you find a partner is less of an issue than how clear you are with “want” vs. “not opposed to,” with how you distill those feelings down to their purest possible state. Owning your desires will make you feel more alive and present than shutting down and protecting yourself with ambivalence. It will free up your child to leverage the spectrum of her own emotional life, too.

As for logistics, that’s an entirely separate issue, and one that all new parents face. Managing work and child care and time are a challenge, admittedly more so for a single parent, and it never feels perfect, but you’ll find a way. Connecting with other single mothers through resources like ChoiceMoms.org and SingleMothersByChoice.org will show you how other single mothers do it and guide you to practical solutions. But the most important preparation will be your internal one.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapy@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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Should I Have a Baby Alone If I Can’t Find a Partner?