Monday, December 03, 2007

Recognizing signposts

I consider myself a pretty practical, if sometimes passionate person. I believe in using logic to make decisions. And I believe there is a kind of internal computer processing that needs to happen in order to spit out answers that are sometimes more complicated to reach.

Yet I also believe the universe sends signposts to help us, if we can train the internal eye to recognize them (or the non-cochlea inner ear to hear them, if that's how you see best).

In my case, sometime in my 30s, I began to trust that there was a kind of spiritual guidance rapping on my head. I can trace it back to a particular dream, on a particular vacation in the desert, in which my grandfather (deceased more than 40 years by then) came to visit me for a day...and for some reason told me his age. When I awoke with this very strong sense of the dream (I rarely paid attention to them otherwise), I checked family records and found that his age was accurate, had he still been alive that year.

It led to me write a story that turned into a major research project that turned into a novel that still sits in my drawer today, waiting for the day I feel smart enough to write it the way it needs to be.

Some years later, I returned to the novel in a space of creativity. Finding bits and pieces of random thoughts during the summer I was home on maternity leave with my first child. One day I was inspired to write a very detailed scene in which I was in a pub dancing and singing with my Irish ancestors. The next day, a random encounter with someone led to an odd comment he made that he sensed I had just been celebrating with family. Turns out he considers himself a psychic, and he said he was picking up this vibe from me. Again, it was something I wouldn't normally have laid stock in, other than the odd coincidence of it.

But flash forward a few years, and there have been a series of other oddities that catch my attention. The rare nightmare I woke up from at 6 a.m. in New York City on the 9/11, dreaming of dark-skinned men accosting me in an alley. Or thinking more recently, as I drove under a bridge with my son, about how awful it would be to be on or under a bridge if it fell -- and four days later, that very same Minneapolis bridge did.

Or, on a lighter note, the time I was poor and had been feeling disconnected for some time. On a lark, I entered a short story contest for the first time, and ended up winning the grand prize -- a round trip flight to Ireland. One afternoon there, still battling emptiness, I took a hike into the beautiful and endlessly deserted countryside, found a rock, sat quietly and felt a profound urge to say out loud that life was good, life was good, life was good. After that trip, my short story led to a novel that led to new friendships (and an agent) that has a tremendous amount to do with the strengths in my life today.

Much of our subconscious is bizarre and random and gives no particular message or roadmap that is of any use to us. But for the creative artist who finds inspiration that comes from an unseen place and moment....or the parent who senses unspoken concerns from his or her child that requires reaching in...or the minister or volunteer or teacher who heeds a calling...or the athlete or chef or copyeditor or mother who is supremely gifted at the can sometimes be abundantly clear that there is a reservoir of "psyche" or "soul" or "angels" that surrounds us and can help to propel us. Others, more traditionally religious than I, would certainly call this inspiration from God or the Buddha master or Allah. In my case, even non-"New Agey" as I consider myself, I prefer to think of it as being aided by "spirit guides."

I do not give credit to any guardian angel for directing me or giving me my moments of inspiration, but I do believe they give signposts that might lead us down a particular path that we might not have noticed before.

I believe it is our willingness to listen, to notice, to pay attention -- and then make decisions based on what we learn -- that enables us to live mindfully and with satisfaction on our chosen pathways.

Healthy skepticism and the practicalities of daily life can certainly make it hard sometimes to notice signposts. And undoubtedly, when we are wrestling with issues above or below the surface, we might find ourselves "looking for a sign" that could then seem conveniently placed in our way. But I believe the subtle oddities of our subconscious, easy to sweep aside, are where some of the true inspiration, or the authentic messages, come from.

How is this relevant to the Choice Mom experience?

So many of us think and ponder and debate and wrestle with the logical issues that face us in deciding to take a solo journey as momentous as this one. Invariably, when our children come to us we cannot imagine why any of those things once mattered to us -- the logistical difficulties are far outweighed by the profound moments and precious snapshots of life that we get from our children.

So it is in all aspects of our lives. Sometimes we get clogged. Or we take a path that doesn't feel right but aren't sure if we should turn back. Or we mistrust our instincts and try to sidestep them with rationalization. Or we feel devoid of inspiration.

Looking back, it is the somewhat serendipitous encounters -- during travel, journaling, talking with someone new, reading, hearing an inspirational speaker or musician -- that can jump-start our process. And I think those are the times when we are open to heeding a message that is being delivered to us.

Really being able to listen is a skill we all have, even if we've temporarily forgotten how.

Most children are blessed with this ability. Have you ever had a child tell you the blunt, unspoken truth, or surprised you by asking a deep question you stopped trying to figure out yourself? Have you ever met a gifted or driven young adult who believes in the ability to get things done according to his or her vision? Does that sublime belief in the power of one's own strengths and curiosities and visions sometimes get lost when jobs and relationships and kids and household maintenance and bills crowd us?

Sometimes we live through our kids' beautiful confidences about their own creativity, and we become the happy observer of how another person's life is open to the possibilities.

We always need to regain some of that confidence for our adult selves. Life has many paths, every year of our lives. We need our visions and creativity to choose all of it mindfully. We can all surround ourselves with the people and moments we need to charge our lives when we decide to consciously and proactively find them. No, this doesn't mean going to if you're looking for a partner (although that works for some). It means listening to the random woman on the bus who you might otherwise shut out. It means talking to the mechanic about life outside the auto body shop.

It means opening yourself up to the unusual messages we can get in ordinary life. And in so doing, we keep ourselves alert to paths we might not otherwise think we can learn from.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More women not seeking marriage...

One of the questions I am commonly asked by those who are not yet familiar with the Choice Mom community is whether we're made up of women who find men irrelevant.

This is typically something I disagree with.

But lately I'm rethinking that position. In a way.

In the nuanced world, women can hold two seemingly opposite views at the same time: 1) Men are important and often great role models for our kids, and fun, affectionate partners; and 2) That doesn't mean that marriage is the right answer for many.

Critics might be quick to think women are "too picky," or "selfish," or "neglecting their child's needs" when they choose not to marry.

But it's indicative of the infamous double standard to think that all men are good marriage and fatherhood material...That there are plenty of good men to go around for our increasing numbers of well-educated, well-paid, well-balanced women who want to work AND raise a family...That a woman who is with a man who doesn't want to have kids, or play a role in raising them, must simply deal with that hand...That it is HER fault for not picking a better man in the first place.

How many times now have I seen a woman reamed online for daring to take this step without a partner. When Rachel Sarah wrote on the Washington Post blog about attempting to date as a single mother, she was blasted by those who labeled her an unfit mother. When Louise Sloan was interviewed recently on Salon for choosing to become a single mother, many posts flew back belittling her choice as a "rich woman's" selfish decision that inflicts pain and suffering on her child. (Others might blast her as a less-than-rich woman who has no business raising children on a single salary.)

Of course, online posts are not always an indicator of the pulse of society overall. It tends to be a haven for those who need to get things off their chest.

So it was with interest that I read a thread on my Choice Mom discussion board started from a woman who had suffered through many abusive relationships and had then made the decision to forego a partner in order to fulfill her dream of having a child.

In the outside world, she might well have been beaten up again for making "bad choices" in men -- with no regard for the fact that it was the men in her life who had been making the bad choices.

But on the discussion board, a wonderful thing happened. Women offered support and insight instead of derision and ridicule. Some messages urged counseling so that she could bring her future children into a world that did not feel threatened by men. Other women told their stories of how they felt weakened in relationships with particular men but had risen past that to build a happy family life, complete with male and female role models.

And then conversation started with some of the younger women on the board. I'd always been surprised to find so many women coming to my website and board who were in their 20s and early 30s, rather than those many women after the age of 35 who were deciding that motherhood required a solo step rather than the partnered one they'd imagined once upon a time.

I started listening to women of the "new generation" who were describing a societal shift that they felt a part of. One that did not dismiss men in general, but did not feel that they added to their lives in ways meaningful enough to sustain a long-term relationship. Many of these women (not all) were talking about needing a partner who would always be there for their child, in all ways, and deciding that they were too few and far between. Lesbians and heterosexuals alike were reporting their own views that parenting was simply too important to trust to everyone.

As Fiona, a 32-year-old woman (who gave me permission to reprint her comments here) wrote: "I couldn't agree more with your point that times have really changed. I currently have four friends around me who are also pursuing single motherhood by choice (all around my age). I didn't meet them through a single mother group. It just happens that we're all friends. I can't help but think we're experiencing a societal shift. These are extremely well educated and intelligent women who have not been able to find men who respect them or who are willing to share the load of a partnership. They are frustrated by the men they meet, even men with the same qualifications, who still expect that their wives will do most of the work. We haven't all spent 10-12 years in school to pick up after a man! Single motherhood is for most of us the ONLY decision. We haven't got here out of despair. It actually feels like the logical first choice. Put simply, men have not kept pace with women's societal progression and until they catch up they may be perceived as a burden to women who want a relationship based on equality and mutual respect."

Her views were echoed in an article I was recently asked to write about "how to raise sons to value women."

I interviewed a roundtable of mothers with young sons, most of them married. And it was a quite strong note that even those I had assembled who identified themselves as feminists (which we ultimately defined as simply valuing women as much as men) were surprised, and frustrated, to find themselves shouldering the bulk of household chores in a traditional way with their partners.

Most of their partners were strongly involved in the kids' lives, more so than many husbands. Many of them are close friends of mine, whose husbands I respect for being egalitarian and involved in many ways. Yet when it came to division of labor, many of the moms were concerned that they were modeling old traditions to their kids.

One woman I interviewed, whose 12-year-old son is highly aware of gender bias (he complained to the director that a line he had to say for a school play was sexist), indicated that despite all her efforts, she simply seems to care and notice housework chores more than her husband or son. Another engages her 3-year-old in "making breakfast" with his fake kitchen in the morning, which he enjoys, but realizes that her activist partner of 26 years continues to expect her to take care of house and cooking and this is something she's actively trying to correct before her son thinks it's the way things are.

Household chores are not the strongest measuring stick of our new values, I think, but seems to be an indicative dividing line between men and women.

The end view of a growing number of women, it seems, is that if a man is unable to share the workload at home as well as in the office, what's the point? Why teach our sons and daughters that women are primarily here to serve?

Another post on my board put it this way: "For my mother's generation, partners were necessary. Then they were preferred. Now they're optional."

Again, I don't personally think men are irrelevant. Nor do many Choice Moms I know. But there do seem to be a growing number of women who have changing views of how they should relate to each other in the home, with hopes that men will start to catch up to them on that view so that we can start re-coupling again.

Interesting stuff...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Exciting progress for non-traditional families

There is some exciting progress on the non-traditional family-building fronts. A national coalition is now in formation to enable greater discussion about how to protect our children's rights as curious eventual-grown-ups with medical history needs of their own. I'll keep you posted on that progress here over time.

I'm also happy to report that I'm getting more serious about strengthening the Choice Mom community. There is now an official team of supporters to help me build more educational resources than I can do on my own, with a line-up of guidebooks, podcasts, sponsored seminars and more in 2007 and 2008.

The misconception about the Choice Mom community, of course, is that we are selfish women who don't think men are important in our childrens' lives. And that families built with donor conception or adoption are selfishly short-changing its children. I can spend a lot of time trying to correct that perception....or simply let it go and focus on enriching and educating the parents who truly are building loving, nurturing families, while also responsibly and strongly pointing out what I've learned from our children over time.

I choose the latter. It's more productive. It's more aligned to the truth. And it recognizes that the majority of people understand that families and love are built in many ways, and that the goal is simply to support the ones who "get" that and hope that the ones who don't will eventually see what they don't right now.

There are serious issues to be addressed: the need for support networks, male role models, updated genetic background, open-identity donors who can satisfy our kids' curiosity as it arises. But there are wonderful families being created, and I want to collect and communicate more about what parents are doing RIGHT so that we can all learn from them.

So, stay tuned to all the good news that I'll be writing about here in the coming months...


Sunday, May 27, 2007

National Discussion about Family Values

For the second time in two years I have spoken at and participated in a national discussion about family -- who we define as family, the importance (and sometimes lack thereof) of biological ties, the experiences of donor-conceived and adopted people who are missing some of their history. The conference included governmental policy makers and regulators, doctors, social workers, offspring and parents.

And for the second time in two years, this national discussion took place in Canada.

The United States, which has a multibillion-dollar industry in reproductive technology -- with donor sperm, and donor egg, and surrogates sometimes stepping in to fulfill a conception role for an aspiring parent who cannot -- has not yet had this national discussion.

Canada's former "first lady" (previously wife to the Prime Minister) spoke at this event, as did the new president of its three-month old regulatory agency for reproductive health. There was a great to-do about how long it has taken (10 years) and how much has yet to be accomplished in this area, as Canada tries to catch up with the U.K. and Australia in discussing and monitoring the potential and real ethical and social concerns involving the rapidly evolving technologies.

Yet the U.S. hasn't even STARTED a process of developing oversight of this major industry. There is no regulatory body, other than the FDA's accreditation program that ensures that tissues are stored properly.

Now, I'm not big on governmental supervision of family matters, but we desperately need to find the listening ears in Congress who will at least engage our country in a national discussion about the incredibly complex and nuanced issues that impact families who use reproductive technology. To start: why don't fertility clinics require counseling of all clients who are using donated gametes to conceive? The infertile parent, the eventual offspring, the reactions of extended family, the stigma, the fear of the donor's place in their family, the conflicts about disclosing the truth to children about their origins -- all are worthy of major discussion.

And why do we not have a registry, like other countries do, so that families can learn more about a donor's medical history over time? What 20-year-old sperm donor knows his family history of cancer and heart disease and as-yet-to-be-detected genetic illnesses? How many medical forms do we fill out from childhood on that ask for family histories -- why on earth do we still not have something in place to allow donor-conceived children and adoptive children to learn more about their own background?

My part in this recent conversation was to lead a two-hour workshop and discussion about how we define family. We all define it differently, of course, based on our own experiences. But what we need to have a national discussion about is that tens of thousands of children in our country are not sure how to define family yet -- and it's about time we start helping them.

Mikki (who traveled by ferry, car, plane and train to get to this latest conference!)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Wearing 3 hats

As most of us do, I have three distinct roles to play: mother, worker, wife. My roles don't blend together like many others do, and maybe that gives me the unique opportunity to see how DIFFICULT it must be for people to do all three simultaneously. Many people wonder, for example, how single women manage to take care of their children alone....while I wonder how on earth married couples manage to maintain a relationship while being a parent and holding down a full-time job.

Here's my case:
1) Four days of the week I am a full-time mother who tries to sneak in work when her two children aren't looking for her, and who uses one of those nights to go out on a date with her husband (who lives 20 miles away). As a self-employed publisher and writer, this ultimately means I don't make nearly enough money, but I do think I spend more time with my 3-year-old and 7-year-old than most parents are able to. (Even if they don't always see it that way. :-)

2) Three days of the week I have childcare and I cram in as much work as I can. As alluded to above, it's not nearly enough time for me to make the income I did before I had kids and became a part-time "stay at home" mom.

3) One night each week my husband and I get together, without kids, and focus on each other. During the rest of the week we try to email during the day, talk each night on the phone, and occasionally find another excuse to get together, particularly when he has a caretaker for his teenaged special needs daughter. What we offer each other is a committed partner that might not be an active part of our daily lives, but is a constant that helps us relieve the stress of parenthood or work.

I cannot imagine successfully blending these three "functions" in life. As the great Moms Rising group will attest, most mothers who work don't get enough assistance from their employers. So I consider myself blessed to be self-employed, even if that means sacrificing income (that would otherwise go to childcare).

As many married friends I know --male and female-- will attest, it's hard to maintain a good adult relationship among the other pressures. Kid attention can be a focus that deters from couplehood, or the stress of doing it all can leave a household that's not always pleasant for the kids. Simplistic way of looking at it, yes. But I do consider the relationship my husband and I have to be solid, and given our restrictions on blending, we're making this work in a way that gives us the energy to give back to our kids the rest of the week.

Living separate is definitely the best thing for our kids right now. So although it wasn't our first choice, I feel blessed that we're able to make it work in our separate homes.

I know some people think my lifestyle is a tough one. Self-employed single mom of two with husband elsewhere. But honestly, I cannot fathom how others manage to do it any other way.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Myths about Choice Moms

A recent Today Show segment (January 16) spent more than 8 minutes discussing the prevalence of Choice Motherhood, which refers to women who proactively choose single motherhood.

I know about 500 of these women, and about 100 of their kids. I am the Choice Mom of two, now married, and author of Choosing Single Motherhood. I know that the majority of us are in our 30s when we become mothers. Most of us are college educated, earn a good income, and many of us already own our home. Most of us have been searching for the right partner and have to decide whether to postpone that search so that we can raise children while our parents, and the kids of our family and friends, can be part of their lives.

Although I was interviewed, as were three other Choice Mom friends, about the strengths of Choice Motherhood, those points were not included in the Today Show segment. Psychologist Brenda Wade did a good job pointing out why this is not a decision that we make lightly, and in fact had more air time than Elizabeth Marquardt and David Blankenhorn of the Institute for Family Values, who talked about why single parenting is detrimental for children. But there was no discussion of why Choice Motherhood is good for children.

So I feel compelled to raise those points.

Namely, Choice Moms are extremely dedicated, attentive parents and their children know they are a priority in their life. They tend to participate fully in their child’s life, and vice versa. This is a good thing for children.

The Choice Moms I know tend to have (or find) a strong community network. They tend to be strong, resourceful, engaged women who enjoy their friends, their work, their family. This is a good thing for children.

I’ve interviewed teens and young adults who nearly all talk about the intense relationship they have with their mother, compared to many of their friends. One teenager I talked to recently has traveled with her mother everywhere from Bolivia to Israel, learned from her how to use power tools to build tables, and feels comfortable talking with her about nearly every subject. This teen is an obviously secure young woman who knows her own mind. It is a good thing for a child to feel the vitality of life alongside a nurturing adult.

Single fathers, and married couples, are fully capable of these relationships with their children as well, of course. But since some like to focus on how single parenthood does not fulfill a child’s needs, let’s also notice how it does.

Someday, in fact, I expect that the public conversation on Choice Motherhood will turn from how bad this is for the kids to how this might be too good for the children. There are concerns that Choice Moms do need to guard against over time: being able to facilitate the necessary separation between parent and child, mediating the isolation that can happen for those who are raised as only children, ensuring the authority required for discipline and balance in a child’s life.

Elizabeth Marquardt has made some good points about children’s needs, which is why I recommended her to the Today Show as a commentator on the “con” side. She has been paying attention to the fact that some children conceived by anonymous donor sperm, like their counterparts placed for adoption, feel a crisis of identity when they do not fully know their biological roots. This is a focus, in fact, of my new Voices of Donor Conception book series.

However, there are a few leaps that Marquardt and others sometimes make. Some donor-conceived teens and adults resent the fact that they do not know who their donor father is; others do not. Some consider the donor to be their father because of biology; others do not because they have no parent-child relationship with him. Some of these children grow up without a father because they were conceived by a single woman, but historically most of these children were raised by a mother and a father who happened to be infertile.

Again, I have interviewed many teens and young adults in these “non-traditional” families. Very few of them express a “longing for father” that Marquardt talked about on The Today Show, because they don’t know what that is, not having gone through a divorce (as I believe is Marquardt’s experience). What more of them long for is a sibling, or the opportunity to ask questions of the anonymous man who donated his sperm.

And the questions some of these individuals have about their unknown origins has much more to do with understanding their own identity—“did I inherit my big feet from him?” “was he as interested in music as I am?”—than in wanting to fill a longing for father.

Of course, the100 or so Choice Kids and donor-conceived young people I know are a small sample of the overall population. I am actively looking for more Choice Kids to talk to, who were raised by a single parent not because of divorce, but because of choice, to get their perspective on the pros and cons of the lifestyle. Because theirs is the opinion that actually matters most.

Mikki Morrissette manages two websites, and She is hosting a series of workshops for Choice Moms in 2007 about strengths and weaknesses of this lifestyle choice.