Rachel Sklar smashes the pregnancy "cone of silence": Why it’s still women’s work to explain fertility

She is 41, single and pregnant--a recipe for a pity cocktail in this culture. So her essay's a necessary corrective

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published October 30, 2014 6:40PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-781288p1.html'>images72</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(images72 via Shutterstock/Salon)

Writer and media entrepreneur Rachel Sklar’s frank and defiant essay “I’m 41, Single and Pregnant” was met with loud applause on social media today for its unapologetic dismissal of retrograde attitudes about women and reproduction. Sklar is over 40, un-partnered, with an unplanned pregnancy—a recipe for a pity cocktail if there ever was one in this culture. But Sklar instead has the audacity to say she’s happy about her life and her decisions, and challenges us to accept families like hers for what they are—the new normal.

People are waiting longer to get married and have kids, and they're not necessarily doing it in that order. Single parenthood is also on the rise—for one thing, more millennial moms have had babies when single than married—but we still qualify that parenthood with the “single” tag, delivered with a hushed wince. Seriously: try to say, “congratulations, you’re going to be a single mom!” It sounds weird! And that’s just the start of our finger-wagging judgment about when and how babies are born.

Even a savvy six-year-old knows that you don’t necessarily need a daddy to love a mommy (or vice versa) to make a baby anymore. As Sklar writes, “sometimes boy meets boy, and girl meets girl. Sometimes boy and girl meet, marry, and struggle with that third part — maybe boy has a low sperm count, or girl has uterine fibroids. Sometimes there are basal thermometers and blood tests and injections and ultrasounds and many visits to the doctor. Sometimes girl meets a bunch of different boys and none of them quite take. Sometimes girl says, fuck it, I’ll do it on my own.”

I can hear the cheers, especially to that last one, from here.

Why is Sklar’s essay resonating with women, especially? Because even in 2014, it’s still women’s work to manage, maintain, and explain fertility. When men are asked, “so, when are you going to have kids?” it’s a gentle prodding into full adulthood, which is assumed to begin at parenthood. When women are asked, it’s always loaded—how does your body work, do you want it enough, did you choose the right partner, did you choose the right employer, why did you do it now, why did you wait? Did you employ just the right mix of strategy and magic to make this whole “kid” thing happen with the entire world’s approval? If not, what exactly is wrong with you?

But Sklar’s essay isn’t just her personal, really public pregnancy reveal (you though sonogram pictures on Facebook get attention).  She’s putting it all out there in hopes of changing the conversation: “What I do want is to be transparent about where I am and how I got here. I don’t like the cone of silence — it didn’t do me any favors in my 20s or 30s, and I don’t see it doing much for other women, either.”

That “cone of silence” keeps people from talking as openly about miscarriage as they do about celebrity baby bumps. It keeps abortions a secret. It encourages shame around egg-freezing while hushing real talk about family leave and affordable childcare. It shuts down genuine conversations about medical fertility intervention and adoption alike by insisting that any approach to growing a family outside of that old rusty norm—thoughtful, married procreative sex resulting in a well-timed, healthy baby—is suspicious, for one reason or another. When silence rules, progress stalls.

But with fewer and fewer people living the old dream for all of their individual and complex reasons, we’re more free to create new templates. Sklar outlines a vision for self-acceptance that dominant cultural messages are constantly trying to suppress: “I’m happy to be where I am and do not want what I haven’t got.” That’s bold, given all of the messages about reproduction designed to foster anxiety and shame instead.

Of course, it’s also an aspirational message. Money might not buy happiness, but procedures not covered by health insurance, adoption fees, quality childcare—it adds up. But by refusing to be apologetic about her “advanced maternal age” and her non-partnered status, Sklar is helping to change the tone around “congratulations, you’re going to be a single mom!” We can state it plainly, like the fact that it is. We can even say it like we mean it.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief. Her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," will be published in September 2022.

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Fertility Pregnancy Rachel Sklar