Swiping right in the fertility doctor's office: On pursuing romance and single motherhood at once

Why do unmarried women have to choose between motherhood and a love life? Can't we try for both at the same time?

Published August 28, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

One one side a woman holding a pregnancy test, on the other a woman swiping through a dating app on her phone. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Zave Smith/oatawa)
One one side a woman holding a pregnancy test, on the other a woman swiping through a dating app on her phone. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Zave Smith/oatawa)

From my OB-GYN's waiting room I browsed through dozens of profiles: car-selfies, men holding wine glasses, or grinning beside their big catches on the decks of motor boats. I swiped right, and evaluated suitors as the nurse called out a name that wasn't mine, "Come on back, honey." A long-legged young woman in denim cutoffs stood, her bump barely there, holding hands with a baseball-capped man who looked about 19. I scoped the scene — three couples and a woman robotically rocking a stroller with a sleeping child strapped to her chest. I was the only one partner-shopping on a dating app right now. The door swung open. "Sophie," the nurse said. I shoved my cell in my purse like it was a dirty magazine and prepared for an up-close visit with my follicles.

It was January, I was 39 and determined to start the year with new life in my belly. I'd selected a specimen from an elite, local Los Angeles sperm bank reputed for accepting fewer applicants than an Ivy League university. All the donors were stellar — spotless medical histories and well-scribed personal narratives about why they wanted to donate — but it didn't eclipse the image of a nuclear family I'd always envisioned for myself.

I figured I'd delete the dating app once my insemination journey started, but it persisted. I wasn't thirstily trying to book dates, but I enjoyed the prospect of romance, far-fetched as a match felt on such sites. In times of boredom, I'd thumb through the way others do news headlines, scrolling until one grabbed me.

A few weeks earlier, a woman in my writing group in her mid-50s declared, "I think it's trashy for pregnant women to use dating apps."

"Aren't they allowed to get laid too?" I snapped back.

But the jab nettled a greater insecurity: that pregnant women shouldn't be single. Or is it that pregnant women shouldn't be horny? Either way, it signaled that unmarried women are supposed to choose between motherhood or romance — not pursue both at once.

Once I was gowned and ready for probing, my OB-GYN pressed a glob-laden wand inside me and determined that the size of my follicles meant go-time was near. After I dressed, the nurse swung the door open, ushering me into a metal chair to have my blood drawn. In the preceding days, I'd peed on ovulation sticks, procured my specimen from the sperm bank and continued my daily routines — meticulously answering students' emails, instructing online college writing classes, and buying fertility-boosting groceries — without excessively examining the decision I'd made to become an unpartnered mother through AI.

It wasn't an easy one. I'd met my former spouse when I was 31, married at 32, started trying for children at 33, then divorced at 34. The sorrow of my marriage ending was softened by the assumption that I'd soon meet another man and plunge toward procreation while conception was still a natural biological option. Post-divorce I dated vastly, even moving to Berlin for a year on the notion that love was more tenable in a foreign setting, or that 30-something Deutsch men made better fathers. Only a month in did I learn that Berlin is known as the "City of Singles."

Abroad, men from all over the globe lay at my fingertips, but navigating the nuances of their home countries' dating cultures was difficult. After 13 months, I shlepped my overstuffed suitcases back to LA with a deepened perspective on the potential to fall in love again and the difficulty of it.

When months of dating stateside brought me no closer to romantic partnership, I considered freezing my eggs. I wanted to insure motherhood in the face of dating roulette. Over the 35-year-old mark, eager suitors were distinctly fewer than in years past. One morning, a close confidant suggested becoming a mother on my own. "Make this choice for yourself and you'll never regret it," she said." I shocked myself at how right it felt.

My parents didn't initially support it. Who would choose single-parenthood for their daughter? But the roots of procreation's impulse runs deep. They changed their minds, eventually fully backing me. I was grateful; I needed all the support I could get. My dad started criticizing how much power men have in dating. "Get off birth control and let the guys worry about their actions," he said.

Was this the new feminism? Dating as sperm-donor shopping?

My writing group colleague's opinion was uninvited, but not unpopular. According to a UK study by BabyCentre, "research suggests that dating in pregnancy is one of the final taboos for single mums-to-be. 71% say there is a stigma surrounding dating during pregnancy, with 64% feeling they can't even tell friends or family that they are dating or considering it." I'm hard pressed to find other sources even collecting such data — a testament to the stigma.

Another woman in the group had chimed in, "I used to have a male roommate who dated a woman doing artificial insemination. He wanted children, even proposed to her, but she said his best hope was trying for a second child together. They eventually broke up."

"But he can still have children," I said. "He can meet someone else and father children until he's 70. She doesn't have that option." I argued.

I wondered if either of my writing comrades understood what "choice" meant in a world where people date as though biological clocks don't exist?

While single-motherhood-by-choice (a term I hate—we're no nobler than single women who didn't opt in) seems unusual, my predicament isn't uncommon. After I penned a New York Times essay about pursuing artificial insemination as a single woman with depression, women wrote to me in droves. As one put it, "If I don't find a partner within the next 4 years or so, I will go the single-mother-by choice route."

Two days after my doctor's appointment, I was in stirrups again, legs up and praying while my OB-GYN slipped a catheter into my vagina and sent the magic-making serum into my uterus. I was taking a step toward a baby—alone. I realized I owned my future. The dream of motherhood that was planted in my heart before I was born was at last, taking seed. Or so I hoped.

Later that afternoon, I met my friend Rachel at the dog park.

"I got inseminated this morning," I said. "And I have a coffee date tomorrow. Should I tell the guy?" I asked

"Tell him what? Wait until you know if you're pregnant," she said. "Also, congrats!" Her shoulder bone dug into my cheek.

The following day, my date Dave and I sipped Americanos by the Silver Lake Reservoir.

After our date he texted, "I had a great time. I'd love to see you again." He was into me! Would he be into my potential plus one in life?

I boasted as much to my younger sister. Her face went serious.

"You need to decide what you're doing," she said. "Are you trying to get pregnant or are you dating?"

"Both!" I said.

"No guy is going to be cool with you actively trying to get pregnant with another man's baby," she said.

"But it's just my baby." I said.

Before meeting Dave, I didn't think I'd actually find someone I connected with on the apps.

"What if you fall in love right now?" My sister said. "Are you just going to drop your plan because you like this guy?"   

The part of me that always wanted love, marriage, then the baby carriage caused me to pause.

The film "The Back-Up Plan" came to mind. In this romantic comedy, Jennifer Lopez's character Zoe meets a dashing man on the same day she gets successfully inseminated. Shenanigans follow as she hides her condition. What if instead of meeting the dashing man after she got doctor's-office knocked-up, they had locked eyes on a subway on the way to her appointment? Would she have cancelled? Postponed it a month or two? Where's the scene where J.Lo admits the back-up plan is great and all, but doesn't hold water to Plan A, where her baby gets to have a mom and a dad?      

Is that what I was really doing by choosing to stay on the dating app? Hoping for an eleventh hour romance?  

Ten days after the insemination, I called the doctor's office to get my pregnancy test results. "We're all rooting for you," the nurse said. Then the doctor got on the line; it was negative.

"Don't get discouraged," she said.    

Disappointed, but equally determined, I geared up for another round of hormones and follicle-monitoring.

Dave and I hiked one cloudy afternoon after brunch together. Resting on a log, watching the water skippers on the creek,

"Do you want more kids?" I asked him. He was already the father of a five-year-old son.

"In the future," he said.

"How's six months?" I wanted to ask, but stayed quiet.

I considered shelving artificial insemination for a cycle or two to see how our romance played out. But nature decided for me. All the hormones had confused my ovaries, which failed to produce a mature egg that month. A "crash" cycle my OB-GYN called it. I left her office relieved we couldn't inseminate. Because I have a date with Dave tonight? I wondered.

I decided to take dating Dave day by day before telling him. Meanwhile, I monitored my basal body temperature, weighing motherhood against the seriousness of our courtship. If we kept bobbing toward the sea of love, I'd reveal that I was trying to conceive.

Then the pandemic crashed in, sweeping Dave out with it. First, he sheltered at home alone, closing himself off from me. It was hard to tell what was happening because he never broke up with me. He just washed away.

Then restaurants, shops, and even my doctor's office went dark, too. I'd told myself that if our relationship didn't work out, I still had my baby dreams, my back-up plan. But with all elective procedures suspended, I found myself without pregnancy hopes or romance.

Weeks later, I returned to the dating scene in vague hopes of a fresh romance. Dating had gone completely online. Hinge, Bumble, and Tinder were ripe with new members. Everyone was eager to find their version of company, comfort, or conjugal relations in the pandemic.

I emailed my doctor three months in. "When can we resume insemination?" I asked.

"Your next cycle," she said.

Mother's Day passed. For every husband on social media honoring the mother of their children, I reminded myself that I would be a mama soon. The images still stung.

I was now 40, which felt like 100 in dating years. Throughout my inseminations and the pandemic I continued to date, wavering between whether risking my heart with romance was worth it or not.

A couple of months ago, I met a man on a dating app who I deeply connected with. Joe is 43 and recently divorced with three kids. Despite the fact that he already had a family, I was immediately attracted to him. Or maybe it was his paternal ways that endeared him to me. Unlike most of the men I'd met on apps, he was used to caring intimately for others.

On date four, I told him I was trying to conceive on my own. My impulse was to soften my words, but a month's pause in insemination was all I could offer him. He revealed that he had a vasectomy, which could be reversed "for the right person." But what does that mean when you've only just started dating someone? I leaned into what he was offering — companionship and romance — but couldn't go back to the idea of relying on a man to make me a mama.

"A few years ago that might have scared me off," he said. "But I understand. Let me sit with it for a bit?"

It hurts to imagine falling in love with Joe and conceiving a child that bears a resemblance to some mystery donor.  But I also recalled what my OB-GYN said the first time she inseminated me.

"I wish I'd done it this way, honey. My kids' dad didn't stick around," she said. "It was hard on them. But I was never embarrassed by being a single mother."

"Really?" I said. 

"This new generation will need to do a lot of thinking outside of the box."         

For now, I'm inseminating with donor sperm each month and dating Joe.

Sometimes I imagine an idyllic union with Joe and his children, my baby, his ex-wife and her boyfriend, raising our families in a communal village where we celebrate Thanksgivings, Christmases, Hanukkahs, Mother's and Father's Day, and the birthdays of those long fought for as one loving, interconnected community. Maybe the future of romance will be dictated less by the strictures of coupling and conscious-uncoupling and more by the free exchange of love. It is a beautiful re-envisioning of the paradigm, one that honors a woman's need to be a mother without denying her the love she deserves.

By Sophie Sills

Sophie Sills is a Los Angeles-based writer, poet, and instructor at National University. She is currently working on a memoir. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times. She is the author of a book of poetry, "Elemental Perceptions: A Panorama" (BlazeVOX Books, 2011).

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Dating Essay Fertility Motherhood Parenting Pregnancy Relationships