Women: Knocking Yourself Up

Sex And The City's" Carrie Bradshaw once asked, "What if Prince Charming had never shown up? Would Snow White have slept in that glass coffin forever? Or would she have eventually woken up, spit out the apple, gotten a job, a health-care package and a baby from her local neighborhood sperm bank?" Though it's hard to say how Disney would have grappled with a no-show prince, if Ms. White were to awaken alone today, it's possible she'd take the advice of Louise Sloan, author of the guidebook "Knock Yourself Up: A Tell-All Guide to Becoming a Single Mom."

Sloan found herself single at 41, though she'd always considered herself "definitely the marrying kind." Determined to become a mother, the Brooklyn-based writer inseminated herself with sperm from an unknown donor she refers to as No. 2, "a tall, handsome green-eyed actor (Favorite color: blue. Favorite pet: dogs)" in the attic of her conservative family's Kennebunkport, Maine, summer house. Sloan now has a 16-month-old son, and uses her experience—as well as those of almost 50 more unpartnered, educated and financially independent straight and gay females over 30—to propel her humorous "how to" book for aspiring single moms. She offers practical advice on choosing the right donor and informing prospective grandparents in chapters titled "Oops, I Forgot to Have a Baby" and "Trysts With the Turkey Baster."

Sloan's amusing take on this provocative subject is already spurring caustic feedback online, though it's the lightest offering among several recent books that include Rosanna Hertz's academic account, "Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice," and Mikki Morrissette's firsthand account/guide, "Choosing Single Motherhood." "We're in a transition period—people are not just getting married because that's what you do if you want to have kids," says Sloan. "Women now have careers, are financially independent and waiting until they find the right guy. Most of us want to meet the perfect person and live happily ever after, but sometimes we don't."

Whether by choice or circumstance, the evidence suggests that more and more women are considering single parenthood. Unwed births among 30- to 44-year-olds rose 20 percent from 1991 to 2006, and last year alone, four in 10 U.S. babies were born outside of marriage even though teen pregnancies hit their lowest point in 65 years. Fairfax Cryobank, one of the biggest sperm banks in the United States, says its single-female clientele jumped 20 percent in the last decade and now accounts for 60 percent of its customer base.

Not everyone is embracing the unorthodox version of mommy. Fifteen years after Vice President Dan Quayle admonished TV's Murphy Brown for having a baby out of wedlock, a recent review of "Knock Yourself Up" on Salon.com generated plenty of criticism, like that from someone who identified himself as "straight, married white male, three biological children." He wrote that Sloan is an "upper-middle-class white woman pursuing her pregnancy fantasies." And recently, blogger Glenn Sacks wrote on the Fathers & Family Web site that the rise of single mothers by choice was a "disturbing" phenomenon and is "bad news for America's children." "It's provocative, this question of 'Do men bring something unique in the raising of a child?'?" says Hertz, chair of the women's studies department at Wellesley College. "The women in my study go to extremes in finding men who will help raise their children—uncles, grandparents, a best friend from college. This is not about creating a world without men."

Controversy aside, what effect does a fatherless household actually have on kids? Studies over the past 30 years have shown that kids in single-parent households don't fare as well as their peers with a mom and dad. Research by sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur shows that children who grow up with only one biological parent are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, and girls from homes with one biological parent are twice as likely to become pregnant teenagers. But most studies on the effects of single-mother households on kids do not differentiate among children raised by teen moms, low-income women in their 20s (this group still makes up the majority of unwed U.S. birth moms) and financially independent older mothers by choice.

When income and education are factored in, "substantially fewer differences arise between the intellectual development, academic achievement and behavior of children in single-parent and two-parent families," according to a 2004 study by Henry Ricciuti, professor emeritus of human development at Cornell. He looked at the adverse effects of single parenthood on 1,500 12- and 13-year-olds across the United States and found what mattered most to a child's well-being was not just two parents, but a mother's education and ability level. "It all comes down to the individual situation," says Sloan. "But for kids whose moms wanted them as badly as I did, chances are the decks are stacked in their favor." And Sloan intends to play the hand she's chosen with a sense of humor.