When Anne-Marie,* the president and CEO of a start-up medical device company in Philadelphia, first began thinking of having a child on her own, she was 37 and her biological clock was ticking loudly.
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As much as she wanted to be in a great, loving relationship with a partner, she wanted a baby even more. “If I turned 50 and didn't have children," she says, "I'd be pretty devastated."
So after about a year of weighing her options and considering what it would be like to be a mother on her own, she did something a growing number of single women are doing: She chose an anonymous donor through a sperm bank and started her attempts to get pregnant, using drugs to encourage the growth of egg-producing follicles.
For seven months, Anne-Marie, now 42, did monthly inseminations, stopping for a year after she began, and then ended, a relationship. When she resumed her efforts, and after a total of 13 tries, she conceived her first son, Pierre, born in November 2002.
Birth of a movement
Experts who follow single parenthood say more women than ever are choosing to get pregnant on their own, or adopt a child without a partner. But there are few hard numbers to point to.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that preliminary birth data for 2003 show a 4 percent jump from 2002 in the number of births to unmarried women; nearly 35 percent of births in 2003 were to unmarried women. But that number includes women whose partner may be in the picture as well as women who go it alone.
Children’s Hope International, an international adoption agency, notes that nearly 13 percent of their adoptions are by singles.
And in the 24 years since starting Single Mothers by Choice (SMC), Jane Mattes, a psychotherapist and author of "Single Mothers by Choice: A Guidebook for Single Women Who Are Considering or Have Chosen Motherhood" (Three Rivers Press, 1994), says she's seen tremendous growth in numbers. She started with eight members and now has more than 2000.
So what’s driving this trend? It comes as no surprise to hear that much comes down to timing. “The majority of women who become single moms by choice did want to get married," says Mattes. "The reasons why they make this choice haven’t changed: They want to have children and if they’re not married or they’ve divorced they want to have them before it’s too late.”
For many women, the much-mocked biological clock may seem to wind down all too quickly, especially for those who are enjoying a wonderful time in their lives with good friends, a nice home and interesting, well-compensated work. Then they realize they have little time left — and sometimes none — for having children.
“I think a lot of the reason there are more single women becoming pregnant on their own is because of careers,” says Anne-Marie. “I went to a big-name undergrad school and a big-name grad school, I traveled a lot, I worked overseas. It’s hard to meet somebody, if you didn’t want to date someone from work. All of a sudden you’re 37, 38 and you think ‘I should have prioritized this more.’ But you’re just doing what you enjoy.”
After her own wake-up call, Anne-Marie put on what she calls “the full-court press.”
“I joined a dating service and for six, nine, 12 months, I was dating more than I ever had," she says. "Nothing came out of it, which is no surprise because with every man it was like, are you marriageable? Do you want kids?”
Mattes, who is arguably the midwife to this movement, says she has seen big changes in both the perception of single motherhood by choice and the choices women are making about how to create their families.
“The biggest change is that people know about it,” says Mattes. “It’s not such a shock when someone says they had a baby alone; people always seem to know someone now.’”
*Anne-Marie did not want her last name used to protect the privacy of her children. "This is as much (if not more so) my sons' story as mine," she says. "When they are older and can decide how much they want to tell people, whatever I've already said cannot be taken away."
Women pursuing parenthood without a partner have also become something of an economic force, Mattes notes. “We are a big consumer base of the sperm banks. They’re advertising in [the SMC] newsletter; I think they’re looking at our growth — and we don’t represent half of the number of women who are doing this.”
In 1998, California Cryobank, the biggest sperm bank in the United States, had about 60 percent couples and 40 percent singles as clients. Today, that figure is reversed: About 60 percent of their customers are single women and/or lesbians. Xytex, a bank based in Atlanta, sees a similar trend. “At least 50 percent, and probably closer to 75 percent of our patients, are single women, meaning unmarried, whether heterosexual or homosexual,” says Sheridan Rivers, a supervisor of customer service and sales at Xytex.
Women’s — and, arguably, society’s — comfort level with single motherhood has come so far that more single moms are having a second child with donor insemination or adoption than in years past. “One child was the norm for the first 10 to 15 years [of SMC]," says Mattes. "Now it’s very common to have more than one. They say, ‘If I had one child, I can have two.’ It’s much more normalized.” In March, Anne-Marie gave birth to her second son, Henri.
More women who've hit a roadblock to motherhood owing to infertility are turning to adoption. Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of "Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America" (Basic Books, 2001), says current trends include more single African-American women adopting children from foster care and more single women adopting a child of a different race or ethnicity, or an older child.
Single motherhood by choice may be a sizeable and still-growing trend, but it is the result of a series of personal and often very painful decisions made by every woman who considers it.
When she was about 30, Holly Vanderhaar decided that if she hadn’t met the man she thought would be her husband by 35, she’d start thinking about going it alone to become a mother. “I thought I had to meet someone — or go into a potentially bad marriage for the sake of having kids,” says the Mesa, Ariz.-based mother. “I said to myself, there is another option and that took the pressure off me for a while and I put it on the back burner.” (Mattes notes that more older women and younger women are coming into SMC as members. “We used to see a lot between 35 and 40. Now we see more women in their mid-40s and late 20s. Some people are very clear that they don’t want to wait until their fertility might be at risk.”)
At 35, with no husband material is sight, Vanderhaar began eight months of treatment for a fibroid and an ovarian cyst so she could start trying to get pregnant; her first insemination, using donor sperm, took place two months before she turned 36. “It took five tries and I got pregnant on my only unmedicated cycle,” says Vanderhaar. “It was twins — identical.”
At 15 weeks of pregnancy, she found how she had twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, a rare, high-risk condition that required Vanderhaar to fly to Florida for surgery — but not before making the excruciating choice about whether to continue the pregnancy. “It was really, really hard to hear the news and be by myself and feel this huge, incredible responsibility and not have anyone to share the decision with,” she recalls. Fortunately, the surgery went very well and daughters Sian and Sophie were born in April 2003.
In weighing the pros and cons of having a baby alone, a woman naturally looks at traditional families, in part to see what she would miss out on as a single mother. Some women "grieve the dream," says Mattes. “The majority of women who become single moms by choice did want to get married."
But others who opt to go this route don’t think they’re missing much. “With a lot of the relationships I see with my friends, you have a couple of kids and a husband you need to manage — it’s a lot of work to have a great marriage,” says Anne-Marie. “Am I working harder as a single mom than a married mom? I don’t think so. In some ways, I’m working less hard because I don’t have another adult to work around and manage. In some ways it’s simpler.”
It takes a village
For women considering getting pregnant and raising a child on their own, single moms have one piece of advice that rises above all others: “You need a support system,” says Mattes. “When you’re married it’s built in — you have him and his parents — but when we’re alone, we have to create it.”
Anne-Marie moved to New Jersey to be near her parents; her neighborhood also includes two other single moms by choice.
Vanderhaar also moved towns in the Phoenix area to be closer to her mother and sister. “They’re so much help to me on a day-to-day basis,” she says.
Local SMC chapters can be a boon in finding other single moms, as well as women who are thinking about single motherhood or trying to get pregnant.
“You can do this single, but you really cannot do it alone," Mattes says. "Without a support system, it’s 10, 20 times as hard.”
Lorie A. Parch is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
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