Welcome to ”The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American experience”? It depends where you look.
Brenda Torres, a 34-year-old mom of one in Caldwell, Idaho, and Kriss Kokoefer, a 50-year-old mom of two in Oakland, California, always knew they wanted to be mothers. They also both knew they didn’t need a partner to make that happen.
Brenda and Kriss are single moms by choice. Brenda gave birth to her daughter about three years ago via a sperm donor. Kriss adopted her two daughters, who are 9 and 5, from China. Their paths to parenthood are wildly different, but their thoughts on being mothers are much the same: It’s the most difficult thing they’ve done, but it’s also the most rewarding.
Read on to learn more about Brenda’s and Kriss’ journeys to becoming moms, from the research they did to the advice they received to the lives they now live with their kids.
HuffPost: Why did you decide to become a single mother?
Brenda Torres (Idaho): I’ve always wanted to be a mother, since I was a little girl. I thought I could just skip the step of having a partner or some kind of significant other and just go right into having a family.
As an adult, having a partner just wasn’t happening for me, so I thought, “I’m not getting any younger, I’m in my 30s. Now it’s time to start this if it’s going to happen.”
Kriss Kokoefer (California): I always knew I wanted to be a mom, more than anything. When I was 36, I decided that was my New Year’s resolution. I made the decision to become a single mom and that I would know how I was going to do it by my 37th birthday, which was in April.
What kind of research did you do into your options?
Brenda (Idaho): I knew I wanted to carry my child. I saw a doctor and saw that it was totally doable, so that’s what I did.
Kriss (California): I investigated sperm donorship, went to a fertility clinic to make sure I could get pregnant and I visited adoption agencies. I already knew single moms. I had heard about it, I admired it. A woman who was 10 years older than me who I was working with had adopted from Guatemala, and I watched the whole process. There’s also a Single Mothers by Choice group in most parts of the country that I joined.
What they say is that your fertility begins to decline at 35. I was 36, so I thought the first step is to just see if it’s even possible. I went to a fertility clinic, and they said it was possible.
I had seen adoption by single moms quite a bit so that was already in my head. Then I had my friend who had just done it. The other thing was I just felt like there’s a kid out there who doesn’t have a mom, and I don’t have a kid. My personal feelings on it were ― I know this sounds crazy ― but I didn’t want to be pregnant by myself. For some reason, being a mom by myself is fine, but walking around being pregnant, going to the hospital, even though I could have a friend, I didn’t want to do that.
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Can you tell me more about the process you went through to become a single mother?
Brenda (Idaho): I used a sperm donor. Initially, I didn’t have any doctor intervention. I just tried to use the specimen myself, which didn’t take, so I had to see the doctor to get help. I talked to my gynecologist and got her opinions, and she gave me the name of a doctor in Boise. I didn’t face any difficulties at all. It was really successful. I only went one time.
The pregnancy was pretty normal from what I hear. I didn’t enjoy being pregnant, it was not fun for me. I was sick for the first several months, then I would say the second trimester was probably the best and then toward the end it just got really awful. Plus I was mostly pregnant in the heat of summer so that just made it worse.
Kriss (California): When I was 37, I joined an adoption agency. When I signed up, it was a six-month wait once all your paperwork was done, and it typically takes about six months to get your paperwork done. With China adoptions, at that time, there was a quota for singles. So every adoption agency could have one single for every 10 adoptions [for couples] they were doing with China. So I knew my wait was going to be a little bit longer.
I was third on the waiting list, but I remember getting a phone call telling me someone dropped out, and I was second on the list. They asked me if I was OK with that and I said, “Of course.” Then I got another call telling me someone else dropped out and they said, “Now you’re first, are you ready to go?” With that one, I said I had to think about it. I had dinner with my brother and my dad and asked them what they thought. Then I went to a Single Mothers by Choice group, and I asked for advice. And every person wrote back saying, “You never know what’s going to happen, you have to say yes.”
I did my paperwork lickety-split, then what you end up doing is getting something called a log-in date. It’s the day China says you are approved to adopt. That means you’ve gone through a health screening, your financials have been looked at, people have written reference letters. That log-in date means you’re finally in the queue.
From log-in date, it’s six months to do paperwork and six months to wait. By the time my paperwork was in, there was a huge slowdown in China. I ended up waiting three years after the paperwork instead of six months. I was 41 when I got my oldest daughter. And if you remember, I was 36 when I decided I wanted to be a single mom.
Brenda (Idaho): During the delivery, I had my mom and my labor coach, who is my aunt, with me. Toward the end at some point, I asked for an epidural. It took forever to get one, and by the time I got one, it was time to push so if I had to do it over again I wouldn’t have gotten one. Because due to the epidural, I had to push for a very long time because I couldn’t feel anything. I was probably in labor for 24 hours and then pushed for two hours.
While the pregnancy itself was not fun for me, and even though the birth was a little traumatic physically, at the end of it all I held this perfect tiny human in my arms. And even though I was exhausted as hell, I was filled with so much pure love and joy when I looked at her. It was a feeling I have never experienced before. It was amazing.
Kriss (California): It’s hard to be a single mom big time, and so even though I loved kids dearly I really didn’t think I would be able to have a second. I guess, if anything, I secretly wanted it anyway.
When my oldest turned 8, she started to get easier and she started having playdates and I started to date again actually. So I dated a guy for a while and it didn’t end up working out. After that ― and this is not why I did it again [laughs] ― the idea came into my head again, how can I have a second? So I looked at fostering to adopt in Oakland, and I had a meeting with my adoption agency that helped me with my first daughter.
Because of its recent flexibility with its past “one-child policy,” China has fewer “healthy” babies available for international adoption, so Kriss learned more about adopting a child with special needs.
When I went to the adoption agency, I still thought it wasn’t possible. They were just saying what a risk it was because even though they might disclose what the special needs are, there might be more. Everyone kept saying to me, “Your life is so awesome, do you really want to risk this?” I got that message from a best friend, from the adoption agency and my pediatrician. So I left and I was OK, and I thought, “At least I tried.”
There’s a Facebook group for people who are talking about adopting children with special needs from China so I joined it. I learned a lot about all the special needs. I became friendly with some of the women on there who were advocates for some of the kids. And one day, I was talking to a woman who was an advocate. She’s a mom of adopted kids herself, and she helps one particular agency. One day, she private messaged me and said, “There’s a little girl and you might be interested in her file.” I opened the file, I looked at it and I thought, “Oh, I can do this.” I sent the file to my pediatrician and talked to an international adoption doctor specialist. The only thing in her file was that she had a slow heartbeat. Both the international doctor and my pediatrician said it looked like it’s not a problem.
I went ahead and said I would like to adopt her. Then I had to do that same paperwork that takes about six months and got approved by everybody. I found my youngest daughter’s picture and file in January. This time, I had my daughter in nine months.
What is your community like?
Brenda (Idaho): I live in a red state. This was an old farming community back in the day. It’s just a small, little town. There’s a college here that I went to. That’s about the highlight of it.
Kriss (California): Oakland is extremely diverse. My career has been in high-end office furniture, so I have a really amazing community of smart, creative people that I work with. They are architects and designers. My role in the industry was sort of a marketing role where I was very close to a lot of people and very friendly and I knew a lot of people. It was within my own industry that gay men were adopting, gay men were having surrogates help them start a family and a handful of single women had done adoption or sperm donation. Just within my own community of people, it was already something people had heard of.
What kind of feedback did you receive when you told other people you had decided to become a single mother?
Brenda (Idaho): I told my parents, and they were super excited. And everybody I talked to ― my friends ― were really supportive and really excited for me. There didn’t seem to be any judgment at all from anybody, which I found refreshing.
Kriss (California): It was all positive. I was free enough and comfortable enough to be able to talk about it and be excited about it and have people hear the process as I went along.
What kind of comments have you received since becoming a single mom?
Brenda (Idaho): Mostly what happens, because I’m Hispanic and my daughter is fair, they kind of assume that I am not her mother. I’ve had that a few times, which is kind of hurtful. I would say they assume I have a partner just because of the town I live in, it’s just how things are done. When I tell people, like acquaintances and stuff, that I did this on my own, they’re kind of surprised, which I can understand. But I don’t sense any judgment, especially from acquaintances because I’ve known them in some fashion in the past. So it’s more surprise, not really any sort of negative judgment. If there is any negative judgment, I don’t hear it.
Kriss (California): A lot of the typical stuff people could say is, “Where did you get her?” and “How much did she cost?” because it’s so obvious that I didn’t give birth to her. But that’s never happened to me here. No one asks me. No one stares at us. The other thing about this community is that there are a lot of interracial marriages. So if anything, one time a man said to me, “Oh, her dad must be Chinese.”
Have your children faced any questions or comments about your role as a single mother?
Brenda (Idaho): She hasn’t yet, though that is something that concerns me a little bit. I do intend to do some research on how to broach the subject as she gets older.
Kriss (California): It’s happened for both my daughters, and it happens in preschool, that’s where it starts, or the playground. You know, little 3, 4 and 5-year-olds say, “Is that your daughter?” or “Does she have a dad?” or “She doesn’t look like you.” They just come right out and say it. And you just say, “I adopted her and she doesn’t have a dad.” And they start playing again.
Do you think that your experience would be different if you lived somewhere else?
Brenda (Idaho): No, I think it would be pretty good. You know they say, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and I have an excellent village. I don’t think it would matter where I live. I have an excellent family.
Kriss (California): I’m very grateful that my girls are here where they aren’t noticed for being in a different family makeup. My older daughter is super proud of being adopted. When she was in first grade she came home, and she said, “Mom, we were reading a book about adoption and all the kids said I was adopted.” And the teacher said, “Oh, really?” And then my daughter said to me, “And I said I was.” And she’s very shy and reserved so I know she was proud of it.
Are you a part of any groups or communities online or elsewhere with other women who decided to become single moms?
Brenda (Idaho): No, but I have thought about looking into that. I just haven’t had the time because, you know, parenting [laughs]. Trying to wrangle a toddler is time-consuming.
Kriss (California): I’m in a Facebook group for single women adopting from China. I’m also in a Facebook group for each of the orphanages my daughters came from, and I’m also in a special needs China adoption Facebook group. There’s even one for post-adoption because it’s so hard. It just helps to know other people have gone through it.
What is a common misconception or stereotype people have about women who choose to become single mothers?
Brenda (Idaho): I think the most common misconception is that women wouldn’t want to choose to be a single mother because obviously there are those of us out there. It doesn’t mean we don’t struggle, but it doesn’t mean we can’t choose to make a family on our own.
Kriss (California): Men thinking I won’t have time to date, not even wanting to meet me the first time. I disagree with this because if you like each other you will work it out. Yes, single moms are busy, but we are very good at being busy and managing a lot of things.
What does motherhood mean to you?
Brenda (Idaho): It means everything. It is the most challenging job, but the most rewarding job. That’s the typical answer, but it’s so true. Within five seconds, you can go from completely being so upset and terrified to completely your heart is melting and, “Oh my god, they did the cutest thing.” It’s amazing.
Kriss (California): I still love it. Even though it’s cliche to say, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done ― it is so freaking hard ― but it is the biggest joy that I have. People say to me all the time, “I don’t know how you do it. I have my husband and I can’t even do it.” And I’m like, “Well yeah, it’s hard.” But what I’ve learned to say is that I’ve never known any different. It’s not like I got divorced or abandoned. I don’t know anything else.
Do you have any advice for other women considering becoming single mothers?
Brenda (Idaho): If you don’t have a support system, it’s going to be exponentially more difficult. If at all possible, get your finances in order before. Going the single mother route is expensive, and that’s just before the baby gets there.
Kriss (California): My only advice would be just start looking into it and see if the path keeps taking you there.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.