I decided to entrust a man I’ll call “PikaBird,” who I met on Tinder, with a monumental task: getting me pregnant. I knew there was a chance things could go terribly wrong. I didn’t care. I was placing my trust in him not because I was desperate, but because I was determined.
I had been yearning to experience motherhood since I was 29. Of course, life seemed to be constantly yanking me away from that potentiality. My longest relationship to that point — a messy courtship of three years — had just ended. I was juggling several part-time jobs that didn’t pay very well. I had moved around enough during my 20s that my support system was scattered across the country. There was no obvious path forward.
Except ― what was that feeling? Oh, right, an unmistakable, unflagging desire to become a mom. Some people in their late 20s might look at another person’s baby and think, Aww, how cute, I’m totally ready to be a parent when it makes sense in my life. For me, it was more like, Wow, yep, I must become a mom ― as soon as possible.
I had a dream that year about a tiny elephant — which I took to represent my baby — splashing around in a pond, looking for me. The dream, and its accompanying sensation of motherhood, was so vivid that I started decorating my apartment with elephants. I later even got a tattoo of the elephant on my left arm.
This so-called “baby fever” most certainly doesn’t affect all women. I didn’t want to be a cliche, tethered to whatever biological or societal phenomenon held me in its grip. But there I was, with a very real baby fever and a parallel anxiety that it would never happen that continued to ratchet up as I got older. I turned 30, 31, 32 — and still, I was single and babyless. I needed a plan.
I decided I would start the conception process on my own if things didn’t change soon. I hoped to conceive by age 35, which is when women’s fertility generally takes a dip, and I didn’t want to take any chances that would make it harder for me to get pregnant.
I decided I would start the conception process on my own if things didn’t change soon. I hoped to conceive by age 35, which is when women’s fertility generally takes a dip, and I didn’t want to take any chances that would make it harder for me to get pregnant. I’d need time to get myself well-situated and to get donor sperm lined up before then. So, I selected May 1, 2015, when I’d be 33-and-a-half, as the date on which I would venture wholeheartedly into the journey of becoming a mom — a single mom, if it came to that — on purpose.
A Little Bundle of Research
Well, May 1, 2015, arrived, complete with chirping robins and budding daffodils, and while I was still single, my career, though less than stunning, had improved. I was ready to fulfill my promise to myself.
After my parents granted me their blessings — this was important to me — I started looking at methods for conceiving as a “single mom by choice,” or SMC. There’s a flourishing SMC community online, and my area also had a local SMC Facebook group that would, on occasion, host in-person meet-ups. I learned that individuals in this group became parents by lots of different means. Some adopted or fostered children, others used donor sperm to fertilize their own eggs, and still others used donor embryos.
I knew I wanted to experience pregnancy and infancy if I could, and my eggs were likely still plentiful, so I started honing in on how to acquire donor sperm. Sperm banks seemed to be the most popular option among those in my local SMC group. But while sperm from a bank was a sensible option, it was also expensive, and I learned I could easily expect to pay thousands of dollars before conceiving, even if I tried at-home, rather than clinical, insemination. I felt that if possible, I needed to save for when my child actually arrived, or for the chance that it would take much longer than expected to conceive.
Since the world is basically awash in sperm, I decided to look into another option I’d heard about: getting sperm from a “known donor” online. These known donors are actually strangers who have signed up through an online forum to offer their sperm to couples and single folks who need it in order to make a baby.
One popular known donor site I explored noted that while sperm bank processing removes many health and legal risks from the conception process, it also means involvement with a for-profit industry and it leaves no flexibility with regard to donor involvement (such as co-parenting). And, of course, using a sperm bank is by no means always a transparent process. Unlike a sperm bank donor, a known donor is known to, and works directly with, a recipient, and offers their sperm for free or a fee in a vial, cup, or, well, the old-fashioned way (yep — through sex).
I hadn’t met anyone who’d successfully conceived using this option and it felt like a lot of work to screen these strangers on my own, over the course of just a few meetings or emails. They were neither institutionally vetted, nor friends I knew intimately, and I had trouble trusting that I could find someone on one of these sites who would feel like a match for my needs and boundaries. This option might have worked for me had I pursued it, but I decided not to.
Instead, I started to inventory my male friends, people I already knew well, and spread the word that I was looking for a donor. It was hard to make myself vulnerable enough to broach the topic, but once I did, the first guy-friend I asked was willing to donate. I flew to California in the summer of 2015 to try using a turkey baster to inseminate myself with his sperm. But despite my best efforts — including taking pro-fertility supplements and relaxing with professional massages and long walks — it didn’t take.
It was hard to make myself vulnerable enough to broach the topic, but once I did, the first guy-friend I asked was willing to donate. I flew to California in the summer of 2015 to try using a turkey baster to inseminate myself with his sperm.
I was disappointed. I still wonder what our kid would have been like. But after I flew back to the Upper Midwest and got my negative pregnancy test result, I realized I’d need to find someone closer to home. I suspected that the stress and disruption of traveling weren’t great for my hormone cycle and continuing to fly out West to try and inseminate would quickly get expensive. I started asking around again, locally, hoping that a donor with a good reference, perhaps a friend-of-a-friend, would turn up nearby.
The Tenacity of Dating
Just because I was trying to conceive didn’t mean I had given up on dating. In fact, I was so used to consistently dating in my early 30s, when I was trying to meet “the right guy,” that by 33, I felt more at ease when I had a date lined up for the weekend than when I didn’t. Tinder was what people were using at the time, so I went on a couple of casual Tinder dates during the summer and fall of 2015.
One of them was with PikaBird.
At first I had no intention of asking this guy to become my sperm donor. I hadn’t wanted to pursue a donation from a stranger through the known donor registry, so why would I ask my Tinder date? Besides, mentioning my goal of becoming a mom to my dates seemed like a bad idea. I told one date about my plan before I’d started trying in earnest to conceive, and he’d made it clear that he thought “no guy” would be interested in getting involved with a woman trying to get pregnant on her own. I wasn’t going to lie to PikaBird, but I would keep my cards close to my chest unless this relationship moved beyond casual.
However, after just a couple of dates with PikaBird, I realized I couldn’t both casually date and actively be trying to conceive. At that time I’d started to move forward with a sperm donation from a local friend-of-a-friend, but I realized there was just too much cognitive dissonance between the two lives I was leading. Perhaps you saw this coming a mile away. I did not. In any case, something had to give. I told PikaBird my dilemma.
I can’t remember which one of us actually brought up the option of him becoming my donor, but by the end of our conversation, we decided that he would help me conceive. Using intercourse. If we kept dating afterward, great. If not, we would break up and create a contract that gave me sole responsibility for the child. Does this sound fishy to you? A bit risky? Do you hear a whisper of disaster up ahead? I did, too, but for once in my life, I decided not to listen to it.
I’d actually led a relatively risk-avoidant life up to that point. For instance, in spite of being sexually active, I used birth control — hence, my non-parent status. In contrast, the option of conceiving with PikaBird via sex presented risk everywhere. He might have a disease he hadn’t already been tested for. He could fall in love with me even if I didn’t fall for him; that would make things messy. He could try to secure custody of the child, using our romantic relationship and conventional conception method as leverage. He could turn out to be a monster. Anything was possible.
In fact, the whole endeavor to become a mom was a risk. The often tremendous financial strain of childrearing means that parents on average experience a lower sense of well-being than other adults. Solo parenthood can also mean significantly less time to pursue any kind of romantic relationship. It could mean a hit to my career, or it could force me to move in with my parents. I could imagine feeling guilty that I hadn’t created a good-enough life for my child. What if I regretted everything?
To move forward with the plan, I’d have to get over this worst-case-scenario thinking. And, surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard. In part I used logic: PikaBird and I had already forged a connection, and this was the most straightforward way for me to get pregnant. I also decided that the likelihood of a positive outcome outweighed the likelihood of a negative outcome, such as ending up with a disagreement about the child’s custody. Of course, all my risk-weighing really hinged upon what I can only describe as PikaBird’s palpable sense of integrity. This integrity was something that couldn’t be established using objective evidence — I sensed it intuitively. But is intuition to be trusted? It’s certainly no guarantee.
Focusing on the Big Baby Potato
As I thought this through, I stretched out on a loveseat in my garden-level apartment, listening to the old cast-iron radiators clank into action and taking in the smell of the warm metal. The heat was turning on for the first time that season. I gazed at the small elephant statue sitting on my windowsill.
What would really let me take this leap was my certainty — greater certainty than I’d ever before experienced — that this decision to have a baby was not one I would regret, no matter what else chance had in store for me. I would make the baby happen and let the other proverbial chips fall how they were going to fall. I decided to take the risk because I realized I couldn’t control the future, I could only push in relatively small ways for what I wanted most. Up until then, I’d tried hard to create a perfect life, and nothing had turned out the way I’d planned. Perhaps my attempts at planning needed to focus less on figuring out every little detail of my future. I needed to think less about all the small potatoes, and focus more on the few big ones that really mattered. Or, in this case, on the one big baby potato that had come to matter most of all.
I decided to take the risk because I realized I couldn’t control the future, I could only push in relatively small ways for what I wanted most. Up until then, I’d tried hard to create a perfect life, and nothing had turned out the way I’d planned. Perhaps my attempts at planning needed to focus less on figuring out every little detail of my future.
So, one freezing, full-moon night in October, I called PikaBird. I had been busy all day, and I was tired. A big part of me just wanted to go home and binge-watch “House” or “Star Trek,” but I remember looking up at the moon that night and knowing, inexplicably, that it was time. I was ovulating.
I conceived that night, Oct. 19, 2015.
I wouldn’t know the results until 13 days later, Nov. 1. I’d spent the previous evening dancing and sipping water at a Halloween party, trying not to think about whether the exercise would help my pregnancy chances or all the jostling would hurt them. But that morning, when my pregnancy test developed that telltale second pink line, my apartment’s walls couldn’t contain me. I dashed outside, phone in hand, to call my family and tell them the good news.
Choosing My Path Through the Chaos
PikaBird and I broke up shortly thereafter, in mid-December. First, we stopped hanging out as much as we had been. When we finally got together for a talk about our relationship, we realized we were both on the same page about ending things. We wrote up the donor contract we had previously discussed: I would be the sole parent with sole rights and responsibilities. My own parents would take over the child’s guardianship should anything bad happen to me. And with that, we parted ways.
After a delightful pregnancy and a terrible labor experience, I was finally back home with my daughter in my arms a few weeks before my thirty-fifth birthday. The weeks that followed were difficult; more difficult than I’d ever imagined, even with the support of family and friends. But my heart was at ease, and in fact it had been at ease ever since I made the choice to finally start trying to conceive.
Now PikaBird and I exchange a text message about once a year. I didn’t catch any diseases. I didn’t sue him for child support. And he didn’t ask for custody of the child. Once I saw him on the street, on a date with another woman. We exchanged a warm greeting and moved on. Since then, I have moved out of town, across the country.
My daughter is now four years old. I get to goof around with her every morning before daycare and give her a horsey-back ride every night before bed. The other day, I bought her a “Frozen” helium balloon from the grocery store for no reason, and I reveled in her delight. I did end up losing that better job I’d gotten — maybe because I became a single parent or maybe for other reasons; it’s hard to tell. I also ended up meeting a wonderful man to whom I am now engaged — maybe because I became a single parent or maybe for other reasons; it’s hard to tell.
I could never have predicted the odd path my life has taken. I certainly wasn’t able to control much about its direction. But I cast my dice toward conception — the thing I wanted, despite the risks — and I’m so happy I did.
While weighing risk is still something I struggle with on a daily basis, I try to remember that very few choices are risk-free, and that resisting all unwanted outcomes is a futile endeavor. I can trust my logic and intuition to guide me well, to the extent that anything can guide us through this chaotic muddle called life. But letting go of controlling everything was what allowed me to follow through with my plan to conceive, and I couldn’t be happier that I did.
Sophie Strosberg is a freelance writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing focuses on parenting and science, and she edits everything from personal essays to academic manuscripts. Learn more about her work at her website, www.sophiestrosberg.