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The first time a stranger called me brave, I cracked up. It was a cashier at the Gap, and we were chatting about my pregnancy while she rang up some jeans with elastic waistbands. "Your husband must be so excited," she said.
There was an awkward pause before I quickly explained that there was no husband, that I was in my thirties, hadn't found The Guy, and had decided to have a baby on my own.
Her eyes went wide. "Wow," she said, "you're so brave."
That's when I burst out laughing. I'm not the brave type at all. I'm afraid of everything, from dark streets to spiders, and frankly, I was terrified to have a child on my own. I mean, I knew what I was getting into—I bought donor sperm from a sperm bank, and went to a fertility clinic to have the stuff shot into my uterus on the exact day that I was ovulating. But being a single mother was never a dream of mine.
The truth is, like most women out there, I expected to get married and have a family. But at 37, I found myself at a crossroads: I was two and a half years into a relationship with a smart, handsome guy, but we didn't see eye-to-eye on core values, and we argued. A lot. I worried that if we got married, we'd likely get divorced. And while I didn't think it would be ideal for a child to have just a mother, I was fairly sure that I could provide a stable, happy home on my own.
I also knew I wasn't exactly blazing uncharted territory; census data show that unmarried women are responsible for 36 percent of all births. I could do this. So I traded the boyfriend for a vial of sperm and got myself knocked up.
Over the next few months, it seemed like everyone who saw my belly and my naked ring finger said the same thing that Gap cashier did, and each time, I felt like a fraud. "Look," I wanted to say, "I'm far from an independent superwoman. I can't even change the water filter in my fridge by myself. I simply want to be a mother!"
Actually, "simply" doesn't describe it. I'd always loved kids, and I couldn't imagine going through life without one of my own. But I didn't feel I could afford the time to go looking for the boyfriend I would marry within a year so we could have babies before my fertility began to evaporate.
I felt as if I'd won the lottery when I found out I was pregnant. Then the nausea hit, and the reality that there was nobody to bring me Preggie Pops sunk in. I went to prenatal appointments alone, carried groceries up the stairs to my apartment alone, and made important decisions about life insurance and wills—alone. There were times when I desperately wished I had a husband to lean on—like the day I tried to sit down at my desk and, off balance, I missed the chair entirely and landed on the floor. I was in my third trimester and freaked out that I'd hurt the baby. And it would have been nice to have a father to help when the baby came five weeks early and I hadn't even set up the nursery yet.
One day during my maternity leave, I ventured out to a museum opening and was admiring a painting when someone called my name. It was an acquaintance I hadn't seen for a while who was there with a group of other unattached friends. As soon as I turned around, she saw my bundle of joy strapped to my chest, scanned my hand for a wedding ring, and gave me the perplexed look that had become so familiar. I explained that I'd had a baby on my own.
I knew what came next: "Wow," she said, "you're so brave." Then she added the other phrase I had heard so often and chosen to ignore: "I don't know how you do it. I could never do it myself."
I smiled weakly as she and her friends looked over my shoulder for the cute single men they'd come to find. That's when it hit me: We usually use the word brave not for people whose circumstances we admire but for people who have experienced misfortune beyond their control—like recovering from a terrible illness. Sheryl Crow probably heard the word brave just as often during her cancer treatments as when she adopted her son sans husband.
Brave seemed to be code for "Thank God I'm not in your situation." To that group of women at the museum looking at me, a single woman trying to calm a crying infant while juggling a bottle and a bulging diaper bag, I was a cautionary tale.
Three years later, I certainly don't feel like a cautionary tale. I feel like I made what turned out to be the best decision of my life. I didn't choose to be single, but I did choose to become a mother. And it's because of this choice that I get to wake up every day to a hilarious toddler in the next room. The experience has, in a way, given me freedom I'd never experienced before. It taught me that we don't get to order a life plan like we order takeout: "I'll have one loving husband, two adorable kids, one flexible but exciting career, one healthy body, and the ability to travel, with the dressing on the side." Nobody's life is tied up that neatly in a bow—not even my married friends'.