Studies in "Choice Moms" - Single Mothers (and Mums) by Choice
November 1, 2011
Rensselaer Professor Compares Single Mothers by Choice in U.S. Versus U.K.
“Family” takes many forms, and among them is the relatively recent phenomena of “Choice Moms” — single women who choose to have a child without a male partner. Who are these women? Why do they choose to start a family on their own? How has child-rearing changed with the deliberate omission of a paternal figure?
Linda Layne, the Hale Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of anthropology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been researching choice moms, conducting ethnographic research, monitoring social scientific research, newsletters, blogs, chat rooms, published memoirs, and pop culture portrayals since 2008. This year she is expanding her investigation as a visiting fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Family Research in the United Kingdom.
While at Cambridge, Layne is researching the differences between American and British single mothers by choice, studying the religious, political, racial, and class contexts in which alternative families have emerged, and the social and cultural resources upon which they draw.
“As a cultural anthropologist, I’m always aware that culture shapes experience,” Layne said. “A comparative study between the U.S. and U.K. brings attention to the differences that cultural and social structures make.”
Layne is also interested in how communication — afforded by the Internet between choice moms and those that offer reproductive services to them in different countries is shaping their choices.
“Women in the U.S. and the U.K. get to know about each other’s organizations, and share information and get ideas from one another,” Layne said. For example, she said, women in Britain have found that the United States, and some other countries like Denmark and India, has fewer restrictions on the use of reproductive technologies including egg and sperm donation and some now engage in what is known as “reproductive tourism.” Because of these restrictions, British women are using the Internet to locate donors outside the country.
In the U.S., choice moms tend to be heterosexual, white, well-educated, over 35 years of age, financially well-established, and often live in urban centers, Layne said. About three-quarters of choice moms in the U.S. conceive using insemination with the sperm of an open-identity donor (who agrees that when a child that results turns 18, he may contact the donor); smaller numbers do so with a known donor or through adoption.
Layne said preliminary research at the Cambridge Center also shows that women who choose to have a child alone in the U.K. tend to be somewhat older than their American counterparts, and therefore are more dependent on more invasive techniques, like in-vitro fertilization, to conceive.
Although Layne has only recently begun to gather data for her comparative study, she said her attention has been drawn to an immediately apparent difference in the arguments used to oppose this type of family.
“In the U.S., opposition to single motherhood by choice is very often framed in terms of religiously informed ideas of what makes a proper family,” Layne said.
Layne said that in the U.K, the critique appears to be centered around government spending.
“The U.K. has much better social support for its citizens, including national health care, maternity leave, child benefit payments, and public housing. Opponents say that women are having children to get these benefits. … It’s a ludicrous assertion, but it’s one that I heard within the first week that I got here.”
As part of her research, Layne recently attended the open meeting of the U.K.’s Human Fertility and Embryo Act (the body that creates policy regulating reproductive practices in the U.K., where new policies regarding compensation for egg and sperm donation were decided), as well as the 30th anniversary celebration of the American organization Single Mothers by Choice in NYC, and the Alternative Families Show in London.
Layne has published an article on how single mothers by choice depict their relationships with men, and is currently writing up a case study of one American Choice Mom of three pre-schoolers. She also has a paper that explores the similarities in the narratives of women who have lost a pregnancy, and women in intentionally father-absent families (either choice moms, or mothers in two-mom families)
In her book, Motherhood Lost: A Feminist Account of Pregnancy Loss in America, Layne used the lens of anthropology to explain why American women are so ill-prepared for miscarriage, stillbirth, or early infant death and why the feminist movement has not fully embraced this important women’s health issue. She further developed a women’s health approach to childbearing loss through an 11-part, award-winning television series, “Motherhood Lost: Conversations” produced by George Mason University Television.
She has edited or co-edited two books on motherhood and consumption, a collection on Feminist Technology , and is currently working with British colleagues on a book on reproductive loss and a volume on new trends in parenting.
The Cambridge Centre for Family Research, based in Cambridge University, specializes in research that increases understanding of children, parents, and family relationships with a focus on topics central to public policy, health care, and people’s lives. Current research projects on “new families” include a study of adolescents conceived by donor insemination, young adults raised from infancy in lesbian mother families, parent-child relationships and the psychological development of children, bioethics in assisted reproduction and emerging family forms, and parenting and psychological development of adoptive children raised in gay father families.
Contact: Mary L. Martialay
Phone: (518) 276-2146