Studies in “Choice Moms” Single Mothers (and Mums) by Choice
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
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
“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
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