It is a brisk afternoon in early November, and Faith Tomases has dressed accordingly, moving stiffly beneath layers of warmth, her long chestnut hair swept beneath a black beret. But watching Tomases’ daughter Julia, one would expect an entirely different climate.
Julia, who is 8, wears a grin of delight as she skips down the familiar streets that she calls home on the Upper West Side, popping a Lemonhead candy in her mouth, stopping to admire a new bakery, literally jumping for joy when she spots Ottomanelli Brothers, a deli adjacent to Rodeph Sholom, the Reform Jewish day school she attends. Julia explains that all her friends know that Ottomanelli “makes the best muffin tops!”
“Julia, zip up your jacket,” Tomases calls out from several feet behind. “Do you want to miss the Kabbalat Shabbat Friday because you get sick?”
Julia would not. She likes Shabbat; she loves singing in the synagogue choir almost as much as she treasures Thanksgiving weekends with her cousins at a New Jersey hotel. Julia seems more than satisfied with her lot in life so far away from the rice paddies in the Vietnamese village where Tomases adopted her. If there is one thing Julia yearns for, it is more members of her family. A dad would be nice, for example.
“You should really get married,” she informs Tomases, pausing for a moment and grinning at her mother as the pair prepare to cross West 79th Street. Tomases nods, smiling faintly. The idea has occurred to her.
Two-person families like the Tomases’ have become vastly more common in recent years, with the surge of single mothers by choice — women who pursue motherhood through adoption or sperm donors without a spouse. In the Jewish community, with its large numbers of highly educated women delaying childbirth and marriage, this demographic appears to be disproportionately well represented. Jane Mattes, a psychotherapist who runs the national support network, Single Mothers By Choice, says that from the postings on her organization’s listserv, she senses that “there have always been a larger percentage of Jewish women than you’d expect.”
Often, the women’s stories follow similar plotlines to Tomases’. As a young adult she imagined her life would eventually mirror that of her mother’s, who raised three children in Wilmington, Del. The years passed, and Tomases enjoyed her marketing consultant career and busy social life in New York City, tennis in Riverside Park during the spring and fall, sailing in the Hamptons during summers. She dated many men, but didn’t meet her soul mate. One day in her mid-40s, Tomases acted on her deepest desires and began adoption proceedings (motherhood was a need, not a choice, for her, she says).
When Tomases met her 10-week-old baby for the first time, she was so overcome with emotion, so overwhelmed by Julia’s beauty, so taken by her sweet smile, that Tomases said Shehecheyanu, the blessing Jews recite when they experience something for the first time. “I started saying the prayer and then I realized that I was saying the blessing over the candles,” says Tomases. The words were appropriate. “Julia is the light of my life,” she says.
Of course, even while basking in the light and joy a child delivers, many women in this situation also encounter darker moments. The road traveled by any parent includes speed bumps, but that of single mothers by choice can be inordinately rocky. One mother spoke of how lonely it was to go to the hospital by herself to give birth. Another complains of her household chaos since she has no funds for a housekeeper and no energy or time to clean. Another mentioned the cost of living — in high-priced New York City, a single salary only stretches so far.
Still another woman interviewed for this article broke down in tears because she’d recently ended a three-year romance after realizing that the man would not adequately fulfill the role of father.
And yet Lisa Katz, a traffic manager at WABC-TV who lives in Brooklyn with her lively 7-year-old daughter, advises women curious about this path: “It’s all OK, as long as they consider it as seriously as I did. There’s a woman in my building who is one generation ahead of me. She says she’s so sorry she didn’t have this option. She would have loved to have a child.”
At least a generation of women has considered the pursuit of single motherhood, which was perhaps first spotlighted in 1988 in Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Heidi Chronicles” and made even more famous when TV character Murphy Brown became a single mom in 1992. In 1999, at the age of 48, Wasserstein followed Heidi’s lead, giving birth to a daughter on her own — an arduous experience she recounted in her book, “Shiksa Goddess.” But the public eye seems particularly bewitched by the topic this year, with release of two Hollywood features, “The Back-up Plan” (with Jennifer Lopez) and “The Switch” (with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman) as well as a third movie involving sperm donation, “The Kids Are All Right.” Also this year, Lori Gottlieb, who made the decision to become a single mother at 37, published her controversial guide to dating, “Marry Him: The Case of Settling for Mr. Good Enough.”
Mattes reports that, “all of that publicity has caused our ranks to grow enormously in size in the last few months.”
While the majority of such women report few regrets and draw great delight from their children, one aspect of a single mother’s life can prove tricky after a child: dating. On the one hand the pressure is off, says Mattes. Women don’t focus on their ticking biological clocks. They “don’t need to rush out and find the right person. On the other hand, it’s more complicated because of childcare, and wondering how to integrate the person into a child’s life.”
In a sense, single moms bridge two worlds. They belong to the universe of children and families — of play dates and piano practice, of schools and Shabbat choirs. But they also experience the yearnings of singles everywhere. And dating can be difficult in a life filled with the demands of a child, never mind the complications that arise when a suitor needs to fulfill not only the role of mate, but also of father. Unlike the child of divorced parents who already has a father on the scene, Mattes says, in the case of the child of a single-by-choice mother, “there’s a job opening.”
Debra Davidson, an Upper East Sider and director of sales research for CBS Interactive, has recently begun to navigate the tumultuous age of adolescence with her 12-year-old son. But Davidson recalls that when Ethan was 6, he proposed to a man she was dating. “You know, Ira,” says Davidson, imitating her young son. “I like you. You like me. You like my mom. Why don’t we get married?” Davidson laughs. Since the age of 8, Ethan has enjoyed the company of an “older brother” through the Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, but he has also always been open to the possibility of acquiring a dad, she says.
Davidson, like several other women interviewed, expressed disappointment that a recent boyfriend wasn’t also a suitable father. “Men my age typically have grown children of their own,” she says. “They don’t want to be with someone who is focused on the logistics of their child’s whereabouts.”
“It’s challenging for sure,” says Davidson of dating. A few years ago, she joined JDate, and has recently enjoyed greater liberty to spend evenings out since she no longer requires a babysitter for her son. She tries to keep in mind that “all it takes is one” man.
Rabbi Lia Bass, mother of 5-year-old Benjamin, doesn’t believe her son has interfered with her romantic life. Still, she’s not involved with anyone currently, and when she does go out, she says, “I will be more selective about whom I date.”
Rabbi Bass, who gave birth at the age of 41, says her choice to pursue motherhood as a single woman disturbed a few members of Congregation Etz Hayim, the Conservative synagogue she serves in Arlington, Va. Two families left. Otherwise, she says, it’s been a “non-issue. We need every Jew we can get,” says Rabbi Bass. “I did not have the gift of a partnership. Why not allow me to have the gift of motherhood?”
The situation tends to be more strained in Orthodox communities. One Upper West Side woman, who insists on anonymity, says she consulted with three rabbis before pursuing this path. None would like to be named, she says. The rabbis expressed initial concern that she would set a precedent, but didn’t otherwise find the route problematic for her case. They advised her to use non-Jewish sperm to avoid the possibility of the child inadvertently coupling with a half-sibling at some future date.
At her child’s Jewish day school and at their synagogue, questions frequently arise about the father’s whereabouts, said the Upper West Side mother. “I tell them exactly the situation and they are empathetic,” she says. “I did not want to leave the world without trying to have a child,” says the woman, adding that she says “thank you, God,” every time she witnesses a Gymboree class or a preschool dance or a siddur celebration.
The woman added that she strongly believes in the importance of a father for her child, and that she “hopes someday that there’s a male in our lives full time.” To that end, she tries to go out several times a month.
Children, of course, may not sense what they lack. Lisa Katz, who reports an intensely close relationship with her 7-year-old daughter, says that Amanda expresses no need for a daddy. “Of course, she doesn’t know what she misses,” says Katz, who hasn’t yet begun to think about dating. Since Amanda’s birth, Katz’s free time and energy has been consumed by caring for her family. Her mother died at the end of October. “My mother will always be on this planet because of Amanda,” says Katz. “My daughter’s eyes are my mother’s eyes; my daughter’s legs are my mother’s legs. This is her legacy.”
As for Faith Tomases, she says that she’s been too exhausted to date. “I’m used up,” she says. “I do not want to be nice to anyone else.”
She imagines that will change as her daughter gains independence. In the meantime, Julia has yet another idea. “Can we go to Vietnam to get another baby?” she asks on another cold street corner. This time, Tomases can’t help but laugh.