Episode 31: Single Mothers By Choice (Transcript)

Episode 31: Single Mothers By Choice

Wendy: I really feel like it is the greatest invention or opportunity of the 20th and 21st century that you could be a single mother by choice and I only hope that more women will consider it.

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. For this Mother’s Day episode, we’re talking with three Jewish single mothers by choice: women who felt motherhood should not be contingent on partnership. Instead, these women had babies by themselves. It’s not the usual way to start a family, but more and more women are starting families alone. Some don’t want to wait for a partner, and some just don’t want one.

Nahanni: This episode of Can We Talk? is in three acts. Three stories of mothers and their children.

Javier Skurnick: Mommy the earth is bigger than that garbage bag.

Lizzie Skurnick: Correct. The earth is much bigger than… (fade under next TRACK)

Nahanni: Act One is set in Jersey City, New Jersey, where 45-year-old Lizzie Skurnick lives with her five-year-old-son, Javier.

Lizzie: …but then where would the earth put the garbage?

Javier: If they have a gynormous garbage can in the earth then the earth could put it there?

Lizzie: But where would we put the garbage can?

Javier: We would put it into new places.

Lizzie: You mean like out in space?

Javier: No, that’d be terrible.

Lizzie: I agree. (fade under and out)

Lizzie: I tend not idealize marriage or singlehood that much anymore.

Lizzie: You know I have friends who are single moms who have certainly felt way more isolated and for a variety of reasons you know where they live, their personalities, what’s going on in their lives and I know it is much harder for them and I have not experienced that and that was, that was really sort of just a wonderful thing.

Nahanni: Lizzie says she still faced challenges, though, when she decided she wanted to be a mother.

Lizzie: You know at the time I was a freelance writer and a teacher and my salary was extraordinarily erratic. It was completely fine for a single person. No problem at all. But, you know with a baby you really need a regular salary and you need it to be fairly high. And also I was living in a, you know a first floor garden apartment, probably 700 square feet. Then I also reminded myself that’s just really true of most of the New York area. It’s true of most of the world. So I’m not going to think about whether or not I have a two-car garage and a you know three story house with a finished basement and a big yard, because that’s just actually not how most of the world actually lives. And most of the world has babies all the time.

Nahanni: Lizzie was 40 then, but she sensed she was still fertile, so she started looking into sperm banks. She says it was fascinating. Just like online shopping. She says there were things called delimiters, basically, filters.

Lizzie: You know, height is first and then eye color, and race is very far up there. When you look at that list, it’s a list of things that society cares about, and it’s a list of things by which you accept or reject people.

Nahanni: Lizzie chose a bi-racial donor, which she says she wasn’t looking for specifically, but she was happy it turned out that way since she’s also bi-racial. Her mother is black, her father is Jewish. She also liked that the donor was good at math and an atheist. Since then, she’s connected with other mothers who chose that same donor dad. She wanted Javier to meet his half siblings. They now have a close relationship and vacation together every year.

Lizzie: The mothers, the ones we get together with do feel like they need to know each other because they’re siblings, and they can do whatever they want with that. But we feel like that’s a basic relationship that we should acknowledge.

Nahanni: But her own parents had a hard time accepting that Javier’s donor siblings were real family.

Lizzie: They were like, well they’re not his real sisters. I mean thery’re not his sisters, like his sisters. And my father was so funny. He goes, ‘well those children, they don’t have any relation to me!’ and I was like, Right. I was like, they don’t! (laughs)

Lizzie: I think it’s very hard for people to see people as family that fall outside the paradigm, even in gay marriage, like once people have a house and a car and there are two people there, it still looks pretty normal. But once you really go off track, people have, you know, it seems like you have the right to reject it.

Nahanni: Her family also had trouble acknowledging that her son would come from a sperm donor.

Lizzie: And I think they just thought it was a lesser way to do your family… and it’s funny because I think by the way that I probably had that prejudice too before I did this. I absolutely remember that feeling. But then when I was doing it, when I had the desire, it just so didn’t feel that way that I just didn’t worry about it. But because I knew the feeling of that particular prejudice, I didn’t judge anybody for having it.

Nahanni: Still, she was happy when her family finally came around.

Lizzie: I remember my sister-in-law very early on in this um when I was talking to my nephew about it she said something like, you know, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with him hearing parts of this and you know I just want you to be careful. And I said this is the way he is getting here. I am not going, I don’t want to hide it or be ashamed. He would have such a hard time with that. And then she was like oh my god we are going to be much better, Your brother and I are going to be much better about this. We have not been being supportive and we’re going to be much more supportive and I think once she saw it from his point of view was much easier to understand that my god you can’t like make a kid feel like they’re like a big weirdo especially when they’re not.

Lizzie: You know just because we sentimentalize the way other kids get here we feel like that’s like natural. I do not feel that way and I also just feel very strongly I should not try to shoe horn it into something like that. I don’t know what’s wrong with doing it this way?

Javier: …cause if something fades that means it goes away for no reason.

Lizzie: True.

Jazier: And it’s no where. It just turns and you can’t see it anymore.

Lizzie: Correct.

Jazier: That’s what fade means.

Lizzie: When did you learn what fade meant?

Javier: I just know it.

Lizzie: How did you just know it?

Javier: I can do this!

Lizzier: Okay bubsers.

Nahanni: That was Lizzie Skurnick and her son Javier, who knows a lot of things, just because. In Act Two, we hear from another woman who chose to enter motherhood alone, but she went about it a different way. Naomi prefers to use just her first name, for the sake of her family’s privacy.

Naomi: I live in Silver Spring, Maryland. My daughter’s name is Dinknesh. And she’s 10 years old. She actually just turned 10 yesterday. Dinknesh... I don’t know if you remembered when they found those Lucy bones in Ethiopia. They thought she was our ancestor, Lucy, uh the hominid ancestor, the locals in Ethiopia called her Dinknesh, because what is means is you’re amazing and miraculous, so I knew that with a name that her parents gave her, her birth family gave her Dinknesh, that name was so special, I was not going to change it.

Naomi: Adoption is a very interesting experience. I remember when the social worker came to my house for the first time to do the home study, she said to me Naomi if you’re a person who likes to talk about themselves you’ll probably enjoy this, but if you’re more private, you may not as much. And then she proceeded to ask me every personal question you can imagine. She wanted to know about everything related to my own childhood, my relationship with my parents, my siblings, every romantic relationship that I had been in, my professional life. It felt pretty much very invasive. Then I had to fill out written documents for the home study. I had to declare all kinds of things, all the things I would and wouldn’t do... I would never hit my child. I would never lock my child in the room. I thought to myself there are parents having children every day they never have to go through this process.

Naomi: But in thinking more about it I almost feel like probably all parents could benefit from talking to a social worker before they make the decision to have a child uh perhaps to make some pledges about the things they’re committed to doing or not doing when they raise their child. I actually did not think it was a bad process.

Nahanni: Naomi says the process reestablished her commitment to having a child, because you really have to want one to go through all that. She even had to call on her congressman to help cut through the red tape, but eventually, she adopted a baby from Ethiopia.

Naomi: So I want her to know she’s Ethiopian. For a while we had a violin teacher who was Ethiopian and I had the teacher teach her some Amharic so she knows that but what I realized pretty quickly was that at this moment in time, she just wants to be a regular, American, now 10-year-old girl. Um, I’m imagining as she gets older her personal story will be more important, but right now she lives in the here and now and considers herself an American, Jewish girl.

Nahanni: Naomi says she’s committed to Dinknesh having a strong Jewish education. They go to services most Saturdays. Dikenish attends a Jewish Day School and she’s also going to a Jewish summer camp. Naomi says, having a child as a single mom by choice is a 24/7 commitment. Her whole life revolves around Dikenish. But she says, it’s the best thing she’s ever done.

Naomi: I’m not a superwoman. I’ve never even really been a Type A personality. I feel like if I’ve been able to do it, really pretty much most women can do it, so I want other women who really feel the longing to be a mother not to be stopped by not finding an appropriate partner because being a parent is just an amazing thing.

Nahanni: In Act Three, we hear from another mother who adores her child.

Wendy Shanker: My name is Wendy Shanker and I live in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and I am the mother of an 8-year-old daughter uh named Sunny who’s like the best person on the planet through not completely credit to me but she happens to be a wonderful person. I’m very glad to be her mom. And I’m a single mother by choice.

Wendy: I’ve always been an independent person. I’ve never had a business partnership with anybody else. And I didn’t want to necessarily have a parenting partnership with anybody else.

Wendy: I really like making these decisions. I like having the ultimate responsibility. There’s definitely times when I feel like it would be, you know, helpful to give somebody else responsibility for some of these things, but ultimately that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be a single mother by choice. Like I’m good at making these decisions. I’m comfortable with my choices. I know I’m doing the best for her through you know the vision and the experiences I have. And so I feel really comfortable and confident.

Wendy: I really feel like it is the greatest invention or opportunity of the 20th and 21st century that you could be a single mother by choice and I only hope that more women will consider it.

Nahanni: When Wendy was in her 30s, she suffered an ugly bout with an autoimmune disease that threatened her life.

Wendy: And when I came out on the other side of it I was probably 37 or 38 years old and um knew clearly that I really wanted to be a mother. I wasn’t necessarily invested in finding a partner, a husband, or a spouse, but I knew really really clearly that I wanted to be a mom.

Nahanni: Wendy figured she would adopt. Her own mother died when she was 10. Her dad remarried, and Wendy grew very close to her step mom, so she says she knew biology wasn’t the most important thing about being family. But she did want to see if she could get pregnant, so she tried sperm donation.

Wendy: It was important to me to have a Jewish donor. That was definitely a priority and there aren’t that many Jewish donors, so I felt really lucky to get the one that I have because Jewish was important, but other things were important too and I sort of feel like I got a really great package although I also felt like it wasn’t essential to have a Jewish donor because just halachically by Jewish law because I was a Jewish mother having a Jewish baby, it would be a Jewish baby.

Nahanni: Wendy says she and Sunny go to a Reform synagogue and they celebrate shabbat every week, often with Wendy’s parents.

Wendy: The core Jewish values of learning and family and community and history and taking care of other people and the golden rule are all very important parts of the values that I’m imparting to her and I would say kind of values that she comes by naturally. I’ve said to her more than once, you could be a really great rabbi. She’s kind of like a little philosopher.

Wendy: So show me what you’re doing.

Sunny: So I’m going to make bracelets out of rubber bands.

Wendy: Okay.

Sunny: You pick these two colors, right?

Wendy: Um-hum, pink and purple.

Sunny: Pink and jelly purple.

Wendy: Pink and jelly purple.

Sunny: So do you know how I make these?

Wendy: Well I have seen you do it before.

Sunny: Do you want instructions on how to make them?

Sunny: Yes of course.

Wendy: You take one of these…

Nahanni: Sunny is doing really well now, but she had an unexpected start in the world. When Wendy was about 7 months pregnant, she went to visit her parents in Florida. That’s where they live in the winter. But Wendy wasn’t feeling well. She had cramps and some spotting. It was the weekend and she kept thinking to herself I need to go back to the doctor on Monday.

Wendy: And what I didn’t realize was that I was in labor.

Nahanni: It was the first day of Wendy’s 29th week of pregnancy.

Wendy: I feel a gush and I run into the bathroom. I’m in a hotel room by myself and I essentially crouch down and have one contraction and out comes the baby.

Wendy: So there she is. Tiny... like the size of a big coke bottle... and she’s blinking her eyes and I’m just praying to God, please please please God keep this baby alive. Like this is the moment. And I got super calm and I put that baby on my skin and I wrapped myself up in towels and I ran to call 9-1-1 and I get a message “To reach room 911,” you know, you can’t dial 9-1-1 on a hotel phone. So I call my parents who are in the building next door, I say I just had the baby call 9-1-1. I run to the door of the hotel room and prop it open which to this day I still think is like my ingenious choice, and then I run back and sit on the toilet to wait for, hopefully emergency to come, because I don’t know like what happens with the umbilical cord which at this point is still connected to the baby and when does placenta happen and what if I’m bleeding? I don’t know what’s happening.

Wendy: And five minutes later, in comes EMS who just happened to be parked in a parking lot next door to the hotel. In comes hotel security. In comes my parents. In comes the concierge. I’m like tip-toeing around because I’m worried about like what happens if I get blood on the carpet in a hotel room and they’re going to be mad at me. And the whole time, this baby, thank God, is alive and breathing. And what I didn’t realize was that she was getting oxygen through the umbilical cord. And the EMS says like ok, we’re going to cut the cord, you might want to look away. And I’m like should I look away, like maybe this will be a little gross for me to handle? At this point, I just delivered my own baby in a bathroom, I really think I can handle watching you cut the cord.

Nahanni: Wendy and Sunny were taken to the nearest hospital. Sunny stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit for three months.

Wendy: You know, after that, what is tricky? What is hard? What is challenging? You helped your daughter survive in the moment of her birth and you did it by yourself. And wouldn’t choose to do it that way but certainly feel like there’s, the take away from it is that like let’s not panic about preschool because there’s a lot crazier decisions.

Nahanni: Wendy’s family was pretty alarmed when they found out Wendy was going to become a mother on her own, in part because she had been so ill. But they came around.

Wendy: Of course my folks were drawn in to you know this birth moment that was so dramatic and so not the vision of what I had of them, visit me in the hospital with a bunch of balloons. I mean this was like like a pure crisis moment, but from that initial moment of me on the phone saying the baby’s here call 9-1-1, they were in it to win it 100% and I have to say that you know besides just the beauty and amazement and adoration that I feel for my daughter, the very best part of this whole thing has been the experience of my daughter interact with my parents. That to me is just you know besides the gift of Sunny, that’s a close second for the great gift um that this child has brought into the world.

Nahanni: The gift of motherhood comes in many forms, and families take different shapes and sizes. Sometimes, the traditional Jewish commitment to family leads women to make untraditional choices. Lizzie, Naomi and Wendy chose to parent on their own. Most single mothers don’t make that explicit choice, but end up in that situation through circumstance. All of the mothers we heard from today admit it’s not easy parenting alone, but they are so glad they are doing it.

Nahanni: Thank you for listening to Can We Talk for this special Mother’s Day episode. You heard the stories of Lizzie Skurnick and Javier, Naomi and Dinknesh, and Wendy Shanker and Sunny. Thanks also to Rosanna Hertz, author of the book Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice. Judith Rosenbaum directs the Jewish Women’s Archive. Becky Long is our production assistant. Ibby Caputo produced and edited the script. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.

Nahanni: Mother’s Day is just around the corner. If you’re looking for a way to honor the mother figures in your life and support JWA in the process, check out JWA’s We Celebrate collection. You can create a meaningful, one-of-a-kind tribute and add your favorite mothers to our collection of Jewish women. Learn more at jwa.org/wecelebrate.

Visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk to listen, subscribe and make a donation. You can also find Can We Talk?anywhere you get your podcasts if you listen on iTunes, please leave us a review! It helps other people find us. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. We’ll be back next month.


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 31: Single Mothers By Choice (Transcript)." (Viewed on September 29, 2023) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-31-single-mothers-by-choice/transcript>.


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