When Baby Comes Before Happily Ever After
There's no daddy in this picture. But that doesn't mean that Laurie Sandell and her son are going it alone. How one woman survived extreme fatigue and existential midnight ruminations, thanks to her dedicated—and touchingly robust—support system.
Forty-one years old and fresh out of a relationship, I found myself facing a tough decision: whether or not to have a child on my own. I hated the term “single mother by choice,” knowing that if I went through with a solo pregnancy, I would really be more of a single mother by default. After all, I wanted to get married; I just hadn’t met the right man. But with no time to waste, what was I going to do? Go on a few dates with someone and tell him I needed to be pregnant within a few months? So I chose a sperm donor, injected myself with fertility drugs, and got inseminated (via intrauterine insemination), thinking it would never work.
To my shock, it took just the first try. Giddy with success, I called everyone I knew to share the news. “You’re so brave,” I was told again and again.
I didn’t feel brave; I felt lucky. Many of my friends had struggled with fertility issues, an experience that had tested their relationships and drained their bank accounts. Sure, I was doing it alone, but I knew I’d been given a rare and beautiful gift. Even my fertility doctor shook his head as he confirmed the news and said, “This never happens.”
As those first weeks passed, I waited for the loneliness to set in, but it never did. Friends kept calling, their excitement palpable as they asked me to chronicle every symptom. My breasts hurt, I confided; I felt dizzy sometimes but never had a moment of morning sickness. I did experience the extreme exhaustion that friends had warned me about. But since I worked from home, every time it hit, I just stretched out on my couch. A married pregnant friend joked that she’d given up on any sense of decorum and had started passing gas in front of her husband. “That’s why I chose to do this alone,” I told her. “You see? There are some perks.”
Through friends, I met other single mothers: Sarah dropped off armloads of baby gear. Laura, also expecting, spent hours on the phone with me as we exhaustively discussed pregnancy stages. And other pals came through: Alexandra, who lived around the corner from me, offered to be my partner in the delivery room. She insisted on coming to every ultrasound, and I found myself calling her throughout the day to share every pregnancy blip. One of my biggest fears had been having no one to talk to throughout the nine months. With Alexandra on speed dial, I never felt the absence of a partner.
My mother was the biggest surprise. We’d never been close, largely due to the difficult relationship I had with my father. My mother, I felt, was weak-willed and passive and had repeatedly chosen my father over me, which made me very resentful. Yet the minute I told her I was pregnant, she stepped up in a way that I never could have fathomed. She started reading every possible bit of information about my baby’s weekly development. Every week, she sent an e-mail titled “Congratulations: You’re on Week [fill in the blank]!” And she offered to come stay with me for two months when the baby was born.
At first I interpreted her newfound interest in my pregnancy as grandmotherly excitement; she loved babies and was terrific with my sisters’ children. But soon it became clear that she was stepping up to parent me. I knew that she had been worried about my single status and was particularly concerned that I was going to miss out on motherhood. She often asked if I was dating anyone; I could always hear the nervousness in her voice.
I had never thought that she would accept the idea of my having a child on my own. To my amazement, she embraced it. Feeling like I was being properly parented—in my 40s, no less—helped me believe that I, too, could take on this role. Plus, it allowed me to view my mother as a more fully dimensional person. Was she really so timid and meek? None of those traits were in evidence when we talked about my baby.
For years I’d called her every few months to fulfill an obligation. Now I found myself wanting to call her daily, sharing details about my belly’s odd movements, seeking advice about naming. The new connection gave me a sense of groundedness I’d never had before.
I entered my third trimester with the kind of misguided confidence that comes with an easy pregnancy. I’ve got this, I thought. I’m going to sail through to the end. Then I learned that for all the help I’d already received, I was going to have to ask for even more. Suddenly putting on my sandals was a contortionist’s feat. Unable to reach the buckles on the outside of the shoe, I had to roll backward on the bed, bend my leg sideways, and fumble around with one hand until it seemed the shoe was fastened. When walking my dog, if I dropped my keys on the ground, I had to stand on the sidewalk until a stranger passed by. (I only had enough energy to bend down for dog poop.) But in the middle of the night, I would lie in bed, smiling in the dark as my baby rolled and squirmed. I’d found out I was having a boy. What would he look like? I wondered. I had only a childhood photo of the donor. How would I raise a boy on my own, having grown up with sisters?
Through it all, I relied on Alexandra to fill the role of my partner—a job she did beautifully. Then one day she called to tell me that she was getting back together with her ex-boyfriend. While I was happy for her, I couldn’t ignore my churning apprehension. Alexandra had been my so-called red presidential phone, available to me at all hours of the day and night. Every fear I’d managed to avoid came rolling in like a tsunami, and I found myself staring at the empty nursery off my bedroom thinking, I’m alone. I’ll always be alone. Who is going to help me now?
On September 10, 2013, I started feeling cramps midday and dismissed them as false labor. I wasn’t due for another week and a half. But by 11 p.m. that night, I was feeling regular squeezes of intense pain. I picked up the phone and called Alexandra. No answer. I called her again and again. The phone went straight to voice mail. Gritting my teeth and cursing, I threw on my flip-flops and hustled outside to the car. Steering through the dark streets, pulling over periodically to breathe through a contraction, I thought: So this is what it’s like when there’s no partner to gather up the hospital bag, offer an arm for help to the car, and take over the driving. I rang Alexandra’s doorbell and heard her sleepy voice through the door. “Who is it?”
“It’s me!” I gasped. After a short pause, she said, “Uh-oh. I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” Although her phone had been on, she hadn’t heard the ringer. At the sight of her concerned face, my anger melted away instantly. I knew there was no one else in the world I wanted to be with me.
The next day, Teddy Benjamin Sandell came into the world as Alexandra cheered me on. He was pink and pretty and vulnerable, and I loved him from the start. Someday I hope to meet a wonderful man with whom to build a family, but the pressure to find that guy now is gone.
A few months before Teddy was born, I remember fretting to a friend, “If I do this, will I be alone forever?” My friend, already a mother herself, laughed and said, “If you do this, you will never be alone again.”
About the author
Laurie Sandell is the author of the graphic memoir The Imposter’s Daughter and the nonfiction work Truth and Consequences. She lives with her son in Santa Monica, California.