Ep 111: Single Mothers By Choice with Jane Mattes
Fertility Forward Episode 111:
These days it’s easy to take for granted our ability to communicate instantly, often across vast distances, with people we’ve never met before. But back in 1981, without the internet or email to rely on, finding a like-minded community was far more challenging. And yet today’s guest, Jane Mattes, was able to do just that when navigating the intimidating territory of single parenthood at the start of the 1980s, a time when being a single parent was far more taboo than it is today. The small community of women that Jane became a part of went on to become the non-profit Single Mothers By Choice (SMC), an organization which has since provided thousands of women with an invaluable support system. In our conversation, Jane talks about her journey as a single mother, why she is so proud of the SMC community, and how her work as a psychotherapist has overlapped with her work at SMC. We discuss the three categories of women who seek the support of SMC while also unpacking some of the key questions that single mothers grapple with, like telling children about their origin story and how to approach dating as a single parent. Jane has been a key player in an extraordinary movement that has impacted thousands of lives. To learn all about her incredible journey and the inspiring work over at SMC, be sure to tune in today!
Rena: Hi everyone. We are Rena and Dara and welcome to Fertility Forward. We are part of the wellness team at RMA of New York, a fertility clinic affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Our Fertility Forward podcast brings together advice from medical professionals, mental health specialists, wellness experts, and patients because knowledge is power and you are your own best advocate.
Rena: We are so excited to welcome to Fertility Forward today, Jane Mattes, who is an LCSW and a single mother by choice and NYCA psychotherapist. She is the founder of Single Mothers by Choice or SMC, which she founded in 1981 after having her son. She is the leading expert on single motherhood by choice as well as the author of the book, Single Mothers by Choice. Jane has overseen the growth of SMC from the original chapter in New York City to chapters throughout the US and in Canada, Europe and beyond. Over 30,000 people have enjoyed the benefits of membership in SMC since its inception. Over the 41 years of SM C'S existence, Jane has met and consulted with countless thinkers, those going through the various stages of becoming an SMC, triers, those trying to adopt or conceive, and mothers those who are parenting as SMCs. In addition to consulting with thinkers, triers, and moms and running groups about all aspects of SMC-hood, Jane also consults with other professionals who work with SMCs and their children and is a spokesperson for SMC in the media. So I am super psyched to have Jane on. She knows cause I've told her multiple times I am a fangirl of her work and SMC. I have used her resources for years in counseling patients and I've always been so, so grateful that I have this to turn to for my clients that fall under those three categories. Jane is definitely the expert. I know anyone I send is in such good hands and so excited to have her on to share her work, her story and inform everyone about this amazing resource and community.
Jane: Thank you so much.
Rena: So I guess, why don't we start by, I'm having you tell us about your story and what led you here?
Jane: Sure. Well, I accidentally became pregnant in 1980 when I was 36 and I decided to go ahead and have my child because I knew time was running out for me to have a child in the traditional way. And I thought I would take advantage of this opportunity. Not having any clue of how challenging single motherhood or motherhood in general really was. I mean, I don't think anybody really understands it until they're in it. It's hard to fathom how challenging it can be, but no regrets. I loved every minute of it. It was a total, well, maybe the teen years were a little, a little challenging, but for the most part it was incredibly wonderfully rewarding. And seeing a little baby turn into a person to me was the greatest thrill and fulfillment that I could ever imagine. So I did that. And then along the way, very early, actually before my son was actually, when he was just turning one, I realized that I would like to speak to other women and know other women who were going through the same thing who were around the same age and who didn't have a partner or somebody that the child would know as a daddy. It would take us another 25 minutes to explain how this happened. But I managed to find a small group of women, brought them together in my living room. I knew none of them personally. And we started talking and we just loved the idea that one another actually understood that nobody else single or married could really understand what it was like to be a full-time single person raising a child. And so eventually somehow we got covered by the media and it became a media phenomenon for a while and we started having people from all over the US contact us and we put them together in small, you know, groups in various cities and so they could connect with one another in Chicago and LA and Boston and wherever we got a number of people from the same area and they started meeting and then we realized we should really organize and we incorporated as a nonprofit organization, I think in ‘87, approximately? And we thought we'd serve a purpose for as long as there was a need. Honestly, we never dreamt that we would celebrate our 40th anniversary. Now we're in our 42nd year. And that was not the purpose or the expectation. We just wanted a little support group for people, but it seems to be serving an ongoing need. So we keep providing that.
Rena: That's incredible. I mean I, I think the community aspect is so important. And I love how you started with this sort of just grassroots kitchen, throw people together, let's see what happens. And I think that really touched upon the need that people have to connect with other people.
Jane: Exactly. Even without internet or email, it happened. I mean that's what's so amazing to me that it was much more challenging in those days cause of the difficulties of not having instant media connection.
Rena: I know from my patients, wherever they're at in the path of becoming a single mom, you know, I always wish I had, I mean I always refer them to, to your site because I kind of wish I had this database to draw from to say, oh, talk to this person, talk to that person. Because I think there can be so much fear or anticipatory anxiety about the unknown. And so it can be so immensely helpful to connect with someone that's walked the path before you. And is doing it and can show you that it is possible.
Jane: Exactly. And even at the local meetings that we have in various cities, people can go, whether they're thinkers, triers, or moms and see it happening, you know, they can actually see, which is, you know, the women don't look like they're miserable. The women are for the most part, really happy that they were able to become mothers. And it's a wonderful thing to get a firsthand look at how it's working out for people as opposed to in the abstract, which is nice but not quite the same.
Rena: Yeah. So tell us about some of your resources. You know, I always send people to your site. Tell us besides sort of the community or the group gatherings, what else your site offers?
Jane: Well, we have two main sources of support. One is the local chapters where there are such chapters in bigger cities especially. And then for people who want more or who don't live in a place where there is a chapter, we have a very, very active online discussion forum, which has 24/7 availability, obviously, cause it's online. And people can post in various sections - there's thinkers, triers, and moms again. And then there are subcategories like dating and children with special needs and cooking for, you know, a single mom who works with a child. That can be a challenge sometimes. So we have subcategories on, I can't even count how many, so there's a huge amount of discussion on this forum. It exceeded my wildest expectations as to how supportive it could be. For example, we heard the other day that somebody was diagnosed with cancer, one of our moms who has grown children, they're in college, one of them just graduated college. The other one is, is in grad school. Actually a friend of theirs who is still on the forum with younger children posted about this. And there was immediately pages and pages and pages of loving caring responses and a movement to see what do they need, what can we do for them, you know, where somebody's organizing a fund for them to help them. These are still young kids, you know, one just graduated college, one's in grad school and they're taking care of of their mother who has stage four cancer and it's a tragedy. And yet because she was a member of this community, everybody who knew her and that's most of us were touched and wanted to help. So that's an extreme example. And on a day-to-day basis, it's what do you do when your child absolutely refuses to go to sleep? What do you do when they won't get dressed in the morning? I mean practicalities. And then there's a whole section of people trying to conceive, which is a very important section where people have cohort threads on the forum for people in the same cycle. And in the pregnancy section, there were cohort threads for people with the same due dates, approximate due dates. So it's really not as much as we're alone. We do everything we can to provide the feeling and the actuality that people aren't really so alone. So people get into these cohorts and they stay connected very deeply.
Rena: Oh, I'm sure. And, and I love how you've taken the time to break it down because I think that's something that can be a struggle when people are looking for groups. It is really important to find people that are aligned with you. Whether it's, you know, okay a group just for IUI or a group of miscarriage and loss or a group of IVF. And so I think that you have the capacity and volume to really create these specialized groups is so important.
Jane: Exactly. It makes all the difference to have that specific kind of connection. Yeah.
Dara: I see that you're a psychotherapist and do you specialize in working with this community or with fertility patients at all?
Jane: It's interesting. I have a mixed practice. I get certainly a number of patients that are especially in the thinking stage, you know, trying to make a decision. Is this the right decision for me? So I do a lot of work on that kind of population. And then there's a whole nother group that I work with later on when it's a parenting issue. You know, children, how do you tell your child about daddy? How do you explain their origin story? How do you deal with their feelings about all that? Or just regular parenting questions, which may or may not actually have anything to do with being a single parent by choice. So that is a part of my practice for sure. And then the rest of it is just a generic psychotherapy practice. You know, the typical therapy issues come up. And I don't do much with fertility, partly because on our forum the fertility section is, like, full of expertise and advice and experience that people can draw on directly there. And also because I don't have the most current scientific information on the fertility process, which is very complex and medical. So it's really not my best strength. But if someone needs emotional support during that, I'm certainly available for that.
Rena: Well that sounds wonderful! And I guess I would ask the question that so many people ask me, I'd love to get this recorded so I can refer to this. I mean, what do you tell people? You know, people always ask, you know, whether they're becoming a single parent or using donor, how do I tell my child about the father? What do I say? So how do you guide people when they ask that question?
Jane: Okay, so first of all, for the mom, it's important to remember or to realize if they don't remember exactly that there are two aspects to this. There's a biological father, which every single human has. You wouldn't be here without one. And then there's a dad or a daddy, which not everybody has. And that's a social role. So this biological father is a biological role that we need to have in order to be born. A daddy is a social role, which many people have, but many do not. And so the, the difference is important for the mother to understand, right? Daddy is somebody who helps raise you, helps take care of you, who plays with you, who helps mommy. All that social important kind of thing. And so once the mother gets that, the whole thing becomes a little bit simpler because they can help the child eventually understand the difference. That if a child says, why don't I have a father? Or why don't I have a daddy? It's, those are two different questions answered differently. You do have a father, somebody, you know, called a donor helped to make it possible for you to be born but you don't have a daddy in the home like some of your friends do is really the issue and how they feel about that. That comes up usually later. The earlier questions are very, in some ways very simple. If the mother is comfortable enough with it. What I suggest is that people start telling the child when the child is about six weeks old in order for the mother to practice. Not really for the child obviously, but you know, everybody thinks they know what they're gonna say and then when I'm speaking to them in these consultations, they say, you know, I had it all set what I was gonna say and then I looked at my child and I opened my mouth and it just didn't come out or it didn't come out right because I got so worried about how I was gonna say it. So it gives the mother a chance to practice if you start really early. And then you could also tell them in the way of the most simple kind of storybook way. Some people say once upon a time there was a lady who wanted to be a mommy and there was nobody around who could be a good daddy. So the lady went to the doctor and the doctor helped her to have a baby. And the baby is guess who? You! And that usually the children love that because it's a story about them. And then as they get older that you can get a little more specific in that story. But the idea is that they should never hear it or optimally they shouldn't hear it until, you know, later because then it's like, what do you mean I don't have a daddy? Like I thought he was in, you know, Connecticut or… Children tend to come up with their own idea. Actually sometimes they have their own story if you don't tell them a story. And so you wanna give them something from the earliest time so that it's not news, it's not shocking. And when other kids ask them about it, they can say, oh my mom went to a doctor who helped her have a baby. You know, it's pretty, pretty easy answer for kids up to a certain point. Then they need more information, then it gets more real.
Dara: I think you made a great point is making it age appropriate. I love that idea of making it into a fairytale cause that is something that children enjoy hearing and then personalizing it so they feel like they're part of it too. And yeah, they can add, add to it as well.
Jane: Right. Plus there are a number of books. We have a book list on our website and there are books for different ages from the youngest to school-age level of, you know, the story of you, that kind of title. Some of them are written by moms, some of them are written by organizations and experts, but they're all aimed at different ages and there are a lot of them to choose from.
Rena: I think that's great. And I think, you know, I've kind of always heard it's about how you spin the narrative, right? If you make it super positive, you make it super happy. I mean that's what a, a child's gonna pick up on.
Jane: I'm so glad you mentioned that because one of the things I wrote about in my book is a section on grieving the dream. Because if the mom is in grief about this dream that she couldn't or wasn't able to fulfill, that can make it harder for the mom to convey this in a positive way. And you do want the child to feel that you're celebrating the fact that they're here and that you're thrilled. You don't want it to sound like, you know, sad, tragic story. So another thing that is important to do, and I do some of this in my therapy practice, is helping people to grieve the dream that they may have had. Not everybody has that dream these days. It's very different for even from 40 years ago when we started where the typical family isn't actually the nuclear family anymore. But if you did grow up with that dream, it's one that you have to make a little bit of an effort and do some work to grieve I think, in order to embrace the new dream.
Rena: Totally. And I think it's okay. I don't know about your practice, but I would guess yes, I know in, in mine, you know, I often help people understand how they can have juxtaposing emotions about the same thing. So how they can be happy about one thing, but also sad at the same time. And it's okay to feel okay, well I'm excited that I'm, you know, going to bring this child into the world, but I'm also really sad that I'm doing it alone without a partner and that’s okay and how to be able to accept that and separate.
Jane: Exactly separating the two. You can go through your grieving feel, you know, forever. I mean I see my son and daughter-in-law with their child and I think how lucky my grandson is to have two loving parents. But in fact the research has shown that you don't need two loving parents. You need one reliable, dependable, stable parent in order for the child to be okay. Two is great, but it's not, what some people don't realize is that a child can do just as well, as long as that one parent is a stable connected parent.
Rena: I'm so glad you said that because I think a lot of people don't know that. So I'm really glad they
Jane: There is research on it, but it's hard to find and it's not that well spread out.
Rena: Yeah. I mean I feel like those of us in the field, we know that, but sort of general population Yeah. Who don't, you know, understand that. But the more we can talk about it, the more it can become a part of the norm.
Jane: Exactly. Yeah.
Dara: So what can we find specifically in this guidebook that you've created?
Jane: Well, it's really a very basic book, which to be perfectly honest, is somewhat out of date. I wrote it in ‘96, so my son was 16 at the time and I didn't know then what I know now for sure. And also things have changed. I mean when I wrote the book it was still an extremely controversial choice. And these days, I mean almost everybody knows somebody or at least knows somebody who knows somebody either first or secondhand. They know somebody who did this. And it's not considered quite so controversial because the children are turning out, guess what? Like all other children! Some are fantastic, some are average, and some are struggling. But there's actually a higher percentage of children that are doing well than there are in divorced families. So that's an interesting statistic for people to know also. That without the conflict and disruption of a divorce, children actually turn out to be a little bit more stable themselves. So that the kind of thing in my guidebook, I really wanted people to learn the concepts, to understand the reasons. A lot of people today give it to their parents, which is interesting because you know, that generation is a little bit less clear about this, a little more skeptical. So I'm finding that people like it for themselves but realize that maybe their parents could use it more than they could.
Rena: Yeah. Well that was gonna be another question I was gonna ask. You know, for those people, and I get so many that are, they're solid in their choice. They say, I, okay, I wanna become a single parent, but I don't know how to tell my friends and family that I'm doing this. I'm really scared. What advice would you give?
Jane: Well I do wanna mention that we do get people coming into single mothers by choice who were being pushed in by their parents also. This is a new phenomenon where somebody says, I really wanna have a grandchild and you are getting up there. You know, like, this we didn't used to, this was not something we used to hear, but we are hearing it now. Yeah. Isn't that amazing? So that is certainly one aspect. I'm sorry I lost track of what you asked me in the first place cause I got distracted.
Rena: I asked what you would tell someone who has decided to become a single parent but is afraid to tell their friends and family ?
Jane: What I do tell them usually is that the way that this woman herself may have had to go through a certain process of really weighing what this means, possibly grieving, coming to terms with what isn't going to be in order to embrace what could be… that the parents have to go through the same process. And that they really have to understand that for the parents and the parents had hopes and dreams themselves for their child and that this is an adjustment. But if they understand that they had to go through a process of coming to terms with this, it is a little easier than for them to say, oh of course that makes sense. My parents have to do that too.
Rena: That's wonderful advice. So many times people you know get kind of fear the unknown or they take, you know, one comment they heard someone make and then think that sort of defines how they feel.
Jane: Exactly. And I also tell people, which I think is really true for a lot of things, when a person says, oh that's not a good idea, what they're really saying is, I couldn't do that or I wouldn't do that. They don't know if it's a good idea for you or not as well as you know.
Rena: Exactly. I mean what are people's opinions usually? Their own projections of their own
Jane: Right, exactly. Yes.
Rena: So, okay. And then another question would be for those that are worried about dating and have a fear, okay, if I do this then I'm totally giving up, you know, any chance to find love. That's it. No one's ever gonna be interested in me. What do you say to that?
Jane: Not true. We find that people who want to date, date. People who want to get married, get married. You may not want to sleep with anybody for the first couple of years. You may just want sleep period. But there will come a time where you're, you're actually open to the idea of romance, love, sex and relationships again. But the first couple of years…
Rena: And they don't love you for that. It's not, you know, I think it's, it's an asset and they will love you as a package deal.
Jane: Exactly. That's the other thing I say that it rules out all the Peter Pan boys, you know, who don't want to be a grownup. It's a sort of a way of screening out for the immature men.
Dara: That’s a good way of putting it.
Rena: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. I, I guess I would disclose I am divorced so I'm not a single mom by choice, but I am a single mom and navigating that with a child, it's true. You know, we're a package deal that's just sort of it. So
Jane: Yeah. And so you wouldn't want somebody who couldn't embrace it there, you know?
Rena: Exactly. But I think it can take people, you know, time to sort of find that power within themselves or really mindfully thinking about it, you know, that, you know, and it's about reframing, right? Reframing kind of a picture you had for yourself or what you thought your life would be and I think it's really important to process that.
Jane: Yes. But for sure we do have people who find partners, find husbands. I mean that's why we have a whole section on dating on the forum and it's a very lively section because you know, it's, you're getting group support for it. It's, which is a nice thing while you're dating cause dating is stressful but it certainly is something that is not ever out of the question as long as you want it.
Rena: Yes, absolutely. And I think you said it right, it's, it's what you want. No one else can dictate that all of these choices are up to you.
Dara: It's wonderful that you have such a, sounds like a very extensive resource on your website. If you could share with our listeners the best way to find you or the current resources that you have?
Jane: Sure. Well, our website is singlemothersbychoice.org and on there, there are different levels of membership depending on what you're looking for. There's a free membership where you just get an email every two weeks with some kind of a post about single motherhood. It's primarily for thinkers which are, we assume are the people who sign up for that cause they're not quite ready to become a member. And for members or non-members, I run groups for people who are considering single motherhood, small discussion groups. I run groups on the daddy question. I run groups for people who are in the process of parenting and just want to talk about things. And these are all small groups that we offer, not part of membership, it's a separate thing but there are some things that you can find on the website. And we also have these periodic events like our celebration. We did a two day celebration the year of our 40th, which was 2021, October ‘21. And we have videos of the whole two days, which is available on our website. Panels, speakers on every topic you can imagine. Some of the speakers were from RMA, actually, and they were a great sponsor of this event. So we are appreciative of that. For example, one of the most popular videos of that, or they come as a bunch, but within the video one of the most popular ones is grown children of single mothers by choice talking about what it was like growing up in their SMC families and did they feel like they were different or other or were they resentful or were they….? Those are the, the grown children. They're a wonderful resource because everybody wants to know the big question. How do they turn out?
Dara: And just getting their perspective, their success story.
Jane: Yes. So that was a nice panel. It was very popular. We had about 950 people attending this celebration on Zoom.
Rena: Wow. That's incredible. I'm so impressed with what you've created. I mean I think it's incredible and I think you are just another example, it's, you know, both Dara and I got involved in our work because of our own experience trying to conceive. You got involved in this from your experience and I think that is just so incredible and just gives me chills, you know, people out there just trying to make better because of an experience and I think it's really, really amazing.
Jane: Well thank you so much. I really appreciate that. It was a labor of love, you know, totally. I really wanted my son to know other kids who lived in the family without a daddy. I mean that's the bottom line. And yeah.
Dara: And look where it's come today. It's unbelievable. You know, over 40 years of this labor of love and you know, to see it evolve and change and grow is quite something.
Jane: Yeah. Thank you.
Dara: How we like to end our sessions is with words of gratitude. So we want to ask you what you're grateful for at this very moment.
Jane: So many things! It's a very poignant time for me cuz I'm almost 80, so,
Rena: Oh my gosh. What? For our listeners, they should know that
Dara: She does not look 80!
Rena: She does not look 80. This is such a powerhouse. Wow.
Jane: So I've been thinking a lot about my life and of course the thing I'm most grateful for is my son. And you know, I was fortunate enough to have a child who was a delight to raise and then again fortunate enough that he picked a wonderful person to marry so I have a wonderful daughter-in-law and then of course they had this incredible baby that I don't have to tell you is the cutest baby on the planet. So I'm grateful for all that. And I also am grateful for the Single Mothers By Choice organization because in the early days it was different. I got a lot of personal support from them myself. But even now I get tremendous gratification from seeing how it works for other people. And to have that kind of positive experience in my life is a very wonderful thing.
Rena: I love that. Beautiful. Dara, what about you?
Dara: All this support is making me think about my friends and I have so much gratitude for the friendships that I've, you know, created in my lifetime and especially most recently with my support with other mothers. It's so nice, it's so important to have a great support group that can be there for the good, bad and ugly and still accept and love you. It's something that didn't have so much growing up and so now that I have such a great support, I don't wanna take it for granted. So thank you to all my friends including you, Rena. What about you?
Rena: Well I feel, you know, same. I feel like our gratitude's kind of always been the same vein, but as we were talking, you know, I disclosed, I'm divorced and I'm so grateful for my community and other divorced moms that got me through my darkest times because they're pretty dark. And now that I'm well on the other side of that, I'm able to now give back to other people who are going through it. And I'm just so grateful to have a really strong group of female friends. I think maybe similar to you dare, I didn't really grow up with that. I kind of always fit out, but now I embrace that and I feel really grateful to be able to be my authentic self. And I think female friendships are so important. Dara, obviously, I'm so grateful to you and Jane now. It's so wonderful to meet you and have you be part of our tribe. So I'm gonna go with with that. So I really, really do encourage our listeners, I know that it can feel really scary and really lonely and really daunting to take that first step. But I really encourage you to do it. Go over to the SMC website, reach out and I definitely could not have gotten through my own experiences without support. So I really encourage you to reach out and I don't say that lightly cause I know it is hard.
Dara: We're so grateful for you Jane, and thanks for being on today.
Jane: Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure.
Dara: Thank you so much for listening today. And always remember: practice gratitude, give a little love to someone else and yourself, and remember - you are not alone. Find us on Instagram @fertility_forward and if you're looking for more support, visit us at www.rmany.com and tune in next week for more Fertility Forward.