I'd heard of Knock Yourself Up before e-mailing Louise, and I knew there was some controversy about it. I contemplated reading up on the hubbub, but then I decided that I really didn't care. I can imagine that there are people up in arms about how awful it is for single women to have children. How terrible is is for kids to be without a father. How selfish it is for women to go it alone. (Am I right?) Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about all that. I decided that it was best to just dive in, blinders on, and not filter Louise's content through the lens of media hype.
Knock Yourself Up is part memoir, part girlfriend's guide, and, in small part, literature review. Louise makes the purpose of her book clear in her opening author's note, "Love Makes a Family." Research is cited when relevant, but the feel is not heavy-handed and the book is not meant to be a compendium of studies on single motherhood. For those who want a more academic look at the subject, Louise points the reader to some solid choices throughout the book and in the comprehensive bibliography.
Louise takes the reader from the decision-making process through the first year of single-motherhood and even a bit beyond. Along the way, she talks to 43 women from all walks of life. I admire that Louise made a sincere effort to talk to gay and straight women of all races, although the economic background of almost all of her interviewees are solidly middle class. An ability to laugh at the absurd prevails among Louise and the women she interviewed; anyone who can't laugh about exploding vials of semen is probably not going to relate to the tone. Luckily for me, I find humor in all kinds of unexpected places, and, as a college-educated professional, I was comfortable with the demographic of the women whose stories are featured.
Louise discusses in-depth many things that I did not have to consider due to my own situation. She devotes chapters to choosing a sperm donor, telling people that you're becoming a single mom, and how to get the support you need going through pregnancy and childbirth on your own. I learned quite a bit from those chapters, and laughed quite a bit, too. In the sections that were more relevant to me—those that dealt with fitting in a social life, balancing work and family, and dealing with finances—I found myself nodding my head a lot. Not that I agreed with or could identify with everyone or everything, but the overall experience rang true.
Louise's tone is warm, honest, and funny. She is totally without pretense. I could hear hear talking as I read, and could easily imagine that I was sitting in her kitchen or at a coffeehouse in Brooklyn chit-chatting with her and picking her brain about the ins and outs of parenting. At times, the tone was a little too rah-rah for me, a little too forced. And therein lies the only real issue I had with the book. I find being a single parent incredibly difficult. Most of the women in the book—Louise included—are surprised by how easy it is, or at least how much easier it is than they expected. My own experience has been that it's much harder than I would have guessed. I feel in my heart that I can't be alone in that, but the difficulties of single-parenting are not given deep treatment and the hard stuff feels a bit glossed over by the refrain "yes sometimes it's hard but I love my child so deeply that in the end, it doesn't matter." True. To a certain extent. But I, personally, would have appreciated a more in-depth look at challenges and coping strategies.
Louise acknowledges imbalance towards the positive in the book's final chapter, "Infinity and Beyond."
Yet I couldn't get the majority of the single moms I interviewed to go into any details about trying times. The most I could get from many of them was a chirpy, "It's hard—but it's great!" Even the women who had had experiences that were objectively really hard [ . . .] tended to put a positive spin on it.
The explanation? Positive attitude, gratitude, and a desire to "put a happy spin on their lives." I'd take it one step further. My personal feeling is that, as single mothers by choice, it's hard to say, "Hey, I decided to do this really hard thing—want to listen to me complain about how hard and non-ideal it is?" There is so much criticism directed towards single mothers by choice that discussing the real difficulties that are inherent to the situation can feel like adding fuel to the fire.
That said, there are plenty of books and blogs out there to support overwhelmed mothers, but there aren't that many cheering squads for single moms by choice. Louise does an excellent job of providing encouragement to women who are making or have already made the choice to be single moms. To use a hackneyed word, Knock Yourself Up made me feel empowered. It was breathtaking to me to read about how much these women love being parents, even how much they love being single parents. One woman interviewed even feels that single-parent homes are preferable to two-parent families. As explained by Louise, "for her, single motherhood is, by definition, much better for the kids because they are the number-one priority, and they aren't exposed to the conflict that so often arises in modern marriages when romantic expectations clash with child-rearing realities." That's admittedly extreme, but was definitely food for thought. Other interviewees offered plenty of the reassurance and tips I had been hoping to find.
Ultimately, what's there not to admire about women who have made a difficult decision and found myriad ways to make it work for themselves and their children? Knock Yourself Up made me feel proud and accomplished, as an individual and as a woman. For anyone who is considering single motherhood or who wants to understand what it's all about (at least the good stuff!), Knock Yourself Up is an excellent resource, and just a darn good read. If you're anything like me, by the end, you'll be wishing that Louise and her son Scott really were you and your kids' respective BFFs.