30 May 2008

Book Review: Knock Yourself Up

Just over a month ago, I found out via Tertia that Louise Sloan was looking for bloggers to review her book Knock Yourself Up, "a primer for single women who are considering what it means to be a family and thinking about starting one on their own" (from the Avery press release). I was intrigued. I'm not the type of single mom by choice that is profiled in the book, but I am a single mom. While "choice" is not the word I'd use to describe my situation, at the time that I got pregnant, I did know that ultimately I was going to be caring for Maddie and Riley on my own. So I was curious about the experience of other women, including Louise (I'm going to pretend she's my BFF and call her Louise), who are raising kids as the sole parent. Frankly, I was hoping for some reassurance and some tips because oooooo boy, I could use them.

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.


Jen said...

If I may:

Anyone considering single motherhood in the greater Boston area should check out the AI (Alternative Insemination) program at The Fenway Community Health Center. Their program is the best and it is geared toward both single women wishing to conceive and toward lesbian couples. For women with no infertility concerns, this facility is the bomb. It's also a great stepping stone for women with infertility issues (*wave hand.. like me*).. in that it approaches the subject in an "it takes a village" way.. lots of group meetings and orientations versus one-on-one consults that you're more likely to get if you go through your OB or through a reproductive endocrinologist.

Little Read Hen said...

I feel kind of stupid and privilaged saying this, but I think it is easier for me to enjoy single parenthood because I am not the sole parent. When my kid is with me she is totally with me, but I get big breaks too and I don't have the sole responsibilty for raising her. I can't even wrap my mind around that kind of responsibility. I have nothing but admiration and awe for those of you who parent completely independantly. Seriously, admiration and awe.

Anonymous said...

I think parenting a singleton verus multiples is the difference, here. Do you ever read Boston magazine? In this month's issue there's an article about how MA is the #1 state for twins. And there was a quote (I'm sure I'm going to get this wrong) from a mom of twins that says it's something she wouldn't wish on her worst enemy. Pretty controversial stuff, but you might want to give it a read.

Monica said...

I am an SMC - two boys ages 5 and 8. Maybe one thing to consider is that we SMC's have NEVER had another parent to help out, so in effect, we don't know what we are missing so we don't really "get"how hard it is cause we have nothing to compare it to. You on the other hand, did have John for a little bit, and so naturally you miss his help and support. I also agree that the twins thing adds to the difficulty.

It is kind of funny - I had lots of support and no real negative feedback when I just had one kid. Then I had the second and now if I ever hint that life is hard I do get comments like "Well, when you decided to have #2, you already had ONE so you KNEW what you were getting yourself into!" I even feel this from my other SMC friends who have jst the one kid.

Watercolor said...

Interesting. As a woman who is 40 and not married yet (to my own shock and frankly, horror) this is something I think about a lot. Thank you. I'll have to check it out.

OTRgirl said...

Great review. That does sound like a good read. It makes sense why they'd avoid the negative, but also why that would frustrate you!

And, I loved your dating post. Definitely take your time; I'm glad you're letting 'me' time rank up there as a date. Good for you.

WendyB said...

Interesting. I know a few women who have chosen single motherhood and they certainly acknowledge that it's harder than anyone can comprehend. (It's one thing to know you're going to have a day when both children are throwing up, the nanny is MIA and you have an important business meeting -- and another to experience it!) I think you're right, that having chosen this path themselves, the mothers feel unable to voice any complaints. Too bad women have to feel guilty about everything!

Earthchild618 said...

Long time reader first time commenter here: I am a SMBC through adoption and I would love to read this book. It sounds like I would enjoy it (did IF treatments when I was married...adoption post divorce so can relate to burst bottles of semen!).

Tertia said...

Lovely review. I also loved the book and I just had to mention that Louise and Scott ARE my BFF!! I made her be my friend. She is really lovely and damn funny too.

Kathleen999 said...

I think having twins is exponentially harder, not just twice as hard. So it does make sense to me that it would seem a lot harder to you than to the women in the book....unless they have twins as well!

There was a woman in our multiples birth class who was single and had done 7 IVFs before she got pregnant. She had planned on moving in with her parents for the first few months of her twins' life. That was 3.5 years ago and she is still there. It's just not that easy to cope with two. People who don't have twins don't see it. People with two of different ages get it a bit more, but that's also a different experience.

I think you are amazing.

Louise Sloan said...

Hey, thanks so much for the review! Glad you liked it! And I agree with your criticism. It was like pulling teeth to get anyone to say anything about challenges--I tried and tried and most of the women just answered that glib, "it's hard, but it's great!" I went out of my way to find and include those horror stories about severe postpartum depression, the shock of discovering your friends aren't there for you, the nightmare of having twins on your own, and the woman whose baby had the gastrointestinal blockage and cried all the time to the point where the mom was so exhausted she ended up in the hospital, and the woman who had the micropreemie who still needs special care. My editor actually wanted to take those stories OUT because she felt they were too grim, but I felt they HAD to be there, because no one else was talking about challenges! But you're right, the day-to-day challenges aren't really emphasized. For me the first year really was relatively easy, but this past year--with a full-time corporate job and a very active, mischievous toddler who doesn't sleep well--has been kicking my butt, and the financial part of it is daunting. So if I write a sequel, I'll have a lot more to say about challenges. I still am so glad I have him, though.
Thanks a million for the review. And I am in awe of you, dealing with twins and such a terrible loss. --Louise

Rev Dr Mom said...

This is interesting.

For me, the hardest part of being a single parent was having 100% of the responsibility 100% of the time. (I'm divorced,not SMBC, but the FoMC was never involved in their care). It's exhausting.

But the flip side for me is that I got used to being in charge, doing things the way I wanted and not having to negotiate how things should be handled. (Maybe I notice that more than some would b/c the FoMC and I had different ideas about parenting).

Both as a single parent and as a developmental psychologist I get upset with all the articles (often from right wing sources) declaring how awful it is for kids to be raise by single moms. Sure having two parents can be great, but kids raised by single moms can do just fine.

Julia said...

Thanks for this. I have been thinking of getting the book for this one friend of mine. This is definitely pushing me towards a yes on that... Maybe I will just mention the book to her and see what happens.
Thanks again.

Sandi said...

I have talked about this on my own blog. Why don't single moms admit how hard it is?

Anonymous said...

I think it is all from where you are coming from.

I have always been single, and always wanted a child. I adopted four years ago. Maybe I got a very easy child I don't know. She took my nice neat little life and made it super nova.

I would have loved marrying the perfect person, but the perfect person was not there.

I like to make all my parenting decisions and not have to explain my self. When I wanted to adopt and I did not have to convince anyone.

I think it is the same with special needs. My child has a problem and when I see the Dr I just feel great that we can do something about it. Where she came from nothing could have been done and it would have a huge negative impact on her life.

For the other parents in the Dr.s office; to have a child with this problem was such a shock. They are all in some stage of grief.

Was it someones fault, was it something they did, is this genetic, did they pick it up soon enough. I have missed all that negative stuff.

KCRSummertime said...

So neat that the author replied to your book review! What a world!

Did you ever read the book OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS, by Anne Lamott? She parents Sam all by herself, and writes an amazing book about their first year together. (Note--I do NOT recommend this book to women pregnant for the first time, because it will generally scare the crap out of one...) It definitely shows the hard side of single parenting, but she also has such reverence for mothering, that it ends up being a very lovely & inspiring book.

Not to take away from KNOCK YOURSELF UP, but just for those who might some additional reading! :)

Trista said...

Hmnn, I am a silent reader of yours and have been for quite some time. Just worried about you, since you are a faithful blogger.

Amy said...

Must give it a read, sounds fascinating..

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