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SPOTLIGHT ON: Sarah Kowalski – Motherhood Reimagined

Sarah Kowalski is a fertility doula, life coach, and author of the recently published memoir, Motherhood Reimagined: When Becoming a Mother Doesn’t Go As Planned, which chronicles her journey to motherhood when she realized at almost-forty that she actually did want a child – but she still didn’t have the partner or the white-picket-fence life she’d always pictured. Now, Single Mom By Choice and raising her beloved son, Sarah’s making it her mission to reach out to other women looking down the same poorly-lit path she embarked upon – and hoping to shed some light based on her experience.

I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of Sarah’s book, and to chat with her about her quest, life as a Single Mom By Choice, and the guilt and self-care struggles so many moms face, partnered or not. Sarah’s book is personal, fascinating, heart-wrenching, funny, and oh-so-relatable – even though I got knocked up the old fashioned way and am raising kids with a partner.

Sarah’s book ebbs and flows with intense dilemmas and calming realizations, so the first thing I have to bring up is one of the key themes in the book: letting go. It’s a steady undercurrent in the conversations I have with fellow moms, that motherhood is not as we expect. Sarah’s experience, though, goes beyond the usual laments, including the expectation of being biologically kin with her child.

“You don’t expect that having a child is going to be someone who’s not related to you,” she says. “The idea of not being able to see what a mixture of my genes and someone I was in love with’s genes would end up creating was a big letting go, and a huge reason I wrote the book.” When she first decided to try for pregnancy, she knew she would need a sperm donor, but it took fertility challenges and a lot of personal struggle for her to come to terms with using an egg donor as well. Once her son was born, though, she found all her fears had been, well, for nothing. “I see how it’d be really cool to see myself in him,” she says, “but it also seems completely irrelevant.” With her background in medical anthropology, Sarah cheerfully adds that “what we think of as genes is amorphous in a way – there’s no way for me to know that I don’t share any genes with him.”

This realization is partly why Sarah feels called to help other women considering the same path. I have to ask, since she’s mentioned it’s irrelevant, why she chose the many-layered approach of fertility treatments, insemination, and egg donation – instead of adopting. Her answer at first is simple: “I really wanted to be pregnant.” But as she speaks, I see her reasons are threefold: physical, emotional, and practical. “I stumbled upon the concept of epigenetics,” she explains of her university days, “which is the idea that the environment your child is in affects which genes turn on and off. These are hugely influenced by the in uterine experience. What your biochemistry is, and what you eat, and everything about gestating, have a lot to do with what epigenetics express.” (Yikes, I think, as I wonder which genes got switched on by me eating nothing but Kraft Dinner and Cinnabons for the first trimester… but Sarah mentions that life outside the womb also counts for some epigenetic happenings. Phew!) Sarah also wanted a metaphysical connection with her child, because having him “inside of me, hearing me, and experiencing everything I was experiencing, somehow bridged the gap for me on not having a genetic connection.” More practically, she notes that egg donation in Mexico was more affordable than adoption in the US – and she worried about negative bias against single women in the adoption system.

But whether women choose sperm/egg donation or adoption, one of Sarah’s biggest surprises has been that Single Motherhood By Choice is “not that unusual,” and is “actually very doable.” She reminds me of a mother I knew when I was a young teen, whose three sons I taught in theatre classes for years – two by sperm donation and one adopted, I think. I remember being in total awe of her, thinking wow, you’re just doing that. Sarah laughs when I relay this story, but I see a special quality in Sarah and this woman I recall.

Aside from moms who planned their families and pregnancies, I know women who became mothers by accident, and still other women (like me) who became mothers by a sort of game of chance, the old let’s-stop-using-protection-and-see-what-happens game, almost as a way to take the pressure off the whole endeavour, let fate decide. But Single Moms By Choice are each deliberate in their entry to motherhood. I’m curious to know if that strong choice might affect Sarah’s parenting style, and she agrees it probably does:

“I was very ready to step into the role,” she says. “I remember my mom said, ‘But you won’t be able to go to movies or concerts,’ and I couldn’t care less! Maybe that comes partly from being older, and partly from really having to think through what I was giving up to become a mother. It helped me settle into being a mom. I checked things off my bucket list, or was okay with setting aside things that were still on the bucket list in order to do this.”

This deliberate choice may also affect everyday interactions with her son. “I’m more present with him,” she muses, “I’m not pining over some other life I’m not living. I think that I was ready to shift my priorities and ready to be okay with that.”

Shifting priorities is, frankly, a bit of a shit show for many new moms. I wonder how many of us actually feel totally ready for this adjustment before we give birth? I always filed it away under Parts of Momming I Just Couldn’t Have Understood Before, so it’s new for me to hear someone so clear-headed about it. Part of this, Sarah says, might be a benefit of being a single mom. She acknowledges that it’s hard for women to split their priorities between their career, their partner, and their new child – a list that doesn’t even include the woman herself.

It’s not a secret that for many new moms, the ‘self’ is the piece that gets squeezed out pretty fast after baby arrives. We have full lives before having kids. We’re at 100% capacity – and then along comes a kid who needs 90-98% of our attention, at least for a little while, and there’s no manual to figure out how to piece this new life together.  

Sarah doesn’t seem to struggle with this shift, though – rather, her book includes this beautiful moment of clarity:

“I had gone through an impossibly powerful rite of passage, emerging into my nurturing, loving essence, the mother I had dreamed of being. In fact, the transformation had already happened. I could fight it, or I could surrender into being the best mother I could to this beloved baby. I chose the latter.”

I admit to Sarah that this revelation baffles me. The online momosphere seems to subscribe pretty strongly to the belief that after having kids, you simply have to find a way to hold onto the you you’ve always been; it’s implied that if we don’t try, by default we will lose ourselves.  Frankly, the thought of losing myself to motherhood has, at times, caused me quite the downward spiral. Hell, part of why we started Raise A Mother was to provide a space for women to be their multifaceted selves – mom and individual adult woman.

But as I listen to Sarah, her perspective is actually refreshing: “I don’t think we are the same people – we are different as moms. It doesn’t mean you have to lose everything you love and hold dear,” she says. “I’ve noticed moments in my life where I’m trying to push something, or trying to make it happen, and I had to step aside from what I wanted, and try to notice what was trying to open.” She recalls an anecdote from the book where her Qigong teacher didn’t ask her to cover his class, as he normally would. “I called him in a complete fit,” she says, insisting she could be both pregnant and the same aspiring Qigong master she knew herself to be. Sarah and I both laugh when she relays his response: “If you paid attention, you’d notice you’re preparing to be a mother right now,” he said.

The myth popular culture sells us is that we can have it all – the implied message is that if we can, we should, so if we don’t, it’s somehow a failing on our part. Sarah doesn’t believe you have to let go of all your old priorities, just that they will shift, as your “orientation shifts from being completely me-centered to being other-focused, or me-and-other, so clinging to the exact life you had before only causes pain and suffering.” Wow. Maybe this is another benefit to single motherdom – maybe it’s painful for some of us to shift and reorient because it doesn’t seem our partners are having to shift and reorient in the same way… Sarah agrees this might be true.

And that’s not the only benefit of being a Single Mom By Choice. For one thing, Sarah says post-birth, it felt very natural for her to have this “very intense bond” with her son, where she wasn’t “being pulled in more than one direction as far as someone else’s needs and wants and desires.” There was no partner to also figure out a new dynamic with. She gushes about how it feels “really great to not have to debate” things like parenting philosophy or style with anyone else – she calls all the shots. And even though that comes with all the responsibility, Sarah sees the silver lining here, too: “Knowing that it all falls to me – on the one hand it’s incredibly daunting some days that there is no relief and there is no help, but I also feel there’s no energy wasted hoping that someone’s going to help me or I’m going to get a break.”

So without that in-house help, I have to ask her – what does self-care look like? Again, her answer is not a standard mom-blog line about getting out to an aerobics class. She rarely gets such things, but she talks about “staying sane in the moments in between,” and gives a great example I fully relate to – after all, our sons are the same age. “I feel like waiting for my son to get into his carseat is part of my day where I’m going to lose my shit,” Sarah says, and I already know the scene: the slow climb, the distraction of something on the floor, the agonizing pace at which he does up the straps. “I always have this frantic feeling of Get in your goddamn carseat!” she says, and I feel relieved – this wise woman is just like me sometimes. But she uses a simple trick called “balancing on your skeleton,” which involves focusing on how her body supports her, her breath, and feeling her feet on the ground. “It feels like there’s a moment of zen,” she says, “rather than worrying about how long it’s going to take him to get in his carseat, taking a moment and breathing out.”

She feels like those “little moments” where she takes her attention away from her son (where it always is by default), “feel like an instant reset.” To reset yourself, Sarah recommends noticing the places you’re holding – like clenching your jaw or holding your breath – and softening those things. She also recommends walking meditation, since many of us are walking all the time with our kids anyway. (I tried this the other day when walking two cranky boys home before lunch, and it really did work.)

WebI love that her suggestions for self-care don’t require me to take an hour out of being a mom. I still want my wine nights with the neighbours, or time to do yoga, but I also want to be able to reset and be myself within the stressful parts of everyday life, and to model that ability for my kiddos.

I ask Sarah how she holds onto her pearls of wisdom – she seems to have so many – and she says her big moments of realization have stayed with her, but she also has to remind herself of them all the time. Writing her book was one great way to do that.

The particular pearl that struck me most while reading her book was this moment where she learns to peacefully hold two ideas that, to me, always seem in conflict: knowing she has done her best and accepting that there is more she could have done. Before this time, she believed deep down she wasn’t capable of doing her best, because “knowing there’s always more you could do, how could anyone ever feel they’d done their best?”

This really hits home for me. There is so much pressure on moms, all the time, to do more, to try harder. We love our kids, so we have to keep working or making things better for them. Sarah explains that “being able to hold paradoxes can be the hardest thing because we always want an answer.” It’s a value she’s learned from her Qigong practice. I really want to learn how to hold this particular paradox more consistently. Sometimes I really believe in #goodenough, but old perfectionist habits die hard. Sarah says trying to maintain these realizations in a physical way can be helpful – like writing them down.

As a Single Mother By Choice, there’s another paradox she holds, too: “I’m completely alone in raising my kid,” she says, “and I’m completely supported.” She trusts that she can find support, and knows that ultimately, everything falls on her. I know from reading her book that Sarah doesn’t have a lot of biological family support, but she does have a chosen family for her son. When I ask about them, Sarah glows: she talks about her son’s two chosen “grandmas,” whom she describes as her “wise women.” They are there for her in emergency situations, when, as she says, “I cannot deal, I need him away from me, I’m completely at capacity.” She also mentions her son’s daycare provider, who recently agreed to be her son’s legal guardian should the need arise. She says this seems like a “random” choice, but we agree that when it comes to choosing a guardian for your child, it’s not really about biological connection – it’s about who you want your child to live with and where, and who will teach your child about everything from sharing to academic pursuits to politics to loving relationships.

Whether it’s searching for a chosen family or finding out how to have the kid in the first place, Sarah stresses one skill required for Single Moms By Choice: being proactive. “I have to get over any sort of concern about asking,” she says:

“Humble is the word that keeps coming to me. You just have to ask and say, Hey, I need Sarah Kowalski photo2support. I’m looking for people who want to have a relationship with my child. I’m not shy about telling preschool families that I’m hoping my son’s going to have a friend and hopefully develop more of a relationship with someone’s dad for more of a male figure… Getting really good at making clear requests of what you need is important.”

It may be especially important for single moms, but I think it’s a lesson we can all appreciate. Sarah is now helping women in a myriad of ways to navigate some difficult paths, and to ask for the help they need. For more information on her services, or to see about getting a copy of her fascinating book, check out motherhoodreimagined.org.

Many thanks to Sarah for speaking with us at Raise A Mother!

 

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