Choosing You

It seems appropriate, while I’m missing my own son, to review a memoir of baby-lust and biological clocks by Alexandra Soiseth, entitled ‘Choosing You: Deciding to Have A Baby On My Own’. It’s the story of a woman who decides to become a single mother by using a sperm donor and I have to say first up that it was an utterly compelling read. Soiseth writes very simply, with an almost excessive clarity and with what feels like shockingly courageous honesty. Soiseth is not always a nice person, and she’s the first one to point this out; she’s not always a sorted person either, and yet the insight she demonstrates when writing this warts and all documentary of her quest for a child proves that she’s actually one of the card-carrying members of the human race who have some awareness of their flaws. The desire for a baby is bound up for her in all kinds of other issues that she’s spent her life struggling with: notably a problem with intimacy that makes her highly critical of any man with whom she might actually settle down, big, big problems with weight and self-esteem, and a fractured relationship to her own family. Soiseth knows that her troubles lie back in her past, when her mother left her father for almost a year when she was seven and again when she was in her early teens. On the first occasion, Soiseth and her sister were sent to relations because her father felt he couldn’t cope with the children on her own, and this experience of abandonment has clearly left a deep traumatic impression on her. There’s also an experience of abuse by an older boy on a summer holiday that adds to Soiseth’s feelings of being inadequately protected and nurtured in childhood. Despite years of therapy, Soiseth is still angry with her parents, still full of things she cannot say to them, and unhappily convinced that she is ‘broken’ in some way that has yet to be fixed.

Soiseth’s experience with disastrous dating is every bit as fascinating as her journey into pregnancy. A pattern arises, in which she is aware of herself setting the bar impossibly high for any potential suitor, and yet the couple of men she does date seriously over the course of the memoir are hardly God’s gift. I was particularly intrigued by her relationship to a man called Michael, who has the kind of (temporary) job that means he mixes with superficially glamourous people, but he’s unreliable, he drinks too much, and he’s had a lot of trouble with depression. At the point when the relationship looks like it’s about to move onto a different level, Soiseth has to confess to him that she’s pregnant by a sperm donor. As it turns out, Michael can top that with an even better reason to stay celibate and single: he confesses that he has herpes. What’s extraordinary is that Soiseth expresses regret subsequently that the relationship ended, such a short time after compiling a list of attributes essential to whichever sperm donor she was going to choose that included ‘super-smart’, preferably with a PhD, creative, good-looking, tall, slim and healthy. ‘Sitting back and looking at my list,’ she writes, ‘I feel chagrined to see that what I really want is a Superfather to help create a Superkid – a kid who will have all the advantages I had, which I went on to squander by struggling with my weight my whole life. All the advantages I lost by my mother leaving me when I was young and by being abused in that boathouse.’ Soiseth doesn’t draw the conclusions from this, but she knows they are clear to see. Having a baby so often means hoping one can wipe the slate clean, start again with a new-improved version of oneself, bring it up to have the ‘right’ kind of life narrative, free from the mistakes and errors and general shop-soiling that inevitably happens to us as we grow up. To do this properly, she needs a perfect, complimentary set of DNA, which means she needs a perfect man, and although Soiseth laments the loss of another beautiful dream in which she lives a perfect loving relationship, shopping online for a donor is clearly the only way she’ll ever get pregnant. She is aware of the tremendous amount of idealizing that surrounds her venture into motherhood and yet she cannot seem to put two feet on the ground and be sensible about it. But reading her brutally frank account, it’s possible to see that similar fantasies hover around most marriages and pregnancies, only the experience itself usually distracting enough that we don’t have to face up to them.

Soiseth falls pregnant and her own story is interspersed with those of her close friends, several of whom are also expecting. It’s one of the most intriguing things about her that rather than create an orthodox family, Soiseth chooses instead to create a network of female friends whose lives she shares to the extent of almost being part of their families. She seems to have a huge capacity for friendship and to inspire tremendous loyalty in others. When she finally gives birth, it’s like a sorority party in the hospital, and it’s clear that once she embarks on life as a single mother, it’s her women friends who stop the gaps of illness, loneliness, fatigue and despair. I found this section of her memoir tremendously touching and was in tears for most of it. It brought back to me, most vividly, the awful dark days after my own son was born and a blanket of sleep deprivation and a powerful cocktail of hormones, not to mention the task of supreme responsibility that is caring for a baby with no preparation or previous experience, all combined to make me feel like a terrified stranger to myself, exiled from all self-assurance and self-knowledge. In this baptism of fire, mothers are forged, but it’s a process that leaves us a little damaged, a little crazy because no one ever tells you the truth about the real cost of having a child, the price we pay in self-sacrifice. Soiseth’s story ends with her baby approaching toddler-hood and it’s interesting that her tone hovers between a longing to portray a happy-ever-after ending, and a desire for the scorching honesty she’s deployed all along. I felt there was another story that she could have told us, but a return to idealism and the need to wrap the book up stood in her way. But if she were ever to write that story, I would certainly read it. I wish books like this had been available to me when I was going through the early days of motherhood, because the truth, even when it’s hard and a bit unpleasant, and far from approaching any kind of ideal, can offer a great deal of comfort. Soiseth struck me as someone who was remarkably creative in finding ways not to be alone, and her big-hearted, unflinching memoir makes sisters and friends of all of her readers.

16 thoughts on “Choosing You

  1. what a lovely, lovely review – it makes me want to run out and purchase a copy immediately since I am going through a bit of a nonfiction phase right now. I hope you aren’t missing your son too terribly – be sure to take time for your own enjoyment while he is gone…

  2. It’s funny, Courtney, but I did think of you as I was reading this book. It’s not that Soiseth’s style is the same as yours exactly, but there were elements of it, the easy, compelling readability, the honesty, the pithy, quick humour that did remind me of your writing. And you are a sweetheart to send me good wishes while my son’s away.

  3. What an interesting sounding book. I appreciate it when women talk straightforwardly about motherhood without all the idealized clap trap that seems to be so prevalent. It always worries me when someone says they want to be a parent in order to make up for what they lacked in their own childhood. But it sounds like Soiseth is pretty self-aware. I would be interested in reading that other story too.

  4. I think I’d enjoy this too — I do admire that kind of unflinchingly honest voice in the nonfiction I read. She sounds like the kind of person who could write about anything and make it interesting.

  5. Every writer of a good book ought to have a reviewer like you. This is another book I’ll add to my “need to read” list. Thanks!

  6. I’m all for big-hearted, unflinching memoirs, even if this is a bit out of my comfort zone. I have a friend who had twins from a sperm donor so I’ll pass this review along to her. Very interesting review.

  7. Stefanie – that’s what I liked most about this book – Soiseth’s ability to show herself falling into the trap and to comment on it in a wise and honest way. I appreciate all straight talking and find it makes the most compelling reading, particularly if the author’s sensible. Dorothy – you’re right, she is the sort of person who manages to tell all kinds of different, very everyday stories and make you completely engaged in them. Eve – thank you so much! I’m so pleased you’ve commented and given me a chance to find your blog. I’m interested in the books you’ve written, too. Pete – I think it’s tremendously good of you to step outside your comfort zone in this way! And how interesting that you know someone who’s taken this route. It certainly makes for a fascinating story.

  8. This sounds like an interesting read for all mothers or those considering motherhood. Have you ever read Anne Lamott’s book Operating Instructions? It’s the journal of a writer/single mother and her son’s first year of life. It’s very funny and sad and when I was going through those dark days of early motherhood, I was grateful for Lamott’s truth-telling. Like you say, “it’s a process that leaves us a little damaged, a little crazy because no one ever tells you the truth about the real cost of having a child, the price we pay in self-sacrifice”. You are so right (as usual)!

  9. As Gentle Reader noted, this reminded me of Operating Instructions, which I’m finishing up tonight. I’ll have to put this on my list, too. Thanks.

  10. I was going to recommend Anne Lammott’s “Operating Instructions” as well but gentle reader and Andi have beaten me to it. It too is a brutally honest, funny, poignant memoir of the first year of motherhood. Soiseth’s book sounds fascinating but frankly a bit scary too. I would think that someone carrying all that baggage around from childhood would worry about passing it on to their own child. Does she write about that or is she convinced that she can do it differently?

  11. A friend of mine in graduate school was working on her own memoir of a similar experience – she also opted for artificial insemination and now has two children (from the same sperm donor). Your thoughts about this book reminded me very much of my experience reading my friend’s memoir. I was incredibly sympathetic but also curious about the life that brought her to the point of making that decision (she was 40 and 42 when she decided to have her children and felt it was “now or never”). This sounds like a fascinating read – thank you for the review!

  12. This is a really thoughtful review, Litlove. I love the way you sprinkle in personal details about your reaction without letting them hijack the review.

  13. What a scary thing to do on your own. It’s pretty courageous to not only do it, but then write about it in such an unflinching way! I hope she found the happiness she was looking for. Though maybe happiness wasn’t her motivation? By the way the Agnes Desarthe book I’m working on is turning out to be a story of motherhood as well–you might be interested in reading it.

  14. Gentle reader – I had heard of the book but I hadn’t got around to finding a copy. I certainly will now! Andi – and I must come and see whether you’ve reviewed it (I do hope so). I’d love to know what you think, but I will be searching out a copy in the very near future. Kate – the fate of Lammott is sealed! That’s a very interesting question you raise and I have to say that, despite her continual self-awareness and her readiness to do something useful with hindsight, Soiseth doesn’t talk very much about how she will mother, or how her past might affect that. I think her family experience is so bound up for her with difficulties concerning intimate relationships that she isn’t looking in that direction. Although of course a child is one of the most intimate relationships a woman can have. Thank you for making me think about that! Verbivore – and how fascinating to actually know someone who took that decision! I know I could never, ever have done such a thing, no matter how loud a biological clock might tick. Do let me know if that memoir was ever published. It would be very interesting to have a point of comparison. J. D. – what a lovely compliment – thank you so much! It’s part of the benefits of blogging that there is always space to hog a post with one’s own experience if necessary, and so one is prepared to let other authors have a proper say!🙂 Danielle – that’s a very good question about happiness. I think Soiseth sort of knows that initially she desperately wanted a child as some kind of obscure ‘solution’ to her life. Quite how happiness fits in there is unclear! I am woefully behind in blog reading, but as soon as I get back to it, I’ll be over to visit and see whether you have reviewed the Desarthe. You have certainly whetted my appetite for it!

  15. What an interesting review. I wish too that she had written more honestly about what she really felt at the end of the book, but you give a great understanding of what the author does write about. Thank you for this review, Litlove, and if you are interested, Rachel Cusk has a book called A Life’s Work, Becoming a Mother, and it is one of the most honest books about being a mother I have come across. I read it as I was coming out of post-partum depression with my second child, and it helped me see that I was not alone in sometimes being angry or depressed – anything but eternally happily singing over my child, which I was not! I like your description of the first few months (I’d say years!) after a baby’s birth as a ‘baptism of fire’.. I’ll have to remember that!

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