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.