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Just the Two of Us
When I wrote about becoming a single mom nearly 20 years ago, I got hate mail—as well as phone calls from women curious about donor insemination. It hasn’t always been easy, but I haven’t regretted my decision for a minute. By Tamar Abrams
The author with her daughter, who was on the March 1994 Washingtonian cover. Photograph by Daniel Bedell.
Comments () | Published August 12, 2013

Nineteen years ago, my daughter, Hannah, appeared on the cover of this magazine.

The photograph was taken just after her first birthday. It shows her in a fussy Laura Ashley dress, bought by a stylist who shunned the overalls and T-shirts on tiny hangers in Hannah’s closet. The photographer’s assistant stuck a girly hat on her head, and in the picture Hannah is in the process of removing it. Inside the issue is my admission that Hannah was the child of a single mother.

Today the idea of writing a cover story on becoming a single mother “by choice” sounds mildly ridiculous. But in 1994 it bordered on scandalous.

As soon as the story came out, my phone began ringing. Mostly it was women from around the country who were intrigued by the idea of using a sperm donor to become mothers. Sometimes it was media outlets wanting to visit our little house in North Arlington. Once it was a woman who was pregnant by the same donor I had used. Her son and my daughter have grown up calling each other half siblings.

But the article also made me a target. The conservative Family Research Council went on TV to denounce me as “tearing the fiber of American families.” I got hate mail and middle-of-the-night phone calls, including one from a man so angry it sounded like he was dry-heaving. He called me names I’d never heard before and said he prayed that my daughter and I would die a rather unusual and painful death.

I prefer to remember the nine women who told me they decided to use donor insemination or adopt after reading my article. I was in baby heaven, so when women asked me what it was like to be a single mom, I gushed, I bragged, I kvelled. Occasionally I urged them to consider the negative side of raising a child on their own, but mostly I told them how happy we were.

The first hint of trouble came when Hannah was four. We were driving somewhere and she was strapped in her car seat in the back of the minivan. “Mommy, I know who my daddy is,” she said.

Hannah and I had talked about how she was conceived and what a donor was, but I had never referred to him as a “daddy.” She was prone to announcing she had a mommy and a “doughnut.” So this was new.

“Who?” I asked.

“It’s Peter Pan!” she trilled. “He can’t come be with me because he’s in Never Never Land! He’s never going to grow up, and he’s always going to play with the Lost Boys.”

That described some of the men I’d dated, but I knew she was thinking more literally. I also realized she was creating a backstory to explain the absence in her life.

• • •

In the beginning, the story belonged to me.

I had moved here a year after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis. The next ten years were a blur of apartments, jobs, and relationships. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I turned into one of those cartoon drawings on a cocktail napkin: Oops! I forgot to have a baby.

A daytime talk show introduced me to the concept of sperm banks. I could find only three clinics in Washington that offered donor insemination, and one of them refused to treat single women. My gynecologist sent me to DC’s old Columbia Hospital for Women, where, after a psychological exam, I began trying to conceive. It took six months.

My friends and I would gather in the living room of my Capitol Hill condo to pore over my picks from the sperm bank. Glasses of wine in hand, we rejected the donor who listed his favorite food as tuna casserole. I couldn’t give that DNA to a child I would spend at least 18 years feeding. The forms were in the donors’ handwriting, so we would try to figure out what that looped “d” or slanted “j” said about each one’s character.

I’d chart my basal body temperature and head over to my doctor’s M Street office on insemination days, clutching a candle or framed photo of Mel Gibson. (That was before his anti-Semitic rants and drunken rages.) I bonded with my doctor and the nurse in charge of the insemination program. We laughed a lot.

After trying a string of donors who were tall and blond, I hit pay dirt on my first try with a short, redheaded Jewish donor with sky-high SAT scores. I didn’t actually choose him; staff at the clinic were convinced that I should give him a try. They were right.

Hannah Lily Abrams was born at 3:38 am on Tuesday, December 1, 1992. Tuesday’s child is full of grace, and Hannah means “grace.”

She was still in the nursery when I was wheeled into a private room at the hospital. I watched the minutes tick by on the clock. Finally, after 45 minutes, I called down to the nursery. “This is Tamar Abrams,” I said. “I would like to have my . . .” and I choked on the word “daughter.” I had imagined saying it for so many years that when the time arrived, I was unable to get it out. I finally managed to croak, “I would like to have my Hannah, please.”

My parents and several friends were at the hospital that night, and it didn’t occur to me that giving birth as a single mom required any special accommodation until the nurse brought me the birth-certificate form. All these years later, the line for “father” is still filled with asterisks, as though Hannah were the product of a woman and the stars. Perhaps a nod to Peter Pan?

• • •

Three weeks later, on the day after Christmas, I awoke to an icy wonderland outside our Arlington home and . . . silence. Hannah hadn’t nursed since 3 am, more than five hours earlier. I ran to her crib and found her looking pale and drowsy. Her skin was scaly, and she seemed uninterested in nursing. I called the pediatrician and asked if there was a special moisturizer for newborn skin. That set off alarm bells, and the nurse insisted we immediately go to the pediatrics office attached to Arlington Hospital (now Virginia Hospital Center).

When we arrived, we were whisked into an exam room. A nurse grabbed Hannah and race-walked her out of the office toward the hospital. It turned out she had mastitis—a breast infection that’s rare in newborns—and was very ill. By the time I gathered up the diaper bag and car seat, stopped at a pay phone to call my sister and parents, and made it to the neonatal ward, Hannah had IVs going into her skull and foot.

As a nursing mom, I was admitted, too. That week is a blur of doctor visits and the pain of seeing my baby hooked up to machines. My sister and friends were there a lot. A rabbi visited us once but provided little comfort. He asked where the baby’s father was, and someone ushered him out of the room.

I think it was the morning Hannah was taken away for a spinal tap that the precariousness of her situation began to sink in. But I had faith that she and I were meant to have a life together. After surgery and doses of antibiotics, she was well enough to go home on New Year’s Eve. It was her second hospital homecoming but the more significant one for me.

For a long time afterward, we settled into the bliss that infused my first Washingtonian story, but other challenges were ahead.

At 20 months, Hannah was able to walk down the six steps from our house to the driveway, but she preferred to be carried. One August morning, as I held her on my hip and descended the steps, a car door slammed and Hannah twisted violently. In an instant, she was out of my grasp, plunging headfirst toward the bottom of the stairs. I learned in that moment that I would do anything to save my child. I launched myself from the top step, catching her in midair and twisting so I wouldn’t land on my head. We both ended up on the ground, Hannah unscathed and my legs in agony.

A neighbor came running, and within minutes I was in an ambulance. I recall so clearly the doctor on duty telling me I had broken both my ankles, and my response: “I can’t have two broken legs. I’m a single mother of a toddler.”

The next months were the hardest of my life. My brother hired a woman who came for a few hours every day to help with chores while my family, friends, and neighbors all pitched in. Members of our baby group came every weekend to spirit Hannah off on adventures, and the two of us read many books together. My orthopedist was astonished when he was able to remove one cast after only six weeks, underestimating my determination to regain a leg to stand on.

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  • sharla

    Thanks so much to all of the women who have posted comments of encouragement. I am the mother of a 13 month old conceived by an anonymous donor. Your comments and suggestions will help me answer her questions and prepare for some tears, but I know, like your children, that she will be loved more than she could ever be loved with two parents.

  • jennifer agard

    Beautiful story!

  • moppet

    Thank you so much for this beautiful story - as the mother of a 10-month-old son born by a donor, I am so appreciative of women like you who have taken the time to show us what to expect on this journey.

    If you don't mind, I wanted to ask you about the challenging circumstances regarding Hannah's attempt to reach out to her donor. You said "if a single woman contemplating anonymous-donor insemination asked me for advice today, I’d tell her about the moment when Hannah heard that her donor didn’t want to know who she was. It balances the equation of those early days of bliss." If you don't mind, could you talk a little bit about what your advice would be? Would it be to modulate your child's expectations, or to use donors who indicate they are "willing to be known," or to not give your child any expectation of contact at a later date, or...?

    I used a willing-to-be-known donor, but I have no idea how he will feel about that in 18 years, and I have no illusions that the sperm bank will be able to force him to live up to this obligation if he chooses not to. But I'd love to have some been-there, done-that advice on how to frame these conversations with my son when the time comes.

  • Ellena

    Moppet, congratulations on your baby boy! I talked to Hannah this morning and she said she was glad I discussed with her the possibility of contacting the donor someday, and she said I moderated her expectations well. Unfortunately, when she was 17 I made her see the film "The Kids are Alright" and she said that raised her hopes a lot. My advice to a potential SMC today when there are so many more options is to choose a known donor. For so many reasons, anonymity seems fraught with challenges. If that isn't possible, I would talk to your child openly about the whole process from an early age. Secrets are toxic. And perhaps help him craft a short letter to the donor at 18 just to see if contact is possible rather than letting him pour his heart into a letter than may never be opened by the donor. Hope that helps...enjoy every second of motherhood! Tamar

  • moppet

    Thank you so much for your reply, and also to Hannah for sharing her thoughts. I wish you both the very best! :)

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Posted at 09:45 AM/ET, 08/12/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles