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Choosing You

Reviewed in Tales from the Reading Room on June 16, 2008

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.

 

Here’s what MotherTalk reviewers are saying about Choosing You.

Mombian says, “Choosing You belongs in the upper ranks of pregnancy memoirs. Despite my own familiarity with single-mom tales, I think it will stand out as a balanced, honest narrative of creating a non-traditional family. It will reassure those, straight and lesbian, who are considering this path themselves, and go a long way towards helping others understand why some women choose the single route.”


The Hidden Side of a Leaf says, “The book takes us through her search for the right donor, attempting to conceive, pregnancy, labor and early motherhood. All of this is familiar to those of us who are mothers, but most mothers don’t do all of these things alone. Even those of us to whom single motherhood is familiar haven’t usually made the conscious choice to go through it all without a partner. I think that Soiseth is an extraordinarily courageous woman, and I admire her strength.”

Creating Motherhood says, “Being raised by a single Mother and being the Granddaughter of an extremely independently minded woman basically taught me that I could do anything I damn well wanted — and if that meant having a kid on my own than so be it. I never lamented or mourned the concept of not having a husband or boyfriend to take the journey with. Not then. Reading Alexandra Soiseth’s chronicle of her personal journey to single motherhood was eye opening. Choosing You brought up lots of issues that up until now had been tucked neatly away in a box marked, “to shrink later.”

Life in the Hundred-Acre Wood says, “But this is not just a book about the journey to chosen single motherhood. It’s an exploration of Soiseth’s urgent need to find community at every stage of her life and to receive unconditional acceptance from everyone she meets. It’s a reexamination of her feelings of abandonment by her mother, her fluctuating weight, and an incident of abuse in her childhood. Soiseth’s voice is soothing and genuine, and it’s clear by the end that her quest for a dependable extended family, as well as the family she creates on her own, make her the woman she’s always wanted to be.”

Wavybrains says, “I hoped to learn some things that would flesh out my other research into the topic of single motherhood via sperm donation. What I didn’t expect was to learn anything about ME. I didn’t expect to be absolutely blindsided by my emotional response to this woman.”

They Grow in Your Heart says, “She also talks about her insemination. The waiting and wondering. The trying to hold really still and not wanting to move or run or even jostle too much for fear you might “shake it loose.” And then after the baby is born…these are passages I could’ve written myself. I had NO idea it would be so hard. No clue what being seriously sleep deprived would feel like. Of course, no idea I’d love my baby so much, but also times of total panic and despair! See what I mean? Pieces of this book were ME.”

3 Munchkins and a Mom says, “As I finished Choosing You, my last thoughts were that the story isn’t over yet. I was left wanting more. Itd love to hear more about the sleepless nights — oh how I have been there. How the author juggles work demands, childcare issues, illnesses, and more.”

Soulbliss says, “She also writes about building a family, a chosen family, long before even having her own child. I related to this part as well. She also writes about her struggles with her own family. I was impressed with her ability to really look at herself honestly. To call herself on her crap and get honest with herself about her reasons for her life’s choices up to then.”

Crunchy Granola says, “Choosing You endeared itself to me almost immediately. In the introduction, Soiseth explains how she welcomed her donor (sperm) into her family while getting ready for her first insemination. Olaf, the donor, sat at her dinner table nightly. She made conversation with the large steel container that had shipped the sperm she chose from Denmark. This is the kind of quirky detail that makes Soiseth’s story remarkably engaging: as she describes the conversations she had with her running buddies, the interactions at parties, relationships with old friends and family, the details show real people out and about in the world.”

Jason. For the Love of God says, “I? Thought she was gutsy. I thought she was brave. I thought she was amazing. Soiseth’s writing was, at times, almost painful to read. Her journey was not only a story of becoming a mom, it was one of finding herself.”


Lastly, A Wrung Sponge says, “The book is candid about all of her thoughts and feelings around weight, eating, exercising and body image. Even if you are not one who struggles with weight it is illuminating to observe how another woman deals with it. Everyone has something they struggle with on this level. It’s encouraging to see how Alex faces her weakness and finds her strength.”