Fempower Health founder, Georgie Kovacs, interviewed the founder of Single Mothers by Choice (SMC)™. Jane Mattes, LCSW, founded SMC in 1981. It has grown into an international organization that has provided over 30,000 women with support and community. Whether you are thinking, trying or mothering, SMC is available to provide answers and guidance in the journey of becoming or being a single mother by choice.
Georgie: Why did you decide to start this organization many years ago?
Jane, Single Mothers by Choice (SMC)™: Originally, I didn’t know anybody else who had had a child as an unmarried mother in their late thirties. I wanted to see if I could find other women like me to find support around mothering. It was hard for me to talk to people about it. My married friends didn’t understand, my unmarried friends didn’t understand, it was just a difficult topic. I did manage to find other people who understood. The other reason was my son. I wanted him to grow up knowing that we weren’t the only “mom and son” family in the world, as we called it. My son is now 39.
Georgie: How challenging was it and how receptive were people?
Jane, SMC: At first, this wasn’t an organization, and I didn’t have an intent to make one. I just wanted to get together with some women and talk about how they handle the challenges of being a single mother 24/7. It just was a group of about six of us. We got together once and then we decided to get together once a month.
The reason it became an organization was because someone had a friend who was a reporter for a local newspaper in New York. Her friend wrote a little article about us. The New York Times picked it up and did a big article about us and it got syndicated. So we started getting mail (in those days it was snail mail) and we started putting these women together.
We got three letters from Chicago and put these women in touch with each other. We got four letters from Los Angeles and we put them in touch. So, we decided we had an organization on our hands and we better get ourselves together. It was amazing!
The media coverage really helped because everyone was curious about it. We weren’t the stereotypical teen mothers or the divorced mothers… we were some new kind of mothers.
Georgie: Tell us about what Single Mothers by Choice (SMC)™ offers today for women.
Jane, SMC: It really hasn’t changed that much from the original group of six, in a sense. Some of them were already mothers, some of them were thinking about becoming single mothers and some of them were pregnant or adopting. We were kind of a mixed group from the very beginning and that’s still our population: all those different stages along the way are in our membership.
We offer much more now than we used to. We have local chapters all over the U.S. and Canada and even some in Europe and Australia. In addition to the local chapters, we have a very strong and active online discussion forum which covers every possible subject you can imagine and probably more. That is moderated but it’s really become a home for a lot of people, especially if there’s no local chapter in their area. They can talk about everything related to single motherhood and even things that are not so related to single motherhood.
Georgie: What would you say is the most surprising topic or set of topics these women discuss?
Jane, SMC: I guess I stopped being surprised. They cover any topic that one may deal with in life, even well outside of the realm of being a woman or motherhood.
Georgie: It really is a community: “I’ll bring up whatever’s on my mind.”
Jane, SMC: Right, and we have profound questions, really profound and some serious issues with life and death and safety and developmental issues. It goes from the profound to the light-hearted.
Georgie: When you say there are local chapters, do these women meet face-to-face?
Jane, SMC: Exactly. That’s the idea. If you’re in an area where there are members, it’s their opt-in. They’re not required but if they’ve opted in, then their contact information is viewable by anyone else who wants to make contact with a local member. Sometimes there are local meetings.
In some cities they’re quite organized and large and in other cities they’re quite tiny. They can meet face-to-face and have formal meetings. Or, they can have informal emails where they post “anyone want to go to the zoo next Sunday?” The goal is for them to be able to find other women who are in the same situation.
Georgie: Is there a formal process to creating these chapters?
Jane, SMC: It’s both formal and informal. People who join and say, “oh, there’s nothing happening in my area I’d be happy to be a contact person,” then new people will join and get a chapter going. Or, it can be a chapter where there is already an established presence and their children are getting older. Even a new chapter in the same area when one gets too big. In some areas, we have two or three chapters. It happens in all sorts of ways.
Georgie: I recall seeing that professional support may be available?
Jane, SMC: I offer consultations, separate from membership. It’s basically a consultation on the phone or in-person at my office. They bring in their concerns, often the question is: “can I do this?” “should I do this?” “what do I have to think about to do this?”
It’s a way of processing the decision with someone else as a sounding board. Then, once they’re already mothers, I get another set of consultations once children start asking about “daddy.” That’s a hot topic as you can imagine.
Click here to learn more about personal consultations.
Georgie: What advice would you give to women regarding that tough question children might have: “do I have a dad”?
Jane, SMC: It’s a tough question if you haven’t been preparing for it. What I actually suggest (and our members basically all follow this procedure, if you can call it that) is that the child is entitled to know the truth and it’s easier for the mom to talk about if she begins before the baby understands words, even a very young baby. Practice having this conversation.
The baby doesn’t know what you’re saying, so you get a chance to practice. Somehow, saying it in your head and saying it out loud always turns out very different. You think, “I’m sure I’ll be able to tell them their story and it won’t be a problem” and feel very prepared.
But the moment a child asks, “do I have a daddy?” the mother often freezes and goes blank.
The more preparation, the easier it is. But that first conversation is not easy. It also has to be age appropriate. What you say to a two-year-old is different than what you say to a five-year-old or a nine-year-old. It’s more complicated than it might sound, but it’s simple if you’re comfortable with it.
Georgie: Would you say that women who have fear around the conversation when children might ask about a father. Do you find that, once they say it, it’s not as hard?
Jane, SMC: Yes. They have the chance to think about the language they want to use, the amount of information they want to give. Besides consulting with me, there’s also a lot of discussion about this on our forum. People will say “I just had THE conversation” when the child actually asks and is able to understand what you’re saying, it’s a real conversation.
For example, my son asked me in the mailroom of my apartment building with four people in the room. Can you imagine? I said, “can we talk about that upstairs?” He was four years old.
Georgie: The world as changed quite a bit. For example, ASRM stated that egg-freezing is ethically permissible. This gives women a lot more freedom and options. Have you seen any impact with the availability of egg-freezing on the Single Mothers by Choice™ community?
Jane, SMC: It certainly has had an impact. I’m a big fan of egg-freezing, personally, because it takes a great deal of pressure off of a woman. Maybe you’re not ready or able to “find the right man.” It’s kind of an insurance policy.
It’s not 100% guaranteed but it’s a lot more effective than it was when they started doing it.
The percentage of success is way better. It’s a really wonderful option. The only downside is that it may lead to women having babies really late and having a teenager when they’re close to retirement.
It’s a question of how late is too late. These questions have their challenges. In the thirties and forties, it takes a lot of stress out of a woman’s life if she knows that she has those eggs available.
Georgie: The freedom that women have achieved over these past few decades is amazing. It’s encouraging to see growth. You mentioned that the women discuss a variety of things. We are really focused on women’s health and the information gap between clinical trials and women’s health-related questions. Do they discuss this and what are the main issues you see?
Jane, SMC: There is a whole section on our online discussion forum about women’s health. It pretty much covers the gamut. When you think about our population, the women are coming in from 30-45 years old, roughly, and are with us for almost 20 years in many cases.
So, we’re covering the spectrum of things that happen to women in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
It’s a very active part of our forum and it’s a place to get, not only advice, but also support. When you first find out you have any kind of condition that’s very stressful. It’s both information and support for all kinds of conditions, from mild (like ear infections) to cancer and seriously disabling illnesses.
Georgie: One of the things we’re trying to solve for is the lack of data to help women make effective decisions. We’re crowd-sourcing information from women who face various health conditions like PCOS, endometriosis and thyroid conditions.
Our goal is to ask them questions to better understand what they’ve tried, what has worked, what type of doctor diagnosed them, how long it took them to diagnose. Would you say these are the kind of themes you also see in forums when women get diagnosed with conditions like that?
Jane, SMC: The forum is international, so there isn’t a lot of local doctor discussion. But, for instance, somebody posted, “has anyone tried acupuncture for migraines?” When you look at our population, range and number of people, there is a lot of looking for advice on what kind of doctor to go to, what kind of procedures are available, which procedures have advantages and disadvantages, and other crowd-sourcing similar to that. They also talk about preventative care.
Georgie: Prevention is definitely one of the keys. Because of how we get informed or don’t get informed, some of us are just embarrassed.
Jane, SMC: Yes. That’s why I think the section of our forum on health is so popular. There’s a wealth of information when you start sharing. People don’t know these things… they just don’t. A lot of doctors don’t go into detail the way women would talk to other women. It’s a different kind of conversation.
Georgie: Well, I hope that Fempower Health is able to make the impact we can and I appreciate the support. I love how you didn’t start with any specific intention but things just happen for a reason! You used your role as a single mother to start this global initiative.
Jane, SMC: I just really wanted support for me and my son and it turned out, a lot of other people needed it, too!
Georgie: What would you say to people who don’t know about your organization?
Jane, SMC: Something I wish I could put on billboards all over the country or all over the world: this is an important thing to think about in your twenties. “What if I’m not married and I’m turning 30? Do I want to think about having a child on my own, or do I strongly feel I only want to have a child with a partner?”
The biggest regret that some of our members have expressed is that they didn’t join until they were actively trying to become a mother, pregnant or were mothers. The people who are in the very early stages of thinking don’t realize that they are in need of support as they think this through. Other people don’t even think about it as an option and come to it very late as an option. We also get the other side, which is nice, “I’ve been thinking about this since my twenties and made up my mind that if I hit thirty-two and wasn’t in a relationship, I would make some decisions.”
Your fertility doesn’t last forever. You have to make some of these decisions in your late twenties, or at least think about it.
Georgie: I remember thinking, I’m going to be married by 27 with three kids. Not only did I not find my husband until I was 35 but we got back from our honeymoon and my OBGYN told me that I had to go to a fertility doctor. This was the opposite of my plan!
Jane, SMC: Right, this was not your dream.
Georgie: We’re on auto-pilot in a lot of cases. Instead we should ask the hard questions about potential motherhood early on because they’re very real and very important.
Jane, SMC: We feel wonderful when someone comes in and decides, “no, this isn’t for me!” because at least they made an active decision.
To learn more about the wonderful work of Jane Mattes or to join the SMC community, click here to visit their website.