FORT LAUDERDALE — Lisa Bell spent years looking for Mr. Right. At 36, she stopped pining and soon found the love of her life: her daughter, Emily.
Today, the girl is 3, with big brown eyes and a head of curls.
"I finally accepted that Mr. Right — or even Mr. So-So — wasn't coming," said Bell, 41, of Delray Beach. "I always knew I wanted to be a mother, so it was, 'Okay, I'm going to do this.' "
Bell belongs to the South Florida chapter of Single Mothers by Choice. The group's members are women who have decided to have children without a partner. They often go to great lengths — choosing donor sperm and going through expensive and painful fertility treatments, or hacking through the paperwork jungle of the adoption process — to do so.
The number of single mothers has been on the rise for decades in the United States because of loosening social norms, rising divorce rates, increasing numbers of women living with their children's fathers but not marrying them, and other factors.
But these single-by-choice women consider themselves a breed apart. They are older, mostly in their late 30s and 40s, and usually college-educated, compared with the average single mom, who is in her 20s and more likely to be poor.
Weighing the options
About a dozen of the group's 40 members agreed to be interviewed. All said they would prefer to be married, but never found their soul mate. Several faced fertility problems that presented a now-or-never choice.
"It forced me to make a decision," said Lori Sochin, a Miami attorney who was diagnosed at 38 with fibroids, non-cancerous tumors that needed to be removed, either by a simple surgery that would leave her infertile or a complex one that would give her a shot at motherhood.
"The thing I gave the most thought was: Was it fair to bring another child into the world without another parent?" said Sochin, who decided to have the more complex surgery. In the end, she still was not able to give birth, but the ordeal convinced her to adopt, and she is now the mother of a 2-year-old girl.
Members of the club, who live in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, organize monthly meetings, play dates, Mommy NightOuts and an annual cruise. At a recent meeting, one mother's home became a playground for about 10 visiting children and moms. At first, the gathering looked like any play group. But within an hour, talk turned serious among the mothers, some of whom spelled out words they did not want their children to understand.
Group offers support
One woman spoke about the challenges of dating and — if her current relationship ever approached the "M-word" (marriage) — whether the man would want to "A-D-O-P-T" her child.
Anne Chernin of Delray Beach, who adopted her daughter from Kazakhstan in Central Asia, said she explained adoption and where babies come from to her 6-year-old, but she prefers her own version of events.
"I said, 'You were born in somebody's stomach,' and she said, 'No!' " Chernin said with a chuckle. "I think she has this vision of a field of babies in Kazakhstan."
But the most sensitive topic: addressing the gut-wrenching question, "Why don't I have a daddy?"
Susan Bourne — a Boca Raton mother of 3-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, through in-vitro fertilization — said the group has helped her prepare for such conversations. The issue came up when her daughter pretended to answer a toy telephone.
"I said, 'Who is it?' And she said, 'It's Daddy!' You feel like a knife went through your heart," Bourne said. "I said, 'No, we don't have a daddy. Some families just have mommies, and some families have mommies and daddies, and some families just have daddies.' "
Sharing such experiences — as well as sympathy, support and advice — is the main reason the group exists.
"What I didn't realize was how many women were doing this," said Chernin, 44.
A growing trend
Researchers of the choice-mother phenomenon say it is increasingly common.
In 1970, 1 out of 10 women who gave birth in the United States was unmarried. Now it's 1 in 3, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
An international organization of choice mothers has more than doubled its membership over the past 25 years. One of the country's largest sperm banks, California Cyrobank in Los Angeles, reports one-third of its clients are single, heterosexual women. Single women accounted for 27 percent of foster care adoptions in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"We are no longer living in a culture where motherhood alone is condemned," said sociologist Rosanna Hertz, author of Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice.
But that doesn't mean it's universally embraced.
Kay Hymowitz, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank in New York, said choice mothers, particularly those who go through sperm donors rather than adopting, are thinking more about their own desires than what is best for children. She pointed to "hundreds of studies" that have shown children with married parents do better in life than those raised by single parents.
She also said choice mothers are, in effect, teaching their children men are not important.
"What I worry about is the message it sends. You are telling a child that it doesn't matter that they don't have a dad," Hymowitz said.
Not going to settle
A Los Angeles author caused a stir in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly with her article "Marry Him!" in which she advised women to settle for "Mr. Good Enough" rather than go at motherhood alone, as she had.
"Part of the problem is that we grew up idealizing marriage — and that if we'd had a more realistic understanding of its cold, hard benefits, we might have done things differently," Lori Gottlieb wrote.
But the idea of "settling" seems depressing and wrong to members of the South Florida Single Mothers by Choice Club, including several who still hope for love and a few who are divorced and say it's better to be alone than in a dead marriage.
Hertz, the professor of sociology and women's studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, added children of choice mothers are likely to do better than most children of single parents because their mothers are generally older and better-educated, with higher incomes.
Ellen Kleinberg-Allen, who lives in Coral Springs, sees herself as proof happy endings are possible without settling. After ending a bad marriage, Kleinberg-Allen decided at 43 to adopt a baby girl born severely premature.
She was ready to do it alone. But a male friend supported her during the transition. Ultimately, he became her boyfriend and a father figure to her daughter, now 11. She said they may marry someday, but for now, their current arrangement is perfect.
"It actually brought us closer," she marveled. "He's very attentive. He goes with her to Girl Scouts, father-daughter dances."
As for single motherhood, Keinberg-Allen said it's the best decision she ever made. She was able to use her salary as a real estate agent to hire live-in help while her daughter was little. Now that her daughter is in fifth grade, she has changed professions, teaching kindergarten, and says they have plenty of time together.
In fact, she said several girlfriends have also become choice mothers after watching her.
"I tell people to go for it," Kleinberg-Allen said.