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A single mom by choice and a single mom's daughter on loss, anxiety and sperm donors

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Five years ago, Liv Aannestad was about to leap into the unknown. Single and 36, she was about to become a mom on her own through in-vitro fertilization.

LIV AANNESTAD: I always assumed it would happen the normal, typical way. I'd meet somebody, maybe either in high school or college, and get married and have a few babies. But it didn't happen that way.

CHANG: Before she did, she got some advice from Pam Rector, mother to a 17-year-old daughter and a single mom by choice. It was part of our series Been There.

PAM RECTOR: I think it's important that you know that there are going to be times where you're just like, oh, my God. This is just so hard, you know?

AANNESTAD: Right.

P RECTOR: I've got to do the taxes. I've got to do the this. And now the plumbing broke, and the baby's crying, and (unintelligible). You know, some days are just not that pretty.

CHANG: Well, Liv got back in touch with us. Her now two daughters, ages 4 and 2, are happy and healthy, but she had some sad news, too. Pam died last year, leaving behind her now-22-year-old daughter Grace. Liv had some questions for Grace, and so did we, so we decided to invite them both onto the show.

Hello to both of you.

GRACE RECTOR: Hello.

AANNESTAD: Hi, Grace - nice to finally get to see you and talk to you.

G RECTOR: You, too. I'm so excited to be able to connect with you.

CHANG: Well, Liv, you know, that piece of tape we heard from Pam about how some days during motherhood just are not pretty days - I imagine that rang so true during this pandemic. Can you talk about - how has it been raising two young girls right now?

AANNESTAD: It rang so true. It's been hard. I mean, I gave birth to my second daughter in August of 2019, so she was all of five months old when the pandemic started.

CHANG: Wow.

AANNESTAD: We were a week away from my oldest one's third birthday, and we had to cancel her birthday. And having two by myself has just been more of a tidal wave than I ever imagined. It's been really hard.

CHANG: Absolutely. And I'm curious. You know, Grace, we heard your mom's perspective on what being a single parent was like for her. What about from your perspective? Like, what was your relationship like?

G RECTOR: I always knew that our life was special, but it wasn't until she passed away that the more I talked about it, the more I realized how unique our relationship was. I had so much more time to cultivate a relationship with her one on one than I might have if I had two parents. I was always in the front seat with my mom. I was always deejaying. I was always talking to her. I was always present and included.

CHANG: You were copilot.

G RECTOR: I was copilot. And she really valued my opinion and my voice and would have really hard conversations with me. And overall, I'm really grateful in the way that she raised me and in the way that she prepared me to be an adult.

CHANG: Well, Liv, as you're looking ahead to life after the pandemic and how your relationship with your two girls might evolve, I know that you have a couple questions for Grace about things that you're wondering about. Do you want to jump in and ask Grace?

AANNESTAD: Yes. One of the things that's come up - there are groups of donor-conceived adults who are very negative on donor conception at all. It's something that my girls will have to deal with the rest of their life. You know, Sophia (ph) said to me the other day, Mommy, why didn't you find a daddy for us? And I said, well, because I didn't have a daddy to choose. And I went to a doctor, and we used a donor. And then she went on to something else, and it was, like, no big deal. But they know other kids have daddies. And so I guess two questions - how do you feel about it now? And what can I say to them now that will maybe make it easier in the long run?

G RECTOR: I think you made a good point just about the fact that they're so young. And I've had my whole life to adjust to this. But my godmother told me - she said, your mom trained you. She would rehearse with you. What do you say when the kids ask you why you don't have a dad? This is what you're going to tell them. Who needs a dad? And then put your hands to the side in a certain position. Like, maybe...

CHANG: What position were your hands supposed to be?

G RECTOR: Who needs a dad?

CHANG: You're king of striking in mid-air.

(LAUGHTER)

G RECTOR: So imagine - I was probably your kid's age, right? And my mom just trained me to know how to respond so that I was fully prepared.

AANNESTAD: And confident and - I should use that.

G RECTOR: Yeah.

AANNESTAD: I love that.

G RECTOR: Right?

AANNESTAD: Have you - did you do any outreach to the sperm bank or anything to try - because at 18, you had that, right?

G RECTOR: Yeah, I did. It was a strange email, kind of sassy in a way. I was like, you don't deserve to know this information about me, but I want to know what we have in common. And so we did connect. We've emailed a few times. I do know that he's a writer, and I identify as a writer, too, which was - made me happy. And I was content with that.

CHANG: Liv, do you want your girls to know their sperm donor?

AANNESTAD: I do. I acknowledge that it's important for them. And that's why I picked specifically somebody who was willing to be known at 18 - because if you don't, then the door is closed.

G RECTOR: Just hearing you talk, the - I think the thing that you mentioned that I think is just, like - I want to affirm it - is being a single mom is so hard. I've seen my mom do it, and she poured herself out to other people so much. She died of a heart attack on Valentine's Day, and I just tell myself that she gave out so much love to so many people that her heart literally gave out. And I think that's a beautiful image for me. But I just hope that you, as a single parent, find support and find people that you can be honest with. And for my mom, she had another best friend who was a single mom. And they just had each other's back because the worst thing you can do for yourself and for your children is pretend like you're OK and push through...

AANNESTAD: Right.

G RECTOR: ...When you need to just stop and let yourself be taken care of.

AANNESTAD: It is so hard. I remember her saying something about - you know, that she was looking forward to you graduating high school because maybe she could focus on herself for a while. And, you know, it breaks my heart that she didn't get to have enough years, you know?

CHANG: Can I ask you, Grace, how are you doing now?

G RECTOR: I'm doing well. It's been a process. I had so many people taking care of me. Like, I realized I did not sleep by myself for the first month. Like, I had people literally sleeping in my bed with me to keep me company, to make me feel loved, to fill that space.

AANNESTAD: Good. You weren't alone...

G RECTOR: Yes.

AANNESTAD: ...Physically, at least. That's so good.

G RECTOR: But then after a month, it all went away - right...

AANNESTAD: Yeah.

G RECTOR: ...Because people have to get back to their lives. And so my outlet right now is I have a notebook where I write letters to her almost every day and I just tell her about what's going on because I promise you, Liv, for the good or the bad, your girls will call you all the time one day. And that's what I miss most.

CHANG: (Laughter) It's true.

AANNESTAD: I hope so.

CHANG: I still call my parents all the time.

G RECTOR: No, you'll appreciate this. You'll appreciate this. One time I - she's going to kill me. Whatever. One time I was on the phone with her. I was talking for, like, 30 minutes non-stop. Kid you not - zero breaks. And then I stopped. I was just waiting for her to say something, and she's like, well, I'm bored. Talk to you later. And I was like, what? You can't be bored. I'm your daughter.

AANNESTAD: Oh, that's cute.

G RECTOR: But it's been really hard. My mom was a huge part of my identity, and it's been really hard to lose a big part of myself.

CHANG: That is Grace Rector. Her late mother, Pam Rector, was on our program five years ago, giving advice to Liv Aannestad, whom I've also been speaking with. Liv is now a single mom by choice with two daughters of her own.

Thank you both so much for sharing this incredible time.

G RECTOR: Thank you so much for having us. It was really great to meet you, Liv.

AANNESTAD: Yeah, you, too. I hope we can stay in touch.

CHANG: And Grace's book about her mom and their relationship is called "The Rector Girls."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "WILD SAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.