How Reproductive Science Is Changing The Family

Unrecognizable people touching belly of crop pregnant woman

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Mar 24, 2023

In her mind, there was never a question.

“I had always wanted to be a mom,” says Rachel Lehmann-Haupt. “I always loved little children,” the award-winning journalist and author told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk.

“I saw what joy motherhood brought my own mother, and I knew that being a mom needed to needed to integrate into my life.”

And into her busy career as well as her biological clock.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is an award winning journalist, entrepreneur and author Rachel Lehmann helped is a thought leader on reproductive science and its impact on the future of family. In 2012, she decided to become a single mother. Lehmann helps latest book is called RE conceptions, modern relationships, reproductive science, and the unfolding future of family. She joins us today from near San Francisco, California.

Thank you so much for being here.

Thank you so much for having me, Lianne.

I guess a fitting place to start with your particular story is to ask you had you always wanted to be a mom?

I had always wanted to be a mom, I was definitely one of those children that liked to play with dolls. And I always loved little children. So I knew that I wanted to be a mom, I saw what joy motherhood brought my own mother. And I knew that being a mom needed to I needed to integrate it into my life. I always wanted a career also. And I purposely chose a career that had flexibility. So I could also be a mother.

So then, at what point as you’re hearing your biological clock ticking, do you then decide, You know what, maybe I’ve got to look at other options here. Could you take us through sort of what you were going through at that time?

Well, yes, at the time, I had ended a relationship with somebody who was not ready to have children, I never knew whether when he was going to be ready. And I and I, and at the time, I was also thinking about moving back to my San Francisco where I had gone to graduate school and sort of a perfect storm happened, that the relationship just didn’t seem to be going forward. And I, you know, but I was also on the cusp of I’m 37 years old, and I had, you know, recently frozen my eggs. But you know, even with frozen eggs, you know, I started thinking about, and with the prospects of potentially meeting a new mate, I, you know, I thought, I don’t want to be in a rush to have a baby with somebody, just because I want to have a baby, I want to be with somebody as my partner, because I love them. And sometimes love takes time to develop and often doesn’t take, you know, coincide with your biological clock. I mean, many people are lucky and have that I happen to be in circumstances that it didn’t work out. So after many conversations with friends, and with family members, I decided to put the cart before the horse and try to get pregnant on my own, with the idea that, you know, if I did get pregnant, then I would, you know, become a single mom by choice and maybe meet my partner later down the road.
I never planned to be alone forever. But it was really a practical decision and a decision that many women are making now. And I think, you know, a smart decision.
Because, you know, I was at an age, I mean, I didn’t actually get pregnant until I was 40. But I was at an age where I was still able to get pregnant with not too much. You know, like having to go through IVF or like having to, you know, use donor eggs. So I actually got pregnant, you know, pretty naturally through artificial insemination with a biological child, which is what I wanted to do.

So what was the process of research that you undertook, if any, you talk about having conversations with your family, you talk about having your eggs frozen, but when you finally decided that this was the road that you are going to go down? What research did you undertake to really, you know, understand what you were getting into becoming a single parent by choice?

Well, you know, there is a wonderful organization started by a woman in New York City called single mothers by choice. And she started that organization, I think, you know, now almost 50 years ago, to support exactly women like me, who didn’t have, you know, a prospective mate or a dad in their future, or maybe the dad decided that he didn’t want to participate. I think that was the case for her. And, and so there’s actually a huge network of women that are part of this organization. And at the time, when I started thinking about it, I actually started going to some meetings and getting and get togethers to talk to women about what the experience would be like that we’re also thinking about it or had or had done it. And that was amazing. And so I think really, it was just in talking to other women that, you know, seeing that they could do, it really got me, you know, gave me the strength and to take that brave step. And, honestly, you know, it was a process it wasn’t
I got like three meetings, it was a process of a year or so of these meetings and these conversations and, and even there was a little bit of a mourning period for me around it, because I knew that I wasn’t going to, you know, have a baby a traditional way, I think many women who are married and have partners and are facing infertility may face a similar kind of process that they go through where they realize that maybe they’re not going to get pregnant through the conventional, you know, having sex route, but they’re going to have to use in vitro fertilization or some sort of insemination, depending on what the fertility challenges. So, you know, I think it’s a, it’s a situation that you have to understand that it is a process, and everybody comes to the process with a different conclusion. But I was super lucky that, you know, I came to the process, through the process with the decision to, you know, start trying to get pregnant, I didn’t know what the future would hold, but I was very lucky.

And, you know, we’re talking about 2012, when you had had your child, and you were 40, at the time, so much obviously, has changed in that period of time to today. 10 plus years or so, you know, first of all, why Rachel did you pick that particular route to become a mother and we’re talking about donor insemination in your case?
Um, because it was the least, the least heavy duty in terms of technology, I mean, IVF is very expensive, it’s not at that point, it was not covered by a lot of companies or health insurance, I didn’t, you know, I was a writer, so I didn’t really even work for a company that would have had the coverage, whereas, you know, insemination or, you know, is really kind of a very basic coverage on with most health insurance plans. So, you know, there was, it was, it was really a financial decision. IVF is expensive. And, you know, now we’re in a completely different period where, like, you know, a lot of Facebook, you know, covers it on their insurance plans. And so it has many, so many other companies now. So I think that, you know, often,
you know, it takes a little while for a culture to catch up with the, you know, the position that, you know, that women are in, but I think that finally, you know, culture and business is catching up and understanding that women are having children later, you know, we’re putting our careers first, we’re putting our economic power ahead of our procreative power. I wrote a lot about that in my first book, in our own sweet time, unexpected adventures and finding love commitment and motherhood. And at the end, in actually, in that book, wrote about, you know, buying donor sperm when I got was getting my eggs freeze, and it’s this book that actually tells the story of the decision I made to have my son.

Did you take us through Rachel, for people who may not be aware of this terminology, what is collaborative reproduction.

So collaborative reproduction is the idea. And it applies to, you know, many families that are outside of the traditional nucular family model. So it applies to you know, women like me, it applies to single dads by choice, it applies to gay families, queer families, LGBTQ plus, however you want to call them.
But the idea is that in those families, there is a biological part that is missing either sperm or egg, or, or a uterus, you know, so reproducing bodies sometimes need to borrow or purchase those parts in order to make a child in their family unit. So that’s what collaborative reproduction is. It was coined by a lawyer named John Robertson.

Now, in your case, you talk about having gone to your family, when you were first contemplating becoming a single mother by choice. I wonder, what kind of stigma if any, did you experience from any other people that you encountered along the way?

Well, you know, I actually didn’t encounter very much stigma from my family at all. Excuse me. I mean, you know, I grew up in Liberal New York City, so you know, very open, oh, you know, we grew up in a culture filled with, you know, gay families, gay friends, you know, I didn’t think I grew up with too many single moms by choice as role models, but you know, clearly like divorced families and, and so I grew up with a spectrum and my parents, you know, were open and realize that, you know, a child is created out of love. And that was the choice that I was making. And so, I’m in other circles, yes, I have run into a surprising stigma. That, you know, I never expected even, you know, from sort of more people who I thought were very liberal and, you know, kind of spoke liberal and their virtue signals, but often, you know, really ended up you know, having quite conservative values around family. I remember once, you know, being in a group of women and the a woman basically admitted to me that she really believed that a child should have a mother and a father and that made me feel really bad.

We talked about how much has changed with respect to science in the time since you had your son back in 2012? What would you say stands out most for you, in terms of what struck you most in in the changes with the technology?And, you know, science and medicine in that time?

Well, I mean, I think two things that stuck out stuck out the most, I think there’s a social change, and that there’s also the technological change.
And the social change is, gay marriage is now legal. So it wasn’t, and when I and now so it, you know, there’s the legality of marriage makes, you know, the legality of family, much different, more different. I mean, gay parents have always been having queer parents have always been having family, children together in a collaborative way, using friends as donors, you know, it’s just always kind of been that. But now, it’s sort of you know, that it’s legitimate, and it’s a marriage, you know, these choices are no longer kind of marginalized choices. They’re legitimate choices. So, and I think at the same time, you know, the science has been evolving, I mean, egg freezing, when I froze my eggs was still considered an experimental technology. And now it is, you know, considered, you know, right usage by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. And I think if you look at the statistics around, you know, donor at using getting, you know, IVF, and using donor eggs, everything has gotten more precise, I think the science has just gotten better. So it’s much easier to have a child older, or if you’re facing infertility, or you’re making choices like me, now, because the science is just better.
The statistics are better in terms of their outcomes. The techniques are more advanced, you know, more and more doctors know how to do it, or trained in it. I mean, in a way, like, you could argue that the reproductive endocrinologist used to sort of be more of a marginalized field. But now because so many people are using reproductive technology to have their families, they’re almost like, a kind of central figure in family planning. And I think that, you know, if you spoke to many reproductive endocrinologist, they would agree that they’re almost like consultants in people’s family planning, like, you know, how that to set out in terms of timing, spacing your family, you know, especially because women are having children older, I mean, couples are having children older, I should say, not just women.

Now, your latest book, re conceptions, modern relationships, reproductive science, and the unfolding future of family. Can you take us through what was the impetus for this work?

The impetus for this work is well, I mean, it goes back, I worked for Wired Magazine, in the 1990s, I’ve always been interested in the influence of technology on culture. And then I think my own life circumstances, the fact that I, you know, was very focused on my career as a journalist, I, you know, was dating later than, you know, it, many people in cities are now still like having, you know, not marrying until like their early 40s Not even starting to have children until their early 40s. I mean, I think there’s just a big shift in that direction. So it was really like seeing the shift in my own life. And that shift in my own life, and in so many of the women and men around me, and then at the same time, you know, seeing the availability of this technology, and then I wanted to you know, I once I had my son, I really wanted to kind of explore what other families that you know, this technology is allowing and, you know, the new the new cultural norms around these choices.

So, take us through what you went through in terms of researching this book and some of the discoveries that you made that perhaps you yourself found surprising, as you put together this book.

I think one of the biggest discoveries that I found was, I was able to contact and meet many of the mothers that also use the same sperm donor. And really found out that some of them were actually local to where I lived. And some of them were far flung. And we started talking, and we started a community and we, you know, our kids met each other. And I think that that, you know, and they many of them had been talking and continue to talk for friends since the beginning. And it’s sort of almost like, you know, there’s a phrase called Aloe parenting, which is raising your kids and community. And I would think that that was kind of a modern form of aloe parenting, which is actually not really that new, because we’ve always, you know, from paleo times raised our kids in community, I mean, I think it takes a village is not a new idea. It’s an old idea that was really, you know, brought up by Hillary Clinton. But it’s really like, if you look back, like, we used to raise our kids and family bands, you know, the idea of the traditional nuclear family is actually a very new concept. And it has its flaws to like, just like every other kind of family has its flaws, there’s not one better. And I would not say that the traditional nuclear family is the morally superior kind of family.
Take us through the moment when you met or discovered other members of your son and your community in terms of other sperm donors

It was mind blowing, it was mind blowing to see the faces of these children that, you know, that were related to my son. And, you know, no matter where our relationships go now, and in the future, you know, I’m just so excited that my son has the opportunity to have these kids in his life, how he wants to have them in his life or not. And, you know, I definitely encourage other parents who have gone this route to, you know, be truthful, I don’t think it’s a good to keep it as a secret. I think, you know, being open, it’s increasingly a more common way of having children, you know, in queer families and single families. So, it you know, and my son, you know, it’s not they’re not his best friends. But you know, I think he likes knowing that, that they’re around. We’ll see how it develops as they get older. And what was his reaction? How old was he, when this discovery was made? And what was his reaction to it, he was about six, when he when we first started meeting with these families. And he was, I mean, I don’t like to speak for him. And I don’t love to speak about him too much in interviews, but because it’s really his own life and his own choices. But you know, he was open to it, he, I think the most important thing is that he wanted to understand that this was, you know, a normal thing. And there were other kids that were like this, and it made him feel recognized. And, you know, he’s, he’s not the only kid in his school that is conceived this way, either. So I think it’s increasingly becoming like, you know, one, one way that people are having children.
Let’s go back to the book for a second, in terms of the research that you undertook, you talked about some of the discoveries you made in talking to the people that you know, in the community, how about with respect to the medical piece, the science, what struck you, if anything, in terms of what you discovered there?

Well, there are a lot of people working on the cutting edge of collaborative reproduction per se. I mean, there are many new you know, IVF, obviously, you know, is the an egg freezing are kind of the mainstream science, reproductive sciences that are used, but there are many people working in labs right now, that are, you know, trying to push the envelope to create other opportunities for people I mean, there there are some doctors that are working on
something called three parent IVF, which is where you can actually transfer a the mitochondria of one egg of of one egg into another egg to either get rid of disease or to help a woman who is you know, her eggs are no longer viable because of because of age or other reproductive challenges. And you know, that it’s been it’s a pretty controversial technology still, it’s not it has not been approved by the FDA. But you know, there are many people out there working on it, to give an opportunity for older women and for people with mitochondrial genetic diseases, the opportunity to have biological children.
You know, I think that there are people working on artificial wombs. So at any no artificial wombs now, the science of it has really has to do with supporting premature babies that cannot make it through
You know, a full gestation in a in a pregnant person’s uterus, but honestly, you know, obvious and I know that a lot of this is kind of science fiction now but you can kind of spin out to like the movie Gattaca with the idea that maybe one day, this is a way for, you know, somebody that doesn’t have a uterus to have a child.
And, and, and so there are technologies that are like that. And you know, some of it is, you know, gets you spinning out creativity to creativity creatively, in terms of kind of like science fiction, but then there’s also kind of the bioethics, ethical aspect of it, which is the idea that, you know, if this does come true, true and down the line, whether it’s in 20 or 30 years, we do need to ask the questions about the proper uses of this technology sort of in the same way, we need to ask questions about like, should we have our kids on Instagram?
Certainly a large conversation. And And I’m curious as to, you know, obviously, science has really blown the doors open in terms of the evolving definition of family. So, from your perspective, what do you see as some of the pros and cons of that evolving definition of family as we move forward?

I mean, I think the pros are that families that otherwise people that otherwise would not have been able to have children are allowed to have children can or can have children, and I think these families will become increasingly less marginalized.
And I think the cons are there still many kinks that need to be worked out? You know, a lot, there are a lot of problems, I could go into it for hours with the donor sperm and donor egg industry, there’s, you know, in terms of like, I mean, you know, I don’t believe that anonymous sperm donation is should be available anymore, I really think every kid has the right should have the right to know who their parent is, and maybe even meet them someday.
And, you know, and I think that, you know, for example, with surrogacy, there is an the same goes with donor eggs. And in terms of surrogacy, you know, I think that many circuits are still so their bodies are pushed too hard by doctors, and, and there should be, you know, standards of care that, you know, protect them. So, you know, many surrogates will end up with health problems, because they’ve had, like, they’re pushed, it’s a financial incentive. So they pushed have many, many children. And that’s not always so good.
So what would you say to a parent, you know, male, or actually a male or female, listening to this conversation, who may be contemplating becoming a single parent by choice? Who is waiting through or being, you know, intimidated by the concept of wading through a whole pile of information? What would you suggest to them, in terms of how they can parse through it in a way that’s meaningful for them, and for their situation at that might

Read my book, my book, but I also think, you know, finding a community that can help them, you know, go into a support group would be super helpful. I don’t know how many support groups there are for single dads by choice. But you know, I actually have a friend who became a single dad by choice with a surrogate and an egg donor, and that surrogate and especially the egg donor donor is still like his really good friend, and it’s like part of his children’s child’s life. He’s actually now partnered with a woman he’s a character in the book.
So yeah, I think it’s really about finding your tribe of people that are going to support you not everyone is always going to support you. Not everyone is always going to be your friend.
Absolutely. Rachel, what would you like readers of your book to take away from it?
Um, I think it’s a good story, I think they’ll enjoy you know, reading this memoir that starts out with me leaving New York City and moving to romantically moving to a houseboat in Sausalito, having a baby and the adventures that we go on. I think it’ll be really informative in terms of anybody who’s thinking about becoming a single parent, but also really informative to so many kinds of families that are looking for ideas around how to create community. I mean, I think one of the things that the pandemic taught us is that we do not like to be isolated, we like to be connected. So I think what a lot of the lessons that I learned from collaborative parenting can even be applied applied to traditional and regular families, like we just need to raise our children in villages.

Without question, let me ask you, is there anything that you see out and available today on this subject matter that you wished had been available to you? You know, 12 years ago when you were going through this?

I wish that it was more covered by health insurance. I mean, I it was covered by my health insurance, but I don’t think that’s the case for everybody. I feel like I wish that all fertility was covered by health insurance. I think we’re at a point now where you know more and more people are having children older. So I think You know, fertility needs to be covered by health insurance IVF it should not come out of pocket. I don’t think everybody should have the right to have a child.
So I wish I wish for that, and I just wished for more social acceptance. I think it shouldn’t be a battle to have to explain why you’ve done that. I mean, they’re always going to be the judgers, but I do hope that, you know, it’s a softer landing for single moms by choice that make the choice in the future.

Take us through Rachel, how your thoughts are becoming a parent how you imagined it to be your expectations. How that compared to becoming a mom.

I always want it to be a mom. And I love being a mom, it is a pure pleasure. I mean, I’m a writer too. And I’ve, you know, strong career. And I love that as well. And it’s a hard balance, but the most the satisfaction that I get from seeing my son grow up, even in the most challenging times, like, you know, last week was like, a tough week, but some of something with his friends and, and he got through it, and to, you know, the pride that I have around, you know, creating a life and a person and raising him is like no other satisfaction in the world.

How would you describe your level of optimism about the future of families, given everything we’ve discussed around science, technology, medicine, and the redefined family structure?

I’m optimistic. I’m nervous, because, you know, we had a bad year for Reproductive Health last year with Roe v. Wade, Roe v. Wade being overturned, I think that, you know, it definitely is, was a message of control over women’s bodies. And it’s very, very unfortunate. And I think that, you know, some of the some of the bills around personhood, which is the idea that, you know, kids, life starts, even when it’s conceived in in vitro fertilization is slightly scary. But, you know, I’m optimistic that we have, we’re gonna find workarounds, and that, you know, women will maintain to have control over their bodies and I, you know, put what I did in the same category as it’s a reproductive choice and women and, you know, should have control over their own reproductive choices.

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt thought leader on reproductive science and its impact on the future of family, a single mother by choice, and author of reconceptions. We really appreciate you taking the time with us today.

Well, thank you so much for having me. It was really interesting conversation. I loved your questions.

Thank you.

“I was on the cusp of 37 years old, and I had recently frozen my eggs,” recounts Lehmann-Haupt about a time more than a decade ago.

“Even with frozen eggs, I started thinking about the prospects of potentially meeting a new mate. I thought, I don’t want to be in a rush to have a baby with somebody just because I want to have a baby. I want to be with somebody as my partner, because I love them. And sometimes love takes time to develop and often doesn’t take coincide with your biological clock.”

As her body clock ticked along , Lehmann-Haupt seriously began to consider all her options, after also consulting with family and friends.

“I decided to put the cart before the horse and try to get pregnant on my own, with the idea that, if I did get pregnant, then I would become a single mom by choice and maybe meet my partner later down the road.”

In 2012, at the age of 40, Lehmann-Haupt gave birth to a baby boy, through artificial insemination.

“It was really a practical decision and a decision that many women are making now, and I think — a smart decision.”

Book cover.Reconception.Lehmann-Haupt, RachelHer decision to become a single mom was rare, widely considered trailblazing back in 2012.

Today, it is among a spate of options available for women when it comes to conception and reproduction —— thanks to ongoing advances in medical technology, innovation and reproductive science.

“Finally, culture and business is catching up and understanding that women are having children later,” says Lehmann-Haupt from her home near San Francisco. “We’re putting our careers first, we’re putting our economic power ahead of our procreative power.”

Medical science is also shaping the very face of family — in part through collaborative reproduction.

The topic is among those covered in Lehmann-Haupt’s latest book, Reconceptions: Modern Relationships, Reproductive Science, and the Unfolding Future of Family.

“It applies to many families that are outside the traditional nuclear family model,” she continues. “It applies to women like me, it applies to single dads by choice, it applies to gay families, queer families, LGBTQ plus. The idea is that in those families, there is a biological part that is missing — either sperm or egg or a uterus —-so reproducing bodies sometimes need to borrow or purchase those parts in order to make a child in their family unit.”

From medical procedures like in vitro fertilization (IVF), sperm injection and assisted embryo hatching  to surrogacy to anonymous sperm donation — medical advancements are adding to the number of options available to conceive or have a child.

For its part, collaborative parenting also has the effect of creating different family structures and broader familial communities — which is also Lehmann-Haupt’s own lived experience with her now-10-year-old son.

“One of the biggest discoveries that I found was I was able to contact and meet many of the mothers that also use the same sperm donor,” she says. Some of them were actually local to where I lived, and some of them were far flung. We started talking, and we started a community our kids met each other.”

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Rachael Lehmann-Haupt also discusses:

  • The options she considered in choosing to become a single mother
  • How reproductive technology is impacting family structures
  • What the future holds when it comes to reproductive technology
  • The definition and impact and collaborative reproduction
  • Stigma and discrimination around alternative family structures
  • Pros and cons of an evolving definition of family
  • The impact of gay marriage on reproduction options

Related links:

Reconceptions: Modern Relationships, Reproductive Science, and the Unfolding Future of Family




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