Single, childless and nearing 40, I saw one real option

Editor’s Note: Sarah Lenti is a political strategist and policy advisor at SML Advisory Partners. She served as a director on the National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice and worked as a lead researcher for Mitt Romney’s 2010 book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. This piece is the first of a CNN Opinion series, “What it’s like to be me,” which explores the personal struggles Americans face at a time of profound social change.

Story highlights

Top Republican strategist Sarah Lenti details how — against her family's wishes and conservative values — she decided to undergo IVF to become a single parent

After being told she had less than a 5% chance of conceiving -- 3.7% in fact -- she gave birth to two baby boys, Eli and Abel.

Denver CNN  — 

It was a year ago when a young woman stopped me in a neighborhood shop. She gazed at my stroller and started crying. She told me how lucky I was to be married with kids.

My heart dropped. She didn’t know me at all.

Sarah Lenti

I am a single mother by choice. Yet I was raised in a Christian, conservative home, where I grew up believing in the traditional family unit. And I was taught that there was an order to achieving it. First, fall in love. Second, marry a man. Third, start a family.

Now in my fifth decade, only one has proven true for me – and it isn’t the first.

On the day that I turned 30, I journaled that I would think about becoming a mother should I still be single at 38. What that looked like, I didn’t exactly know. It was a promise to myself, maybe to God.

At the time, I was in a terrible relationship with a man who told me he wanted to be with me, but he could never love me. It was because of those words that I first clung to the idea of motherhood. Maybe a man could deny me love, but he would never deny me a child.

Fast forward to my 38th birthday. I was still single, and the world of dating had changed significantly in the last eight years. Tinder and Bumble, the dominant dating apps, offered countless options for single men and women, but made the experience of dating entirely impersonal.

ivf 3.7 percent in story logo img

Every family is different: Share your story of how IVF, adoption or your unique family structure has shaped your life with #ToBeMe or text/WhatsApp us on +1-347-322-0415

Dating amounted to small talk with a stranger, who you had briefly interfaced with online because you each thought the other attractive. The small talk was a prelude to hooking up, and there were no expectations even of a text the next day.

It was brutal. And after trying my hand at it, I was no closer to finding the love of my life or starting a family.

If I needed statistics to back me up, I had them. In 2014, marriage was on the decline, as was the fertility rate in the United States.

I had one real option left – and that was to attempt to get pregnant alone.

Maybe I didn’t deserve a family, or so many of the subscribers to my conservative Christian values might say. And maybe the men with whom I had been involved didn’t view me as acceptable wife/mother material.

But deep down I felt differently and decided to give myself one shot.

And so I started the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF). I was mentally prepared for the physical havoc that would ensue, and I had saved every penny for it – to the tune of $30,000.

But why didn’t I adopt? After all, even if I were fortunate enough to have a child, the child would be fatherless. And many, myself included, believe this places the child in a precarious situation.

That said, at least with IVF my potential child would be biologically related to me, his or her grandparents and cousins. The child might not have a father, but he or she would have a strong bloodline. I hoped this would help ease any future struggle for my child.

The IVF experience

The very decade I was born into – the glorious 70’s – ushered in the science and technology that might allow me to conceive. Alone.

More specifically, 1978 was the year that the first human being was born through the process of embryo creation outside of the womb, then implantation inside of the womb, pregnancy and successful birth. Since that time, IVF has produced approximately 5 million babies, with nearly 1 million of those being born in the United States.

The IVF pool is quite minuscule compared to total US births – for example, in 2011, only 0.7% of all US births were attributed to IVF. That said, and barely optimistic, I was committed to the process, or so I thought.

And yet there I was at a bar in Los Angeles, a month out from IVF, crying in front of two people I barely knew, but knew well enough to unload to.

ivf twins

My life was great on paper. I had done all the right things. I went to Stanford for graduate school. I worked at the White House under Condoleezza Rice. I had the opportunity to travel the world. I had loving parents and two wonderful sisters.

And yet I felt unloved – even unlovable. And also greatly conflicted.

On the one hand, I was ecstatic – I was weeks away from my shot at becoming a biological mom. I started thinking about this potential path nine years ago and had been setting aside money for five years. I was in love with idea of having a family and giddy at the thought of the unknown.

But there was doubt. Goodness, there was doubt. There was that little voice inside my head – the voice of my parents and others – that was very much alive in me. “Why would you purposely bring a child into the world without a father? Are you really that lonely? How would that child feel one day?”

Throughout my upbringing, I was told that it’s wrong to play God. And, as recently as the previous Christmas Eve, I was told that bringing a child into the world without a father was selfish.

My heart and my brain had to fight back.

No, I was not that lonely. No, I was not that selfish. Actually, it was waking up single, every single day of my life – only to be greeted by my career – that felt selfish. And while I could never speak for the feelings that my future child might have, I took solace in the belief that any child would be happy to be alive if he or she were sincerely loved.

As I drew nearer to the implantation date, the prospect of creating a tiny human grew more real and began to override any lingering doubt.

And so, on August 29, 2014, I asked my doctor to implant two embryos. He wisely asked me to justify two. I was quick to answer. If I were lucky enough to get pregnant with twins – what a gift for them. They may not have a father, but they would always have each other.

I knew the statistics and did not expect to get pregnant. Given my age and the means of conception, I was praying for the long shot of one, knowing two would be a miracle.

The 2014 Assisted Reproductive Technology National Summary Report, as published by the US Department of Health and Human Services, is a humbling reminder of just how small the odds were during the year that I attempted to conceive. In 2014, a woman of my age, using fresh non-donor eggs with no previous pregnancies, had an 18.8% chance of pregnancy resulting in a live birth. When it came to percentages of cycles resulting in twin lives births, the success rate plummeted to 3.7%.

Yes, I had a 3.7% chance of success.

Choosing a donor

Of course, before the IVF process could begin, I had to choose a donor – and let’s just say I took a less than conventional approach.

Given my professional background as a conservative politico, I think people expect me to say that IQ, number of educational degrees and political association were at the top of my donor qualifications list. Not the case.

I was looking for someone who I would be attracted to if we were procreating in the traditional way.

I know this must sound incredibly superficial. But, let’s be frank, it’s impossible to gauge true intellect or a kind heart by virtue of an online donor search.

And so I began my search with a focus on the physical attributes that I have always been attracted to – namely height and athleticism. Six-foot-2 and toned was my baseline.

The donor was a collegiate lacrosse athlete. I was able to see three pictures, from tot to teen, of an adorable boy with an incredible smile, unruly hair and a twinkle in his eyes. (This particular bank did not allow adult pictures of the donor for legal reasons. So, at the end of the day, the attraction part of my search was also a gamble.)

I finished my search on the scientific side of things. The donor bank I chose provided a full medical history and genetic testing results. Honestly, why wouldn’t you opt for a donor with no heart disease, cancer, mental illness or any other serious genetic conditions in his family history?

This is the one distinct advantage of going the donor route as opposed to the good old-fashioned route when conceiving. While I haven’t polled my married or attached friends, I am 99.9% certain that not a single one queried their partner about the specifics of their family’s medical history prior to sleeping with them or accepting a marriage proposal.

I was searching for my version of good genes, who also looks good in jeans – at least on paper.

The longest days of my life

In early September, my blood work came back with hormone levels signaling pregnancy. I was in shock, but I had eight long weeks to go until seeing if there was a heartbeat or two. I started to take a pregnancy test every evening. It was the longest 56 days of my life.

D-Day finally arrived. And, there on the sonogram screen right in front of me, was the most beautiful thing: my child’s heartbeat, strong and steady.

I had a million immediate questions for the sonographer and started right in. She stopped me, because there was heartbeat number two. Wait, what? I was laughing and crying at the same time. This must be what joy feels like, I thought.

The cliché that I despise most is: It will happen when you least expect it. Nonsense. I had gone almost 40 years expecting nothing in terms of dating, love and, God forbid, a husband – and I received exactly that in return.

But suddenly the least expected had happened. I was pregnant with twins.

My journal entry from the evening read as follows:

Week 8, Day 1: October 6th D Day

Dear God: Thank you.

Baby A: your heartbeat was 159 today.

Baby B: your heartbeat was 168.

I love you A & B. Please keep growing. You’re looking great.

Thank you, God. I pray for their development – from their fingers to their toes. From brain to nose. I am so grateful for these precious beings. Prepare me to be the strong parent – fiscally and spiritually – that they will need me to be.

Love you.

The Friday of truth

On a Friday morning roughly 30 weeks after implantation, something seemed wrong. I had such severe leg cramps that I was crawling around the apartment on my hands and knees. I called an Uber at 8:30 am. Never having taken any birthing classes, I had no idea what the onset of labor looked like.

By the time I got to the hospital the pain was so intense that I could barely make it to the door. The Uber driver offered to help me up. I was immediately checked in and within minutes was told that I was 7 cm dilated and would be headed into an emergency C-section.

My heart stopped. I was petrified that those little heartbeats were going to stop and that my sons – my sons – were not going to make it. I was alone in the pre-delivery room just long enough to run through every awful scenario in my head.

And then it was time. Seventy minutes after arrival, I was wheeled into a room with a team of 16 doctors and nurses waiting for me. The sight of this army, the two waiting incubators and all the other metal contraptions made me well up. I had no idea what was going to happen next, but I had never expected it to happen quite like this – not this early, not with these many medical professionals and not entirely on my own.

Doctors and nurses were working quickly all around me. Epidural, check. Babies’ heart rates, check. Slicing me open, check. Ripping two crimson-colored sons out of me at 10:40 am and 10:43 am, check and check.

I saw Eli and Abel for a nanosecond before the nurses cut the cords and rushed them to their incubator stations to begin inserting the breathing tubes. They were 10 weeks premature and neither could suck, swallow or breathe on their own.

The two teams whisked my babies to the Level 4 NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) without me getting to touch their skin or ask if their vital signs were stable. I did hear them cry, which was a relief. I just wish my sisters had been there to take a picture and help recount what happened. I can’t ever get that moment back.

Little did I know when I moved to Denver that I would be delivering twins two years later at Denver’s premier NICU hospital – The Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at Presbyterian St. Luke’s

I was not able to see my sons until nine very long hours after delivery. I walked into a room with two incubators housing my baby boys, who looked more like starved squirrels than the roly-poly infants that I had envisioned. All wired up, with IVs jutting out of the top of their skulls, they were absolutely perfect. Complete miracles from inception to emergency birth.

And, of course, they chose Friday the 13th of March to scare the living hell out of me and fight their way onto this Earth.

The next 60 days

Two weeks after I was released from the hospital, I found myself sleeping in my Denver home of almost two years, as my boys lived and slept inside NICU – for 60 days straight.

And though I could easily have felt alone – so removed from my two miracles – I didn’t.

Friends and family from across the country constantly checked in on me, calling, texting, writing me words of encouragement.

And even once Eli and Abel were out of NICU, loving and supporting friends – and sometimes even strangers –continued to shower us with kindness and affection.

Initially, the NICU team was our rock. These complete strangers became the most significant and consequential people in the lives of my sons during their first two months. I will never be able to appropriately express my gratitude to the nurses and doctors who safeguarded their lives. Several are friends to this day.

Then my personal trainer and his wife, the first people to visit me in the hospital, became the most trusted and consistent presence in our lives. From celebrating our birthdays, to helping with our apartment move, to Fourth of July and Super Bowl celebrations, to just being those adult ears that I need – Adam and Teri have been there for all of it.

The mother of twin boys, who lived steps away from me, became my sanity check. We were pregnant at the same time and delivered within weeks of each other. We met by fluke, thanks to a double stroller sighting in the alley.

And the parents of my first employee proved invaluable, babysitting the boys on weekends so I could nap.

I can’t forget the British transplant, who regularly delivered homemade quiche on weeknights just because.

More recently, though, the manager at the Palm (steakhouse) took care of my family. It was Thanksgiving night, and I took the twins for our first holiday fête as a family of three. In one of the most random acts of kindness, the manager worked her way to our table, poured me a glass of wine, helped feed the boys, shared a bit of her life story with me and then bought our meal. She did not know me.

Most importantly, since the birth of Eli and Abel, my parents have fallen so completely in love with their grandsons that it’s hard to fully put into words the intensity of their connection. What was at first an idea hard for my traditional parents to grasp, is now two, tiny human beings, who have my parents tightly wrapped around their little fingers. Though thousands of miles away, my parents – and my sisters – express their love and support constantly and in innumerable ways.

There are incredible people in this world. My sons’ existences have made that real to me.

The lessons learned

Eli and Abel have proven to be the embodiment of that saying you always hear – the hardest, yet best thing I’ve ever done.

My sons are my family and my future. They represent everything good, hopeful and hilarious about life. They smile and cheer when I walk into their room. They blow kisses and sneak hugs. They belly laugh when we dance. They cuddle up at night and put their heads in the crook of my neck.

They also scream, bite and bang their heads on the floor when they’re upset. They chuck their food when they don’t like it. They act like the world is coming to an end at bath time. And they are a constant financial stress. Being a single parent is hard as hell.

But from my two little men, I quickly internalized that love is a verb. Love is an action and something you work at every single day. You wake up every morning with a mandate and desire to be a better parent to your children than you were the day before.

Speaking of love, friends like to tell me that there is a man out there – some wonderful man who will sweep me off my feet and be an excellent father. To that I say, please stop. Do I want to date? Of course. But I can honestly write that I have no expectations for love, and I certainly do not believe that there is a father out there for my sons. I am not waiting and hoping, because I have lost that hope.

Why have I lost that hope? Truth be told, I have been vulnerable with a few men pre- and post-pregnancy. But rejection upon rejection by man after man will do it to you. Even when you are that aloof gal, who doesn’t ask questions or have expectations of something real or long-term, it still ends. I guess you just lose your luster after awhile. It’s my reality, and it never changes.

And while we are on the topic of relationships, I would note that I will forever be perplexed by the rate of unsolicited and unexpected congratulatory communications from ex-boyfriends after years of no contact. These were the men who rejected me. These were the men who left after months or years of pretending and/or cheating.

After the birth of my sons, these same men suddenly thought they had a green card to strike up conversation and ask for pictures of the twins. One suggested grabbing dinner in DC. One kindly offered to come to Colorado to help run errands, cook dinner or do whatever I needed.

The attention was hard to digest. I once cried over these men. Perhaps this was a way of absolving their guilt for being dishonest or wasting my time? Perhaps they were sincerely happy for me, which would suggest that they did respect me after all? Perhaps they were feeling slighted or envious that I went it alone, without them? I’ll never know.

And, most importantly, I finally no longer care.

Though I may never have a significant other, I do have my sons, who’ve taken me from unloved to loved and from unlovable to lovable. They’ve done this all on their own. They are my miracles, which I almost didn’t allow to happen because of heartbreak, self-doubt and maybe even self-loathing.

Prior to Eli and Abel, I wasted at least half of my adult life obsessing about things I had lost – men who broke my heart, clients who weren’t a good fit, friendships that had faded.

My sons taught me to focus on the miracles that are right in front of my eyes every single day, beginning with my 3.7%.

Every family is different: Share your story of how IVF, adoption or your unique family structure has shaped your life with #ToBeMe or text/WhatsApp us on +1-347-322-0415

Correction: This piece initially stated Lenti is in her fourth decade and has been amended to reflect that she is in her fifth decade.