Although she had been a writer for a long time, Lori Gottlieb burst into the national consciousness when she wrote her best-selling memoir about anorexia, “Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self ,” in which she discovers, at age 11, that women can’t be thin enough. However, they can be too picky, or so she wrote a few years later in “Marry Him!: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough ” in the Atlantic — one of the most commented-on articles in the magazine’s history and the basis of her new book by the same name.
At age 38, Gottlieb became a choice mother because, as she notes in the Atlantic article, she “hadn’t met Mr. Right yet.” Although the regular commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the New York Times often writes about the challenges of being a single mother — “you don’t have time to shower, eat, urinate in a timely manner, or even leave the house except for work, where you spend every waking moment that your child is at day care” — she says it’s the best decision of her life.
Now 43, Gottlieb lives in Los Angeles with her 4-year-old son.
You say you hope women in their 20s and 30s pay attention what you’re saying about finding Mr. Partner, not Mr. Perfect, but it’s no different than parents trying to tell parents-to-be what to expect; we all think we’ll handle it better and that things will be different for us. And usually it isn’t. What did you think single mothering would be like, and in what ways is it different?
I had a lot of the same assumptions people who are married have, like “the baby will sleep and I will work.” I was disabused of that notion early on! My son had colic. I was really naive. Until you’re in the trenches, you have no idea. I thought I was going to have a blissful bond with my baby, and I did, and the sleep deprivations won’t matter. But it did, it affected my mood. There were times I’d cry for the gadzillionth time. I didn’t think you’d need to read parenting books, but parenting is not intuitive. You actually do need practical knowledge.
People used to tell you how brave you were for having a child by yourself. Many consider single moms “unsung heroes,” while others such as Ann Coulter consider them to be responsible for all the “criminals, strippers, rapists and murderers” in the world. Who’s right?
Depends on the mom. I don’t think single moms are exalted figures. We have our sanity moments and our selfless moments and our very human moments. People would say I’m brave, and then there were the ellipse moments, meaning, “I would never do that.”
How do you carve out “me” time as a single mom?
Me time? Huh? What? Wow, that’s hard. That’s the one biggest difference between moms who are partnered and moms who are single. We don’t have any hand-offs, and that’s extremely challenging.
You mention briefly in “Marry Him” the logistical problems of two single parents dating — the custody arrangements, issues with exes and holiday scheduling. How has single mothering affected your dating life?
It certainly forces you to be creative about how to manage a dating situation with a child. When married people have a date night, they just get a baby-sitter; it doesn’t involve a lot of other things, like when to introduce someone to your child. The problem is you’re leaving your child with a baby-sitter a lot.
What did your parents think of your decision to be a choice mom?
My parents were supportive of my decision and are madly in love with their grandson.
What advice do you have for women who are considering being choice moms or adopting kids by themselves?
You really have to want a child and understand what it means to raise a child. You really have to do it for the right reasons, healthy reasons, and not out of a deficit.
In “Marry Him,” you argue it’s women’s pickiness that leads them to being alone and still searching for love when it’s “too late.” That assumes that all those women want to be mothers, when a certain percentage probably don’t or can’t. Should those women “settle,” too?
It doesn’t assume people want kids or don’t. But when you get older, it gets complicated with the logistical issues; it changes the picture. When people are older, there’s less flexibility, you can’t move across the country or you have kids and you can’t see each other when you want because you have obligations. Even if you don’t, if you have 15 or 20 years of dating experiences, it informs the way you feel about love. Women aren’t picky enough about the things that do matter in a marriage.
When you talk about being alone, you say you’d rather “feel alone in a marriage than actually be alone.” I know many married women who believe that’s the worst kind of loneliness; when you have the promise of a partner, but not the reality. Why do you think that’s better?
I think that’s from the Atlantic article, and it was the married women who said that. I would rather be alone than be with the wrong man but no matter who we’re married to, we’re going to feel alone from time to time. We have unrealistic expectations of what we can expect from marriage.
You’re getting a lot of flack for your chapter titled “How Feminism F@#ked Up My Love Life,” and how feminism empowered women and convinced us we could have it all. I thought feminism freed women and men from their traditional roles, so both could do what they wanted, IF they wanted to. Has the message been convoluted?
It wasn’t feminism per se, but there is this thinking, especially among younger women, that we can have it all. Feminism is about equality and respect. Feminists never said you should not marry Prince Charming. There needs to be equality. There’s a lot of that thinking that, “I’m strong and I’m going to get everything on this list.” Yes, it has been convoluted.
In that same chapter, you say “the traditional workplace often turns out to be unfulfilling for women after they’ve been at it for fifteen or twenty years” and that “it’s incompatible with the kind of family life many women want.” But there are many women who’d strongly disagree with that. Why do you think that’s so?
This was talking about that article in the New York Times. The women who had a choice (of staying at home or working) were happier in their marriage and choose not to work full time. The majority of women did not want to work full time, and people were offended by that.
You also take women to task for their “I don’t need a man” mantra, yet you didn’t “need a man” to start your family. What’s the difference?
Whenever we say, “I don’t need a man,” we start to rule people out. I want a man. I’ve always wanted a man. I didn’t need a man to have a baby. When people say I’m desperate or pathetic, they hear I “need” a man. It doesn’t reflect necessarily what we want. It’s an attitude women have that men find off-putting. Women come off as haughty.
Speaking of men, your son is now 4 years old. If he hasn’t started to ask about Daddy yet, he will soon, as will a generation of kids of choice moms. I’m sure one day there will be lots of research on how that impacts kids’ lives, just as there is about children of divorce. How do you think he’ll perceive his childhood?
There are studies already. I hope he’ll perceive it as a happy childhood. He has a really good life. If he had a loving father, would it enrich his life? Yeah, I think it would. But he doesn’t have that, but he has a lot of other things.
What has surprised you about being a mother?
The depth of love for your child, how strong it is, how intense it is. It has a power, that parent-child bond. You never realize what that’s going to feel like.
What advice will you give your son when he’s ready to date and perhaps marry?
I think I’ll give him my book! There are men who are picky, too. Gender aside, people need to have this information to make smart choices.
Author Lori Gottlieb was interviewed by Vicki Larson, Around the Watercooler  contributor. She is a journalist and single mom.