Building the Hive
Erin James-Abra always knew she wanted a family. She just couldn’t predict what shape it would take.
When I was seven months pregnant, I learned most bees live alone. I edit an encyclopedia for a living, and the first draft of an article titled “Bees” had just arrived in my inbox. Up until that moment, I thought that all bees lived in hives, congregating in the thousands to make light of life’s daily chores. My desk’s retractable keyboard tray pressed uncomfortably against my swollen belly, but I leaned closer to the computer screen anyway, eager to know more.
When a lone bee is ready to birth, she builds herself a nest, usually in the ground or in the spongy stems of plants like raspberries or blackberries. She digs a hallway in the earth and adds adjoining rooms, one for each of her young. She drags dirt into each room and lines the walls with it. Then she paints the walls with a sort of saliva, giving the room a waxy, protective membrane. Some species, like those in the genus Megachile, have a decorative flair, lining the rooms with leaves and petals. When her nest is made, the bee lays an egg in one of the rooms and moves on down the hallway.
I saw myself in these lone bees. A couple of years earlier, I had decided to become a single mother by choice. The image of the solitary female bee pre-paring to lay her eggs gave me natural precedent for something that—for my own species and many others—seemed unnatural. Much like my early understanding of bees, when I think of animals I think of them in groups. There are swarms of hornets, colonies of ants, schools of fish, prides of lions, murders of crows, gaggles of geese and herds of cattle. Humans have families, tribes, clans and communities. Yet there I stood that summer, alone and full-bellied in my garden, gathering lavender leaves like a Megachile bee. Their colour would eventually line the walls of my son’s nursery.
Despite the fact that I felt like an outsider throughout my pregnancy, I’m far from the only parent making a go of it alone. The number of single-parent families in Canada increased by 13 percent between 1996 and 2016. It’s unclear how many of these families were made up of single parents by choice—national statistics aren’t gathered on this front—but 78 percent of them were headed by mothers. Still, I never planned on being part of this growing trend.
For most of my life, I was set on following all the mating and reproduction rituals prescribed to us by science and cultural norms. Unlike most animals, humans are supposed to procreate with someone we love. We’re taught this as children, usually during our first birds-and-the-bees conversation. We want to connect with our partners. We want them to be our best friends and soulmates. They should agree with us on most topics, be willing to compromise where we differ and finish our sentences.
I absorbed these beliefs and ideals growing up, maybe even more than the average kid. Both of my parents are marriage and family therapists, and their decades-long partnership provided me and my sister with a secure and supportive nuclear family. Our childhoods came complete with regular family meetings and dinners. This was the type of love and the type of family I assumed I would have, too. But after many painful years of searching, I found neither. So I built something else instead.
I’ve known that I wanted children since I was a teenager. In my twenties, I began searching for a partner, in part so that I could start a family. I went to bars and clubs in Toronto and performed various mating dances. When dating apps replaced the bar two-step with frenzied swiping, I stalled a bit, reluctant to meet people in away that felt contrived. But eventually I caved, made an OkCupid profile and did that dance, too.
By my late twenties, I was working towards a graduate degree in journalism. The women in the program were ambitious and in many ways, I was as well. I wanted competitive internships and a long career as a journalist. But more than all that, I wanted a baby.
Surrounded by women who aspired to anchor the evening news or elbow their way through media scrums, my desire to have a child felt primitive. What self-respecting third-wave feminist would pause her career before it had really begun in order to procreate? Were there not glass ceilings to be cracked? Corner offices to be occupied?
One day, I told a trusted professor about my all-consuming obsession with having a child. Her area of expertise was health and science reporting, and she didn’t mince words. I best get on it, she said, as I was running out of time. Rather than cause me more anxiety, my professor’s advice came as welcome confirmation of something my body already seemed to be screaming at me.
I knew that when I was born I had—like most people with a uterus—about two million eggs inside of me. A month after my birth, about eleven thousand of those eggs had died. Eleven thousand more died each month until I reached puberty, and another thousand every month after that.
I was twenty-eight when I finished graduate school. While I hadn’t yet crunched the numbers on how many eggs I had left, I was beginning to urgently feel that I was running out of time to have a child. The problem was I couldn’t find the right person to have one with me.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. The small hurts of each of my failed relationships had been piling up into a weighty grief. There had been the actor, the bass player, the barista, the photographer, the rapper and the punk. I had fallen for a body piercer, a cheese maker, a yoga teacher and a businessman. Despite my best efforts, none of these relationships worked out. Some of them ended for good reason (a developing dairy intolerance, for example, soured things with the cheese maker). Some ended because I could see it wasn’t a fit, and some ended for reasons I still don’t understand.
Unlike my professor, most people looked at me sideways when I told them how badly I wanted a baby. Don’t worry, they’d say, you have lots of time. In some ways, this was true. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of babies born to “older women” in Canada increased significantly: there was an 11 percent jump among women in their mid to late thirties, a 22 percent jump among those in their early forties, and a 100 percent jump among those in their late forties.
There are all kinds of reasons for these increases, some of them more obvious than others. Since the 1960s, the birth control pill has made it easier for women to postpone having children in order to pursue other goals. And the persistent cultural notion that women can “have it all”—partner, career, kids—adds further pressure on people to plan out their lives so that their careers are underway before they have children. Education levels, housing prices and women’s cultural and religious values factor in to their decisions, too.Then there’s a newer reason: a growing body of research suggests that dating apps are making it harder, not easier, to find a partner.
Despite being squarely in the middle of this cultural shift, I didn’t want to be a part of it. I knew from my endless research that women who delay childbirth face higher rates of infertility, and of prenatal and postpartum complications. A twenty-two-year-old woman’s risk of miscarriage is 9 percent. By the time she’s thirty, it’s doubled to 18 percent, then it increases again to 20 percent at thirty-five and to 40 percent at forty.
I already felt a kind of grief over not being able to find a partner. To add to that the grief of not being able to conceive, or to conceive but then lose my child, seemed unbearable to me.
In my early thirties, as my desire to have a child shifted from frantic to desperate, my sister and her wife began talking about starting their own family. While they were fairly private about the process, it was clear they would need to use a sperm donor. They had two options: find someone they knew who was willing to donate their sperm, or go to a sperm bank. Listening to them discuss the possibilities felt like a revelation. Wait, I thought, I could do that too. The realization left me feeling light and giddy.
Of the two options available to me, I still preferred the first. I clung to the idea that creating a life with someone I loved, marrying our DNA, would be a beautiful thing. To conceive a child with someone I’d never met made me fear I’d be handed a baby and not recognize their features. I began searching for someone who would be willing to give me his sperm.
One winter night, as we prepared root vegetables for roasting, a friend offered to make such a donation. He was sitting at the kitchen table and I was standing at the counter, chopping. He already knew I wanted a baby. When I brought up my desire to use a known donor, he casually and quietly said, “Well, I could do that.” I kept my head down. If I turned to look at him, I worried he would see the excitement on my face. I figured he’d take it back if I reacted too strongly, so I tried to play it cool.
I’d cared for this man since my early twenties, but for reasons best summed up by our zodiac signs (I’m a Taurus, he’s an Aries) it didn’t work out. We had fooled around before and were sleeping together at the time he made the offer. Maybe, I dared hope, he would even be willing to have sex with me in order to conceive. If I couldn’t have the man, at least I could have everything else: the lovemaking, the child born of that act and a piece of the man in the child.
But then spring and summer passed with little to no contact between us (a true Aries, he was apt to roam). Eventually, he arrived on my doorstep with flowers in hand to tell me he was backing out. He thought the sex we’d had in the past would turn our baby-making scheme into an overly complicated, overly emotional affair. Again, I didn’t look at him, this time to hide my disappointment.
I briefly considered other options, like co-parenting, where two romantically uninvolved people team up to raise a child. I even signed up for a sperm matchmaking site called PollenTree. Like on-line dating, registration is free and easy, but the people you match with simply agree to give you their sperm, also for free. There’s no sex or awkward, first-date conversation required. But neither of these options felt right to me.
I was happy when another friend volunteered his services a few months later. But his offer, while just as tender as the first, was similarly impulsive. This second arrangement dissolved, fuelling my feeling of being alone.
I had spent the better part of my adult life struggling to find someone with whom to create a family, and even when I did away with the ring and the vows and the white dress and the until-death-do-us-part, I was still failing. I was angry and confused, and the ringing of my biological clock in my ears was growing intolerable. In the end, I decided to cut the mess of human connection out of it entirely.
The fertility clinic I chose is located in an office tower on the corner of Bloor and Church streets in Toronto. The building sits between neighbourhoods: it’s at the north end of the Gay Village, the south end of wealthy Rosedale, the east end of the swanky Bloor Street strip, and on the cusp of the Danforth, also known as Greektown. It stands in a kind of no-place, really. Its sterile white walls offered me a blank slate for inscribing my future hopes.
I was a patient in the clinic’s program designed for people who aren’t experiencing fertility problems, but who need help conceiving because they’re single, queer or trans. A nurse led me to a small private room where I waited to meet my doctor. When she bounded through the door, her energy was palpable. If there were formalities, I don’t remember them. “So, you want to have a baby?” she said within seconds. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
I could have kissed her. She didn’t question me. She didn’t tell me that I still had time to find a partner. She simply sat down in front of me and began filling out the paperwork. After a round of cycle monitoring to determine when I ovulated each month, I could start trying to conceive. All I had to do was choose a sperm bank and a donor. The sperm at the bank I went with cost $775 per vial—not insignificant by any means, but doable for me at the time. Once I paid for it, it would be frozen through a method called cryopreservation and shipped from the bank to a storage facility, where it would sit until I needed it.
Looking back, I imagine the storage facility as a kind of spermatheca, the place where female bees store sperm in their bodies. This internal storage system gives them the power to choose when to use the sperm to fertilize their eggs. Though slightly more limited by my ovulation cycle, I felt similarly empowered. When I was ovulating, the sperm would be delivered to the clinic, thawed and placed in my uterus via a catheter. It all felt so efficient.
Still, the choosing-a-sperm-donor part proved to be one of the hardest for me. In the end, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I picked someone I thought I’d be attracted to in person. The sperm bank had given him the alias Jericho, and I liked the biblical weight of the name. In the Bible, Jericho is a city of palm trees, an oasis in the desert. I was given twenty-five pages of information about him. Jericho was six foot five and 215 pounds. He had brown hair and eyes. His mother was Mexican and his father was Irish and Swedish. His favourite foods were Mexican, mashed potatoes and Swedish meatballs.
Jericho is what’s known as an “open ID donor,” so once my child turns eighteen he can contact him if he wants to. This opportunity is only available to my child, not me. I like it that way. I have no desire to meet him. The simplicity of our arrangement came as a relief. Any lingering grief I carried about not being able to find a mate was overshadowed by the sense of agency I felt. A bit naively, I had little fear about the prospect of being a single mother. Instead, I was filled with joyful anticipation.
When my water broke, I was on my way to the seamstress. Unlike the sensical nesting of solitary bees, my prenatal preparations included such nonsensical tasks as having my pajama pants hemmed. It was an unusually warm day in early October, and the water trickled down my bare legs. By the time I’d locked myself in the washroom of my office, the water was gushing out of me in sporadic bursts. I sat down on the toilet and fumbled for my phone. Mom, I texted, please come get me.
I spent about twelve hours in my hospital room, waiting for active labour to begin. When my first contraction hit, I shot up from the yoga ball I had been bouncing on and wailed. My mom, who was waiting with me, jumped up too.
The baby came faster than we expected. In my memory, the moment my midwife handed me my son was silent. The fact that I had once feared not recognizing him seemed far off, ridiculous. I knew every inch of him. I knew his dark hair and eyes. I knew the intentional way he stared up at me from my breast, unblinking, silent, watching. Here was my boy, in my arms, finally.
The days, weeks and months that followed, however, were the hardest of my life. What I did was natural in terms of following my body’s instincts, but unnatural in the sense that, unlike some bees, women are not meant to mother alone. People aren’t meant to parent alone. In some ways, I came to this realization instantly.
I spent my first night in the hospital repeatedly pressing the nurses’ call button. How do I feed this baby? Why won’t he latch? Then, after a brief attempt living with my son in our apartment, I called my father in the middle of the night. My son lay on the bed before me, his shock of infant hair dark against the white sheets. He was screaming.
“Can you come get us?” I begged my dad. He did, and my son and I lived with my parents for the next three months.
My parents’ support is something I had planned for. I knew that to be a single mother by choice didn’t mean I needed to raise my child in isolation. I had moved back to my hometown from Toronto, a city I loved, in order to be near my family. My parents held me up during those early, delusional, sleep-deprived weeks, and continue to parent alongside me today.
That I needed more support than even my parents could provide is the part that took me longer to accept. I needed peers, other parents. I needed playgroups, mother-support groups and a kid-friendly gym. I needed a postpartum doula and cafes where I could sit, exhausted, while staff welcomed me by name. And, eventually, I needed another version of me. Someone to parent my child for the majority of his waking, weekday hours when I returned to work full time.
I met this co-parent-to-be in the summertime. The day was warm, and she was standing in her backyard, the grass littered with Tonka trucks and vintage Fisher-Price toys. The four children under her care ran between us while we spoke. Her name was Chantal. I liked the brightness of her name. Derived from an early Romance language and meaning “stone” or “boulder,” the name had weight. It was fitting, since Chantal quickly became my rock. My first steps as a working parent and my son’s literal first steps were both taken under her watchful eye.
Soon, my son walked beyond our living rooms. As he explored the outdoors, he liked to pick wildflowers. He would tug on them with his small hands until he plucked them from the earth, stumbling backward slightly with each successful effort. Together we gathered and made bouquets of Queen Anne’s lace, black medic and common chicory. My son especially liked the small, white-pink buds of clover. He often presented these to me, saying, “mama boo,” boo being his word for flower. Bees, in particular honey bees, also love clover. On our clover-picking walks, when my son saw a bee, he would make a focused effort to mimic the bee’s sound. “Bzzzzzz,” he’d say. Then he’d look up and silently follow the bee’s movements with his index finger.
If he had had the patience, he might have followed the honey bee back to its hive, where, unlike their solitary cousins, tens of thousands of them belong to a single colony. Each colony has a queen, whose sole responsibility it is to lay eggs. The resulting young are cooperatively cared for by female worker bees.
Slowly, I began building a colony of my own. It includes my mother, father and Chantal, as well as an ever-growing collection of like-minded parents and their children. I am a better parent when surrounded by these people. Over the past year, as my access to this community has been limited, it’s become even more clear how crucial they are to the well-being of both me and my son.
One day, during the fall my son turned three, Chantal reported that “family” had been the topic of that morning’s circle-time conversation. She had prompted the children by asking, “Who do you live with?” Many named their mothers and fathers, and perhaps a sibling or a pet. When it was my son’s turn he said, “I live with my mama, my grandma and grandpa, and you.”
I flooded with joy. My son never knew the lone nest I originally envisioned having him in. Instead, he knows our hive.
Erin James-Abra is an editor and writer. She lives in Stratford, Ontario, with her son, Jacoby.