Once upon a time there was a beautiful 20-something Israeli brunette in Tel Aviv named Anna. She went on a valiant hunt for her Prince Charming through JDate, OKCupid, nightlife outings and the ever-scarce set-ups (this was before the age of Tinder).
She didn’t think her standards were too high. Ideally, he should be at least 180 cm. tall; highly intelligent (preferably good at math); Jewish or gentile didn’t really matter; and, of course, attractive, with a pleasant personality. It would help if he were accomplished.
Finally, at age 38, Anna found him – online, from a list of sperm donors provided by Ichilov Hospital, in the form of a mixed European-Russian-Israeli donor. He fit most of her qualifications, at least based on the written description and staff feedback. She couldn’t even see a picture. But as most of her romantic prospects until that point turned out to be frogs, this time she thought, “He’ll do just fine.”
Today, Anna (all women interviewed requested fictitious names) is the single mother of both a two-year-old prince and a princess, achieved through the petri-dish union of the charming stranger’s seed and some feisty eggs. This Valentine’s Day, Anna will be cuddling with her twins as a single mom by (reluctant) choice.
Where have all the good men gone?
Anna is among the growing number of single Israeli women who are resorting to sperm banks to realize their dream of a family – or rather, their non-dream – of a family without a husband. By the time they have passed the age of 35, many find that the good men are already taken, leaving them with few options during a period of declining fertility.
“Ultimately, I got news from my doctor that my eggs were running out. I already knew at age 36 that my fertility situation was not so good, so I gave myself a bit more time to find a partner,” Anna said. By then, however, she already felt like “damaged goods.”
“I think until age 30, there are many good men out there. It seems the really good ones stay married, and those in the market aren’t as good and attractive,” she said while folding laundry in her Tel Aviv apartment, where she lives with a Filipino nanny and, sometimes, her very hands-on mother.
In the large hi-tech company where she works as a senior executive, Anna says she can count one single man – in his 50s. The rest are married. At restaurants, bars and clubs, she looks around and counts many more women than men. And they, she says, are by and large, “unattractive, don’t groom themselves, hairy, short, chubby. Women will always look better than them because they can’t afford not to. All the good-looking men are full of themselves.”
When it came to relationships, Anna was a late bloomer, with her first long-term, serious and ultimately failed relationship ending at 31. “In my 20s, I wasn’t mature and ripe enough for a relationship. I made bad decisions.” In her now-or-never frenzy at age 37, she “dated” gay men as potential co-parents to share the burden of childbearing. “I realized for that you also need someone ‘good enough’ – financially, appearance-wise. It’s like dating.”
Finally, she settled on “Sperm Charming.”
“I grew up on the Cinderella fairy tale. It should’ve been that story, but the prince didn’t come. The last thing Cinderella wanted to do was to have a child on her own.”
Among her friends, Anna was a pioneer. Now, three of her single friends have followed in her footsteps and are expecting. Anna belongs to several forums for women who opt for Sperm Charming, like Ronit. In the global company where she works as an internal auditor, Ronit counts four other single mothers.
Now or never
In her daughter, Rina’s, nursery, there are five other children who were conceived through donor sperm. After pushing motherhood off for a few years, Ronit, now 42, set age 37 as her “now-or-never” deadline. She found that she couldn’t date anymore because it was as if she had a sign on her forehead that asked: “Will you be the father of my children?” Like Anna, she also “dated” gay men, but “Mr. Gay Right” never showed up, either.
She carefully calculated her finances and realized she could afford one child on her own. She ordered sperm of Lebanese origin from a sperm bank in California, to avoid the possibility of Rina having half-siblings in Israel. (Anna’s twins, on the other hand, have already met some of their Israeli half-siblings.)
“I don’t think there are no good guys in Israel,” Ronit said from the living room of her one-bedroom Tel Aviv apartment. “I think it’s a matter of phases and my own mistakes. For many years, I chose guys with whom I had no chance of having a child, or even a relationship. Conscious or subconscious, I wouldn’t have considered the good guys. Maybe they were too good.”
Eliana, a Tel Aviv-based company manager, is six months pregnant from the seed of an Ashkenazi Jew with a good sense of humor. “Intelligence was more important than straight hair and eye color,” she said over the phone after an exhausting evening shopping for baby goods following a full day’s work.
Like Ronit, Eliana doesn’t blame the lack of good men, just her own dating choices.
“Then when you get older, your standards go up,” she said.
Some women – like Tanya, 42, a modern-Orthodox Israeli-German journalist – described choosing a sperm donor they could imagine dating.
“From the description, I thought it was someone whom I would like. Also personality-wise, I would probably go out with him if a shadchanit (matchmaker) would suggest it.”
“Together,” they produced a two-year-old son – the love of Tanya’s life.
Like many women living this non-fairy tale, Tanya is attractive, successful, educated, smart, well-grounded and value-oriented. Tanya thinks “princes” are scared by such women. The men, on the other hand, grow-up on more traditional images of the intellectual and financial male powerhouse supported by the dutiful, supportive wife and mother.
She believes most women over 35 are “over-qualified” for the men in their peer group.
“Men have more choice and I think they subconsciously choose the easier way. It’s definitely easier with women who aren’t so much of an intellectual challenge. I personally met men whom I was very interested in but who told me straight to my face, ‘It’s too exhausting for me.’”
Ironically, she finds that men who are less intimidated are younger, still in the process of achieving their professional and financial goals. The “cougar” dynamic, however, more often than not does not lead to family.
“If I met someone younger, who was 30 and maybe a carpenter, I don’t think I’d have a family with him,” Tanya said. “I might have an affair with him. For marriage and family, we still look for someone on the same level education-wise, finance-wise.”
Jerusalem-based marriage family therapist and relationship coach Micki Lavin-Pell offered an explanation for the seeming gap between highly educated men and women age 35-plus.
“A lot of men who are also academic somehow had managed to balance their careers with dating, whereas a lot of women feel, perhaps, they’ve had to push through the glass ceiling,” she said. “They have to work extra hard to advance their careers. And when they do finally say, ‘OK, now I’m really ready to focus on this next stage,’ they’re shocked and appalled that the men are married or no longer there. Women who are not as advanced in their careers – while they could be lovely and street-smart – are not on the same academic spectrum as they are and there’s a big gap in what’s left out there.”
To be a parent is almost obligatory
While feminism has helped level the educational and professional playing field between men and women, Lavin-Pell said, men still gravitate toward a more traditional family life, with the relationship dynamics of their grandparents’ generation guiding their choice of mate.
Furthermore, she cites a statistic that shows one in three young women were sexually abused, which makes them particularly vulnerable and wary when entering relationships. By the time they reach their 30s, they are often too burned to enter a relationship with ease and openness. It’s not that they’re the proverbial “picky;” it’s that they lack trust.
“Being career-focused is sometimes a by-product of that,” Lavin-Pell said. “A career is something you can control. A relationship is something you can’t.”
Prof. Shevach Friedler, director of the infertility and IV unit at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon and a senior professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has assisted hundreds of women become pregnant. In the last five years, he has seen a marked increase in women over 35 who see him at the clinics he serves, concerned about their waning fertility. Fertility declines at age 35 and then free-falls after 40.
“They grow up learning about a prince on a white horse, but reality is much more complicated,” he said.
Some women opt to freeze their eggs to redeem at a later date, hopefully with a partner, a medical process that only until recently has been partially subsidized by Israel’s healthcare system. Others take the more secure, direct route of artificial insemination, or IVF, with a sperm donation.
“The world has gone through many sociological changes, and women have developed careers,” Friedler said. “They are less pressured to marry, and no one arranges marriages anymore.”
Following the breakdown of traditional marriage, the growing supremacy of romantic love, women’s liberation and medical developments that started with the birth control pill, the phenomenon of single mothers by choice is a logical progression.
Friedler welcomes it. “Children want to be loved and it doesn’t matter by whom.”
The Israeli government seems to encourage childbearing – no matter what the framework. Israel is known as a country with one of the highest birthrates in the Western world. The country’s national health insurance system offers one of the world’s most generous fertility packages.
“All fertility treatments are covered for singles and couples, fully subsidized up until two children, and partially thereafter,” Friedler said. “It comes from the thought that they want to increase the population as much as possible. It’s a young country. I’m sure it’s based on the trauma of the Holocaust.”
Anna said a driving force behind her desire to have children was societal pressure. Most of her friends have children. Israel is a family-oriented society. “With all the pressure there is in Israel, living without children wasn’t an option.”
The 2016 Israeli census shows that – contrary to what some women over 35 may observe – there is actually a surplus of single men over 35. Never-married Jewish women between the ages of 35 and 39 accounted for 15.3% of the population compared to 20.6% of their male counterparts.
Yet the number of never-married Jewish women who have given birth has steadily increased, from about 1,000 women aged 40-plus in 2013, to about 1,350 in 2017 – and about 1,600 women aged 35-39 in 2013, to about 1,900 in 2017 (an increase of about 1% relative to the population in both cases). For women over 40, the rate jumped by 6% in 2017 from the multi-year average of 2005 through 2009.
One measure of the trend is the flourishing growth of sperm banks in Israel, from a handful in the 1980s to more than a dozen today.
“There’s definitely an increase of inquiries in Israel, not just at Assaf Harofeh,” said Prof. Ido Ben-Ami, director of the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center sperm bank in Tzrifin. Sperm banks first opened in Israel primarily to serve couples with husbands who had a low sperm count. Now, they predominantly serve single women or lesbian couples.
“To be a parent in Israel is almost obligatory,” said Ben-Ami. “It’s as if you must be a parent. In the US, you have women who choose not to be mothers. In Israel, it’s not considered legitimate to say you don’t want to be a parent, not in a country that really encourages childbirth.”
Definitely Plan B
While there may be no shortage of single Israeli men, there is a shortage of qualified Israeli sperm donors, who must meet the strict parameters.
“This created a pretty new phenomenon of women requesting sperm donors from abroad,” Ben-Ami said.
Assaf Harofeh and other sperm banks have partnered with banks in Europe and the United States to give clients more options. For example, Israeli donors must be completely anonymous, while foreign sperm banks offer the extra benefit of “open donors” who agree to accept contact with their biological child after he or she turns 18.
Foreign sperm banks also offer more detailed descriptions, and in some cases, pictures of the donor as a child or adult. Foreign sperm, however, comes at a heftier price tag – almost double the cost of Israeli sperm – thus counter-balancing the subsidized cost of the actual treatment.
Many women, however, are willing to pay the price. If they can’t date their hunky dream man, they’ll vicariously procreate with him.
“I have to say that when I got to run the sperm bank, the prototype the women wanted is the European, not Israeli, look: tall, blond hair and blue eyes,” Ben-Ami said.
He’s also impressed by the caliber of his single customers. “Their children are impressive as well. Very invested in.”
Some women see benefits in going at motherhood solo.
“It’s definitely Plan B. But on the other hand, I felt a tremendous relief when I decided on this path and became a single mom,” Tanya said. “I was relieved and also in a certain way happy, because I feel so liberated, so free, as if I freed myself from the pressure to find a husband and start a traditional family.”
She said it’s certainly preferable over a difficult divorce that involves fights over custody, childcare, education and place of residence.
Tanya is now embarking on her journey toward a second child – also solo – to give her son a biological half-sibling. “But I’m still hoping I’ll get married some day because I’m worried my son doesn’t have a male role model.”
Ronit doesn’t mourn any lost fairy tale. “I’m not a victim here. I chose the life I wanted to live. And it was a great choice because I have a beautiful, fun, wonderful daughter. I couldn’t ask for more, and now I’m starting to date again.”
She also sees the positives in raising Rina on her own.
“One advantage is that you’re the sole educator. There is no father to say ‘X’ and no mother to say ‘Y.’”
She now enters the dating scene with a lot more maturity and a finer radar. She’s looking for a role model for her daughter, too.
“It’s easier to date divorcées,” Ronit said. “When I was single, they said no because they didn’t want more kids.”
Eliana believes women who call this path a preferred one are deluding themselves. She would have much rather mothered a child with a loving partner. Still, she’s at peace with her very conscious decision.
“I’m optimistic. I decided it’s my fate, and I’ll succeed with it.”
Anna would love to find her prince and browses Tinder and OKCupid when she’s not too overwhelmed juggling her full-time job with raising twins. She realized how much life has changed when a familiar face on OKCupid congratulated her after noticing that she changed her status to single+2. But at least she feels less pressure.
“The hourglass is not standing over my head, and now I can find a man not just for seed,” she said.
Still, one of her favorite pastimes (when the children are sleeping) is watching Hallmark movies, wistfully, with the hope – or is it fantasy? – that she can realize a happily-ever-after love story of her own, and a real Valentine’s date in the near future.
“Ultimately, I want a relationship, no matter what,” Anna said, determined. “Even though I have children, I still long for a partner above all.”