There is a new breed of Solo Mum – mothers choosing to birth and bring up baby alone – finally putting the tired old Single Mother stereotype to bed.
According to new figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) this week, there has been a 22 per cent hike in the number of women choosing to go through IVF alone in just one year, marking a 226 per cent increase since 2006.
These new Solo Mums (and occasionally dads) are more than just a statistical quirk; in 2013, the year for which figures are most recently available, 952 single mothers-to-be registered at IVF clinics, says the HFEA. They are catered to by international forums on websites such as Single Mothers By Choice, whose members hail from the UK, the US and Japan, plus fertility coaches who offer one-to-once counselling for those wondering whether parenting alone would be preferable to not becoming a parent at all.
Some clinics are actively targeting this new market, with “Let’s Chill” cocktail parties where women can explore expensive egg freezing options, and seminars aimed at those “Contemplating Single Motherhood”.
However independent, successful and economically secure such women may be, just why should so many be opting to go it alone – given parenting can be such a difficult, exhausting job when shared? Experts have chalked it up to multiple factors, speculating that diminishing stigma attached to “single mothers” as well as increased acceptance of IVF and assisted conception, both play a part.
More controversially, others blame the stereotypical career woman, putting relationships and families on the back-burner while she concentrates on securing promotions and partnerships. Conversely, many men – at an age they may well have been dads-of-several, a generation ago – are supposedly reluctant to commit to marriage or fatherhood, fearful of expensive divorce cases.
Women may identify most, though, with tales like that of Caroline Young, 40-year-old mother to one year-old Bobby, who explains, “I simply didn’t meet the right man at the right time, and as I was getting older, I knew I had to revise my idea of what my ideal family unit looked like.”
Caroline, who lives in the Scottish borders, and left a career in the media to retrain as a nutritionist before Bobby’s birth, had certainly intended to parent the “traditional” way, but as she reached her late thirties without a serious relationship, began researching her options.
Only a few friends, plus her mum and dad, were let in on her decision, and while Caroline draws an elegant veil over the details of her son’s conception, suffice to say it was a meticulously planned solo venture – which left her elated when she successfully became pregnant. “It wasn’t easy, but I knew what I was letting myself in for, and there was always someone to help,” she says.
Having moved back in with her parents a month before the birth, Caroline had her mother as a birth partner, and when Bobby arrived after a four-hour labour “it was shock and love at first sight.”
Did the baby’s father not enter her head at this point? “Not really. We were a family unit of me, Bobby, mum and dad. I never felt there should be another person involved.”
Jo Morgan, a 33-year-old primary school teacher from Cwmbran, Gwent, was spurred to become a Solo Mum by the end of a relationship, two years ago. “The break-up with my boyfriend was amicable, but we had been trying, without success, for children, and I knew this was something I wanted to get on with straight away. I didn’t want to rush into another relationship just because of my desire to have a baby.’’
Having been left an inheritance by her late father, Jo chose to pay for IVF at the London Women’s Clinic, using donated sperm from the US. She became pregnant in 2013 at the second attempt using a frozen embryo and was so delighted, that after the 12-week scan, she ordered more sperm from the same donor, so that she could have a second genetically identical child later.
Eadie was born in February 2014, with Jo’s mum acting as birth partner, and in January of this year, Jo underwent IVF again and is now pregnant with Eadie’s full brother. “It was really important to me that Eadie had a sibling to share her background with,” she says.
A sperm donor and IVF was the route for Lucy Workman, 43, too; as a result, twins Ned and Nancy were born in July 2012. ”People say ‘I’d never do what you’ve done’ ,” says Lucy. “But unless you’ve been 40 years old without a child you can’t know how it feels.”
She admits to a ‘’lot of soul searching’’ before going ahead, but says, ”The twins were as far from being an accident as is possible. It was a painful business, emotionally and physically. Some people accused me of being selfish – but now my life is all about children and as unselfish as can be.’’
Mothers like these are usually “strong women” agrees Dr Amin Gorgy, Fertility Consultant at The Fertility & Gynaecology Academy (fertility-academy.co.uk). While he believes many would still prefer to have been through this emotionally and physically draining means of starting a family with a loving partner by their side, he thinks it’s a positive that the increasing availability of fertility treatment means women “feel empowered to make their own choices’’.
Not all Solo Mums are birth mothers, of course. Single adoptive mother and writer “instant mummy” (her necessary nom de plume to protect her son’s identity) had always planned to adopt – although not as a lone parent, initially.
She says: “Even as a child I never expected to have my own birth children, but to take on a child from care. My brother was an adopted child and so it seemed normal to me, although – as far as I know – there is no reason why I should have not had children naturally.
“I didn’t plan to be a lone parent, but after a family bereavement at 40 I realised the clock was ticking. When my relationship ended shortly afterwards I decided to go it alone and fell in love with a troubled little four-year-old boy who is now my much-loved son.
“Three years on, parenting a child who has suffered the trauma of losing a birth parent or of significant neglect and abuse like my son has been incredibly tough. Alone, especially so. A friend of mine referred to single parenting as double parenting as you are both mum and dad, nurturer and disciplinarian, fun parent and working parent, home maker and wage earner. Being all things at all times isn’t easy and as an adoptive parent I don’t have the back up of an ex-partner or another family involved in the child’s life. It can be a lonely place to be, especially during challenging times or times when you want to share the joys.”
On the upside, she enjoys the freedom of making her own decisions: “I set all boundaries and rules, too, so we are a tight knit tiny team, and I make sure I am supported by a network of family, friends and adoptive mums, single and otherwise.’’
As with most Solo Mums “instant mummy” is committed to doing everything she can to compensate for the absence of a biological father in her son’s life. “I work hard to make sure there are good male role models in my son’s life – his godfathers, his sports coaches, male members of my family. It is crucial.”
Jo agrees. She is close to her brother and his two sons, who she hopes will offer plenty of male role modelling, in the absence of a ”birth’’ dad.
Dr Sophie Zadeh, a researcher at the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University specialising in new family forms says good parents come in all shapes and sizes. “Our research has consistently shown that it’s not the structure of families that’s the most important, but the quality of parenting and parent-child relationships,” she says.
While Solo Mums may well make equally, or even more effective, parents than those in traditional set-ups – how will they explain it to their children as they grow older?
Says Lucy: ”I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t foresee how the twins will react. They already know they don’t have a father and they know that lots of children have different shaped families.
“I do believe that the earlier they understand the reality of their situation the better so it won’t come as a shock. But a lot can change. I might meet someone and get married, and they will have a father.’’
Caroline admits she gave thought to whether having a child might deter a future partner before conception. ”But I knew that could be an excuse; I had to get on and decided if I met someone later, they would have to accept the package, not just me.’’
Says “instant mummy”: ”Maybe I won’t be single for ever, and someone will appear, but they will have to be Mr Right for my son.”
Does she rue this added complication to life? ”You could ask that of any parent. Is it fair to ask that of single parents? The answer of course is that I love my child and of course I have no regrets, whatever life throws at us. That is the only answer there is.”