Happily, there are myriad ways for adults to become parents today, and it's increasingly common – and celebrated – for a woman to have a child by herself. For those who long for a biological child there's donor conception, which removes the need to find a male partner and empowers women, whatever their sexuality, to have a baby at a time that suits them. There's also adoption – a sometimes overlooked option available to anyone over the age of 21, which puts often vulnerable children into permanent loving homes.
Adoption can be an administratively gruelling process for couples, making it more demanding and often complicated for single people to navigate. But single applicants are in theory considered in the same way as any other adopter: based on their ability to meet the child's needs.
"Adopting alone means I make all the rules"
Katrina, who is self-employed and based in London, wanted to have a child and started thinking about adoption at 38. She is white and adopted her mixed-race daughter Leah, now 13, when she was five years old.
"I never felt I had to be a birthmother to be a mum. I decided to adopt as I didn’t want to go through any of the alternatives and have a birth child on my own. When you adopt, you have to ask yourself some quite tough questions about what you're prepared to take on. I was always fairly realistic about how it would be. When I adopted there were more boys waiting, so I thought I'd get a boy and hadn’t expected to adopt a girl. The hardest part of the whole process was reading the children's profiles. They were very factual, there was no emotion. They were all children with quite high levels of need.
"My daughter had been in care for two years when I first read her profile. I felt hers was a history I could deal with and openly talk about without finding it difficult. She moved in with me in 2010; it was a challenge at first. You're taking on an emotional and vulnerable child, and you become a sort of mini therapist. The behaviours she’d exhibited when she first went into foster care happened again. But I knew she’d been doing well in foster care so I knew we could get back to that. Luckily Leah is now much more able to control her emotions.
We're very open about race – she's currently reading a book about Black Lives Matter
"I've not really been aware of other people's responses to our family unit – I could biologically be her mother so it’s never been an issue. The only thing others say are tactless comments about her hair and how she controls it. I made sure she had a great hairdresser and she’s really proud of her hair, which she manages and does herself. My daughter’s heritage is important to her. I've always made sure she has access to racially diverse toys, books and films, and she’s in a very diverse school. We're very open about race – she's currently reading a book about Black Lives Matter and it’s something she’s keen to be aware about. I've supported her in this and have said that if she ever feels awkward talking about things with me, there are friends and teachers to whom she can reach out.
"I don't underestimate the importance of talking about race. Having a mixed-race daughter has made me aware of the representation and lack of representation on TV, in books, films and toys. Finding a doll that looked like her was a challenge – in the end I had to get one shipped from the US. We have an open dialogue so it has never been an issue to come between us. My daughter is very open about talking through hard issues with me. She has won awards at school for stepping in when someone has been bullied and when someone was racially abusive to another student.
"As a single adopter, it's important to have a strong relationship with your social worker. You can talk to family and friends, but they don’t fully know the background of the child. It helped for my best friends and my mum, who were my references, to meet my social worker because they then trusted her too.
"You also have to be honest with yourself. If you're not the right person for that child, then someone else hopefully will be. Don't take any negative behaviour personally. You’re not responsible for what happened to the child before – only for what happens when they walk through your door. You can only do the best you can do. I’ve never shied away from asking for help. Adopting alone means I make all the rules and play both good cop and bad cop, which can be tiring. But I’m pleased I’ve done it and am really proud of Leah. She’s become an amazing person. She’s come such a long way.”
"There are advantages to being a single parent by choice"
Jane, who lives in Cambridge and works in education, adopted a seven-month-old daughter when she was child-free in the summer of 2017. Jane was 40 when she became a parent to her daughter, who has Down's Syndrome, and is now back at work after a period of adoption leave. While Jane "had always wanted to be a parent, [she] hadn’t always wanted to adopt".
"It was a combination of counselling and talking to good friends that helped me decide to become a parent even though I was single. I decided that it was so important to me to be a parent, and that I was getting to the age when it was looking less likely I'd meet someone to have a child with. There have, of course, been challenges along the way. Some people were unsure when I first told them my prospective child had a disability. Even now I have to manage people’s reactions, either of sympathy or pity, or the over-the-top 'aren’t you amazing'-type responses. Well no, I’m an ordinary person who wanted to be a mother, and we’re working it out as we go along. There’s no need for sympathy.
"It can be tricky keeping on top of her [medical] appointments. There are so many of them and you have to be organised to keep on top of it all. Another challenge was the amount of paperwork, and hurdles to get through during the assessment process while working. Then working out how to afford adoption leave as well as childcare when returning to work. And when there are decisions to make or I have a difficult day, there’s no one to hand over to. Evenings can be difficult as a single parent. You're both tired at the end of the day and you can't opt out of making dinner and doing bath and bedtime. It's helped that friends have occasionally come over for that time of day.
"Going back to work was difficult too – I’d have liked adoption leave to be longer. I still haven't quite worked out how to balance parenting with the rest of my responsibilities. I work three days a week in my main job, and do several hours of admin for my church too. It feels like a lot to juggle and I sometimes need to remind myself that as long as we can make ends meet, then my focus needs to be on my daughter. People say the early years go very quickly, and I don’t want to miss out by working too much.
I don’t have to negotiate things with someone else, and I'm more able to make my own decisions
"Adoption has also brought me enormous joy, which definitely outweighs the challenging times and helps me get through them. My daughter makes new friends wherever she goes and I've made so many connections and friends because of her disability – if ever I have a question, I have two Facebook groups with thousands of parents who have already been through this experience, as well as great local contacts and support. People are amazing at offering practical help but also being there when I need a chat or emotional support. There are also advantages to being a single parent by choice – I don’t have to negotiate things with someone else, and I'm more able to make my own decisions.
"There are lots of everyday highlights, like taking her for new experiences – on holiday, for a first swim, others being proud of her achievements at nursery. I especially enjoyed her first birthday, and I’m looking forward to her second shortly. Overall though, the joy and fulfilment I get from being a mum is incredible. That has to be the main highlight."