The Women Who’ve Chosen To Have Kids Alone During The Pandemic

Photo by Krystal Neuvill.
If you picked up a newspaper or watched a TV drama during the '90s or '00s, you were likely exposed to two varieties of single mother: the weatherbeaten heroine grafting day and night to do right by her kids, and the untrustworthy and wanton woman who swerved responsibility. Like all sexist stereotypes, these two images limited and punished women for deviating even slightly from the mainstream-approved, nuclear family setup. The thing they had in common, though, was that neither woman was living a life of her own design. 
What, then, would '90s newspaper columnists make of women who choose to conceive a child by themselves? A swell in social media representation (see the burgeoning #SoloMumByChoice on Instagram) and an increase in the overall number of first-time mothers aged over 35 suggest that more women are actively choosing solo parenthood. When 35-year-old actress Amber Heard announced last month that she’d welcomed her first baby via a surrogate, she said she hoped that it would one day be normalised "to not want a ring in order to have a crib".
New research, like that being done by Dr Nicola Carroll at the University of Huddersfield, points out that the stigmas surrounding single mothers are not only outdated but unfounded. Studies show that having a single mother has "insignificant" effect on children’s development and that being a young parent can be positive.
The stereotypes are being challenged by women like Nicola Johnson, who lives in the suburbs of Leeds. She began trying for a baby solo in January after splitting from her partner just before Christmas last year. After spending her early to mid 30s intermittently travelling and working abroad, she returned to the UK when she was 36 with the intention of settling down. "I wanted to come back to Leeds, get a job where I had a good work/life balance and then meet somebody," Nicola, now 41, recalls. "So I was doing all the dating and everything – and I think when you know that you want to have kids in the near future it’s actually quite difficult to date, because you've got to broach that subject quite early." 
At the end of 2019, Nicola did meet a partner. But midway through their yearlong relationship and amid the coronavirus pandemic, she discovered she has a condition called premature ovarian insufficiency, a form of early menopause. "It was quite early in our relationship," she says. "Then we had to decide what we were going to do about it and he just wasn't ready for that. It was too much, too soon."

There are so many different journeys of parenthood that being single and being a parent isn't something that's a taboo anymore.

Nicola, 41
Nicola has since been trying for a baby via donated embryos from a fertility clinic in Spain (a practice which is legal in the UK but more common in countries where donors’ details are kept anonymous throughout a child’s life). The process has been delayed multiple times due to the pandemic, as Nicola is required to visit the clinic for embryo transfers. During this period, Nicola has found solidarity and advice in online spaces where women share experiences that mirror her own – from Instagram hashtags and Facebook groups to communities like Fertility Help Hub
"Once you start talking about it, you just realise how common it is," she says of the desire to have a baby solo. "Now, there are so many different journeys of parenthood that being single and being a parent isn't something that's a taboo anymore."
Even within the community of solo mothers by choice, there are many different paths to becoming a parent. Among them are adopting a child, undergoing IVF with anonymous donor sperm, and self-insemination with sperm donated by someone known to the mother. For many women, more informal sperm donation is the only realistic option, due to restrictions on who can access IVF and IUI (artificial insemination with sperm from a partner or donor) via the NHS. 
Heterosexual couples who want to have NHS-funded IVF must have been having regular unprotected sex for two years. Women in same-sex relationships – and solo mothers – are instead required to have had 12 rounds of artificial insemination without success. Before they can access insemination on the NHS, women must have tried the treatment six times at a private clinic – at a cost of between £700 and £1,600 per attempt. The way the NHS’s criteria is imposed varies across the country and, in 2019, it emerged that NHS South East London had banned single women from fertility treatment altogether, claiming that lone parents are a "burden on society". 
In the UK, evolving attitudes to single parents over the last 50 years have been intertwined with the advent of contemporary feminism, increasing financial independence for women and an overarching shift towards more fluid conceptions of gender and sexuality. As women have broadly gained greater control over almost all aspects of their lives, many women’s desire to have agency over their reproductive future has grown, too. According to a 2020 report by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HEFA), egg and embryo freezing increased more than fivefold between 2013 and 2018. This growth appears to have been spurred on even further by the pandemic, with The Sunday Times reporting that some fertility clinics saw enquiries rise by 50% last summer.
Egg freezing and IVF are far more accessible to women with the backing of independent wealth. For Tamara Walton-Gray, who is asexual and has always wanted to be a mum, spending hundreds of pounds on fertility treatments wasn’t an option. The 25-year-old, who lives at home, decided to go down the route of informal sperm donation in 2020 (also in the midst of the pandemic) with a man she met on a donor listing website, after watching a YouTube video created by another solo mum. Tamara, who lives in North Yorkshire, was in contact with her donor for a couple of months and met him once in person (accompanied by her mother) before making the decision to accept his offer. He later delivered a sample on the day Tamara ovulated, and she inseminated herself at home.

The stress of having to find a person you see yourself with for the next five, 10, 30 years is gone. You never have to worry about custody battles or visitation stress when the relationship breaks down. 

nicole, 25
"[People who aren’t asexual] have the option to have a child for free with somebody that they're with," Tamara explains. "It’s sad to think that it was going to be so expensive for me to have a child when other people don't necessarily have to pay."
Tamara points out that the path she chose does come with risk. This is because, unlike donors who are anonymous to the mother thanks to donating via a licensed clinic, ‘known donors’ technically have a right to be recognised as a legal parent of the baby. Sperm samples also haven’t been screened for infections like HIV and hepatitis – though, of course, this would equally be true of becoming pregnant after a one-night stand or by sleeping with someone whose STI status wasn’t known to you.
Tamara’s daughter, Tavra, is now almost three months old and, judging by the reception Tamara has received when talking about her path to motherhood, she feels solo parenthood has become more and more mainstream. "When I mentioned to friends, even practical strangers, that I was pregnant, and they asked me, ‘Oh, you have a partner?’ and I explained it, most people seemed to think it was quite empowering for a woman to decide to have a baby by herself," she says. "It's definitely not easy doing it alone. There are challenges but I think people tend to understand more now, maybe more than they would have even just a few years ago."
Nicole Mallett, 25, who is 19 weeks pregnant with her second child (her first as a solo mum by choice), has also noticed a shift towards greater acceptance. "If a child is loved, and the parent learns from their mistakes, that’s all that truly matters," she says. "I still get embarrassed and I’m still working on just leaving it as ‘I’m a solo mum’ and waiting for questions instead of rushing to defend myself."
Nicole, who lives in Southwick, West Sussex, says her twin sister was excited when she became pregnant and, after asking a few questions about the process, was accepting of her choice to conceive with donor sperm from a friend. However, she notes a possible generational gap in attitudes, explaining that her parents were "confused" by what she was doing at first. "They didn’t understand initially as they are in their 50s," she says. Similarly, Tamara says solo parenthood was a "stranger concept" for her grandparents than people closer to her own age.
Like Nicola Johnson, Nicole cites the pressure that the search for a co-parent places on dating – a process which, due to the pandemic, she was already finding tricky to navigate. Additionally, Nicole, who is bisexual, wanted to avoid feeling restricted to dating only men in order to have a child the traditional way. "The stress of having to find a person you see yourself with for the next five, 10, 30 years is gone," she says. "Never having to worry about custody battles or visitation stress when the relationship breaks down." 
At a time when fertility and dating are two of the remaining elements of life over which women have the least control, it is perhaps unsurprising that those who can are choosing to carve out some autonomy. As to whether the community of solo mums by choice will continue to grow, this likely hinges on whether the stipulations around NHS funding eventually relax alongside societal norms. 

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