Going It Alone

19th June 2015

In a companion piece to Child Free Zone (Optima 565)
Heather Harris meets parents who are single by choice...

Resolve, resourcefulness, commitment, focus, determination, courage and energy. No, it’s not an updated version of the Seven Dwarfs but a by-no-means-exhaustive list of the attributes required for one of the hardest jobs in the world – parenthood – or, to be precise, single parenthood. This is according to journalist Louise Janson who has recently spoken out about the joys and challenges of conceiving a child through donor insemination.

In today’s society, where the nuclear family is disappearing as fast as the Oxo advertisements in which they once featured, Louise is one of a growing number of women who have taken nature into their own hands.

There are 77 clinics licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to perform treatment with donated sperm, eggs and embryos. Of the 42,721 patients accessing fertility treatment, 1,015 (2%) had no registered partner.

Their decision to ‘go it alone’ was made possible by a change in the law in 2008 which ‘removed the requirement for a clinic to take into account the child’s need for a father or male role model before agreeing to treatment’. As Louise explained, “With great reluctance (in my mid 30s) I was forced to confront a terrifyingly stark choice: live the rest of my life childless, just hope Mr Right-ish would turn up at some point, or seize control of my future and try for a baby on my own.”

Kathy echoed these sentiments, “I had just come out of a relationship and was 39 years old. It was a big watershed moment. I just decided if I wanted a baby I had to do it on my own.”

For the majority of us smug married-with-children types the whole idea of sperm donors remains the stuff of smutty jokes and innuendo, but for these women, and many thousands more, the fact that a man has deposited his DNA in one of the country’s many sperm banks, is an incredible gift.

And the chaps who do this are not all students keen to make a few extra pounds (current rates stand at £35 per clinic visit). On the contrary, the donors’ backgrounds are as varied as the children they go on to produce.

Choosing your donor is a very serious business: as serious, arguably, as picking a life partner.

“My best friend was going for sperm donation,” one woman (we’ll call her Charlotte) told me, “and she enrolled a whole committee of us to look through their profiles to choose a likely candidate.” All the ladies I spoke to agreed that they spent hours looking through websites at the donors’ descriptions – right down to their lifestyle, their education, and their sporting preferences.

There are no photographs of potential donors, but an audio track is provided, which can be very reassuring. “As soon as I heard him on the 20 minute tape I was 100 percent sure this was the one. He sounded so warm and lovely,” said Kathy.

Charlotte and her friends were concerned about finding a man with an outdoor lifestyle and a sporting background for their friend. “And we found such a good match that she now has three beautiful children, all from the same anonymous donor.”

On the other side of the coin – or the flip side of the Petri dish – is Chris. A gay man, now aged 54, he is the very happy single father of a boy and a girl.

“When my lesbian best friends asked me to be a sperm donor, I realised I wanted to be more than just a name on a birth certificate,” he recalls. “I wanted to be a true Dad in every sense of the word.”

Chris had never known his own father, so to bring a baby into the world to face the same fate was simply not acceptable. Luckily he had, and still has, a close friendship with the children’s ‘mothers’ but it has involved a lot of negotiation and compromise on all sides to get to the situation they are in today, where the children are happily brought up by both their ‘biological’ parents, albeit in separate households. “And I truly believe that the children are fine with it. They have known no different and, sadly, at their school, being a single parent is the norm. I am just their Dad.”

Those who criticise such unorthodox, ‘unnatural’ methods of conception generally cite concern over the welfare of the children themselves as the reason.

“But once they meet us it’s different,” Chris points out. “I was at my Mother’s funeral with the whole family, and once even my most alpha male uncle saw me with the children, he totally accepted the arrangement.”

Interestingly, when speaking to single parents, most agreed that close friends and family had all been very supportive; generally it was strangers who criticised. Most importantly, the children appear perfectly well adjusted.

Kathy’s little daughter is only two years old, so has not yet asked where her Dad is. “This is one thing I am dreading – how do I tell her? I do plan to make a book with every scrap of information I know about him.”

Kathy also attends a London based group for other single mothers who have conceived by donor, “so Lily will grow up with little girls and boys who are the same as her. Her best friend is the daughter of a lesbian couple, so she already knows that families come in all sorts of combinations.”

The Donor Conception Network is a supportive network of 1,850 UK families with children conceived with donated sperm, eggs or embryos. Single women make up a third of their members and they offer a whole range of emotional and practical advice – including the legal rights of the donor.

“They also offer ‘Telling and Talking’ classes which teach us single mums how to tell their child about their conception – it’s all about being open and honest from the moment they first start asking questions,” Kathy told me.

Honesty had to form the basis of Miranda’s relationship with her ten year old daughter, Holly, whom she adopted when the little girl was seven. Miranda had undergone a two year training and interview process, during which her single status did not come under scrutiny in the way one might have expected.

“The fact that I was on my own was just accepted from the outset. In a way it was perhaps easier for me, as couples have to convince the adoption panel that their relationship is strong enough to handle a tricky adoption.”

Miranda took the decision to create a family on her own in her late 30s after her marriage ended. “Even when I imagined myself having children I always thought I wanted to adopt too. So this seemed an obvious step,” she told me. Financially, as a single mum, she knew she would have to go back to work, so from the outset she said that she wanted a school age child.

Listening to her memories of Holly’s arrival, it is hard to criticise or be judgmental at her decision. “We just clicked… it was like a fairy tale. Soon our mannerisms started to gel. She is such a chatterbox, it’s always felt that there are more of us than just us two. It was better than I had imagined it.”

Miranda is quick to point out, however, that there are challenges. “Sheer exhaustion and isolation being the main ones. I hadn’t had a baby and a toddler, so was thrown by the shock on being ‘on call’ 24 hours a day. Simply popping out for a pint of milk was suddenly not possible.”

Holly is aware of her background, and is now on a mission to find herself a Dad. She’s even signed Miranda up for a dating website.

“She is incredibly sociable, so I do sometimes feel bad that there’s just us, but she always has friends to play. Being adopted, there is a deep-seated insecurity and this can be an issue when she overreacts after a simple falling-out with a friend. But I have learnt how to manage that and how to build her self worth and confidence – which, after all, is at the basis of all parenting.”

This sentiment is the overriding message that comes from all these conversations. The welfare of the child is what’s important. The fact is, as the newspaper headlines so often bear witness, that there are a lot of children living in ‘normal’ families where tension and even violence is the norm, where the nuclear family is at a constant threat of explosion. Few can convincingly argue that such families are a better environment in which to bring up a child than the households of these single parents who took the challenging and brave decision to become a parent without another adult to share the emotional, practical and financial load.

As Louise said, “No single woman I know has done so lightly or without a considerable battle with her conscience. We didn’t actually choose to become ‘single mothers’ (or fathers) – we actively chose not to be childless. And I believe there is a profound and easily ignored difference.”

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