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Motherhood for single women

Motherhood for single women

University of Cambridge researcher Susanna Graham looks into the difficult decisions single women face before they opt for motherhood through sperm donation. In an in-depth study she explores why women want to become single mothers, how they feel about sperm donation and their experiences along the way.

Single but wanting to be a mother

The decision to pursue solo motherhood was based on a deep-seated desire to become a mother – something they had all assumed they would become one day. However, the expectation of motherhood had always been based on being in a long term, stable relationship. Single motherhood was never the plan but an option that had to be incorporated into their life trajectory. As one woman said:

‘Maybe there are single women out there who are completely happy being single and never want to be in a relationship, but I think underneath it there is always either a Plan B or Plan C, or even Plan Z. For me this is definitely Plan Z.’

With increasing age and presumed decreasing fertility, but without the stable relationship they had imagined, the participants began considering solo motherhood. They wanted to experience pregnancy and childbirth, but dismissed casual sex as ‘not fair on the man or a child’. The women started to investigate fertility treatment with donor sperm as their route to motherhood.

Should I become a solo mother?

None of the participants had known other women who had become single mothers through sperm donation. Many had joked with friends about using donor sperm if they got to a certain age and were still single - but none had seriously considered what it would mean. All the participants had some reservations about becoming a solo mother.

They wanted to experience pregnancy and childbirth, but dismissed casual sex as ‘not fair on the man or a child’. 

The majority of their concerns focused on two themes: first, how would being raised by a single mother, and being conceived with donor sperm, affect their child; and second, what would others, particularly family and friends, think about them becoming solo mothers?

Does a child need a father?

All of the women knew they wanted to be mothers but were unsure whether their decision to become a solo mother was fair on a child - did a child need a father? One participant expressed her feelings:

‘Throughout the whole thing my main concern has been whether I am being selfish and whether a child, a teenager, an adult is at some point going to turn round to me and ask, “Why did you do that? You’ve denied me knowing my father.”’

The participants were reassured by research showing that poorer child outcomes associated with single parent families (formed as a result of separation or divorce) did not necessarily apply to solo mothers. Indeed, several participants were aware that research into the psychological well-being and quality of parent child relationships in solo mother families had shown that there was no cause for concern for children in early childhood.

Although the participants all thought that a balance of male and female influence was important for children, they thought men other than a child’s father could provide this influence. All the women had thought about men who could act as male role models, and that they would meet a partner in the future, so that their child would not necessarily continue to be raised in a single parent family. 

What will a child feel about being donor conceived?

The women were mainly concerned about how being conceived with donor sperm would affect a child. They all agreed that their child should be able to access further information about and donor, and even meet him, if they wished. So even though donor-conceived children have the right to seek the identity of their sperm donor at UK-licensed clinics, some of the women opted to import sperm from large American or European sperm banks.  

At these clinics they were able to access more detailed information about their donor, including not only physical characteristics, medical and family history, but also educational achievements, hobbies and interests, baby photos, essays and audio recordings of the donor. The participants found this information reassuring for themselves and for their child. As one participant said:

‘I know a lot about his dad, his donor. Of course, it’s not the same as having their dad there day-to-day but it’s more than it could have been. Also it’s easier for the child as now they can say, “My dad is a teacher and lives in America” rather than, “I don’t know what he does. I don’t know how tall he is.”’

What will other people think?

Despite feeling more comfortable with the prospect of solo motherhood themselves, the women remained concerned about what other people would think about their plans. As one participant said:

‘I was worried about what other people would say and how it would be perceived. You just really don’t know what reaction you’re going to get. And in today’s society, I’m not sure how openly accepted it is.’

Discussing solo motherhood with others was often described as a way of testing its acceptance, both as a family form and a means of motherhood for themselves. All the participants talked to friends and family about their plans for motherhood and, although concerned about the reaction they would receive, were, on the whole, only met with support and understanding.

‘Doing this with a partner would be my ideal but I don’t feel that I am cheating the child or myself by doing this on my own…’

The positive reaction they received helped the women feel far more comfortable about the prospect of solo motherhood. One participant shared how she had wished she had discussed the possibility of solo motherhood with friends at an earlier age:

‘The reaction I have had from friends has just been great. A lot of them are quite religious and I thought they would disapprove, but actually they haven’t at all. They’ve all said, “I’m surprised you didn’t do this years ago.” It’s a shame they don’t talk to you about it because maybe I would have been persuaded to do it years ago if I had known.’

Second choice but not second best

With acceptance from others and reassurance that children in solo mother families do not seem to be showing any cause for concern, the participants were able to overcome many of their concerns about pursuing solo motherhood. Although being single and having fertility treatment with donor sperm wasn’t the context in which they had imagined having a baby, all the participants were relieved and excited to be taking the final steps towards motherhood.

As one participant explained, solo motherhood had never been the plan: ‘Doing this with a partner would be my ideal but I don’t feel that I am cheating the child or myself by doing this on my own. I’m not saying that this is my ideal way, it’s not, but I don’t feel that it is second best either.’

Who took part in the research?

Susanna recruited 23 women for her research from the London Women’s Clinic, The Donor Conception Network and the online forum Fertility Friends. All were heterosexual, in professional employment and financially dependent, and the majority had been in long-term relationships in the past but were single at the time of the study.

If you're looking to have treatment as a single woman, why not attend one of our seminars or see us at the Alternative Parenting Show on Saturday 19th September. 

Illustration by Jessie Ford

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