There has been a considerable amount of press coverage recently about the rise of what is variously known as the 'single mum by choice' (SMBC), the 'solo mum' (or 'solomar' in Denmark), or the 'elective single mother' - women who decide to have a child via donor sperm and then raise the child on their own. As a member of the Donor Conception Network and such a mother myself (having given birth to my daughter Tabitha in April 2011), I regularly receive alerts about this coverage, and have witnessed it unfold with a mixture of interest, anger, sadness and confusion - depending on the coverage and comments in question. In the UK, the coverage has ranged across an image of the 'elective' solo mum as a virtual superwoman, effortlessly combining career and motherhood whilst living a life free from stigma and prejudice; a practical response to not meeting a male partner 'in time'; the perpetrator of an 'unnatural' method of family building in which the child is 'ordered like a commodity', to the insistence - from donor conceived adults born before 1st April 2005 and for whom there is little possibility of tracing their biological father - that the actions of such solo women 'shattered' their lives.
As these themes suggest, this is an identity around which a particular range of meanings are beginning to cluster. One of the first things that I found problematic was that the emphasis on 'choice' (as well as the assumption that the mother is always heterosexual), only makes sense when placed within an unspoken class binary: the very notion of a 'choice' mum is necessarily underpinned by the stereotype of the lone, working-class mother who didn't choose to be single and must - in the popular imaginary at least - struggle financially and socially to raise her child. Although this binary rests upon many unspoken and problematic assumptions (ranging from impoverished living conditions to unwanted pregnancies), I am entirely aware of the ways in which the choice I have made was facilitated by economic privilege, and the fact that, as a university lecturer, I could afford to work and raise a child on my own.
But the emphasis on how such mums, as a recent Guardian article focusing mainly on Denmark claims, face 'no stigma' sits uneasily with some of the debates and comments which the stories attract. It is clearly problematic to position 'comment' sections of the national press as representative of a national view - and trolling abounds around most topics. But I nevertheless found myself positioned in these exchanges as variously too 'defective' to attract a partner, as 'depriving' my daughter of '50% of her family' (which would then lead to psychological problems later in life), and forcing her to 'spend very long hours in a nursery or with a succession of nannies or childminders'. As such comments suggest- especially the implication that a mother's place is at home with her child - single women raising donor conceived children have emerged as a site upon which contemporary debates about family and gender are played out.
The emphasis on the lack of stigma faced by such women may also negate the extent to which we might be acutely aware of the ways in which we still differ from the idea of 'normative' family set-ups, even if we don't encounter the kind of prejudice spouted above in our everyday lives. Although my family and close friends understand and support my decision to have a child alone, I have sometimes found myself subject to comments and questions from those outside my immediate social circle which range from bewilderment ('A donor child? Who gave her to you?'), to embarrassment ('Well I mean nobody chooses to have a child in their own do they? Oh you did? Oh, um, good on you...'). The image of the solo 'choice' Mum as a virtual superwoman or a selfish misguided parent raising an inevitably troubled child, also leaves little space for people like me to be able to express ambivalence about single 'choice' motherhood without fear of judgement and reprisal. After all, whatever our own familial background or sexual orientation, we too have been exposed to normative values about what it means to have a 'family', ideas that often can't simply be banished or locked away. I want to be able to talk honestly about what I have found to be the contradictory experience of solo motherhood. This is a world in which I look upon my gorgeous, bright and beautiful child with the knowledge and pride that I am bringing her up alone (and doing a pretty good job). But it is also a world in which my eyes rest silently upon little girls who ride atop their Daddy's shoulders, or in which I have to fight back tears as I watch her pretend to be a 'Daddy' in her mirror - encouraged by the chocolate 'beard' she acquired after drinking a glass of milkshake. But then again, I understand that Tabitha is 4, and that she pretends to be lots of things in the mirror that she is not, ranging from a teacher, a dinosaur, a chef to a princess.
We are currently reading picture books about how donor conceived children come into the world - about which Tabitha shows everything from fascination to disinterest. One of them is about a lion cub who was conceived by a 'donor lion' and I tend to exclaim whilst reading it: 'Oh look! This lion cub is just like you!', to which Tabitha recently replied: 'Yes Mummy, although I'm actually not a lion'. This seems to me to be a very sensible statement, reminding of us children's ability to simply accept who they are (and who they are not: in this case, a child with a Daddy). As for me, I'm not a superwoman, or someone who 'failed' to attract a man, nor a selfish bitch who put the desire to have a child above any consideration of that child's psychological development or welfare. I'm just an ordinary mum who had a baby in the way that made most sense to her at the time, and who is trying to do the very best job that she can.