“I didn’t do this instead of falling in love,” says Liv Thorne, who gave birth to her son Herbert via a sperm donor in April this year. “I’d love to have fallen in love, but it was getting to the stage that I’d be going on a date and saying ‘by the way, I want a baby imminently’. It was either being in love or this route.”
The 39-year-old is in a growing pool of single women opting to have children on their own. Latest figures show the number of women attempting to start a family without a father has soared by a third in two years: 1,272 women registered to have fertility treatment without a partner in 2016 – up from 942 in 2014.
So why are these numbers increasing? Some suggest it’s because women feel more empowered to make this decision. Others cite a growing awareness as women speak proudly about their own fertility choices. Perhaps it’s also a more viable option than it once was for women who have delayed motherhood to focus on their career.
Mel Johnson, 40, from Manchester, whose daughter Daisy was born in February via donor sperm, believes it’s because women are conscious of not settling down with the wrong person just to have kids. “They want to ensure they meet the right guy for them,” she says. “Having a baby with an unsuitable partner would be much worse than doing it on your own.”
That realisation – of having not met the right person but not wanting to miss out on motherhood altogether – was the common factor for the women HuffPost UK spoke to about going ahead with motherhood as a single parent.
Liv Thorne always pictured herself with a big family, but it never happened. At 37, when she hadn’t been in a relationship for 15 years, she decided to have a baby alone. It wasn’t a rushed decision by any means. She had told herself at the age of 28 that if she didn’t find a man she’d become a solo parent.
At first she only shared her goal with family and close friends – “I felt like I was coming out” – and it was once she’d received their support that she felt relief. “No one said ‘what on earth are you doing?’ – they all absolutely backed me.”
For Mel Johnson, the catalyst was the breakdown of a seven-year relationship in her late 20s. Likewise for Mika Bishop, 44, whose desire to have a child was all consuming after her long-term relationship broke down when she was 39. “It really did occupy most of my thought space,” she says. Both Mel and Mika admit to throwing themselves into dating but got to the point where they felt if they didn’t start the journey alone, they might never be a mother.
Twenty years ago, women in this situation might have felt reluctant to share their journey with others. Now with Instagram, blogs and the emphasis on sharing your life online, Liv, Mel and Mika have experienced things differently.
Liv made the decision to be open about her route to parenthood from day one. Not only because she’s “crap at keeping things in”, she says, but also because she didn’t want to rock up pregnant to an event and be the centre of gossip. So she spoke about it, blogged about it, and answered everyone’s questions.
“First I’ve had a baby, next I’ll meet a partner. That’s still my vision. It’s just the time pressure is now off.””
Mel felt the same: “To save any confusion, I explained to people immediately that I was having my daughter on my own for fear of missing out due to my age and declining fertility,” she says. “I liked to explain I’m doing things in a different order. First I’ve had a baby and next I’ll meet a partner. That’s still my vision for the future. It’s just the time pressure is now off.”
Meanwhile, when she gave birth to twin boys Zak and Leo in January 2015, Mika was surprised to find out how many people she told knew someone else who also had a donor baby. She’s always been open about how her twin boys were conceived and will quickly explain to mothers of other children at nursery that she’s a single mum and conceived her boys via a donor.
Women have a lot to consider when choosing to have a baby alone via a sperm donor. Cost, for starters – which can vary massively. Buying donor sperm from the London Sperm Bank will set you back £950. Prices elsewhere can start from £850 and, as with many purchases, sperm is often cheaper if you “bulk buy”. Women have to pay for delivery, which can be up to £150, as well as storage. They will also need to pay for either intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – the former starting from around £800 and the latter from £3,000.
Cost is one thing, but the emotional rollercoaster for women who choose this route is quite another, as is the strain of unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant.
Liv found the process of buying sperm mind-boggling. “The website [I used] was as if Tinder and Amazon collided,” she describes, adding that she could filter by height, weight, ethnicity and health history, but once she had chosen, she simply had to add the sperm to her basket and get it shipped to the UK.
She whittled her selection down to a Danish donor – 3,000 sperm samples from Denmark were imported to the UK in 2017 – and has, by law, an “open donation”, meaning that once her son is 18, he can choose to get in contact with his biological father.
Despite knowing it wasn’t going to be cheap, she wasn’t prepared for the total costs, something she only managed to fund by remortgaging her house. After buying four vials of sperm, having it shipped to the UK, storing it in a clinic, and having IUI four times, Liv had spent £14,000. “I’m really lucky I didn’t have to have fertility drugs or do IVF, that would have cost a lot more,” she says. “I didn’t realise about all the add-ons. They literally charge you for sneezing.”
There were three unsuccessful attempts before she got pregnant. “It’s horrific when it doesn’t work,” she says. “The feeling of loss is all encompassing, like you’re drowning.” After the third attempt, Liv took six months off from trying. The fourth time would be her last and after that she planned to try IVF.
Six months later she was back in the clinic for IUI but without the excitement. She had convinced herself it wasn’t going to happen. Two and a half weeks later, when she casually took a pregnancy test while hanging out with her nieces, it gave her the positive result she had been longing for.
“I felt mental, if I’m honest,” she says. “It was bonkers, mind-blowing, but it was brilliant and there were a lot of tears and jumping around.”
At 36, Mel started the process of IVF with donor sperm, which resulted in three embryos, all of which were frozen. It was her second embryo transfer that was successful. Mel used the Manchester Fertility Clinic’s donor service for her donor sperm.
Mika worked on the process like a project – she did six months of research, going to seminars, talking to women who had donor-conceived children, and working out the finances. “I questioned myself all the time but it always felt right to me, to at least try to have and raise a family,” she says.
Despite looking at donor profiles from sperm banks all over the world, Mika decided to limit her search to one sperm bank in the UK. From time to time she had a reality check: “How bizarre was it that I was trying to get pregnant with someone I had never met?” However, she pushed on, buying sperm online and conceiving through insemination, before she miscarried on her first try,
Her second attempt resulted in a chemical pregnancy and on the third attempt – with different sperm – it worked. Finding out she was carrying twins was a shock, she says, but that shock was followed by intense excitement and a comforting realisation that her boys would always have each other.
Three and a half years later, Mika says she wouldn’t change her decision for the world, even if her children’s transition from toddlers to little boys was tough while working four days a week. “We’re out the other side now though, calmer and more in control of our emotions (all three of us!)”
In fact, all women feel confident with their choice and don’t regret it one bit. Liv tells me she is overwhelmed with love for her son and that revealing to him how he was brought into this world doesn’t scare her. She’ll tell him as soon as he can understand it. “I don’t ever want him to feel different to anyone else and I want him to know the facts,” she says. “He was totally born with love and a kind man in Denmark gave me the greatest gift.”
Mika has already broached the subject with her boys, using basic terms they can understand. She has used books and stories from the Donor Conception Network as a frame to explain how she fell pregnant. The network created a book called ‘Our Story’, which parents like Mel, Mika and Liv can use to speak to their children – when they’re old enough – about their journey. “My boys are too young to fully understand of course but it’s important for them to be at least familiar with the term donor and for them to see that I am completely comfortable with a ‘dad’ not being around,” Mika adds.
Mel, who blogs about her experiences on The Stork And I, plans to use the book, too, and is also creating a personalised storybook called ‘My Family’ that will explain to her daughter how she was conceived. “It will not be something that is revealed at a certain age, rather the norm that she has grown up with and the older she gets the more detail will be explained,” she says.
Motherhood has been better than she ever imagined. Sounding rather like any new mum, she adds: “Our bond is like something I’ve never known before.”