THE CHANG­ING SHAPE OF MOTH­ER­HOOD

Emma Brockes on the stresses and joys of solo par­ent­ing

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When my twin girls were six months old, I used to take them to a cafe on the cor­ner. We made for an odd sight: a woman alone with two ba­bies, one of them slip­ping through the leg of the high chair, the other slumped for­ward to gum the edge of the ta­ble. The floor around us would be a chaos of spilled sugar and nap­kins, and an older woman would, in­vari­ably, stop to ask kindly if I needed help.

‘Thanks, but I’ve got this,’ I’d say, and she would give me a look, one I’ve come to know well since my ba­bies were born: part ad­mi­ra­tion, part ‘you poor cow’.

I did need help, in fact. I didn’t set out to be a sin­gle mother of twins, or, to give you the full pic­ture, to be­come a sin­gle-mother-oftwins-in-a-re­la­tion­ship-with-a-woman-who­has-her-own-kid-but-with-whom-i-nei­ther­live-nor-co-par­ent. ‘Next of kin’ can be a tough box for me when I’m fill­ing in forms.

What I had imag­ined at the age of 38 when I first started fer­til­ity treat­ment was that I might squeeze out one small, quiet baby who I could pop into my bag and take with me to work or park un­der the ta­ble at the pub. I was sort of sin­gle, sol­vent and had a good job and nice apart­ment. I lived in a lib­eral city (New York) where I knew it was pos­si­ble to have a child on one’s own. But know­ing a thing and do­ing it are two dif­fer­ent things. I was also brain-melt­ingly, bone-shak­ingly ter­ri­fied.

For a start, there was the cost. When I be­gan try­ing to get preg­nant, donor sperm in New York came in at around $500 a vial plus ship­ping and stor­age. For a while, I con­sid­ered ask­ing one of my good male friends to be a donor, since this felt marginally less alien. It might even be nice, I thought, to have some vague dad-like fig­ure avail­able in the case of emer­gency. It was only af­ter ask­ing the ad­vice of les­bian friends with kids and a range of New York gy­nae­col­o­gists that it be­came clear to me how messy us­ing a friend might be.

By the time I fin­ished fer­til­ity treat­ment, I’d racked up around $8,000 in costs and that was con­sid­ered a bar­gain. I was lucky – I didn’t need IVF, con­ceiv­ing in­stead on my fifth round of ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion. And yet, if things had gone dif­fer­ently, it could eas­ily have bankrupted me.

A much greater fear than the cost, of course, is both the fear of what it might mean to par­ent alone, and the ex­is­ten­tial ques­tion of what it means to con­ceive with ge­netic ma­te­rial de­rived from some­one you will never meet. My chil­dren can trace the donor when they’re older, but just the idea of sperm do­na­tion takes a long, long time to get one’s head around, as, by the way, does the idea of twins. When the doc­tor told me the news, I was si­mul­ta­ne­ously hor­ri­fied, elated and se­cretly proud of my­self, and had no idea how all this would work out.

Fast-for­ward four years and life couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. When you have twin three-year-olds, you’re con­stantly dol­ing out life les­sons, so for­give me, but here’s what I know: 1) Hav­ing chil­dren ‘alone’ doesn’t mean hav­ing chil­dren with no one to help. 2) The shape of the fam­ily is chang­ing in ways that are likely to ben­e­fit women. 3) The hard­est part of hav­ing a baby alone is mak­ing the de­ci­sion to do it, af­ter which it’s just an­other ver­sion of the same joy and up­heaval. 4) There are no good, bad or in­dif­fer­ent ways to have chil­dren, only good, bad and in­dif­fer­ent ways to re­gard it.

Which isn’t to say it was easy. I come from quite a con­ven­tional fam­ily – mum, dad, two cats, two fish – and from a con­ven­tional part of the world: Buck­ing­hamshire. No one’s par­ents were even di­vorced when I was grow­ing up, let alone cho­sen from a donor cat­a­logue. And here I am, at the van­guard of what feels like real so­cial change.

The op­tions are dizzy­ing. It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that ev­ery woman I know who is sin­gle and wants ba­bies is con­sid­er­ing mak­ing a choice that, un­til very re­cently, would have been un­think­able.

When I first ar­rived in New York, I dated men and

women and it was not a fun scene. The men I met, mostly writ­ers or bankers, didn’t so much go on dates as au­di­tion women for a part in their fu­ture. I spent end­less dull evenings with ve­gan women who did yoga and had firm opin­ions about bike lanes. As strongly as I knew I wanted a baby, I knew I didn’t want a baby with these peo­ple.

And yet I had to get on with it. At 37, a woman doesn’t have much time to spare. On the other hand, her 40-yearold boyfriend can mess around for three years, split up with her, then take up with a 30-year-old and have three kids. (Then get di­vorced, re­marry, and have a sec­ond fam­ily in his 60s, and yes, I am look­ing at you, Alec Bald­win.)

When I met L, my sort-of-part­ner, she was in the early stages of con­sid­er­ing hav­ing a baby alone and, a year into our re­la­tion­ship, she did. Two years later, al­though we were still to­gether, I went ahead and had a baby – or, oops, twins – alone, too. I don’t know how to ex­plain this other than to say that it’s pos­si­ble to love some­one, to want to spend time with them, even to want to care for their baby, and still stop short of want­ing to move in and have kids to­gether. For us, sin­gle par­ent­hood wasn’t the last choice, but the first one.

It’s the kind of choice more peo­ple are mak­ing. It’s too much to call it a revo­lu­tion, per­haps, but at times that’s how it can feel. I have a fan­tasy that, as fer­til­ity treat­ment gets cheaper and sin­gle moth­er­hood be­comes more so­cially ac­cept­able, the en­tire dat­ing land­scape for women in their 30s will change, evening out the power im­bal­ance be­tween men and women of that age. In my wildest dreams, I en­vis­age a sce­nario in which, many years from now, it isn’t women in their late 30s who are scram­bling to lock down a man to have kids with, but men fran­ti­cally hus­tling to per­suade a woman to set­tle down with him be­fore she ups and has kids on her own.

It prob­a­bly won’t hap­pen. Sin­gle moth­er­hood is still too hard and ex­pen­sive for the ma­jor­ity of women to con­sider. Most days I’m ex­hausted, stretched in ev­ery di­rec­tion, in love with my ba­bies and crushed by the work­load of rais­ing them while earn­ing a liv­ing. Al­though, in some ways, be­ing a sin­gle par­ent is eas­ier than the al­ter­na­tives. I sus­pect I make de­ci­sions about my chil­dren in half the time squab­bling two-par­ent fam­i­lies do. But, in the­ory at least, it’s an op­tion where lat­terly there were none, or rather, where the op­tions were to meet some­one you wanted to have kids with, to ‘set­tle’ for some­one you didn’t, or to suck it up and re­sign your­self to not hav­ing a child. We can do bet­ter than that in 2018.

It’s bet­ter for men, too. ‘I ba­si­cally used my boyfriend as a sperm donor’ is a sen­ti­ment I have heard more than one woman ex­press, and it’s not a good premise for any­thing. And while creat­ing an un­con­ven­tional fam­ily doesn’t rule out the pos­si­bil­ity of fu­ture hus­bands, wives, girl­friends or chil­dren, it does change the way you con­nect with peo­ple around you. Grand­par­ents be­come more im­por­tant, as do god­par­ents and best friends. For the first time in my life, I know my neigh­bours be­cause I need them. If this isn’t good for com­mu­nity, I don’t know what is.

Those early days with the ba­bies were hard, but they were hard in the cus­tom­ary ways – be­ing with small ba­bies is lonely, exhausting and fright­en­ing, in greater mea­sure, per­haps, than a mother with a spouse might ex­pe­ri­ence, but even then, I’m not en­tirely sure. Be­ing on your own has the ben­e­fit of push­ing you outwards. This is the ex­traor­di­nary thing about all this; not that hav­ing a fam­ily this way de­liv­ers un­usual re­sults, but that it is, at the end of the day, an­other kind of or­di­nary.

The other day I got a call from some­one I know vaguely who’d been given my num­ber by a friend and who wanted my ad­vice: she was 36, sin­gle, and fret­ting over what to do about chil­dren. ‘Do you think I can do it?’ she said. I was in my liv­ing room, look­ing at my wide-eyed chil­dren, both en­tranced by Peppa Pig. ‘I do,’ I replied.

An Ex­cel­lent Choice: Panic And Joy On My Solo Path To Moth­er­hood by Emma Brockes (Faber & Faber, out now)

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