THE CHANGING SHAPE OF MOTHERHOOD
Emma Brockes on the stresses and joys of solo parenting
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)