AFTER a challenging 17-hour labour, Laura Holloway held her newborn daughter in her arms.
With her mum Kath, 60, by her side, she gazed at Violet – and knew she’d done the right thing by having a baby on her own.
“I’d never been more sure of anything,” says Laura, 32, from Derby. “I had no room for a man in my life at that time.
“People say: ‘You’re so brave.’ But I would have been braver if I’d left having a baby to fate. I was getting the one thing I really wanted, rather than risking waiting longer.”
Laura is not alone. A recent report from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) revealed that more women than ever are seeking sperm donation to become a solo mum.
It reported a four per cent increase in single women undergoing IVF cycles between 2016 and 2017, and a six per cent rise in single women undergoing intrauterine insemination (IUI), in which sperm is inserted into the womb.
Meanwhile, last April, former X Factor judge Cheryl told a newspaper she didn’t think you needed to be in a relationship to have children. “There are definitely other routes I would consider,” she said.
“There’s been a big shift in women’s roles: we have been encouraged to have jobs and take up opportunities that our mothers and grandmothers never had,” says Caroline Spencer, fertility coach at the Lister Fertility Clinic.
“But at the same time it’s also expected that we would have a relationship – and for many women that’s not happened. Some turn to egg freezing, while others opt to go it alone.”
Of course, there are no guarantees. According to the HFEA, birth rates for IVF decline as women age, from 25 per cent for those under 35, to 16 per cent if aged 35-37 and 14 per cent for those aged 38-39, to eight per cent for those aged 40-42.
For IUI, the percentages are even lower – 19 per cent for under 35s, 14 per cent for those aged 35-39 and 5 per cent for those aged 40-42.
It’s expected that we would have a relationship – and for many women that’s not happened. Some turn to egg freezing, while others opt to go it alone.
The odds aren’t great, but women like Laura are ready to take the chance. “Having a baby was always important to me,” she explains.
“Then in my late 20s I was told I might have endometriosis, so I needed to get on with it. However, the men I dated weren’t right. There wouldn’t be any connection but I’d push it, thinking I needed to give it another try.
“I realised I was so desperate to have children, I was looking for a guy who could father a child, rather than looking for love. So I decided to do it myself.”
The first person Laura spoke to was her mum, who went with her to appointments at Care Fertility in Nottingham.
Then, in January 2018, Laura paid the clinic £3,280 – using money she had inherited following the death of her father Phil in 2005 – which covered tests, consultations, sperm and the drugs needed.
“It felt like the perfect thing to spend it on. Mum encouraged me to do it,” says Laura. “I thought she’d say I needed to get married, but she was excited.”
Because of her age, Laura was offered the less intrusive IUI. “I met with a donor nurse at the clinic and she went through a series of questions relating to what I wanted in a sperm donor, such as hair colour, eye colour and height,” she explains.
“I thought it was ridiculous, because I wouldn’t chose whether to date a man based on the colour of his eyes! The only criteria I had was that he was Caucasian, like me.”
Twelve days after insertion, a home test revealed Laura was pregnant and she was overjoyed.
Despite a difficult pregnancy during which she wrestled with nausea that meant she had to have time off work, she was certain she had done the right thing, and her daughter Violet was born on March 27, 2019.
“I remember clinging on to Mum during the birth,” Laura says. “She had my sick all over her, but she understood. She’d done it herself, whereas a man wouldn’t have known what I was going through.
“From the minute I held Violet, I’ve never looked back for a second. When I am ready to date again, I’ll go into it so much more relaxed, because I’ve got what I wanted – I have my baby. So this time around, hopefully I’ll meet someone for the right reasons.”
Caroline explains it’s important that women thinking about solo parenthood carefully consider how much help they’ll need, both during the pregnancy and after the baby is born.
From the minute I held Violet, I’ve never looked back for a second. When I am ready to date again, I’ll go into it so much more relaxed.
“We encourage women to think about the support networks they’ll need, to think very carefully about who would be the person you could phone to get more Calpol in the night or who will be there for you when you feel totally overwhelmed,” she says.
Camilla Pratt, 35, from Leeds, knows only too well how difficult it can be. A lecturer in primary education, Camilla eventually decided to embark on fertility treatment in January 2018.
“I always knew I was going to be a solo mum. Relationships hadn’t worked out for me, and I was never interested enough in anyone,” she says.
“So I went to a Donor Conception Network conference, researched on Google and went on to have IVF costing around £2,800 in January 2018. I conceived on my second try.”
With extreme sickness and tiredness, Camilla struggled both physically and emotionally during her pregnancy.
Women need to think about how much help they’ll need, both during the pregnancy and after the baby is born.
“I couldn’t do all the things I used to do, like play lacrosse, plus work was tough,” she says. “Friends helped as much as they could, but it was a horrible and extremely gruelling time. It was the same during the birth.
“Two friends were my birthing partners, but I felt so sick and dehydrated, and then Oscar got stuck in the birth canal. After 36 hours, I had an episiotomy and emergency forceps delivery. I was in hospital for five days.”
In the weeks after the birth in January 2019, Camilla’s family and friends rallied round when she didn’t even have the strength to get out of bed. Her parents came to stay, followed by a friend, while another friend organised a night nanny.
That April she needed two further operations to help repair the damage she’d suffered during labour, and after her surgery, her parents took her and Oscar to stay with them for three weeks.
“I felt like I’d never even make it to the supermarket again, like I’d never have a whole night of sleep or leave the house,” she remembers.
“I was thinking: ‘What have I done? I had a lovely life!’ I knew it would be challenging, but I didn’t realise how much time I would need to recover physically, as well as deal with a baby in my arms.
“After three and a half months I began to feel like I could be a mum, and to enjoy it without being in pain or so tired.
“Now, 11 months in, I’m back at work full-time and making sure I get out in the evenings two or three times a week to do sport – my friends babysit or I take my son with me to a mother and baby class, and I’m feeling so much more positive.”
Camilla’s not currently dating, but she hasn’t ruled it out in the future. She has also frozen some embryos should she decide to go it alone a second time.
“It would be nice for Oscar to have a sibling, especially as he’s donor-conceived – it would give them a unique bond,” she says.
As well as the practical difficulties, some solo mums also struggle emotionally – particularly with letting go of the dream of having a baby with a man they love.
“The vast majority of the women that I’ve coached are nervous,” says Mel Johnson, founder of The Stork And I, a support and coaching service for women considering solo motherhood.
“There are three main things that cause anxiety: grieving the loss of having a baby in a relationship, whether they’ll physically, practically and emotionally be able to cope, and managing loneliness. It’s all about letting go of the fairy tale that you grew up with.”
Susie*, a digital communications manager from Surrey, was particularly affected by this sense of grief.
“It did take me a while to accept that using a sperm donor was going to be both mine and my child’s story, forever,” says Susie, 45, whose daughter Katie* is now eight.
“There were days when I’d walk round the park crying, wondering what I’d done. There’s a relentlessness to parenting on your own and the solo mum’s path is hard to travel.”
Susie says she thinks there’s no longer a huge stigma in admitting you’ve had solo IVF – but admitting to regrets is a different matter.
“I think there are plenty of solo mums who have regrets, myself included, but for many, admitting it is possibly more of a taboo than saying they’ve had solo IVF,” she says. “It’s not that I wish I hadn’t done it at all, it’s more that I wish I hadn’t had to.
“I still feel sad I’ll never know what it’s like to share the experience of having a child with someone.
“When I see my daughter’s friends with their dads, or think about my relationship with my own dad, I regret that she will never know that.”
Financially, it’s been a struggle, too. “Being the sole breadwinner is probably the toughest thing about parenting on your own, knowing that it’s all on you financially,” Susie says.
“Juggling work with school pick-up hours was hard. In fact, I’ve gone self-employed, rented out my house and moved in with my mum to make things work – not just when it comes to money, but also with things like attending school events.
“I’ve been lucky to rely on my mum, which I know not everyone can. I didn’t want to go through the process of being a solo mum only to miss out on school plays.”
Being the sole breadwinner is probably the toughest thing about parenting on your own, knowing that it’s all on you financially.
As for how she became pregnant, Susie has been open with her daughter – and anyone else who has asked – from the start.
“At first, I felt awkward telling people, but now I don’t care. With Katie, I would talk to her even when she was too young to really understand, explaining that I had her by myself with a special seed from the doctor.
“Katie took it in her stride, and I’ve even heard her say to people at school that she simply doesn’t have a daddy.”
According to Caroline, there are plenty of resources such as websites and books to help solo mums navigate telling their children, and most find their own way instinctively.
Another thing they have to consider, however, is the fact that their child may one day want to access their donor’s details.
“We have what’s called ID-release donation in this country, which means that at 18 a donor-conceived person can apply to the HFEA and ask: ‘Am I donor conceived?’ If they are, they can ask for the donor’s name, date of birth and last known address,” she explains.
The donor-conceived person can also learn of any siblings conceived using the same sperm. Susie says: “If Katie wanted to find out who the donor was, I would fully support her when the time came.”
WOULD RU BELIEVE IT?
I let my gender-neutral kid, 11, be a drag queen but people say it’s child abuse
Now Susie is hopeful the hardest part is over. Despite sometimes regretting that she was forced to make the choices she did, she wouldn’t change her daughter for the world.
“It does get easier as your child grows and you can communicate with them,” she says. “You become a little team.
“Those moments when it’s just me and her, snuggled in bed or on the sofa, make it all worth it. Sometimes I just look at Katie and think with awe: ‘I made you!’”
*Names have been changed
- Hair & make-up: Carol Maye, Laura Howley
GOT a story? RING The Sun on 0207 782 4104 or WHATSAPP on 07423720250 or EMAIL firstname.lastname@example.org