When I was a girl, my mother stuffed my head full of fairy-tales and the most fantastic of them all sounded quite banal at the time. It was about how families are made. One day (she was quite adamant) I would meet a man and love him so fiercely I’d want to make a tiny version of him in the form of a baby. We would all live happily ever after. The End.
For the past 20 years, I expected that to happen. Never questioned that it would. But now I find myself on the precipice of 35, when (according to NHS Choices) my fertility begins its dramatic fall. If experience has taught me anything, it’s that the very concept of a ‘soulmate’ is a hysterical joke played on the over-romantic and hopeful. It’s probably time to admit to the realities of the 21st century — where dating apps breed only casual sex, not screaming bundles in a crib. Like ever-increasing numbers of frustrated singles worldwide, I must get creative, joining the ranks of those creating new modern families.
Today, babies can’t always be made in the traditional way — for all sorts of reasons — but we are not admitting defeat. Some have enjoyed the full fairytale effect (falling in love, getting married) but with someone of the same sex, so a third party’s sperm or eggs are required to complete the domestic picture. For women, this can be relatively straightforward. Intrauterine insemination costs around £800 to £1,300 at a fertility clinic. It is successful only 22 per cent of the time, but lesbian couples have been making babies this way for decades.
For men, it’s much more complicated, because a surrogate is needed. The non-profit agency Brilliant Beginnings, which has helped create 800 families since it was founded in 2013, claims that £12,000 to £15,000 is ‘the going rate for UK surrogacy arrangements’. IVF is successful only 40 per cent of the time — and that’s among under-35s — so costs can escalate very rapidly.
As a result, many modern families try to incorporate the biological parent into the set-up — which is a lot less expensive, at least in a financial sense. Agencies such as Modamily facilitate co-parenting relationships with strangers, or some people reach more informal agreements with friends and family. In 2015, for instance, the TV presenter Mary Portas revealed that the child she was raising with her lesbian partner (the baby’s genetic mother) was fathered by her brother — meaning there was a genetic link on both sides.
One 31-year-old single, straight man, who wishes to remain anonymous, has told me that he is setting out to become a ‘known donor’ for two old friends — one of whom he met at high school, and her lesbian partner of eight years. After joking about the subject for several years, they are quite set on the idea. The baby will very much have two mothers as parents — he does not intend to co-parent and compares the process he is now engaged in as akin to donating blood.
‘They’re going to be much better parents than I can imagine myself being,’ he explains. ‘The idea is that I’ll be a godparent/semi-uncle — involved in the way I would be in any of my close friends’ kids’ lives growing up.’ But if it is a boy, he adds, ‘maybe there’s going to come a time when he’d have questions from a male point of view’. To save money, the trio are adopting a DIY approach. ‘I’m synced with ovulation cycles so I’m going over there to the bathroom with a mooncup to make the donation. It’s not quite a turkey baster, but it’s not far off.’
It’s not just gay people who desperately want children and are casting around for such inventive strategies. It’s singles — particularly single women — in their thirties and forties too. In our twenties, we’d meet up and drink too much wine, discussing our troubles with lovers. Now we obsess about babies. How we want them. How we’re afraid we won’t be able to have them.
We spend a lot of time reassuring each other that we are not mad or selfish. That it is very natural to want children. That it is OK to feel overwhelmed by the sudden fierceness of the need, because it is built into us to ensure our survival, like feeling intense hunger if we’re in danger of starving. That since the UK birth rate has plummeted from 2.4 children to 1.8 in recent years, it is even quite important that we do.
One friend is working so hard thanks to her recent promotion that she has no time to date and is looking into freezing her eggs. This strategy is so popular among high-powered career women that companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google offer this service as one of the perks of working for them. Another friend — a highly successful journalist — has given up on dating because she never meets eligible men and is talking through making baby plans with her very supportive mother. Two more friends — both in their mid- to late thirties — are going through the agony of failed cycles of IVF.
You might think that we are not romantic but we’re probably far more romantic than most. Despite the odds, we’re still holding out for the right man. We all tell tales of those who compromised their ideals in order to get married. Women who ‘want it all’ are frequently lambasted in the right-wing press.
But those who settled for half or a bit aren’t necessarily any happier. Two parents may well be better than one — but the ONS currently estimates that 42 per cent of marriages fail, and the emotional turmoil of separation and divorce isn’t an ideal atmosphere in which to raise children either.
In this context, co-parenting presents a possible solution. The Stork is a new agency that matches people who want to be parents for a fee that costs less than ‘a new car or a mortgage’ — or a divorce. It was founded by businesswoman Fiona Thomas to bring together those no longer prepared to keep gambling that if they only hold out long enough they will eventually find ‘The One’.
If you’re a woman in your late thirties, Thomas explains, ‘there are four outcomes. You can meet someone perfectly naturally and it’s all fantastic and wonderful. You can try to meet someone through an [agency] like mine and end up co-parenting. You can meet someone and it’s the wrong person — and you’d be amazed how many people do that; the large proportion of people on their wedding day who think, “I know this isn’t exactly what I want, it’s probably not quite right, but I’m doing it anyway.” And the fourth option, of course, is to do nothing. You get to 50 and you’re playing with your nephews and nieces.’
There are more single women alive today than at any point in history. And though we might have given up on men, we’re not all prepared to surrender our hope of a baby. The women who use her services, Thomas says, are bright, attractive and successful. ‘Just because it hasn’t happened for you doesn’t mean you’re some kind of freak or reject,’ she insists. ‘It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Everybody’s got a story about why it hasn’t happened to them, and it doesn’t in any way indicate failure.’
The conclusion is that we can’t all have the fairytale endings. But that’s OK, because those creating new modern families know there’s an opportunity to change the narrative. Our stories aren’t over yet.
This may shock you, but I am in my mid-30s and am perfectly happy to be single.
And I refuse to whip myself up into a frenzy of hand-wringing just because I never seem to have a boyfriend, never mind a husband.
It’s true that, if I judged my whole life according to my search for love, I could make myself miserable. But just because I have so far failed to find Mr Right does not in any way make me a failure as a human being.
My 80-year-old grandmother is appalled by my attitude, and thinks I ought to be taking drastic steps towards settling down.
But I shouldn’t be valued solely for my ability to attract a man — I’m a successful journalist, a good friend and sister — and I’m not going to conform to some ‘desperate’ vision of how a single woman should behave.
Frankly, such stereotypes no longer match the reality. Single women are no longer outcasts, or even unusual; in Britain today, there are more of us than at any point in history, more and more of us in our 30s, 40s and beyond.
If you’re aged between 25 and 44, you’re also five times more likely to be living alone than you were back in 1973.
And yet the way we talk about single women has been slow to catch up.
The most familiar ‘singleton’ in fiction, for example, is still the hapless Bridget Jones — a character more than 20 years out of date, who popped up married and with a baby in the latest celluloid instalment of her story.