They’re educated, they’re well off, they’re strong, and they’re choosing to raise their children alone. Meet the new single mom
Irine Alexander always knew she wanted to have a family.
“I envisioned doing that the traditional way—married life and then children,” says the Ottawa resident. “Despite all my efforts to make that happen; things didn’t pan out that way for me.”
“In my 30s, I started feeling a sense of urgency to start a family and as the years went on, the urgency steadily increased.”
She met a well-respected epidemiologist who specialized in fertility and over many discussions on the topic, came to understand the significant impact of age on the rate of conception for women. “Despite all the anecdotal stories of women getting pregnant late in life, the numbers indicated otherwise,” Alexander said. A close friend went through the long, expensive, and emotional process of trying have a child via donor sperm, which gave Alexander an understanding of the process of conceiving a child with a donor. “Still, I was hoping to find that partner with whom I could have children biologically and/or via adoption.”
The January of the year she would turn 40, Alexander, who had considered adoption, decided to have a child biologically. She got a referral to the fertility clinic to begin the process.
Today, Alexander’s family consists of just two people—herself, and her son, Ahillan, seven.
Alexander isn’t the only one.
“The organization ‘Single Mothers by Choice’ was founded in 1981, an indication that this kind of family has existed and been recognized for many decades now,” says Jen Pylypa, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University. Dr. Pylypa, who conducts research on the health and well-being of families, and in particular, parenting and international adoption, including single parenting through adoption, is also a single mother by choice to two internationally adopted children. “Of course, there are some, although fewer, ‘single fathers by choice’ as well. The number of children born to, or adopted by, single parents by choice remains a small proportion of the population. But certainly, acceptance of alternative family forms in general has increased in those 40 years since the above-named organization was founded.” Yet, there remain mixed views out there regarding single motherhood.
“Single mothers have a long history of being vilified in popular perceptions—the whole ‘welfare mom’ stereotype,” says Dr. Pylypa. “Some people separate out choice single parents from this stereotype, finding them more acceptable because they are typically affluent and able to give their children a ‘solid, middle-class life.’ This, of course, is unfair to poorer single mothers, who may also be good parents, but continue to be vilified,” she says. “Others still perceive ‘fatherlessness’ as a social ill, regardless of what kind of lifestyle the mother is able to provide. But these days, there is also a great deal of acceptance out there. Many people speak admiringly of the stamina of single mothers, and the parents of those who seek out single parenthood can be (sometimes surprisingly) supportive, excited to have a new grandchild after worrying that it wouldn’t happen due to their adult child’s single status.”
In addition, Dr. Pylypa states that “single, middle-class women have progressively gained greater economic independence with higher paying jobs, and have gained greater access to sperm banks and (to some degree) adoption over that time period, making single parenthood by choice more viable.”
Alexander says that becoming a single parent wasn’t something that she had anticipated doing. Her journey to solo parenting, she says, “took years of internal processing and discussions with friends and sometimes even strangers. I was always under the impression that I would one day get married and have children,” says Alexander, a technical advisor with the federal government.
Most “single parents by choice”—as Dr. Pylypa says they are commonly called, are like Alexander. They do not initially set out to become single parents.
“They find themselves single in their 30s or 40s and decide to have children, having not found the right partner at the right moment to form a family in the context of a romantic partnership,” says Dr. Pylypa. “They may be able to wait for a life partner, but given their age, they do not feel they can afford to wait to have children. Given that circumstance, they make a conscious choice to become parents, as described in sociologist Rosanna Hertz’s 2006 book Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice. They are usually middle class, well-established in their lives and careers, and have the financial and personal resources to seek out parenthood, whether via insemination or adoption.”
While she is established, Alexander was originally cautious of what her family might think. Of Sri Lankan descent, Alexander immigrated to Canada in her teens and describes her culture as fairly conservative. While she describes her own family as open-minded, “I didn’t think they would be able to handle me having a child on my own. I thought adoption might be an easier on the family. And me.”
“Although it’s 2021 and we are seeing a lot more openness towards less ‘traditional’ parenting models such as single parenting,” says Inga Bohnekamp, an Ottawa-based internationally trained clinical psychologist, “the stigma is still there. Depending on the country, region and culture a single parent lives in, they may face stigma, prejudices, judgment and assumptions,” she explains. “Being judged in this way can be tremendously challenging and take a big emotional toll on a single parent who is simply trying to do their best, as we all do as parents, and navigate through life with their child(ren).”
At the fertility clinic, Alexander had a consultation with a physician and a psychologist to evaluate her suitability for donor conception as a single woman. In the end, she conceived her son with the aid of an anonymous sperm donor using in-utero insemination (IUI).
“I am ever cognisant that living in a time and place where I could choose to become a solo parent is in itself a benefit,” says Alexander. “I consider that alone to be the most significant benefit. I have all the decision-making power regarding parenting. That however, is a double-edged sword. I also don’t have anyone to share burdens of all the decision making that is involved in parenting.”
Single parenting—and indeed, parenting in general—is full of challenges, not the least of which is the shortage of household labour.
“With only one adult to do that labour, it can be hard to juggle employment with childcare, kids’ extracurricular activities, cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, and everything else where couples benefit from sharing the workload,” Dr. Pylypa says. “And this challenge is particularly evident in moments of crisis, even everyday ‘crises’ like when the single parent becomes sick. Speaking from my own experience as a single mother by choice, without any extended family nearby, I would say that getting sick myself is the hardest part of solo parenting.”
Dr. Pylypa continues: “If my children are sick, I can care for them. If I am sick, I can get a little help from a friend, but at the end of the day, the friend goes home. I have had to make dinner and get a child to bed while I had a high fever, and it isn’t fun. But it does get easier as the children get older and more independent.”
“For me it’s that everything is solo,” says Alexander. “I carry all the responsibility for everything. I am the breadwinner, the one who does the shopping, cooking, cleaning, puts out the garbage, shovels the snow, does school drop off/pick up, changes the light bulbs, check the oil in the car, helps with homework, plays with my son…and on and on and on. It’s relentless and there isn’t even someone who can be home with my son while he is sleeping so that I can step out for an errand or some fresh air.”
She acknowledges that living and parenting in today’s world is challenging for any parent, let alone single ones. “Doing it solo means there is no one else around to share the challenges and the joys of the journey,” Alexander says. She is adamant that solo parenting as a single mother by choice is not for the faint of heart. “It is an incredibly challenging role and especially so because you are the solo caregiver since infancy.”
Because the job is so difficult, it is important for single parents to look after themselves, Bohnekamp says. “One of the very important and rather common issues faced by single parents is exhaustion and parental burnout—especially if there is no support network like grandparents living close by, or neighbours and friends regularly helping out,” says Bohnekamp. “Parenting is a huge responsibility and maybe the biggest and most long-term job any mother or father can have on this earth. There are many beautiful, rewarding moments, but there are and always will be challenges, tough times and bigger decisions to be made – and all of this can be perceived as much more challenging if you’re a single parent who has to navigate all this and take full responsibility for the decisions made all by yourself.”
Finding support is essential for all parents, but especially for ones who are going it alone.
Alexander has various sources of support. Her family is key of course, but so are her friends with similarly aged children, who offer a “much appreciated reprieve from being constantly ‘on’ watching my son.
“Being ‘on’ 100 percent of the time is something I find uniquely challenging for solo parents who have had their children from infancy. It’s at a level that most two-parent families don’t experience. This is among a number of experiences, as an SMC that I find only other SMC’s are able to comprehend… Having a few other solo parents in similar circumstances has been a key source of support for me.” Alexander also counts a reliable daycare provider-turned friend, networks for single parents on social media, and friends who supported her through her pregnancy and during the early days. “These men and women put their lives on hold and came to help me,” she says. “Nowadays, they are part of my mental and emotional support systems.”
An often-forgotten source of support are colleagues. “I can’t say enough about the importance of having compassionate and understanding managers, colleagues and employers,” Alexander says. “As a solo parent who has worked in both supportive and unsupportive workplaces, I can’t say enough about the benefits of being in a healthy workplace while solo parenting.”
All parents seek support from family and friends, but single parents may be more likely to cultivate extensive social support networks, says Dr. Pylypa. As an example, she names community and grassroots organizations where single parent families can meet and talk to families similar to their own. These groups serve as a source of friendship, a place where kids can be around families similar to their own (similar in the sense of being single parent, adoptive, and/or transracial families), and a place to discuss routes to becoming a single parent, or parenting challenges.
While it’s important to know what services are out there, Dr. Pylypa says that single parents by choice are usually more than prepared. “Because single parents by choice are usually solidly middle class and have made a plan—often one that takes years to accomplish—to have a child as a single parent, they usually have the resources to care for their children as well as a two-parent family,” she says. “Middle-class single parents may also be more likely than dual-parent families to hire help to deal with their domestic workload—housekeepers and babysitters, for example.”
In part because of this preparedness—and in equal parts, love, devotion and dedication —single-parent households don’t negatively impact children.
“In spite of negative stereotypes about ‘fatherless children,’ research shows that children in choice single-parent families do just as well as children in two-parent families,” says Dr. Pylypa. “Not surprisingly, researchers have found that it is not the form a family takes, but rather, the quality of relationships within it, that influences child well-being. Choice single parents are usually highly educated and affluent, and have not experienced divorce, so these concerns don’t apply. They may have particularly strong parent-child bonds, since there are no other relationships in the household to draw the parent’s attention away from the children. But for the most part, the children live similar lives and experience similar successes to their middle-class peers in two-parent families.”
What does the future hold? Some of these single-by-choice parents “do find life partners later and end up co-parenting, while others continue to be single and focus their lives primarily around their children,” says Dr. Pylypa.
Alexander acknowledges a spouse is a possibility, but isn’t devoting any time or effort towards it. “If it were to happen, the circumstances would have to work for both my son and me; not one or the other.”
“Everyone has to make their own soul searching and decision making on this one. Do as much research as you can before you make a decision.” —Irine Alexander
Dads are going it alone, too
Single father families are the fastest growing form of family life in Canada today, says Justin Trottier, national executive director of the Canadian Centre for Men and Families. “The role of fatherhood is experiencing a paradigm shift, which is largely not discussed or covered in mainstream media,” says Trottier. “We are also seeing a growth in co-parenting families in which, after separation or divorce, fathers are playing a bigger role than they would have in the past following family break-down. This change in the role of men as fathers mirror changes in the role of women in the professional domains.”
The major challenge for single fathers, as with any single parent, is work-life balance, even more so during a pandemic, says Trottier. “It is very difficult to keep so many balls in the air in order to raise children while leading a busy professional life and also attempting to maintain friendships or potentially dating if one is a single parent,” Trottier says. “Single parents are also often after family support programs that provide fun and educational activities to children as well as social engagement opportunities for parents… I would suggest plugging yourself into a network of other single parents. This will provide emotional support and access to resources and knowledge.”