It seems unlikely that a singer worth £20m who spent almost a decade as the face of L’Oreal would have huge amounts in common with the mums at my local playgroup. But among solo parents, Cheryl has become a hero.
Her comments that she’d like another child but that “not everything has to be conventional” and she’s happy to use a sperm donor have been condemned in some quarters for being “selfish”. But as a solo mum who used a sperm donor to conceive both my daughter and almost-due son, I am delighted that she’s being so open about how much she’d love to have another child and that it isn’t dependent on finding a partner.
“You can spend ages looking for the right man, waiting for the perfect time to get pregnant, then the right man might turn out to be the wrong man,” she said in an interview this week. “There are definitely other routes I would consider.”
Her attitude makes me celebrate. She is showing women who long for a child, or children, that they always have choices. That declining fertility as women hit their mid-thirties does not mean a declining number of options. We are fortunate to live in a time where we have freedom to choose only good relationships, because being single doesn’t affect whether we can bring up children with love and security.
Growing numbers of women share Cheryl’s beliefs, and are acting on them. The number of single women in England choosing to have IVF solo is increasing hugely, rising 35 per cent between 2014 and 2016 from 942 women to 1,272 women, according to figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. And these are just the figures for women who have treatment here: the numbers of those who go to Greece or Spain for less-expensive treatment to try to conceive are not recorded.
I made the choice to try to become a parent alone when I found out that my fertility levels were low, aged 37. I felt that if I rushed to find someone to have children with, our relationship may not provide a stable base for a future family and – because there really wasn’t any time to waste – it could mean that I compromised on love because I’d suddenly be dating with a deadline.
Relationships and love are important to me, but I realised that the idea of not even trying to have a child was too heartbreaking to contemplate. So I decided to try to become pregnant using a sperm donor. I was so fortunate that fertility treatment worked. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel incredibly lucky to have conceived my daughter Astrid, who is now a toddler and makes my world go round. She’s affectionate, independent and constantly curious. I’m looking forward to meeting my son in a few weeks.
Cheryl is a mum already, to her two-year-old son Bear. And what’s more, she’s a single mum – she knows what it’s like to be up all night with a crying child when they have a fever; how it feels to be floored when a child passes on their illnesses but you can’t stop being a parent; to be so full of love for your toddler that you can’t resist showing people photos of them. She knows what it’s like to feel ultimately responsible for her son’s wellbeing. This isn’t her wish for the Hollywood-montage moments of parenthood but based on the realities of being a mum – and still wanting to do it again.
I love that she is open about finding parenthood ultimately fulfilling: it may be unfashionable but I feel similarly.
I find it hard to understand how anyone can read about Cheryl’s experience of parenthood and how she chooses to spend as much time as possible with her son and condemn her. But there are people who feel that choosing to become a solo parent is unfair on children.
I met up with Dr Sophie Zadeh, research associate at the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University, when I was working on my book, Going Solo. She has interviewed many families where children are born by sperm donor, and found that one thing the mothers share is that they are all good parents. “But that’s probably true of all parents who use assisted reproduction methods,” she says. Every child born of donor sperm or eggs is wanted and planned.
She’s looked into whether coming from a one-parent family is destabilising for children. In the case of parents divorcing, children can suffer because of parental conflict, from their main carer being depressed and from a drop in financial circumstances. To my relief, Dr Zadeh told me that it is divorce itself that causes the problems (not that anyone believes parents should stay unhappily together, which I suspect brings its own problems) and that coming from a solo family is not the same: there’s no difference between children in one-parent and two-parent families. Factors that can contribute to a slightly raised level of problems are increased financial stress and increased levels of parenting stress that mums feel, but this is irrespective of being in a one- or two-parent home.
I truly believe that if we give a child love, security and listen to them, then they have all the ingredients needed to thrive. This may be from one parent or two, who may be gay or straight.
For our family, a support network is hugely important: my mum, brother, sister-in-law and cousins all love Astrid hugely and I’m constantly grateful for their help and support. I also think it’s really important that my children have lots of male and female role models. And I suspect that one day in the future I’ll meet a boyfriend, but with no time pressure to have children together.
Cheryl is showing women that we have freedom: that we can be unlucky in love and don’t have to compromise. My teenage self would never have imagined that I’d not have settled down with a man before having children. But it’s when life follows a different curve than expected that we open ourselves to the most amazing experiences – in my case, watching Astrid grow and discover this wonderful world, and getting excited for her brother to join her.
Having a child conceived by donor sperm certainly isn’t the right option for all women longing to have children. But talking about alternative paths to parenthood, and knowing that there are always options, is hugely empowering. I hope it means that there will be fewer relationships based on a drive to become a parent instead of love.
Genevieve Roberts is a journalist and author. Her first book, ‘Going Solo: My choice to become a single mother using a donor’ is published today by Piatkus