Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Temeka Zore’s fertility clinic is located in Los Angeles. It is located in San Francisco. This article has been corrected.
At the height of the coronavirus crisis last April, amid the chaos and uncertainty, one thing became abundantly clear to Danielle Murphy: She was ready to become a mother.
Her idea of the traditional path to parenthood — which would probably involve falling in love, getting married, then starting a family — was no longer worth the wait, she decided.
The 36-year-old attorney from Akron, Ohio, opted to embark on a different journey, completely on her own.
Murphy has always wanted children, and for years she had considered doing it solo. But the pandemic, she said, propelled her to finally take the plunge. The sudden shift in circumstances reinforced that “you don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” she said. For her, it was realizing: “I want children, and I didn’t want to waste another precious moment.”
So, she took matters into her own hands.
While the world was on pause, Murphy spent the first months of the pandemic finding a sperm donor. Then, she scheduled an appointment for an intrauterine insemination (IUI) last May, and although she had a miscarriage, a second attempt in September was successful.
Murphy is due with twins — a boy and a girl — in less than a month.
“I couldn’t feel luckier,” she said.
Murphy is part of a growing group of women who decide to pursue parenthood without a partner, either through artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization (IVF), adoption or surrogacy. Although it’s not clear what percentage of single-parent households in the United States are headed by single mothers by choice, research shows the number has risen sharply in recent years.
Of the nearly 19 million U.S. children under 18 living with a single parent, more than 15 million reside with their mother only, according to 2020 Census data. The majority of White, Hispanic and Asian children live in a two-parent household, while more than half of Black children in the country live with a single parent.
Raising children alone comes with a number of financial and emotional challenges, and for many women, it’s not a choice. The poverty rate for families headed by unmarried mothers in 2018 was 34 percent, compared with 6 percent for married couple families. Financial instability for single parents has been further exacerbated during the pandemic.
Still, an increasing number of women are choosing to go it alone — and experts say an interest in pursuing single motherhood seems to be surging.
A new study by Modern Fertility, a company that offers an at-home fertility hormone test, found that 27 percent of the more than 1,300 individuals surveyed agreed with the statement: “I don’t feel like I need a partner to become a parent.”
Not long ago, that number would have been considerably lower, according to Temeka Zore, a reproductive endocrinologist and Modern Fertility medical adviser.
Although attitudes toward intentional single-parent child rearing have gradually modernized over the years, she said, the number of people considering this path to parenthood has seen “a marked increase in the last year.”
Zore’s fertility clinic in San Francisco registered “more than double the number of single parents by choice” in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the year prior, she said.
And, according to Zore, “the pandemic has a lot to do with it.”
The circumstances have forced people to “rethink their life plans and what is important to them,” she said, adding that limited dating prospects, more possibilities to work from home, enhanced access to care through telemedicine and having additional time to glean information about options have all contributed.
Spencer Richlin, a reproductive endocrinologist at Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut, said his practice also experienced a doubling of prospective single mothers by choice since the start of the pandemic.
Interest in the process has “absolutely exploded,” he said. Richlin believes improved access to care — as well as an increased sense of privacy that comes with telemedicine — has played a role. Plus, he added, for many people, the pandemic has underscored the importance of family.
IUI can range from $500 to $2,500 per cycle, and IVF can cost about $23,000 per cycle. Although insurance might cover some treatments, “a lot of times, it doesn’t,” Richlin said.
And for many people, obstacles to accessing fertility treatments go beyond financial concerns.
“There are definitely socioeconomic barriers and systemic racism that comes into play,” said Kristin Kali, a Seattle-based midwife who specializes in LGBTQ+ family-building and gender inclusivity.
In conjunction with financial and racial barriers, Kali said, LGBTQ+ individuals can also face unique roadblocks while navigating the assisted reproduction landscape.
Kali has worked with a number of queer and transgender patients pursuing solo parenthood and said fertility clinics are generally “deeply cis-heteronormative,” which can the make the experience difficult to navigate. However, many queer folks know they “need some outside help to get pregnant,” Kali said.
For some cisgender, straight women, too, fertility treatments are a necessity. In Kati Noel’s case, she has long known that she would need medical assistance to get pregnant. In fact, Noel, 31, has been saving up for IVF for years.
A nurse in Lufkin, Tex., Noel was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder, when she was 22. Her fertility struggles led to a difficult divorce after a 10-year relationship. “Then the pandemic hit, and I was tired of putting my life on hold,” she said.
She decided to start the process of becoming a single mother by choice. For Noel, the circumstances she found herself in raised a critical question, she said: “Why am I waiting for a man to show up that may never come?”
So, she booked a consultation with a fertility specialist in March, underwent an egg retrieval procedure in early April and is set to have her first embryo transfer in May.
For the first time in a long time, she said, she’s feeling optimistic and excited about the future. “Just because you don’t have a partner, doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Noel added.
Kim Nguyen feels the same way.
Nguyen, 34, a neonatal intensive care unit nurse in San Jose, is in the very early stages of the process, and she had her first consultation with an endocrinologist recently to discuss options. She’s in no rush, and she plans to spend the next year or so deciding if — and how — she wants to move forward with becoming a single mother.
She has concerns about being able to financially provide for her child, adding that she feels “fortunate that I’m privileged enough” to even be considering becoming a parent by choice. She often works 12-hour night shifts, and without a partner to share the load, she worries it will be difficult to find child care to cover her busy work schedule.
Nguyen said she is a sexual assault survivor, and the trauma from the experience has deterred her from having romantic relationships in her adult life. “I like the idea of having a partner, but I’m okay with not,” she said. Still, she keeps wondering: “Will the kid need two parents eventually?”
Jane Mattes, a Manhattan psychotherapist and single mother by choice, said the answer is no.
“There’s a misconception that children need two parents,” she said. “But in fact, children need good parents. The number doesn’t make the child turn out well. It’s the quality of the parenting.”
Mattes founded Single Mothers by Choice — a nonprofit network of support groups — in 1981 after having a son on her own. Since then, more than 30,000 single mothers by choice have joined the organization, according to Mattes.
The organization saw a considerable spike in interest during the pandemic, Mattes said. Although most women she heard from put their pregnancy plans on pause when the coronavirus hit, by early fall, “we had a surge,” she said. “I think people really had time to stop and take stock.”
But being a single mother is uniquely challenging, she cautioned. In addition to the financial obligations, there are two other crucial factors Mattes urges people to consider before going forward with the process.
“The first thing I always say is you have to really want it,” she said. “Second on the list is having a really good support system, because you can raise a child as a single parent, but you can’t raise a child alone.
Flee Kieselhorst, a 34-year-old single mother by choice in Oakland, Calif., gave birth to her son, Owen, almost seven weeks ago. Although her immediate family doesn’t live locally, “I have a chosen family around here,” she said. “I have more of a network than I realized. Everybody is coming out of the woodwork.”
But, as a single parent, “you can’t be afraid to ask for help,” she said.
As a queer person, Kieselhorst always knew she would need some fertility assistance to get pregnant, and she started working with a midwife, which she said was a “lovely experience.”
Going through the process, though, can be difficult — especially alone, Kieselhorst said. She suffered two miscarriages, which she said was very hard to endure without a partner.
“Trying and not getting pregnant is really draining, because there’s the emotional aspect of thinking, ‘What’s wrong with my body?’ and the financial aspect of wasting so much money every month,” said Kieselhorst, a freelance photographer.
But finally — after an at-home insemination — a third pregnancy stuck. On March 18, Kieselhorst gave birth to baby Owen. “He is the coolest. He is so small, so trusting, so soft and so perfect,” she said, holding her tiny newborn. “It’s pretty magical. I did this, I made this.”
For people considering becoming single parents by choice, Kieselhorst said, “don’t let fear hold you back.”
“It’s not easy,” she continued. “But it is just so worth it.”