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a sleepy newborn baby in a white singlet and nappy with their arms up by their head against a green and yellow background
Image: Getty Images, design Tina Tiller

SocietyAugust 15, 2023

The baby mania remains

a sleepy newborn baby in a white singlet and nappy with their arms up by their head against a green and yellow background
Image: Getty Images, design Tina Tiller

Some people strongly identify as parents long before they have children. Catherine Hart returns to discuss the intense longing of a ‘childless mother’.

I am not a mother. I’m not pregnant or close to being at the top of the sperm donor waiting list, but I desperately want to be a parent. It’s a craving that induces dreams of adorable cuddles with my toddler. It forces me to consider finding work around inflexible school hours. It’s persistent, and if I’m being totally honest, exhausting.

I’m not the only one who feels like this. I speak about it often. Years ago, I published an article about baby mania, and my social media was flooded with comments, mostly from friends who felt the same. More recently, a close friend confided she felt alone in her longing to be a mum, despite hearing me discuss it for years. Somehow it’s expected that all cisgender women possess some maternal instinct, but many of us don’t talk about it: what happens when it isn’t there, or what it feels like when what you wish for is out of reach.

During the pandemic, when my career in performing arts was reaching new levels of stress and heartache, I responded to a Facebook community post looking for childcare with a simple message: I’m not a nanny, but I love kids. The job was mine, and I gained the privilege of watching a baby grow into a toddler. I saw him fumble on his feet as he learned to walk. I giggled with him as he learned to talk. For a year he was one of my best friends, and now I miss hanging out with the little dude.

The second family I worked for saw me move into after-school care. One day, after I’d looked after her two young girls, their mother asked me if working with kids has put me off the idea of parenting. I told her it changed nothing. Nannying had become a way for me to learn how I want to parent and how I instinctively react to the struggles of helping tiny humans grow into autonomous beings.

I work with children between the ages of zero and 10, and I love all of them for different reasons. But they ask questions. They want to know if I’m married. If I have a boyfriend. A nine-year-old once asked me how you know when someone wants to kiss you. Sometimes, kids assume that I’m childless because I don’t have a husband.

I don’t need a man, or anyone else for that matter, to have a family. These young minds deserve to know that being happy can look a million different ways, so I tell them the truth: I don’t want to get married. Ever. If I’m in the mood, I explain that having a husband or partner is amazing if that’s what you want, but it’s just not for me. Slowly, they nod and pride fills me from the knowledge that I’ve added to their understanding of the world. 

I don’t like deep, intense relationships. In fact, emotions are pretty difficult to navigate at the best of times. It’s been 10 years since my last long-term “serious” relationship. Not long after that, through the queer community, I found polyamory; the ability to love and care for multiple people simultaneously. To me, polyamory is a celebration of honesty. It’s the best way I know to experience romance and intimate connections. 

There are so many different ways to be a mum (Photo: Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images)

It’s often assumed that dating multiple people belonging to various gender identities would make it easier to find someone interested in co-parenting. But those stereotypes don’t acknowledge that finding your person, or your people, is hard no matter your lifestyle. 

Part of being polyamorous is getting used to the question, “Won’t this all change when you meet the one?”, and if we’re being honest, maybe. I wouldn’t know. Recently, a stranger on a public forum told me I was a “relationship anarchist”, where someone rejects the idea of a traditional relationship, and that felt wrong too. I’m not opposed to relationships where they become your world, whether that’s monogamous, non-monogamous, or somewhere in between. It just hasn’t happened.

And part of being bisexual is understanding that many believe you have unlimited choices when it comes to dating. If only that wasn’t just a destructive stereotype. Sexuality doesn’t change your prospects or your personality. It is part of who you are. If I am a person who prefers to sit at home reading, that’s probably got more to do with my relationship status than the number of people I find attractive. 

I haven’t found that “one”, and like many cis women, I’ve been told my biological clock is ticking. At the end of 2020 I had an anti-müllerian hormone (AMH) test to see what my body was up to. The results were good, but not great. I have less than five years before my egg count gets much, much lower. No surprises.

It’s hard to reject ideas of gender expectations around parenthood, specifically the one where cisgendered women are told they need to get pregnant before the age of 35, when your body and science tell you it’s true. I never truly thought I would be any different from any other aspiring parent, but it still hurts.

A Single Parent by Choice (often referred to as Single Mother by Choice or SMC), is someone who has chosen to parent on their own. I wanted to do this before I knew the acronym. If I don’t have a partner, why can’t I have a baby? Films and TV suggest that a single parent is often someone hit by tragedy, but this isn’t the case for so many of us. 

As of this year, I am on the waitlist for donor sperm. In New Zealand, it depends on the clinic you’re with – it’s currently between two-and-a-half and three years through Fertility Associates, 21 and 24 months through Repromed, and 14 months with Fertility Plus. All of these times are based on certain criteria centred around reproductive health, meaning the next step is to have further testing done to make sure everything is in working order. But at $300 (through Fertility Associates) for an initial appointment, another few hundred for the tests, and an additional cost for a compulsory psychologist appointment, I haven’t been able to afford to continue down that path. 

Overall, the cost of going down the sperm donor route is between $5,000 and $15,000, depending on whether IVF is necessary and how many attempts are needed. For a future single parent, that is a huge amount of money that could otherwise be used on necessities once a child is born, like nappies or a toddler’s childcare (currently the New Zealand government pays for 20 hours a week of childcare only for those between the ages of three and five – in March next year it will extend to two-year-olds). 

The sperm donation route can be expensive and time-consuming. (Photo: Andrii Atanov/Getty Images)

In New Zealand, it is illegal to pay for sperm, and the number of donors is small (though the Improving Arrangements for Surrogacy Bill is looking to address this). This means that on top of the long waitlist and the expense, there’s little choice over the DNA used. There are also limitations that any donor can put on the recipient of their donation, and it is my honest fear that it could take longer because I’m not in a traditional partnership.

If someone has been trying for over a year to get pregnant (counted as 12 unsuccessful cycles), they can get publicly funded. But I’m pretty certain it doesn’t count as trying if the queer sex I’m having can’t result in pregnancy. Another option is to prove you have a medical complication that prevents you from becoming pregnant, such as severe endometriosis or blocked tubes, and I refuse to be the able-bodied person hoping for a physical obstacle just so I can receive funding.

I keep being asked, “Why don’t you do it the old-fashioned way?”, and the answer’s simple: I don’t want to co-parent with someone I don’t know. And I have to assume that any sperm provided the “old fashioned way” means someone wants to be involved. Of course, I know that’s not always true, but there’s no certainty either way. And if one of my friends was willing to donate sperm without wanting to co-parent, I hope I’ve given them the opportunity to bring that up. 

There is the option of going through social media. Facebook hosts a number of groups of New Zealanders looking for donors or to donate, but like with anything over the internet, there’s the added fear of scams or dodgy individuals. With something as sensitive as impregnation, the screening and security offered by the organisations mentioned above is certainly preferable, even with a wait time. 

Some have asked whether adoption is an option for me, but while living in Auckland this is unachievable. The cost of living is so high, there’s no way I can afford to live alone with a young child on my salary. Until I move away from the city, I can’t go too far down that road.

A few people have suggested I get a dog, and while that is a lovely idea, it isn’t the same. My dream is to raise a well-rounded individual, someone who is accepting and loving and makes the world a better place. Someone who defies expectations in their own way, and supports others doing the same. Dogs don’t need a parent to teach them how to do any of those things.

People ask questions of my journey because there are so many ways to do this, and while the default for so long has been with a cis man and woman, it is understood now, perhaps more than ever before, that a family doesn’t resemble a stock image. I can’t speak to the parenting journeys of others – that’s their story to tell – but a family can look however we want it to.

Would I still be going down the sperm donor route if I was in a relationship with a future co-parent? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t need to rely on another human to make my dreams happen. I can do this on my own, in my own way.

I am a childless mother. It’s an instinctual and primal urge that needs healthy channels to keep me going. If the future doesn’t include me giving birth, I accept that, genuinely and wholeheartedly. It doesn’t mean I can’t be involved in helping children learn and grow. It doesn’t mean I can’t talk about milestones or parenting philosophies. It just means my path looks different.

Keep going!