Whether you’ve dreamt of being a solo mum all your life or you’ve more recently been feeling like ‘things don’t always go to plan’, then it may be time to start considering all of your options when it comes to conception.
Until very recently, choosing to have a child without a partner was almost unheard of. In fact, until the early 2000s, access to Assisted Reproductive Therapy (ART) and artificial insemination for same-sex female couples and single women was hotly debated in the political arena.
In 2010, Victoria was the last state to rule it legal for single women and same-sex couples to access fertility treatment, yet still, no one really talked about it. As is the case for a lot of things people can feel uncomfortable talking about, it was tough to get factual and supportive information, and many felt they’d somehow failed or were doing something wrong if they decided to conceive without a partner. Thankfully, single motherhood has become much more common, more celebrated, and more supported in recent years.
Let’s be honest: the world needs more strong, independent, smart, nurturing women who are willing to stand up and live the life of their dreams unapologetically. Plus, the realisation that these are the women that will be raising our next generation is enough to make our hearts fill with hope.
Now, let’s get into the details.
The reasons for going solo could be many.
Most likely, you haven’t found a partner who is in the same frame of mind when it comes to starting a family and you’ve decided you don’t want to wait any longer.
Or perhaps you’re not interested in having a partner at all.
The point is, if having children is important to you, being without a partner is no barrier.
As with many things that feel scary, we first and foremost want to tell you that you’re not alone.
While it’s surprisingly difficult to find any concrete numbers on just how many women are choosing single motherhood in Australia, Professor Beverley Vollenhoven, from Monash IVF clinic in Victoria states that, on average, she works with at least one single mother by choice per fortnight. And Professor Fiona Kelly from La Trobe University adds that over half of Victoria’s sperm is used by single women; so choosing single motherhood is far from uncommon.
In Denmark, single women were offered free fertility treatment in 2007, and since then the numbers of single mothers by choice has radically increased. In fact, in the words of Karin Erb, lab director of the fertility unit of Odense University Hospital: “everyone knows someone who is or is thinking of becoming a [single mother]”.
While it may not be quite such an everyday occurrence here in Australia, we’re happy to not only see the numbers of solo mums increase, but the amount of resources as well.
Ole Schou, the director of Cryos International, the world’s largest sperm bank, reports that over 50% of their clients are now single mothers. Schou also reports that 85% of these women are aged 31-45, and half have a masters degree or higher. Which brings us nicely to our next topic point: age.
While every woman’s body is different, the sad truth is that as we age, our fertility naturally drops. Each month, for the average healthy lady, we only have about a 25% chance of getting pregnant if we’re under 30, this drops to 20% after 30 and only 5% after the age of 40.
And while it’s not always the case, many women choosing to become single mothers by choice (which by the way, are lovingly referred to as SMCs) are doing so because they’ve reached a certain age without having children and don’t want to risk waiting any longer.
In Western society, where we have been given the freedom to pursue our careers, many have gone out and done just that – climbing the ranks, earning the big bucks, education ourselves, basically just living our dreams.
But now that we’ve reached our career goals, our money goals, our lifestyle goals, we’ve decided we’re ready for the next step, a baby. And if we’ve found ourselves partnerless at this stage, or without a partner that’s interested in having children, then it’s time for us to take matters into our own hands.
So, what’s next?
There are a few things to consider before starting your journey as a SMC.
If you’re just starting to toy with the idea of having a baby but aren’t sure now’s the time, or if you just want to be sure you have the option in the future, you can start by freezing your eggs.
We’ve written a whole big ol’ guide on it, so pop over there for a read if you’d like more info.
But if the time is now, read on.
Finding the right clinic for you
Start by doing some research around fertility clinics in your area (or anywhere you can safely and comfortably travel to) and find the one that you feel is the best fit.
We’d recommend doing a deep dive into their website to truly understand what they offer, get a feel for their level of care, and understand their procedures and pricing. Once you’ve chosen a few, get in contact with them and ask as many questions as you need to. This will ensure you’re truly picking the clinic that’s best for you.
Initial consultation and fertility testing
Once you find the best clinic, you can set up your initial consultation, where you’ll meet your fertility specialist and go through an extensive medical history, as well as let them know about any other procedures or treatments you’ve had in the past. This will allow your specialist to advise on the best treatment route for you.
During your initial consultation processes, your healthcare provider will also test your fertility. There are a number of ways this is done, a series of blood tests and ultrasounds can test for complications due to PCOS or endometriosis, and test that you’re ovulating naturally each month. You can also undergo an egg count test, known as an AMH test for the levels of the hormone Anti-Mullerian Hormone, giving an indication of ovarian reserve (egg count).
Finding the right donor
The next step is finding the right donor. Based on the results of your fertility tests and initial consultation, you’ll know if you need an egg or embryo donor, or if just sperm donation is enough.
There are a couple of reasons women choose to conceive with donated eggs, including if they are medically infertile, but also if there is a risk of passing on a genetic disease, if you’ve been through chemotherapy or a serious illness that has affected your ovaries, or if you are going through premature menopause.
Most of the time, women receive egg donations through a trusted friend or family member, although in some cases there may be the chance to use a de-identified donor.
Another option is to conceive through the use of donor embryos. Sometimes, when a couple has successfully conceived and completed their family through IVF treatment, they’ll have excess embryos available. In this situation, they’re given the option to donate these embryos to others wanting to conceive.
For some couples, the idea of disposing of embryos feels unethical, and having been through the IVF process themselves, they may feel compassion for others struggling to conceive.
If you’re considering conceiving through embryo donation, IVF Australia runs a community called Embryo Donors with information and a support network where you can connect with others who are considering donating or conceiving through donation.
It’s important to note that, in Australia, the birth mother of a child is always legally recognised as the mother, even if she is not the biological mother (e.g. if the baby is conceived using a donor egg or embryo).
Sperm donors from a sperm bank can either be known or de-identified.
If you’re choosing a known donor like a trusted friend there are a few variables to consider that you’ll need to manage yourself.
It’s a good idea to talk to your known donor about any family history of mental illness and disease, and also outline a clear understanding of what the donor’s involvement will be in the child’s life. Legally, if there are no contracts signed, there is the possibility that the donor could seek custody of the child down the line. These laws vary from state to state, so ensure you know your rights before starting the process.
If you do go this route, clearly set out what their relationship to the child will be (if any), seek independent legal advice to help draw up any contracts needed, and ask them to undergo the necessary health screenings to ensure they aren’t carriers of any genetic diseases.
If you prefer using a de-identified donor, you’ll have the option to browse available donors from your chosen fertility clinic. While it might feel weird at first, conceiving with donor sperm gives you a little more control of certain aspects such as physical traits, genetic health, and some characteristics.
Donor sperm is subject to extensive medical examination before being made available for use. Tests can include cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy, and fragile X syndrome, among others. The donor sperm will also be tested for a range of STIs before being frozen for 6 months and retested, and only then made available for use.
Legal implications of donation
As is the case with any of these donation processes, there can be a large emotional impact. This can often be the fact that the child is legally allowed to request donor information when they turn 18, and could essentially seek to contact their donor.
All donors are required by law to undergo pre-donation counselling sessions, extensive medical tests, and understand the legal rights of a child conceived by donation before completing the process.
Also, a quick note: It is illegal in Australia to receive compensation for donation of tissues (this includes sperm, eggs, and embryos). So if any person, or clinic, ever asks for compensation, you may want to consider looking elsewhere.
Okay, now that you have the facts on donation, it’s time to talk about the procedure itself.
There are three main ways for insemination to happen with donor gametes, neither of which, by the way, involves a turkey baster. Although, what this scenario is actually referring to intracervical insemination (ICI), which is an option. Your other two options are intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilisation (IVF), each of these three options are detailed below.
Intracervical insemination (ICI)
This can be done by a medical professional or at home with an insemination kit. Because this method only inserts the sperm at the opening of the cervix (rather than past the cervix), it can be less successful than other methods with a roughly 10-20% success rate per attempt, increasing to 38% after six tries.
Intrauterine insemination (IUI)
Intrauterine insemination (IUI) involves a medical professional inserting sperm into the uterus, past the cervical opening. This is similar to, but one step past natural conception through intercourse. While the sperm still needs to find and fertilise the egg (and the egg still needs to implant), this procedure allows the sperm to get past its first natural barrier, the cervix, making chances of successful fertilisation slightly higher than through intercourse.
That said, there’s a bit more to it. There are four major steps involved in IUI, and ultimately, the sperm still has to reach the egg and fertilise it on its own, making it less successful than IVF (but more on that later).
Step 1: Ovarian stimulation
Intrauterine insemination can be done in time with your body’s natural ovulation cycle, or through stimulated ovulation, using hormones to stimulate the ovaries and trigger ovulation.
If you are naturally producing low levels of the ovulatory hormones, or do not naturally ovulate, then you’ll need to be prepared for this process. You’ll be prescribed either an oral medication that encourages the body to produce more follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), or you may simply need to take injections of the hormone itself in order to increase the number of follicles that develop and the number of eggs that are released.
Even if your body ovulates normally on its own, you may choose or be recommended, this process as it gives some control over the whole procedure.
Step 2: Sperm washing
During IUI, your healthcare provider will first ‘wash’ the sperm, meaning the more motile sperm is separated out to be used for the insemination. In other words, they’re making sure you get the strongest swimmers with the hope they’ll be able to successfully reach and fertilise the egg.
Step 3: Insemination
Once you’ve reached ovulation, the washed sperm will be inserted into your uterus, past the cervix, using a speculum (the duck-looking device the doctor uses when they do any kind of vaginal exam) and a small catheter.
The procedure itself is fairly non-invasive and shouldn’t create any extreme discomfort. You may feel some minor cramping. But overall you should be able to go about your day. You’ll be prescribed progesterone to support the final stages of your cycle to thicken the uterine walls and help encourage the fertilised egg to implant.
Step 4: Pregnancy test
Roughly two weeks after your insemination, you’ll be able to test for pregnancy.
IUI success rate
It’s important to note that the success rate of IUI is lower than that of IVF, but the Fertility Society of Australia reports that 60% of IUI patients will conceive within six cycles.
Remember that IUI still uses some of nature’s processes to fertilise the egg, meaning even though it’s supported in getting past the cervix, the sperm still has a lot of work to do, so it may take a few cycles, just like natural conception.
How much does IUI cost?
Intrauterine insemination comes at quite a cheaper price point than IVF at around $2,000 per cycle, but as mentioned above, likely it’ll take a few cycles for a successful pregnancy.
We’re going to guess you’ve heard of IVF. According to the University of New South Wales medical research team, more than 1 in 20 babies born in Australia today is conceived using IVF.
In a nutshell, IVF involves uniting the egg and sperm outside of the body, in a specialised laboratory setting, and growing the fertilised egg (embryo) for an amount of time in a protected environment before transferring it to the woman’s uterus.
Generally speaking, IVF success rates are higher than IUI rates, accounting for the fact that the egg is already fertilised before entering the body, removing yet another barrier.
If IVF feels like the best option for you, here’s what you can expect throughout the duration of the procedure.
Step 1: Hormone treatments
The IVF cycle will coincide with your menstrual cycle, so the first step is to have your fertility clinic do your blood work on day one of your cycle. Then, you’ll begin your hormone treatments, usually around day two to three of your cycle.
These injections will stimulate your follicles, prompting them to produce multiple eggs (during your natural cycle, your body will usually only produce and release one egg per cycle). The treatments continue daily and you’ll be monitored by your health care provider to track how the eggs are growing. After roughly eight days (sometimes more) your eggs should reach the preferred size and you’ll be ready to move to the next phase.
Step 2: Trigger shot
When your eggs have reached the viable size, you’ll be given what’s called a ‘trigger shot’, which is a hormone called Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, or hCG for short. This triggers your ovaries to mature and release the eggs.
Step 3: Retrieval
About 36 hours after receiving the trigger shot, your eggs should be ready for retrieval. You’ll be put under anaesthesia for the procedure, even though it’s quite quick overall. Your fertility specialist will retrieve your eggs using a thin needle. In some cases, if follicles can’t be accessed transvaginally, a laparoscopic surgery will be scheduled instead.
Step 4: Insemination
Once your eggs have been successfully retrieved, they’ll be united with your chosen donor sperm and incubated overnight with hopes the fertilisation will occur naturally. In some cases, it may be recommended that intra cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) takes place. This is when the sperm is injected into the mature egg, usually done when the sperm quality is low.
Step 5: Embryo transfer
The fertilised eggs are then incubated for a number of days. IVF Australia generally incubates for five days as this is deemed the most successful stage for the embryos to implant within the uterus. That said, your timings and procedures may vary by a day or so depending on your clinic. The procedure is super simple, and can be compared to a pap smear in terms of time and level of discomfort.
Your surplus embryos will be frozen for use at a later time, or if needed in the next cycle of IVF. Two weeks from your implantation day, you’ll be able to take a pregnancy test and see if your cycle was a success!
For reference, an IVF cycle is completed when all embryos from that retrieval have been used, or a successful pregnancy occurs. You will most likely have multiple treatment cycles per IVF cycle. Each time an embryo is implanted, you’ve completed one treatment cycle.
IVF success rates
While your chosen fertility clinic will have its own success rates based on patient data, according to Dr Karin Hammarberg, who is a Senior Researcher at Monash University and the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Authority (VARTA), IVF has a success rate of about 20% for women under 35, and only about 10% for women over 40.
According to their data as of 2017, IVF Australia reports a 34.9% success rate per embryo transfer leading to a live birth for women under the age of 30. This number gradually decreases through the age brackets falling to 31.3% for women aged 30-34, and 25.1% for women aged 35-40. However, for women aged over 40, that number is only 8.7%.
It’s also important to note that this specific data accounts for “fresh” embryo transfer only, meaning the first treatment of the IVF cycle, and numbers are slightly more for subsequent frozen embryo transfers in the higher age ranges.
You can find additional resources on choosing a clinic, understanding success rate, and more from Fertility Society Australia.
The cost of your treatment will depend on your chosen clinic, but generally speaking an IVF cycle will cost around $10,000, with just over half being out of pocket.
Understanding your rights to financial assistance
There’s good news and bad news.
Unfortunately, we haven’t quite overcome some of the discriminations that are in place around the right to access ART treatment. While Medicare, private health cover, and SuperCare are available generally to assist the cost of fertility treatments, they are still only available under the diagnosis of ‘medical infertility’. As much as it pains us to type these words, conceiving as a solo mum is labelled as ‘social infertility’, unable to conceive based on social choice.
However, you’ll be able to understand more about what rebates you’re eligible for after consultation with your fertility specialist.
The good news is if you are eligible for Medicare rebates, with the Medicare Safety Net, you’ll be able to claim addition rebates once you reach a certain threshold within a calendar year. This helps bring down the costs of subsequent cycles if they are needed.
However, Medicare does not cover certain aspects of the process, such as payment for stays at the Day Hospital, so it’s important to understand if your private health insurance will cover these additional costs, and what the wait times are for being able to claim them if you need to upgrade your cover prior to starting treatment.
You’ll also need to pay for things like embryo freezing, and costs of acquiring and management of donated sperm.
In addition to offering their own payment plans, or a payment assistance program such as Zip Money, many fertility clinics also support SuperCare, allowing you to access your superannuation to help fund fertility treatments. According to the SuperCare website, you are entitled to early access to your superannuation for IVF treatment as a single woman.
There’s more information and links for these resources at the bottom of this guide.
Phew, that’s a lot of thinking, planning, saving, researching! But it doesn’t stop there.
While simply getting pregnant is cause for celebration in itself, it is only the start of this beautiful journey.
Medical care, costs, and birth plans aside, it’s important to think about who will be supporting you during the birth and throughout motherhood, and to consider all scenarios for how you’ll discuss this chosen path with your future child, and inevitably, other people as well.
The importance of support
Obviously if you’ve chosen to conceive solo, you’ve taken into consideration the challenges that will arise being a single parent.
Time, money, and emotional support are just a few of the things that you may feel come more abundantly in partnered families. But chances are you already have a fantastic network of friends and family members who support you when you need it, and the birth and raising of your child should be no exception.
Of course, it may feel that by choosing to do this alone means you need to weather the ups and downs alone, but as with any situation, we urge you to let your guard down and lean on those who love you most in times of need.
If you’re seeking additional support outside of your friends and family, there are a number of places you can look, starting with the Solo Mums by Choice resources. Here you can have access to information and insights, as well as the opportunity to connect with other single mums for support.
You might also like to consider connecting with a doula for support during pregnancy and the birthing process. Doulas are there to provide emotional support, confidence, and care during birth. They work alongside you during your pregnancy to help decide and clearly define your birthing preferences, and their job is to stay calm and keep you as comfortable and relaxed as possible during your birthing experience.
You may also be able to connect with a doula who provides afterbirth care, continuing her support into the early weeks with your newborn, a fantastic resource for any new mother but even more for a solo mum.
Please remember that most doulas are not medically trained, therefore you’ll need to also have an obstetrician or midwife available to you during your pregnancy, birth, and postpartum care. What doulas are fantastic for is emotional support and as advocates for your wants and needs, especially when it’s difficult to communicate in the middle of labour.
🤨 Are single-parent children ‘worse-off’?
Professor Susan Golombok of the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University has performed extensive research on the development of single-parent children, and not only do studies show that children of single mothers perform slightly better on tests, but that their overall psychological well-being is no different than those of two parent households.
She suggests that children of SMCs grow up in an environment heavily spared of the kind of stress that comes from divorce or unplanned pregnancy. Things such as reduced income or total loss of income, and the mental health challenges that come with losing a relationship or struggling financially.
Of course, there are other things that may arise for children of SMCs, particularly the development of their own concept of family and how they feel socially when they learn that their family dynamic is different from others.
Golombok, and other SMCs, suggest that open communication from the beginning is key. Of course, how you choose to discuss your personal situation with your child is completely up to you, but a lot can be said for complete openness and honesty when it comes to your child’s comfortability - both in discussing their feelings with you and communicating with others.
Most suggest to start as early as possible, so the story just becomes a natural part of life and there are no surprises along the way. That said, it’s important to use age-appropriate concepts and language, and progressively include more information as your child begins to grow and better grasp complex ideas.
Of course, there will always be situations that you’ll have to deal with as they arise, especially as your child enters school age. But given the tools to handle these prodding questions early on will set your child up for a confident and successful understanding of their own story, as well as their ability to communicate their story with others.
No two stories are the same, so there’s no right way to do this, but having a clear understanding of your own feelings about your journey, and a confident way to talk about it will help ensure you’re able to pass the same level of understanding and confidence to your child.
There are a range of resources available as you begin your journey into single motherhood. We’ve listed out some key ones below worth digging deeper into.