One in four children now grow up in lone parent homes but despite being more common than ever, there is no one path to single parenthood. For some, single parenthood arises from a change in circumstances in a relationship but for others it is an active choice, made because the individual is ready to start their family with or without a partner.
This is as true for LGBTQ+ people as it is for cis heterosexual people. The similarities between single parents of any orientation or gender outweigh any differences; every parent faces the same pressures, the same challenges and the same joys. Any difference or friction presented by being a queer single parent is often based on personal history – coming out before you start your family means you won't have to reintroduce yourself to your children, for example.
That said, single lesbian parents face unique barriers, beginning with conception and continuing as the child grows up. A recent survey by Stonewall and Diva conducted by Kantar for Lesbian Visibility Week found that more than one in three (36%) respondents with children experienced barriers when trying to start a family. To be supported by the NHS in starting a family as a queer person or a single woman is hard enough but when you tick both boxes, you are likely limited to private treatment. Which, as we’ve previously reported, can cost tens of thousands of pounds.
Then there is the prejudice that LGBTQ+ people continue to face. According to the same Diva and Stonewall survey, 37% of LGBTQI+ women with children have experienced homophobia from other parents and one in three children of LGBTQI+ parents have experienced homophobia directly.
For Lesbian Visibility Week, we spoke to Holly Ryan, a single lesbian mum. At 33 she decided to start a family, getting pregnant for the first time at 36. Now, at 43, she has two children, Johan and Silke, age 6 and 2. Holly’s unique experience sheds a light on one of the many ways that modern queer families can form and the opportunities, as well as the challenges, for lesbians to start families.
I knew deep in my bones that my biggest ambition of all had always been motherhood. And by the time I was in my 30s, I genuinely was physically, emotionally and financially dressed for the occasion of parenthood. As I’ve always loved Denmark, from the moment I visited Copenhagen for the first time at around 18, it made sense for me to combine my love of Denmark and my UK citizenship by finding a Danish donor.
I had also heard from other friends of mine that they’d had success with conceiving at Stork Klinik in Copenhagen. I did some 'window shopping' in terms of what the UK clinics offered up and what Danish clinics offered up and it felt like they were worlds apart. It was important for me to be in a setting where I could allow myself to be as relaxed as possible and every time I'm in Denmark I feel like there's a weight that lifts almost immediately with landing. Plus, I wanted to go somewhere that felt like it was outside of the norm – when you're trying to get pregnant with a donor, it feels so surreal anyway. What's another layer of strange?
So I ended up flying back and forth for each IUI (intrauterine insemination) attempt. I started charting when I was ovulating and then within that window I booked a flight and would allow myself ideally a day there to unwind and nestle into my friends before having the attempt.
I calculated from speaking to friends of mine in the UK that the fertility process is up to three times cheaper in Denmark. I do think that the costs incurred for fertility in general are pretty horrid and that it's hard for them to justify the price tags involved, other than the fact that people are desperate and will do whatever it takes. That said, I was bloody fortunate with my pregnancies. With my second child, Silke, they said to me, 'If you don't get pregnant by the sixth attempt with IUI then you are going to have to ramp up and go to that hardcore level of IVF (in vitro fertilisation),' which is more expensive. I had six IUI attempts for Johan and six IUI attempts for Silke so it wasn't money that I just shrugged off – it did hurt and it did mean that I had to think carefully. But I also knew that I would work my socks and flip-flops off until it happened, so if that meant working double shifts somewhere, then I would have done it.
I luckily didn’t have any major financial barriers – I've always been quite sensible with money and lived within my means so I could squirrel money away for flights to Denmark. I knew I was gonna have to dig deep into my bank account and that it was going to be the best money I've ever spent. But when it comes to the cost of having kids this way, you're getting a tap on the shoulder and then a punch in the face with what to expect down the line. To give you an idea, during the pandemic I had to cough up for an additional layer of childcare that I hadn't anticipated in order to make my business run. My childcare costs are close to two grand a month now.
I think the biggest barrier to starting my family was actually myself. Despite being a raging lesbian and not necessarily adhering to lots of conventions, I am quite an old fashioned girl in some ways. I do believe in marriage and I've always wanted as big a slice as possible of the wholesome family setup. It took me a while to take myself seriously as an adult and someone who could parent on my own. But I grew up with a single dad. My mum left home when I was four and my brother and I grew up with a lone parent who was running his own business. We lived in this haunted mansion in rural Devon and I was the only kid in my school who had been brought up by a single dad. He wasn't the traditional father figure in that he was bloody awful at anything DIY-flavoured and could barely change a lightbulb. But he was also painfully cool!
In a brilliant way he wasn't a traditional dad but we also weren't a traditional family. So I thought to myself that if he could pull it off on his own, then maybe I could take on the mammoth task of parenthood and bring up a human being on my own.
When I've dated on and off during parenthood, I've always been very out and very tactile, both in public and at home. My ex-girlfriend is quite involved in my kids' life – she will often walk Johan to school on Tuesdays and I've said to Johan that if he feels that he's underdressed in terms of having just one of me, he's welcome to say that he has two mummies if that feels more palatable and more comfortable for him.
I feel like there's potency in normalising our setup as much as possible as well. For my kids this is their normal, in the same way that I grew up with a single dad who, conveniently for me, was a genius and also a very cool dude. But in everyone's setup they don't actually know any different. I think the only time that I'm aware of it is when we go around to friends' houses and Johan is hanging off the dad like they're a superstar. I totally get that because I was guilty of putting a lot of female figures on a pedestal and looking at the ones that I wanted to be my mum as if she were a Hollywood actress. I only saw my mum once or twice a year and I felt her absence – but not enough for me to feel that I was short-changed because I had the glow and radiance of my dad, who was probably my best friend. I was very lucky and it could have been different if he was a bellend and not very emotionally intelligent.
Before my mum left home, I wasn't privy to or on the sharp end of rows and slammed doors but I also feel how there's nothing more lonely than being with the wrong person. I could maybe convince myself that I was feeling something with someone that I wasn't but I'm not a good enough actress to pretend to my parents or kids. I've always thought it's better that I start on that journey of parenthood on my own. Hopefully, if someone wants to come along for the ride then jump in! But otherwise... Lots of my friends are now going through divorces and window shopping in the dating world and they have to negotiate a disgruntled ex-girlfriend who is really unhappy about dating again. In a way I feel grateful that I don't have that energy of having to share Christmases and birthdays. I'm not a massive control freak but I do think having that sense of ownership for me is quite powerful. I feel that my kids have a constancy: I am their constancy and they're mine.