The Solo Parent’s Guide to Getting Pregnant
Jane Mattes started the group Single Mothers by Choice in 1981. In the last 40 years, thousands of women have become mothers on their own — through pregnancy, adoption, fostering.
The landscape today is different. There are hashtags (#SMBC), books, and online communities. There are more options, and for most, there’s greater acceptance of the process.
We also have new awareness around gender, family roles, and the ways we define all our interactions with others and society.
Most of the people who read this article will identify as single women choosing to become mothers. And we recognize that there are single people with uteruses trying to get pregnant that don’t consider themselves women. And won’t call themselves mothers.
We are here for them too.
So here’s what we learned after talking with three solo parents about what it takes to get pregnant as a solo parent by choice.
Choosing to become a solo parent
Kathryn Metz, an educator in Cleveland, Ohio, wasn’t someone who always knew she wanted to carry a child — or even become a parent.
The realization that she wanted to be a mom came to her on a train platform when she was 33 years old and heading to run a marathon. She spent a couple years in therapy unpacking that desire and initially went through the process to become licensed as a foster adoption parent.
When she got the call that a six-week-old baby needed a placement, she was excited, but then thought “oh fuck” and pumped the brakes. Though she’d discussed her foster adoption plans with work, the logistics of taking leave and getting the support she needed felt suddenly overwhelming. There were no structures already in place. No community had been gearing up while they watched her belly grow.
“It’s a shitty symptom of our society not understanding what adoption really is and what it means,” says Kathryn.
She talked through it more in therapy.
And just when she was going to give the case worker the green light again, a brunch with a friend’s family changed her path.
Kathryn played with her friend’s kids, and chatted with him and his wife about her interest in becoming a parent. When his wife, a reproductive endocrinologist, casually suggested that Kathryn get some sperm and give it a shot, she decided to give it a go.
A few intrauterine inseminations later, and she was pregnant.
“I like single parenting,” she says. “No matter how magical and wonderful my friends’ marriages or partnerships are, everyone comes to parenting differently. And I really enjoy that I make all the decisions. And I love that I don't have to worry about a partnership or marriage falling apart.”
“It’s just me and her,” Kathryn says of her daughter, “and we do really well together.”
Everyone we spoke with about becoming a solo parent by choice had one thing in common. They’d assumed for most of their lives that when (or if) they became a parent, they’d do it with a partner.
Some of them worked hard to find a partner to make that happen. Others were happy to keep partnership and parenting separate once they realized they wanted kids.
For all, the decision to get pregnant on their own was accompanied by a feeling that they just didn’t want to wait anymore.
Sourcing donor sperm as a solo parent
And every solo person with a uterus who wants to get pregnant is faced with the same question: where do I get the sperm?
Known donor sperm
Many solo parents choose a known donor because they want their child to have a relationship (or the opportunity of a relationship) with their other genetic parent. Some find another person who wants to be a parent, and they choose to co-parent together without an intimate relationship.
Have a specific person in mind you want to ask? Then you’re considering using a known donor (not to be confused with an identity release donor, which we’ll discuss more below).
Laura Runnels, a public health consultant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, started her conception journey with a known donor. She really wanted her children to have a connection to their biological father.
But there were scheduling and availability issues — a donor’s calendar doesn’t always align with your ovulation. Then she had two chemical pregnancies and had to terminate a third pregnancy for medical reasons. At that point, she decided to transition to sperm from a bank.
She chose an identity release donor (discussed below) because it’s still important to Laura that her two daughters have the possibility of connection with their other biological parent. Laura has connected online through a donor sibling registry with many other families who used the same donor.
Anonymous donor sperm
If you’re not using a known donor, then your other option is to use sperm from a donor bank.
Sperm from a bank is either completely anonymous or identity release. If you choose an anonymous donor, they will remain anonymous to you and your child forever.
If you choose an identity release donor, your child will have the option to obtain their contact information once your child turns 18.
Whatever route you go, choosing sperm from a bank is an awkward — sometimes cringey — experience.
“It was really hard to figure out. It made me feel so superficial,” says Tiffany Hall, executive director of a nonprofit in Anchorage, Alaska. Her doctor gave her one medical condition to screen for because of her own medical history. After that, she decided she wanted to choose someone who looked as much like her and her family as possible.
“You know how everyone’s always like, ‘Oh, you have your mom’s nose’ or whatever?” Since Tiffany was going to be the only parent in the house, she wanted her child to have that physical connection.
When she was down to 29 options, Tiffany made a spreadsheet and divided the options up among her sisters and her dearest friends. Then a few of her friends and her mom came over, they put the donor profiles up on the television and gave their thoughts.
Tiffany was focused most on the medical history, but a particularly kind message to potential parents from one donor pushed her to make a final decision.
We can’t talk about anonymous donor sperm without discussing how DNA test providers like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have changed the scenario. What was once completely anonymous now has the potential to be discovered at a later date.
Kathryn Metz chose a fully anonymous donor when she got pregnant. “I hope to God that he and his family never do 23andMe so she never finds these people in person because that’s not my jam.”
“Part of me wants to give her the choice to make that decision herself,” says Kathryn. “If she wants that, I don’t want to take that away from her. But I also feel like this is the best decision I can make right now with the information that I have and how I want to parent.”
“That's something that we might have to reckon with later, and I recognize that could be challenging and it could be absolutely fine. It could go either way.”
How many vials of sperm should you buy?
In general, a person with a uterus who’s under 35 with no fertility issues has about a 20% chance of getting pregnant each month they try.
Most people embarking on the pregnancy journey on their own won’t get pregnant on the first try, so clinics generally recommend purchasing two or three vials.
Because sperm banks do run out of sperm from certain donors, some people choose to purchase many vials to ensure they’ll have enough of the donor they want — and a sibling if they’re successful.
Tiffany purchased seven vials when she was starting the process, and she used every one of them.
Laura purchased five vials, used four to get pregnant, and purchased three more. Her donor retired and his sperm went onto a waitlist. When it came off the waitlist, she was nine months pregnant. She knew she wanted to have another child, so she went ahead and purchased three more vials.
“I hemmed and hawed and decided I’d rather have the security,” she says.
Methods for getting pregnant
Of course, getting pregnant with donor sperm still requires that the sperm and the egg meet. It’s just a question of where they are and how they get there.
For couples that have a penis and a vagina and are trying to get pregnant, the timing is crucial. It’s even more so for someone using donor sperm — no matter how they’re going about it.
Home insemination is the least expensive method and involves the least amount of intervention.
The medical term for what many call the “turkey baster” method is intracervical insemination (ICI). With home insemination, you place either fresh, recently ejaculated sperm or thawed frozen sperm into your vagina close to your cervix, and the sperm then (hopefully) travels to your fallopian tube and fertilizes an egg.
There are two primary ways people home inseminate — the syringe method or the soft cup method.
The syringe method is just what it sounds like. You pull the sperm into a small needless syringe and insert it into the vagina. Once you’ve inserted it as much as you can, you release the liquid. Some doctors recommend that you lie on your back for 10 or 15 minutes before you get up and go about your day.
The soft cup method involves placing the sperm into a menstrual cup or disc and inserting the cup into the vagina. While there’s no current data on the point, some people believe that the soft cup method is more effective since it keeps the sperm from leaking out.
Laura Runnels used the soft cup method to conceive both her daughters, and she’s a strong advocate for home insemination. Read more about her zeal for knocking yourself up.
Intrauterine insemination (IUI) must be done in a doctor’s office. With an IUI, the doctor passes a long, thin syringe through the opening of the cervix and deposits the sperm directly into the uterus.
An IUI gets the sperm closer to the fallopian tubes, so it generally has an increased chance of resulting in a pregnancy.
Even so, it’s important to be realistic about the success rates with any insemination method (even regular ol’ intercourse). Most people who use IUI for conception do so because of a fertility issue, so the statistics on IUI success rates are similar to intercourse or home insemination.
Sometimes doctors prescribe fertility drugs in advance of an IUI to stimulate your egg production and increase the possibility of fertilization.
In vitro fertilization
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is the highest level of intervention for conception. Tiffany Hall did six unsuccessful IUIs before she moved on to IVF, traveling to a fertility clinic in Seattle after her local reproductive endocrinologist retired.
There are two phases to the IVF process. First, you take medications that stimulate egg production, and your reproductive endocrinologist retrieves those eggs from your ovaries through a minor surgical procedure.
The reproductive endocrinologist’s office then puts the retrieved eggs and the donor sperm together to encourage fertilization. Fertilized eggs become blastocysts, and one (or more) of those blastocysts is transferred back into your uterus. That transfer generally happens between three and five days after fertilization.
Fortunately, Tiffany got pregnant at 38 after her first transfer.
Support for your solo parent journey
Of course, the physical act of getting pregnant is only one part of becoming a parent.
“I was able to do this because I have a network. I have a village,” says Kathryn Metz. “There was someone spending the night with me every night for the first four weeks [after giving birth].”
Though COVID has lessened both the need for and the availability of support, Kathryn’s village is still strong. When her father died unexpectedly in November 2020, her daughter’s daycare provider immediately offered for her daughter to stay at her house.
“I have so many people. I have zero family here — blood family. And I have so many people.”
Night-time support was also crucial for Tiffany Hall.
Tiffany gave birth to her daughter just five days before her city went into COVID lockdown in March 2020. The support she thought she’d have suddenly disappeared. Fortunately, her parents live close by, and they agreed to become a pandemic bubble. Her mom and dad alternated staying the night with her the first two months.
But it wasn’t all joyful. “I think it was really easy to feel sorry for myself when things were really hard with her and to be like, ‘Oh my God, if I just had another pair of hands — what a difference it would make,’ says Tiffany.
“It's also really hard to tell how much of that is being single and how much of that is pandemic. I didn’t have any of the support that I thought I would because we just didn’t feel safe.”
The pandemic has definitely increased the pressure on new solo parents by choice. But parenting on your own at any time does place more pressure on one person.
“As a solo parent, I've learned that I am very dependent upon the support structures I put in place to function and when they don't, that's when things feel panicky or kind of start to fall apart,” says Laura Runnels.
Tiffany sometimes becomes frustrated when she tries to commiserate with moms in two-parent families. They just don’t get what she’s dealing with. Online communities of other solo parents have been helpful. And a friend of hers who went through IVF connected her with two other solo parents by choice, and they have an ongoing messenger chat. “I’ve never met these women, but yeah, they’re going through it.”
Of course, not everyone is surrounded by their family or throngs of close friends.
“I hate to give advice like ‘don’t do this unless you have at least five people you can count on,’” says Tiffany. “Because what if you don’t have that? I still think you should be able to become a parent.”
MEET THE AUTHOR
Katie Taylor is a writer and content strategist. She lives in Richmond, Vermont with her wife, two kids (one she birthed, one she did not), and a dog. You can read more about her infertility journey here. Katie induced lactation so that she could breastfeed the son her wife gave birth to, and she encourages anyone interested in learning more to reach out. katie (at) katietaylorwriting.com.