Mel Johnson is a solo mom to 3-year-old daughter Daisy, who was born through IVF and donor sperm at Manchester Fertility Clinic. At that point, she became a solo motherhood coach, as she wanted to support other women who are considering the same path.
Mel founded ‘The Stork and I’ when she was pregnant with Daisy. The mission is to empower single women who are considering becoming a parent on their route to parenthood. She speaks openly about her own experience, she’s very passionate about creating a community and providing support for people at every stage of the journey from considering to trying to be a mum. Mel is also focused on changing the narrative around relationships and paths to parenthood.
In her presentation, Mel also addressed social infertility and some available and current trends. She also discussed a model of the six stages of embracing solo motherhood and how to manage as a solo mum.
The truth is that some people love social infertility, and some people hate it. Some people say that they love it because it explains their situation. Other people hate it, somehow it makes them feel like being a failure socially. Mel explored some current trends on this and presented some statistics from the UK.
In 2017, 2279 women underwent treatment without a partner or a male partner and in 2018, that went up to 2368. In 2019, again, the statistics show that it went up to 2497. It’s slowly increasing, there are more and more people finding themselves in this position, so the number of single people is steadily increasing while marriage rates are steadily declining. The majority of the marriage decline is between the ages of 20 to 34, which is the exact age that women are most fertile. More and more single women don’t have a partner in their most fertile years.
This area is one of Mel’s interests, and she’s done quite a lot of research into why this is the case. Some findings show three key reasons why more and more people are finding themselves in this position. Mel has emphasized that everybody’s different, and there are people to whom this does not apply. However, the people that she’s coached and the people she’s surveyed in ‘The Stork and I Mum Tribe’, a lot of them feel like this does apply to them.
It seems that the expectations are much higher now than they were in the past, looking for a partner brings all of these different things like a passionate lover, a travel buddy, a best friend, and somebody to share our hobbies with. If you look way back in history, people were just looking for a nice person to spend their life with. Expectations increased choice, we were used to meeting somebody at the local dance or in the community centre, on the street, now you can meet anybody worldwide, any time, any place at the touch of a button. Research shows that the more choices people have, the less likely they are to make a choice.
The last thing is resources, back in history, a woman needed to get married to be able to leave her family home, whereas now women have their own careers, and own houses and women became more independent. They no longer need to get married, meeting a partner has to be a positive addition, but it’s not essential. Those are the three key reasons why more and more women are finding themselves single at an age where perhaps potentially they’re starting to look at wanting to have children.
The first option is to do nothing, however, that doesn’t feel like a great position to be in. The second thing is relentlessly pursuing a relationship. If you want to do this in a relationship, you need to invest in meeting someone, and use all options out there, such as dating websites, etc. You can also look at alternative routes to parenthood. You could consider fostering, adopting, becoming a step-parent later on if you meet people with children etc. Another option is simply accepting a life without children. There are lots of people who are inspiring, they help with coming to terms with a life without children and defining what your life will look like instead.
Finally, there is motherhood and using donor conception. Sometimes, just seeing those choices in front of you clearly, makes it a bit easier to think about. You can look at this and think about which ones are not for you and which ones you think you could consider.
‘ I am not advocating solo motherhood, I am advocating empowering women with information about all their options’
One of the aspects that are discussed in Mel’s coaching course is the six stages of embracing motherhood
Mel mentioned that we all still grew up with the fairy tale, meeting a partner, getting married and having children. We were told that it’s the only way to find happiness, therefore that’s gone into our subconscious and created what we call life scripts.
‘Life scripts are an unconscious pathway created in childhood, reinforced by our parents and strengthen with evidence sought throughout life ensuring our beliefs are justified’
Mel also added that many people she coached have a life script where they just believed that they would meet someone, get married, and have children. One of the things that you have to work through is changing this life script.
Many films portray happily ever after, it’s about meeting the partner and going on to have children, it’s no wonder that that’s what most people think should happen and what they’re looking for. Mel also surveyed the people in ‘The Stork and I Mum Tribe’ community, and 95% of them said that they presumed that they would have a baby with a partner. Only 5% said that they would choose donor conception from the beginning. Some people never saw themselves with a partner, but the vast majority thought they would do this with a partner.
Some main things people tend to compare themselves to are people with partners or with someone further ahead on the journey. We hear all the time that people say or think, this couple or person seems so happy, they worry and wish they could be as happy as that person or couple. Pregnancy news is a key trigger to comparing yourself to people who’ve already got children when you haven’t, or who’ve got two children if you’ve only got one.
One of the most common ones is comparing yourself with your fantasy life. In one of the groups that Mel is a part of, she noticed that women often tend to say to each other that if we had a partner, this would be easier, this would be better, but then, everyone realizes that’s probably an absolute lie or fantasy. Possibly some things would be better, but maybe some other things would be harder, we don’t know that because it’s a fantasy. Nothing good comes out of spending loads of time compared to what anyone else is doing.
Also, remember that you only see a snippet of other people’s reality, and often it’s a positive snippet because it’s what they want to share with you or show you. There’s so much work anyone can do in trying to stop the comparison and embrace doing this solo and all the benefits and the amazing things that come with that.
If you have a bucket of energy, all of your energy you want to put on moving forward, making your life as amazing as it can be and any energy that leaks out of that bucket is worrying about other people and comparing yourself to other people or what ‘might have been’. All of this takes you back or keeps you where you are, it doesn’t make you progress forward.
Mel encourages trying to focus on what’s important and put all of your energy into getting where you want rather than worrying about what other people are doing.
‘Just because things could have been different doesn’t mean that they would be better’
Mel also mentioned that very often people first presume things would be, and they struggle to let go of that. We don’t know how it would be, we didn’t live that version, all we can do is embrace the version that we’re living now and make it the best it can be and not worry about what would have happened.
I know that I am in a very fortunate position that I have my parents here. I’ve just moved closer to them, so I know that I talk from a very privileged position from that point of view, however, when I first had Daisy, I moved to Manchester from Budapest, and I didn’t know anybody. I moved to a completely new area, and it was an hour away from my parents, I had them close by, but my mission was to create a support network.
You absolutely can build it from scratch, it is easier if you’ve got some close people nearby who can help, but I know people who didn’t have that. First, I planned what I’m going to do, who I’m going to see in advance so that I’m always having friends staying here, I’m going to friends or having family around or whatever it might be. I don’t like spending lots of time without any adult company, I need to have adult company. At the antenatal class, you can meet people, don’t rule it out just because you would be going on your own. I think it’s super useful to meet people there, and on Facebook page ‘The Stork and I’, ‘The Mum Tribe’ Facebook group, we have lots of regional WhatsApp groups, and I personally have made loads of solo mum friends, and I know lots of other people have, and so other solo mums can be such a great support because they get it, they know what you’re going through.
I’ve made friends at nursery, I’ve made friends from the app, so you’ve got Mush and Peanuts and those like mum apps, so I treated it almost like a job to build up my support network. I put myself out there, I was like, okay, anybody needs me to babysit if anyone needs me to do the nursery pick up, I don’t work Mondays, so if anyone needs me to look after their kids on Mondays and making that first move helped people then sort of like reciprocate that to me a little. Just hunt out all the things that you can do to meet other people. You can build a good support network.
As you’re going through fertility treatment on your own, I think that you should try to connect with other people who are more in that similar position. I was lucky when I went through fertility treatment because on my second frozen embryo transfer, I had a positive pregnancy test. I didn’t go through rounds and rounds of failed treatments, so I haven’t got that first-hand experience of it.
One thing is to connect with other people in a more similar position, so see if there are any other solo mums on the ‘Stork and I’ or any other Facebook groups that you might be on. I find other solo mums get it because they’ve been in that situation.
The other thing is trying to let people in, even if they’re in a slightly different situation. Sometimes I’ve tended to be like: they don’t understand because they’re in a different situation, but at the same time, I haven’t tried to help them understand. You can let people in, even if they haven’t experienced the same thing directly. I think there would be those two things that I would suggest because it is tough, you need people to support you, and if it’s not a partner, it’s finding who could be there to support you.
It’s something that you have to get your head around. I used to internet date, and I think of me to be absolutely an optimist and think this one seems good, I have got a good feeling about this one, but then when I met them, I thought that’s not okay.
With choosing a donor, we won’t get to know them, and so for me, it is about letting go of the control that we won’t get to meet them and find out about them. Therefore, we have to accept the information that we’re presented with, the best choice we can make from that and try to let go of the control of needing to know every single thing.
The advice that I always give and what I used for myself is what would my future child want me to choose on and have I got a good explanation for them so when I’m saying to them this is why I chose this donor, and I am confident with my choice of what might be important for them, and it’s different for everybody, some people say they chose ones that are closer in proximity so if they ever want to meet, they potentially could. Some say the letter they wrote was meaningful to them, or some say we want to know physical characteristics, so you look more like the rest of the family because the physical characteristics are the same. Whatever the reason might be, it’s personal to you, but that you feel like you can explain it well to your child. It’s about trying to let go of the control, and knowing that you can only choose one based on the information you’ve got.
There’s still a presumption that it is better to be in a couple. Society favours people and couples for different reasons. I think that it’s our role to constantly challenge that positively by educating people and making people think: I haven’t thought of that.
When I first started doing podcasts, people would ask me: do you feel influenced by society? I answered that I don’t think it’s society, it was me feeling pressure because of my biological clock. When I did more research about it, I was like: It’s absolutely about society because my well-meaning friends were saying: you’ll meet someone, as if that is the way that it should be, not supporting me by saying: you’ve got this, that you could do it on your own and that could be equally positive. It’s about learning more, reading more, understanding more, becoming educated on how this has evolved, how people are treated and how we can challenge that and educate people.
I had an example today, so I picked Daisy up from nursery, and her new teacher came out and said: she’s made a Father’s Day card, and there are different ways that you could handle that, but I just said, but Daisy you don’t have a daddy, have you? Daisy said: I don’t have a daddy, I made the card for Granddad Mick. I think it’s about positively educating people, not blaming them because some people don’t understand.
There is a possibility (depending on which clinic you’re using) to reserve them. If you want to make sure that you’ve got enough of one particular donor, then you can reserve it. I hear lots of people who say that choosing a donor is difficult when you’re choosing it, but then when you’ve chosen it, more than half of people couldn’t remember the profession of the donor that they chose, so it shows how the importance of it is much greater when you’re deciding, then it seems afterwards.
Thinking about how a future a child would feel about it, I think it is important to think about it as well.
There is this Becker Counselling Services, which stands for the official counselling service. There are several specialists supporting people going through infertility. That’s one way where you can find a fertility counsellor, who day in day out, will be dealing with this.
The other people that I work with are called Parenthood In Mind. You can find them on Instagram, and they are used to speaking to solo mums who are going through this and who was finding it challenging. You complete a form with them and tell them specifically what you’re struggling with, and then they match you to somebody who is best to talk you through that.
I am a massive fan of having some counselling and have somebody there to work through any issues you’re having.
The other thing you can do and if you felt comfortable on the ‘Stork and I mum tribe’ Facebook group. You could also look for a recommendation from anyone who said that they’ve found a good counsellor in this area, or it is often possible to do it remotely.
That’s what a lot of my coaching clients say, that they feel like they’re grieving for the way they thought that they would have a child. This goes back to the live script, so understanding how deeply ingrained it is in us. It was how we presumed that we would have a child and can make it very difficult to let go of that idea. The more work you do on letting go of that idea and embracing a different way that can be equally positive can help you move through that grief. Our mind makes us see what we want to see, so if you think it’s going to be worse doing it differently, you will look for every bit of evidence that reaffirms to us that it will be worse. If you think that you can have an equally positive experience, you will look for all the evidence that shows that it will be a positive experience. There isn’t a magic wand, so you have to undo that pattern that’s been ingrained and rewrite it with a different pattern, and it’s not something that changes overnight, it’s something that changes over some time as you continue to surround yourself by positive people, role models who’ve done this and are speaking highly about it.
Some people are like skipping through poppy fields which isn’t a balanced view of it, it’s hard as well.
Surround yourself with a diverse group of people who are all in different situations. If you have a couple of friends in the nuclear family and you’re the only person in a different situation, it is harder from a comparison point of view. You feel like everyone’s doing it one way, and you’re doing it another way. If you have single friends, older friends, younger friends, gay friends, friends who don’t want children, friends who’ve got all different scenarios, then it makes your reality a lot easier. You don’t feel like you’re just the only one who’s doing something different, everyone’s in different situations.
I also recommend trying to diversify your friendship group. I spoke to a lot of people who feel like it took them a long time to come to terms with the idea that they’re not going to do this the way they thought. It felt like I’d failed because that’s what I wanted to do, I thought it would be better, but I can honestly tell you the way that I’m doing it is great, and I have lots of support and people around me. Once you’ve worked through it, you can start embracing the different ways of doing it.
I think that it is about staying in your own lane. It’s again about educating people because you need to tell them that they don’t have to pity you, you are happy with your situation, everything’s good. I am also an advocate of calling it out if you feel like people are pitying you and just explaining to them, you don’t need pity or you’re exactly where you want to be, you’ve decided for yourself. It’s again about changing people’s initial reactions, some things are better about that, some things might be tougher, but don’t pity me, I don’t need pity.
Genuinely, when I speak to other solo mum friends, we have a lot of pity for some people who are doing this in a partnership, and I’m very balanced about it. People doing it in a partnership, some things are amazing, some things are better, there are some things that worse it’s just different, but equally, we could show them pity because there’s stuff that they perhaps have to go through that we wouldn’t need to go through, that can be more challenging. It’s always good to see it in that way as well, every different situation has things that are harder and easier.
I originally looked into co-parenting. I have a gay friend, and we had some serious conversations about if this is something that we could do together. As we worked through it, that became very clear that our ideas about how that would work were very different, and at the very beginning, when you’re having the discussions, you feel like you’re on a different page. I can only imagine that when a baby comes onto the scene, it would get a lot harder, so I made the decision that I thought that this was going to be challenging, I did consider it but felt like we were on different pages about how we would want that relationship to work, and that and I thought that it would be difficult.
I did look into IUI rather than going straight to IVF, having IUI, but my situation was that I was in Budapest, and I was having to fly into Manchester for treatment because in Budapest at that time, they didn’t treat single women and because I was flying in it was just easy I could control the process a lot more doing IVF than IUI, so I decided to also give myself the best possible chance statistically of having a baby first time or sooner because the percentage likelihood is better with IVF.
I did consider adoption, and actually, it isn’t something that I’ve ruled out for the future because I would like a sibling for Daisy or a second child, so I just decided that I would like to go through the pregnancy process and have my biological child. Adoption is something that I still consider and haven’t ruled out.
I looked at all the options and then decided personally for me and my circumstances IVF was the best one, and my experience of IVF was very straightforward, I was very lucky, I had 18 eggs that turned into 3 embryos, and the 1st embryo was a chemical pregnancy, so I got a very faint line that got fainter and didn’t result in a positive pregnancy test and the second embryo transfer was Daisy. There are lots of drugs, there are lots of injecting yourself with a needle, but it wasn’t a horrific process for me. I speak to a lot of people who have found it harder, different people react in different ways, and obviously, I know that I’m lucky that it happened quite quickly for me.
I have come across solo moms who regret their choice momentarily, but I’ve never met anybody who says that they wish they hadn’t done it. There are possibly people out there, possibly people aren’t brave enough to say it if that’s how they feel for fear of being judged. I haven’t met anyone who said they regretted their choice. I would say that I come across two camps of people. The people who can’t let go of the idea of how they thought they would do it and they’re full of regret that they weren’t able to do it in a partnership. They even though they have maybe three four five years old are still wishing that they’ve been able to do it more traditionally, but no one’s ever said to me that they regretted having a child, and it is the biggest factor in how well you get on if you can let go of that. How you thought it might be and embrace how it is, and so the short answer is no, I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, so I haven’t met them.
We cover this in the course that I run. I’m an oversharer, so I probably have shared a lot of the information, but I understand that it might be something that you want to keep private. You can just use one very simple sentence that says that’s something I prefer to keep private or that’s something that I’d like to keep private for my child. Usually, people’s intention is curiosity, it may be some sort of like spilling into nosiness, but for me, it’s telling them as much as you’re comfortable telling them with. Then, saying I’d prefer to keep the rest private and bearing in mind that they will have also kept things private about their conception. You’re not doing anything different to what somebody in a couple would potentially be doing either, that would be my advice on it.
I find that so many people worry about what other people are going to think about them and how they’re going to judge them, but that’s our internal judgment of ourselves more than other people’s judgment. Many people I speak to worry about what people would say, but then when they asked those people about what they thought, the response was a lot more positive. I think we spend a lot more time worrying about what people think, the reality of what people think. I would say come to terms with confidence about your decision, and that will help you, and it will come across when you’re talking to people. If people get an element of doubt from you, that also creates more doubt for them. If they see that you have thought about it and you’re proud of your decision, I think that’s also what they take from it.
I always recommend reading Susan Golombok’s book We are family’. That explains so much research on this. If you read that and understand the research behind it, listen to podcasts and read up on things, hear other people’s stories and feel confident about the decision, then you’ll be less concerned about what other people think because you’ll be confident yourself. You’ll also be able to explain things, so if anyone asks you any questions or you feel like they have got any judgment, you can say I’ve researched that, or this is the facts on that, and you can educate people. I would look at how you can get confident yourself with it, and then I think that comes across, and it’s easier not to feel judged by others.