Becoming a single dad by choice - as published in November 2011 issue of Mamas & Papas
Many single women have had the opportunity to become mothers, nurturing a new life and raising their own children – and in today’s world this is completely and perfectly acceptable. Is it equally understandable and acceptable for a man in the same position to do the same when he yearns to become a father? Think about it.
BY Loren Stow
Some statistics put single-parent-led households at a global average of 15%, while the reality in South Africa that as many as 28% of parents are single mothers. The fact that there isn’t an available local study to quote regarding how many single fathers there are in our country is proof enough that they are few and far between.
However, the average number of single fathers in the USA sits at 4.2%. This means that for every seven single mothers there is one single father, which is indicative of how seldom men are left to run their families without the influence of a woman.
So what would make a man actively choose to become a single father, solely responsible for his children, and without a mother in sight? Loren Stow spoke to two men who are in the process of becoming single fathers by means using surrogates to carry their babies.
Firstly, the act of surrogacy needs to be explained as the process whereby a woman enters a legal contract to carry a baby on behalf of a commissioning parent. She has no legal right to the baby she carries as a surrogate, and rigorous psychological evaluation and testing ensures that this is understood, not to mention the high court’s ultimate approval of the process before it is allowed to result in a pregnancy.
In most cases the woman undergoes IVF where an egg other than her own is used to create the embryo that is then implanted into her uterus in the hopes that it will flourish into a healthy pregnancy. "Amongst other requirements, the woman has to have had her own children to qualify to become a surrogate,” explains Jenny Currie, founder and owner of baby2mom, a local egg donation agency.
Once a surrogate and commissioning parent agree to proceed together, a long and often complex relationship ensues which will ultimately result in a new life as well as a new parent.
Each relationship between surrogate and commissioning parent is as unique as the individuals involved, and while much of the process is governed by the law and overseen by the Childrens Act, it really is a journey that is navigated day-by-day, week-by-week, and month-by-precious-month.
The family man
A 2003 statistic found that on average 600 couples get divorced every week in South Africa, and this affects approximately 33 500 minor children every year. The vast majority of these children end up living with their mothers, as is the norm in western cultures.
This means that 31566 dads are separated from living with their children, relegated to becoming ‘weekend warriors’ twice a month and perhaps a Wednesday night here and there… These visitation rights are so common and entrenched in our social psyche that the majority of fathers accept their lot and do the best they can. For others though, it is a process that seems unfair and life just cannot be the same again.
"Even though my wife and I chose to divorce after seven years of marriage, my daughter was part of my life every single day for the first six years of her life,” explains 43-year-old divorced father Neil Hopwood.
After their divorce his wife moved to other side of Johannesburg with their daughter to be closer to her immediate family, and Neil was left with his large family home (complete with a pool and five dogs) in Sandton, but no family to fill it.
"I live for every second weekend…” he says with sadness in his voice, and that small sentence encompasses what many divorced fathers have to face – a life where they see their children based on rules of access. And no matter why the divorce occurred and how amicable the divorced couple are with each other, there still exists for 12 day periods a giant gaping hole where a laughing, living, loving child once stood day in and day out.
In addition, Neil’s dreams of having more children did not end along with his marriage, "But I do not want to get into another marriage just to have a child. I have been married and I just don’t want to go down that path again, and certainly don’t want to face the chance of losing full-time custody of another child.”
The gay father
Successful business owner Jacques Viljoen (30) is a single gay man living in Gauteng, and he is dreaming of becoming a father to twins. In our interview he constantly refers to his future ‘children’ using ‘them’ and ‘they’ as pronouns, such is Jacque’s belief in positive affirmations and thoughts.
After two years of mulling the idea over, Jacques decided he wanted to become a father in his own right, "I don’t want to have another person telling me what to do and how to be a father. I want to be able to raise my children in the way that I dream of without question that I am their father,” he explains.
As a gay man Jacques believes that there is a good balance between masculine and feminine energies that may make it easier to parent children than a typical single heterosexual father. "At the end of the day though it is the longing of every soul to have children and leave a legacy, and I am no different,” says Jacques.
At this point Jacques has invested in a big family car, is building onto his home to accommodate babies and has even stopped his favourite hobby skydiving, "I need to be responsible for my future children, so I can’t be doing things that might put my life in danger,” says the father-to-be.
In addition, Jacques has also made the personal decision to remain single for the foreseeable future to allow for his full attention and focus to be on raising his children and being the best father that he can be.
The surrogacy journey
Jacques has only recently undergone the incredible amount of work involved in legally approving a new surrogacy to take place, "As an individual, you don’t actually realise how much goes into this process, it is very complex and time consuming,” he says.
However, he thankfully has his surrogate (who herself is a ‘first-timer’), and they are on this journey together. He hopes for a twin conception and his surrogate has agreed that she will be willing to carry twins, which is a possible side-effect of IVF.
"What I never expected though was the emotional nature of this journey,” shares Jacques. He is making his own home-video documentary for his children where he shares his day-by-day experience on camera.
It is on this video that he speaks of his preconceived notions of what lay ahead of him as well as his realisation that he will soon become a father who is solely responsible for his children’s lives and their future. He hopes this will be the way in which he can share his children’s amazing journey from conception to birth.
For Neil the journey has been slightly different, and having raised a daughter already, he is acutely aware of just what he is getting himself into. His son is due in early November 2011, and Neil has taken being a divorced father and a soon-to-be fulltime father in his stride.
"Our policy with my daughter is honesty. She is very excited that she is going to become a big sister, and it was her job to decorate her little brother’s nursery and she even chose her brother’s name,” says Neil.
In addition, the father-daughter-duo have attended many scans together since she met Neil’s surrogate, and Neil’s immediate and extended family have all been part of reinforcing Neil’s choice to share honestly with her in an age-appropriate way.
"I drew pictures for her, which she accepted pretty easily. She knows that the surrogate is just carrying her baby brother and when he arrives it will just be me, her and her brother. She knows that she will live with her mother and her brother will live with me. We have tried to be as open and honest as we possibly can about the process.”
Support and judgement
Both fathers-to-be have had to garner support - "It is actually a stipulation of the Childrens Act when it comes to surrogacy for a commissioning single father that there be female influences on the child’s life. Where only males are involved, the courts require confirmation of a solid female influence to ensure appropriate balance in the child’s life,” explains Jenny.
Both Neil and Jacques have had to grow thick skin as they have faced their fair share of judgement. This is obviously in addition to the courage of conviction their decision to become single fathers in a world where most believe that only a mother can be a sole caregiver.
"My wife used to go to work early, so I had to help feed, dress and get our daughter ready for school every day,” explains Neil, "I did my fair share of getting up at night, bathing, changing nappies and all that when she was a baby, so how is this any different?”
Neil is not saying that he can do it alone though, "I know exactly how overwhelming a new baby can be, so that is where my support system comes in, and other than my mother and sisters there are just so many people who want to be there for me and see me bring my son home.”
As for Jacques, becoming a father has actually strengthened his relationship with his parents and siblings, "My parents see me as more mature and they are so excited about becoming grandparents.”
However, Jacques is a very independent person who knows he will struggle somewhat with handing over any of his authority, "I will try to do as much as I can on my own without asking for help. I am choosing to have children of my own and realise that I will have to work hard - I don’t want to have children only to give them to someone else to raise…”
For both Neil and Jacques the journey to becoming single fathers was a conscious choice. As men alone, they are navigating a new kind of world where men can choose to make their own babies – a world that is not entirely convinced yet that this will all turn out ok.
Luckily for them, research indicates that their children will most likely not only turn out ok, but probably better than ok. Dr Kyle Pruett, child psychiatrist, author and speaker, is a firm advocate for fathers. He did a landmark study of stay-at-home-fathers where the mother was a secondary caregiver and the father the primary caregiver.
This decade-long study found that the children from these homes fared better in developmental areas such as problem solving skills, social skills, curiosity and persistence4. For all intents and purposes both Neil and Jacques will become their children’s primary caregivers; receiving female-rich support regularly – much like the families in Dr Pruett’s study.
In the end though strip everything away – social norms and medical intervention – and all you have at the end are two men who desperately want to become fathers. "What I want more than anything,” says Neil, "is for my son to know that he is very, very loved… and very, very wanted.” •
Single fathers and surrogacy
The most common reaction that Jenny Currie - founder and owner of baby2mom, egg donation agency – finds when a single man approaches her to find out more about surrogacy is shock, "They cannot believe that I don’t judge them for wanting to have children on their own,” she says.
These men’s shock is soon replaced by excitement and relief that there is finally a solution for them. "I do however find that it is my single dads-to-be that take the longest time to make a final decision about taking the surrogacy route – they really need to think long and hard about it before they start.”
While many of Jenny’s single clients are gay men, some are also just men who have not found the right woman, and yet feel as though they have so much they want to pass on to a child that shares their genetic make-up. Others, as we’ve seen with Neil, are divorced fathers whose dreams for more children did not end with their marriage.
"The legislation passed about surrogacy on April 1st 2010 makes no distinction whatsoever between couples, singles, homosexual or heterosexual commissioning parents,” Jenny shares how all parents have an equal opportunity at surrogacy.
"The process of surrogacy however is very strict and has to involve psychologists, lawyers, and the high court,” explains Jenny. "The only difference,” Jenny says, "Is that in terms of a single commissioning male parent proof must be supplied of a strong female presence in the child’s life.
The High Court, acting on behalf of the Childrens Act, are viewed as the upper guardians of children, so follow appropriate interventions to ensure the wellbeing of children – even before being conceived.
"What is naturally a stressful, emotional and tiring process is now a little easier in terms of understanding what step follows on from the previous and how to proceed,” says Jenny.
Jenny Currie of baby2mom
See more about being a single dad online