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Meet the mums doing it on their own

There's a growing trend in Israel for women to choose to become single mothers. Now British Jewish women are being encouraged to do the same. Rebecca Schischa reports.

    Alexandra Benjamin with her son Ivri
    Alexandra Benjamin with her son Ivri

    For Amanda Moss, it was the end of a relationship when she was 39. For Michelle, it was her 35th birthday. Both women decided they were unlikely to find a partner to start a family. So, each became single mothers by choice.

    “It was a real emotional rollercoaster,” says Moss, now 44, from St Albans, of her fertility treatment, which included four rounds of IVF. She’d frozen her eggs at 37 and tried thawing them, but none fertilised. Finally she tried a ‘double donation’ using donated sperm and egg. “I had a gut feeling it would work, and I tested pregnant soon after.

    “I was induced two weeks early, and Joshua was born two years ago. I lived with my parents for the first five months. It was great, they built up a real bond with him. They adore him and help me out lots with him.”

    Michelle, now 60, from Manchester had an easier time getting pregnant, using donor sperm, and is mother to Alex, 23 and Theo, 21 (their names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy).

    “I was fairly secure in my career. I moved round the corner to my parents (they’re not alive anymore), and they were very happy to help out when I went back to work. My dad used to take the boys to toddler groups. I had parents I didn’t know saying to me, ‘I know your dad’!”

    She and Moss are part of a growing number of single Jewish women who choose to become mothers. Now an Israeli organisation, KayamaMoms, is helping women considering following their lead.

    “So many babies are not being born because people still aren’t considering the option” in the UK, says Dina Pinner, KayamaMoms’ co-founding director. She held an inaugural meeting in London last month to provide information and support to Jewish women considering becoming single mothers by choice (SMCs).

    “English women are starting to contact me. They feel they’re the only ones thinking about having a child on their own, and it’s not the case. It’s important that women meet each other and realise they’re not alone,” says Pinner, a Londoner living in Jerusalem.

    “What’s exciting is that it’s the beginning of women talking to each other about this option, which is an amazing option. We call it ‘Awesome Plan B’.”

    The idea for KayamaMoms came about in 2010 following a discussion between Pinner (who subsequently entered into a relationship), and other single friends including her two co-founders Dr Dvori Ross, who had already had three children on her own, and Yael Ukeles, who now has a son.

    “I was 37 and a friend said: ‘We’re all single and none of us is getting any younger — let’s have children on our own.’ I thought: “Why not?” We sat around someone’s table discussing it. We got together again a few months later and someone suggested a conference.”

    KayamaMoms’ inaugural conference took place in November 2011 bringing together prominent Israeli rabbis, fertility experts and psychologists.

    Seven years later, the volunteer-run organisation has supported the births of 85 babies born to SMCs with two more on the way and has created a community for these families. It runs seminars and regular support groups, provides information on pregnancy and adoption, and advice on parenting and financial planning. It has Facebook groups, with members worldwide, and has branched out to the USA. And now the UK.

    “Being an SMC is so mainstream now that it seems there are as many women today choosing to have kids alone who never contact us, as there are women who do...We smashed the taboo. So many women have done it, it’s become the norm,” says Pinner.

    “Almost everyone in the Modern Orthodox community will know of someone who’s done it,” adds Jerusalem-based Alexandra Benjamin, 40, originally from London, and mum to two-year-old son Ivri. She stresses the importance of social networks: “I’m part of a close community, so I had a strong support system in place. I wasn’t the first woman in the community to get pregnant this way. It was very much embraced. I also think because of my situation, people are more likely to offer to help. It’s like he belongs to the whole community. He’s the mascot.”

    Her son’s bris was very special, she adds: “the obligation of brit milah is on the father and he usually says the brachah. For me, if I was going to give my child a brit milah, this was an obligation i wanted to take on myself, and it was really important i should say the brachah. So I found a mohel who was comfortable with me taking that role.”

    Support from other single mums by choice is also invaluable, explains another Brit living in Israel, Rachel Selby, 55, mum to daughter Adiele, 9: “I met four other women when I was going through IVF, and within three years, all five of us had babies — and we’ve stayed friends ever since. We go away together, we have certain traditions together. They all came over to me for Purim seudah this year. You can tell we’re a family because we have a WhatsApp group. We never get sick of seeing each other’s pictures.”

     

    Rachel Selby with her daughter Adiele
    Rachel Selby with her daughter Adiele

    Indeed, a 2017 European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology report comparing the well-being of children of SMC and heterosexual two-parent families found that: “Single mothers by choice and their children benefit from a good social support network,” and there were, “no differences in terms of parent-child relationship or child development”. It also noted that SMCs tend to be “financially stable, have received a higher education and had meaningful partner relationships in the past.”

    In Britain, there are still relatively few Jewish SMCs. “London is different, everything takes much longer. English people are afraid of being judged. I think Jewish women particularly frum women - are much more nervous about doing anything about this,” says Nomy Cohen, a therapist with a special interest in fertility issues, and KayamaMoms’ unofficial point of contact in London.

    “I just want to help women explore their options so that they’ve made an informed choice. There’s a big drive in Israel for women to freeze their eggs. One of my missions is to get people in England to know more and be able to make that choice, because age is so important. It really has to be done when women are under 35. You freeze your eggs, you can still meet somebody, and you may never use them. But it’s an insurance policy,” Cohen adds.

    Both Cohen and Pinner stress, however, that egg freezing is not a “panacea”, with the chances of having a baby from frozen eggs still relatively small.

    The lack of affordable IVF in the UK is also a likely factor in the slower take-up among British women, with an average cycle costing around £5000.

    Unlike in Israel, which offers free IVF treatment to all citizens — regardless of marital status — until their 45th birthday, for two live babies, in Britain, it’s hard enough for couples to receive NHS-funded IVF, let alone single women.

    Amanda Moss says that in online SMC groups, she’s yet to come across anyone who’s had NHS-funded treatment. “NICE guidelines say the NHS doesn’t discriminate but in reality, it’s very difficult for single women to get IVF. If you’ve had issues like blocked tubes, you may have a chance.”

    She has lots of single mother friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, in real life and online.

    “I keep thinking I ought to start dating again, But I’m happy just going to bed early right now! I work as a medical device sales rep. Joshua goes to an amazing childminder.

     

    Amanda Moss and her son, Joshua
    Amanda Moss and her son, Joshua

    “In some ways it’s easier without a guy; I make all the decisions, Joshua’s never heard an argument in his life. But it’s full-on. I’ve had only about two lie-ins in two years. But the cuddles make it all worthwhile.

    “My whole family were excited for me. No one was shocked, they all said, ‘Good for you’. I’m not religious, but I’d like to join a synagogue, so he’ll get the community feel.”

    Some women worry that having a child alone is against halacha. Pinner says some rabbis have accused KayamaMoms of “destroying the Jewish family” but affirms there is no halachic prohibition.

    She quotes Rav Yuval Cherlow, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in Israel, who spoke at KayamaMoms’ inaugural conference: “If a woman reaches the age when her chances of parenthood are diminished, and she’s made every effort to get married and hasn’t succeeded, it is permitted to let her fulfil her dream of motherhood. Ideally [if a sperm donor is anonymous], women should use non-Jewish sperm to prevent any issues of yichus [siblings inter-marrying].”

    If the identity is known, a Jewish donor can be used. In Israel, sperm donors may only father up to five babies to safeguard against siblings inter-marrying.

    Michelle says having children brought her closer to Judaism. “I had moved away from Judaism, but once children come along, you have to decide: either you’re in or you’re out, and I was definitely in. They had their bris, went to shul with their grandpa, and to cheder.

    “It wasn’t common then, but we were always accepted. People asked questions, but it was only out of curiosity. My sons always knew they were very much wanted.

    “I did have the chance to get married, but decided it wasn’t the right time or the right person. I wanted to concentrate on my children and career,” she adds.

    However Pinner stresses that many SMCs find partners. “It absolutely in no way shuts the door to marriage. In fact, four of our members got married this year.”

    So are single Jewish women in Britain going to embrace motherhood? “I do believe it will slowly happen, and people will become accustomed and less shocked,” says Cohen.

    Michelle says there was only one occasion that stood out when her sons felt something. “When Alex was preparing for his barmitzvah, when sons usually go with their dads to put on their tallis and tefillin, he had to do it alone and he felt uncomfortable.” And one of her sons has had health problems which underlined for her that she didn’t know his genetic heritage.

    Other than that she’s encouraging. “It’s been quite an adventure really, a very rich experience.”

    Alexandra Benjamin is also positive: “Among my parents’ friends and the United Synagogue I grew up in, people have been unreservedly positive. Even the rebbetzin said, ‘That’s wonderful’. The number of people from Hendon who’ve said to my mum: ‘I wish my daughter had done that’. There are many reasons to believe that single mothers by choice would be well received and the community would find space for these alternative families.”

     

    www.kayamamoms.com

     

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