Meet the new happy family: The rise in single-parent adoptions

Adopting a child already brings its unique set of challenges – so what drives someone to do it on their own? With single-parent adoptions at a record high in the UK, Anna Moore talks to the men and women who say it’s the best decision they’ve ever made.

new happy family
Illustration by Getty/Theo McDonald

Anita was 40 years old and single when she stood on a stranger’s doorstep, preparing to meet her son for the first time. ‘I was a bag of nerves,’ she says. ‘What if he didn’t like me?’

The door was opened by a foster mum who was holding a little boy’s hand – Kenny* was 16 months old, a sociable boy with long gingery-blond hair. ‘This is your new mummy!’ said his foster mum, who had let his hair grow so that whoever adopted him could take him for his first haircut. Anita was invited in, where for a few hours she sat on the floor with Kenny playing with cars. ‘That was our first meeting – and to think that in nine days, I’d be taking him home was incredible,’ says Anita. ‘We played. I changed his nappy. At the end, I walked out of that house thinking, “What just happened?”’

Anita, from the Midlands, is one of a growing social group: single people who’ve chosen to adopt a child on their own. ‘I’d spent my 20s and 30s living a busy, colourful party life and when it came to men, I kept making bad choices. I didn’t want to go without a child just because I couldn’t find a man good enough to be a dad,’ she says.

For ten days, Anita visited Kenny at the foster home. She would put him to bed then return in the morning when he woke. He slept with one of her tops to get used to her scent. He came to her home and met her dog. And before he moved in, Anita washed the curtains, cushions, bedding and all her clothes in the detergent Kenny’s foster family used so it would smell the same. This wasn’t about creating a Disney wonderland; her son needed a calm, safe space that felt familiar.

‘At 6am the morning after I brought her home, I shot up in bed,’ says Anita, who is now 49. ‘Kenny was still asleep but I remember thinking, “Oh my God, there’s a baby next door!” But there was nobody to tell. I was on my own and just had to get up and get on with it.

‘I was in a state of shock for the first eight months. How can you ever be ready to have an empty house one day and a child in it the next? There’s this precious little person who wants you every minute and has been entrusted to you alone. I remember thinking, “What have I done?” The weight of responsibility is huge.’

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics and Family Court data show there were 964 solo adoptions in 2018, a rise from 924 in 2017. Solo male adopters have also increased, but women outnumber them by about 12 to one. Even celebrities choose to go it alone, with Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Sandra Bullock and Charlize Theron adopting solo. But Alice Noon, head of Adoption and Permanent Families Service at Coram Adoption, says the rise in wider society is a simple reflection of changes in families and attitudes – single-parent families now make up 15 per cent of UK households. ‘The stigma is gone,’ she says. ‘Couples who adopt tend to have struggled with years of infertility treatment first, while single adopters have often decided they don’t want to settle down, or “compromise” with the wrong person, but are going to pursue the life they want and give a home to a child who needs one.’

Adoption agencies have realised the need to widen the net to recruit more adopters – not just single parents but older ones, people with disabilities and same-sex couples. But the number of people registering for adoption is falling, probably because of improvements in reproductive technology, and a growing understanding that adoption is extremely tough. In the UK, adopted children come from the care system and 70 per cent of them will have experienced trauma and abuse. Overseas adoptions have plummeted as developing countries have set up their own domestic adoption programmes.

‘Once upon a time, you had to be rich, middle class, heterosexual and married to adopt. Now we know the children don’t care. They just want a stable, loving home,’ says Sue Armstrong-Brown, chief executive of Adoption UK. ‘But we’re not saying, “Just anyone.” The most important requirement is to be able to understand the complexities of adoption and look at the world from their child’s point of view.’ Anita, who now works for an adoption charity, had a job in the police force when she registered to adopt and was well aware of the traumas her future child may have experienced. ‘I understood the kind of children that came through the system,’ she says. ‘If I was going to be a mum, I knew there were so many children out there who needed a family.’

Rachel Divall, 45, from Essex, who adopted a six-year-old daughter a year ago, was driven by different reasons. Divorced and mother to a son, Josh (now 19), specialist speech and language teacher Rachel was herself adopted. ‘I’d been unconditionally loved and I knew my parents had dramatically improved my life chances,’ she says. ‘I’d grown up believing I’d do the same one day. When I married, we were going to have birth children, then adopt.’ However, her marriage ended when Josh was three. ‘I thought I’d never be able to do it on my own,’ she says. ‘We lived in a two-bedroom house, I was a single mum and had to work.’ Rachel mentioned her desire to adopt to Josh when he was 13 and he championed it from the start. It took years of hard saving and moving to a larger house but she was eventually ready to make the leap.

Finances are one of the biggest obstacles, says Sue Armstrong-Brown. ‘As a single adopter, you have to earn everything and be a sole carer. That’s high pressure.’

Solo adopters also have to be very honest about the children they can and can’t take on. The day after Rachel had been approved for adoption, she was sent nine profiles of children in care. The next day, she received 20 more. ‘They can make your heart bleed,’ she says. ‘I remember reading some who’d been through so much early trauma – I knew I couldn’t emotionally hold them on my own. I felt guilty but my dad gave some great advice. He said, “It’s not the ones you say no to, it’s the one you say yes to.”’

Rachel was also clear that she wanted an older child. ‘I’d have to work to support us so I needed a child who was in school. And with an older child, you know more about their development, whether they’ve met their milestones. Older children are almost written off but my daughter is an incredibly bright young lady who came top of her class this year.’

‘A rock-solid support network is vital – that could be grandparents, siblings and close friends,’ says Alice Noon. But even with this, it can feel like a lonely road. Anita still wishes she had someone to share it with. ‘I would still love that traditional family unit with a dad who was good enough to be a role model for Kenny, but he would have to be pretty amazing,’ she says. ‘I’m not proactive in looking – with work and Kenny, the chances [to find time for dating] are very slim. Kenny needs me more than I need to go out, so I tend to hibernate.’

What she has instead is an incredible bond with her ten-year-old son. Alice Noon says this is often the case – children may bloom best under the focused attention of just one parent. ‘Having no distractions from another partner can be an advantage,’ she says. Kenny has grown into the light of Anita’s life. ‘He’s still that busy boy who was presented to me all those years ago,’ she says. ‘He loves films – Saturday nights are movie nights for us – he’s a really good runner and a great drummer. He’s very tactile and likes his cuddles, and he’s got the best sense of humour – he can have fun in an empty room!

‘Without him, my life would have been very empty,’ she adds. ‘Adopting him is the hardest and the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done. He has turned my life upside down and back to front but I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

‘I get 100% of the love’

Emily*, 30, adopted Hannah* three months ago.

I was 26 when I first made enquiries into adopting. I hadn’t met anyone to settle down with and I knew through my job as a social worker that there were children who needed families. I haven’t written off the idea of finding a partner – but my priority has always been being a mum.

I worked out that I’d need to save £8,000 on top of my statutory adoption pay [currently 90 per cent of average weekly earnings for first six weeks, then up to £148.68 per week for 33 weeks so I could take the first year of adoption off work. I don’t live a frivolous life so once I’d saved it, I was ready to apply. I thought I was prepared to adopt an older child, but the approval process really makes you think and I realised I wanted the ‘firsts’ – the learning to walk, to talk, seeing a character develop. I pictured carrying a little one on my hip.

My daughter had been removed from her birth parents as a baby and raised by a foster family. When I saw her profile, she was 11 months old and so sweet in her picture. I know that 15 people put themselves forward to adopt her but I was chosen. I really believe she was meant to be mine. I’d had a lot of experience of having friends’ children to stay but in no way does that prepare you for the day you carry that baby into your house and shut the door. I remember thinking, ‘Right. What do I do now?’

I spent several days hunkered down with her on my own, watching her every move. We had lots of cuddles, lots of books, lots of play. She’s incredibly adventurous and loves to climb things, which is terrifying! Gradually, we started going out and about. One of the best things was just walking around with the buggy, feeling like any other parent.

My life is already unrecognisable. I used to get up to go to work. Now all my waking hours are spent in toddler groups, at the zoo or at home doing messy play. There have been times I’ve wished there was someone to share this with: when Hannah bumped her head while climbing I had to take her to A&E; and when she first called me Mummy it would have been nice if there had been someone else to hear it. The responsibility is all on me and that’s scary but also quite exciting.

Hannah is 18 months old now and although I don’t know if her early trauma will bring future problems – that’s all part of the unknown in adoption – the past three months have been amazing. Her learning to hug was one of the best days. At first, she’d let me cuddle her but didn’t do it back. Then one day, she put her arms round my neck, squeezed really tight and said, ‘Ahhhh!’ Those moments are all for me. As a single adopter, I get 100 per cent of that.

‘Adopting at age 23 – madness! But I’m glad I did it’

Darren Webster, 45, a primary school vice principal from Norfolk, adopted his son Cody more than two decades ago. 

single-parent adoptions

When I adopted Cody I was in my early 20s, just beginning my teaching career. I’d been affected by a child in my class who didn’t have the care and attention at home that the others had. I’d given everyone little packs of pencils for Christmas and he said he’d never had anything like that before. My heart went out to him so a friend mentioned I could adopt a child like that to give them a chance. I had a good job and my own home – I was in a position to do it. She caught me off guard, but she was there when I made the call to social services.

I was single, happy living on my own and had never been particularly bothered about being in a relationship, but I did know I wanted children. In the end, I was approved but was told I couldn’t have a baby or a girl – which says everything about how much they trusted me. It wasn’t important, though, as I needed a child who was in school as I had to keep working.

Cody’s picture was on the wall at social services and it just caught me. I’ve still got it. He had gappy teeth, short hair, very dark brown eyes and, though he looked shy, he had a cheeky grin. I thought, ‘There’s a kid with personality’, and asked to see his details. He was five and had been in several foster-care placements. Social services weren’t sure about placing him for adoption because of behaviour issues. He had a pronounced stutter and though they hadn’t pinned down what was wrong with him, they thought he might be autistic and have ADHD. Neither was true.

He needed a lot of speech therapy so he could slowly begin to get his points across and be understood. I’m lucky that, being a teacher, I knew how to push for one-to-one support in school from the start. Cody took up all my time from the very beginning. I love arts and theatre so wherever I was going, Cody came too. Likewise, he introduced me to things I’d never have done. I remember him leaping through the trees on a high ropes course, me following behind, trying to keep up. There were difficulties – Cody ran away from school a number of times – but we formed a strong bond. Cody needed boundaries so I set them and there was no other parent to change them.

My parents live nearby and have always been involved and supportive. I’ve had relationships over the past 20 years, but I don’t want to get married or live with anyone. Cody is 25 now – he went to college, moved out two years ago and got a flat. He works as a teaching assistant for children with learning difficulties. We have a great relationship. I look back and wonder why I did it at 23 – madness, I think – but I’m so glad I did.

*Some names have been changed