Mothers of invention

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 October, 2011, 12:00am


Financial-sector executive Marie is typical of a generation of women in Hong Kong enjoying rewarding and challenging careers. At the age of 37, she still wants to have a child but is keenly aware that her biological clock is winding down. She wasn't in a long-term relationship at the time, so she began exploring options for single motherhood a couple of years ago.

'It's becoming more difficult for career women to find the right partners. The more successful you become the more difficult it is to find the right match,' she says.

Many of her female friends are in similar situations, she says. 'They spend their 'golden years' working to build their careers and suddenly realise they should have made time to start their families. Now for some it might be too late.'

It is widely recognised that the number of women putting off marriage and children has risen steadily over the past two decades, as they become better educated and more career-conscious. An increasing number may never marry. According to the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, the proportion of women in Hong Kong aged between 30 and 39 who have never married rose from 4.5 per cent in 1980 to 20.3 per cent in 2005.

But a few independent women are deciding that their single status need not be a barrier to having children. Some become single mothers with help from a partner; some adopt; others consider reproductive technologies, including having their eggs frozen for gestation at a later date. For all, though, the path is fraught with difficulties and tough choices.

Nikki Green, a psychotherapist specialising in relationship and family issues, says greater equality between the sexes has encouraged strong, financially independent women to start families on their own. But she emphasises that this is not a decision to be taken lightly.

'In general, people without children have no idea what to expect, so it's very important that they understand not only their own needs but what it really means to raise a child.'

Green says these women need extensive support from close friends, family and other social networks, while those considering in vitro fertilisation (IVF) or similar procedures require extensive professional counselling, as these may take a toll physically and psychologically. The single mother and her child may also have to cope with bigotry.

Marie has explored the potential of using reproductive technologies - a dicey path to single motherhood in Hong Kong. It is illegal under the Human Reproductive Technology Ordinance for single people to resort to IVF and other artificial methods to have children, although exceptions are made. For instance, women undergoing medical treatments that can leave them infertile may freeze their eggs for possible future use.

But Marie eventually decided not to pursue this route to single motherhood, partly because of concerns that her child might be stigmatised.

'Hong Kong is still a very traditional Chinese society, I am worried about the social pressure my child might have to face when he or she grows up,' she says.

She also reckons it would be difficult to make the youngster understand that he or she wasn't the product of a relationship between two people, but of an individual's need to have a child. 'It's just too impersonal and unnatural. I don't think the child would understand or accept the entire concept.'

Now in a relatively stable relationship, Marie hopes to have a baby with her boyfriend but has no plans to marry him.

'I am not ready to be committed to a lifetime partnership, mostly because I am not sure whether it will work or last. But I know if I want to have a child I need to do it soon. I have been talking about having a child with my boyfriend and he seems receptive to the idea,' she says. 'Now I just need to tell him that I don't want the full package of kids and marriage. I am not sure how he will react, that's why I have to think it through very carefully and find the right way and right time to ask him.'

The frequent need to travel for her job is another reason she is ruling out the idea of marriage.

'If I got married my husband would need to be extremely understanding and accommodating. He would have to be able to take care of the child in my absence while also handling his own career.'

Few men are prepared to do this, she says. 'It's just too much to ask; that's why I think marriage is not an option.'

Despite the risks involved with reproductive technologies, some single women seek avenues in countries where such procedures are allowed.

Professor Edwin Hui Chi-wai, founding director of the Medical Ethics Unit at the University of Hong Kong's Faculty of Medicine, worries that if such practices catch on, they may lead to a worrying new era involving 'the technologisation and commercialisation of human reproduction, and commodification of the child', and create a sort of 'stratification' of womanhood in society.

'Medical technologies should not be allowed in every single case just because [they are] technically feasible; we have come to a point [where] not everything that can be done should be done just because people believe in the individual's right to autonomy,' he says.

Single parenthood in general can be harmful for the child socially and emotionally, Hui argues, and if this comes about through assisted reproductive technologies, it is not ethically acceptable.

Adoption is one of the most viable options for single women who want children, but the journey can vary considerably for each person.

Janice Henderson, managing director of a branding agency, approached the Social Welfare Department to become an adoptive parent about a decade ago when she was in her mid-40s.

'I had simply not found Mr Right and I had got to an age when I needed to find viable options to move forward with my life,' Henderson says of her decision.

Remarkably, it took her just a few months to achieve her dream. It helped that she was willing to accept older children, and she wound up adopting two girls - sisters aged six and nine - through the department.

'Older children, of course, come with baggage, but we have dealt with the issues they had, and successfully moved on to become a very happy and balanced family,' she says.

But for Margo Sommerlad, an early childhood education specialist, adoption turned out to be a long and complex process, as married couples were placed ahead of her on the waiting list.

'I had always wanted a baby,' says the Australian who came to Hong Kong six years ago. 'As an early childhood education teacher, I know the early foundation years are extremely important to a child's development.'

Because of this, Sommerlad resisted suggestions from Social Welfare to improve her chances by applying for an older child.

As the years dragged by without success, she tried to adopt a little boy in Cambodia, paying for all the necessary paperwork and medical checks. She got as far as applying for his Australian visa only to be told the Cambodian government had stopped single parent adoptions.

She also remortgaged her house in Australia to pay for two costly but unsuccessful attempts at IVF treatment in India.

Nearly five years after she first lodged her application she was finally offered a child - a 19-month-old girl with neurofibromatosis, a serious medical condition that causes tumours to grow inside and outside the body.

Sommerlad says she was given 24 hours to make up her mind.

'I contacted the Australian consulate and they said a child with this condition would never be eligible to become an Australian citizen, so I turned down the offer as it meant I would never be able to return home.'

But Sommerlad didn't give up, and a few months later the call she had been hoping for came through. She had been matched with a four-month-old baby boy.

'The day I met him, he had a big smile on his face. My heart just melted and I started to cry. I couldn't believe it had happened,' she says.

That was early last year, and her son is now a happy and healthy 18-month-old.

Although she had a relatively easier time, Henderson advises women thinking of following in her footsteps to do all the reading they can, speak to people who have already adopted children, and establish a strong support network of people they know they can count on such as family, close friends and other adoptive parents.

That's why she and Sommerlad joined Adoptive Families of Hong Kong.

The all-volunteer, non-profit organisation, is 'a real life saver', Henderson says.

'It's very important that single parents must feel absolutely ready, not just financially but emotionally.

'As a single woman, you can find that you just don't have anyone else to turn to. You're completely on your own so it can be very difficult,' she adds.

Sommerlad agrees. 'Going down this road to become a single parent, you've really got to have [the] drive and determination that you want this.'