Back in my twenties, I never imagined myself single and setting out to have my first child at more than 40 years of age, but an increasing number of women are doing just that. Bucking the tradition of a nuclear family, today we see about one in four mothers in the U.S. raising children on their own. There’s a rise in blended families, and a record number of people who have never been married. In the mid ’90s, it was almost unheard-of for a never-married woman in her early 40s with a postgraduate degree to have a child. Today, 25% of women who fit that profile do have a child, and I’m about to swell their ranks. Thanks to IUI, (a fertility treatment better known as intrauterine insemination or artificial insemination), I’m expecting my first child in October.
Time Waits for No Woman
Like many of us, I always had it in the back of my mind that I would have a family at some point, believing that it would “happen when it was meant to happen.” In my thirties I moved to New York City for a new job and a fresh start. As time passed, the idea of having a child became more distant. It wasn’t a sad thing, it simply wasn’t a priority, as I was still finding my bearings as an adult woman. That all changed when I woke up one night, months after a tough breakup, feeling like my moment to have a child had expired along with that relationship. I felt like I was being punished for lacking the foresight to plan for something I didn’t even know I wanted. When I did the math, the numbers on the body-clock suggested I had a better chance of making it happen on my own. I’d never considered having a child as a single woman– not because I thought it was wrong, but because I didn’t know it was a desirable option. It seemed like–even after over 40 years of success–the fertility industry wasn’t made for single women like me.
Going through the fertility process without a partner brought up every insecurity possible. “Will I be enough for this child–both emotionally and physically?” “Can I be the sole provider?” “What if I go through this process and end up broke from the cost and broken down from a miscarriage?” “What if no one wants me because I’m a mother to a child who’s not theirs?” Not to mention, “Can I even get pregnant at this age?” I was spiraling from these thoughts. On top of my own self-doubt, fertility treatment (including both IUI and IVF) is still predominantly undertaken by women in relationships. Single women often deal with an additional level of isolation and couples bias–much of it unacknowledged and unconscious at a time when you’re at your most alone and vulnerable.
This brought me to the bigger questions like, “Why is the fertility experience still like this?” and “How could I help change it for other women like me?”
A Design for Life
To cope with these insecurities, I approached my fertility journey as a living design experiment, documenting all the trials, errors, and triumphs of what I started to call “Project Junior.” I soon became determined to figure out what an inclusive fertility service could look like, in the hope that single women out there wouldn’t feel so alone, ignored, or that having a child on their own was such a far-fetched idea. Working with a team of Smart Design colleagues, friends, family, and fellow would-be moms, I applied the same skills and learnings–honed over a 20-year career in design and innovation–to the experience of going through my own fertility treatment.
It Takes a Village
The anxiety and stress that is part of trying to have a child doubles down when you don’t have an equally invested partner to lean on through those fraught first consultations, ultrasound scans, initial pregnancy tests, and all the unspoken worries in between. It took about six months, doing my research by talking with people, for me to feel confident that I could successfully do it on my own. I unknowingly was creating my own network of experts, friends, and family for emotional and practical support. My village. And it took me a long time to build it and even more energy and time to manage it, when I was already overwhelmed. However, I consider myself extremely lucky because without them I would have never booked that first fertility consultation or had the courage to keep going.
From Project Junior to Jr.
From these Project Junior learnings, Jr. was born–a digital service to help single women more confidently and comfortably navigate through the typically fragmented fertility process. Jr. is contextual and personalized to each woman’s mind-set, worries, level of engagement, and needs–whether you’re at the “thinking about it” stage, exploring fertility options as a potential pathway, or actively trying to get pregnant using assisted treatments. Based on my experience in requiring a network of supporters, “Your Village” became an important feature of this service. It’s an avenue to help identify and build a village from scratch, and more seamlessly communicate with trusted friends and family who are clustered according to their specific support roles that are needed during your treatment. Likewise, it helps avoid ill-timed questions and dialogue from well-intentioned villagers, by keeping them in sync with where you are in your fertility journey.
No Shame in Asking for Help
It can be hard enough to muster the words to ask for help, and there were times when I definitely felt like a burden on my friends. It became important for me to show my appreciation by asking for help through thoughtfully worded texts. Grateful as I was for all the supporters who shared those many doctors’ appointments with me, the logistics of coordinating all those people left a lot of room for error; especially if, like me, you have three different locations and several doctors, nurses, and clinics involved. When one friend declined, I had to go through the same motions all over again. On occasion I sent people to the wrong place at the wrong hour. I constantly wished for a way to better schedule personal invites, and keep track of who was able to step up at different moments. Jr. is designed to automate much of this by coordinating people from your “local friends” group to join you at appointments if you’re nervous to go alone. Similar to the way a phone tree works, it sends the invite to one person first, giving them a window of time to respond or decline. It moves on through your priority list until someone elects to join, whereby you receive a positive notification. Messaging to each individual can be tailored, to ensure it is appropriately nuanced and personal.
Villagers Need to be in the Know
The hard part of building a network of emotionally invested villagers was that a lot of time was spent keeping everyone updated on my progress, answering the same question about 15 times–which was stressful when I didn’t know the answer or had bad news (and stress is one thing you’re told to avoid when trying to conceive). I recall one night when I was at a concert, one of my friends whom I hadn’t seen in a while commented on how I “would make such a wonderful mother,” following that up with, “Have you gone through the treatment yet?” Of course, how was he supposed to know that an hour before I had just received a negative result from an at-home pregnancy test. That was the one time I wished for some magical system that could warn my friends in advance that I wasn’t feeling talkative. Jr. helps relieve both parties of these awkward and sometimes painful moments, with an interactive journey map and a mood indicator to advise your village how you’re feeling. Moods include: do not disturb (when you don’t feel very talkative) or excited (when you might want to share some good news).
Having a strong support network was a huge factor in my success, helping me get through the daily–sometimes hourly–emotional and physical trials of starting a family on my own. But along with the anxiety, there was empowerment. By becoming actively involved in planning when and how I could conceive and raise my own child, I discovered what it means to have ownership of your body. Hopefully by sharing what I went through and creating Jr., we are adding to the knowledge base out there, so that in the future more women will feel like having a child by themselves is not such an implausible idea.
Igniting this crucial conversation is also aimed at demonstrating to the fertility industry just how much room they have for improvement, and the impacts of their offerings on single women. In part two of this series, we’ll look at some of the areas where a few humanizing touches could make all the difference, including some proposed design solutions for sperm selection.
Stephanie Yung is a design director who strives to create positive change through an inclusive design approach, leading creative teams at Smart Design’s New York studio. She also serves as design advisor on the board of not-for-profit technology company Simprints. Jr. was conceptualized by Yung and her strategic design team: Crystal Ellis, Sarah Phares, Steffany Tran, and Haley Rasmussen.