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"Daddy, What's a Sperm Donor?"

This is the question I fear most

Getty/Michal Cizek

Last week, on the day that Sports Illustrated posted NBA player Jason Collins’s essay announcing his homosexuality, I was walking with Rebekah, our six-year-old. We were going to pick up our car at the auto mechanic’s shop on the corner, when across the street I spotted a neighbor going in the other direction, strolling hand-in-hand with her two-year-old son. They waved to me, and I said hi, and then we walked on. “Who was that?” Rebekah asked. 

I hesitated. I could have given a very simple answer: “That was Evelyn’s wife.” (Evelyn, as I'll call her, is a woman Rebekah has met several times.) But I didn’t. I told her something else, something true but a little bit evasive, something like, “That was our neighbor Claire and her son—they live next door to the O’Malleys.”

My three daughters all know that when they grow up, they can, if they so choose, marry women. They know this because they have schoolmates who have two moms; because my wife and I talk freely about our circle of friends, which includes gay men and lesbians; and because, when Rebekah comes home from school with first-grade talk of boyfriends, who “likes” whom, and whom she’ll marry someday—first grade is, it seems, junior high with training wheels—we occasionally mention that her future spouse could be a man or a woman. Even so, this moment on Jason Collins’s big day was not the first time that I found myself being slippery when a daughter had inquired about a lesbian mother, even in a context that had nothing to do with lesbianism.

As we continued our walk, I reflected on this failing of mine. I was troubled by my evasiveness, and by the fact that I didn't understand where it was coming from. I wondered if it betokened some homophobia that I had never reckoned with—even as I have been talking, arguing, and writing on behalf of gay and lesbian rights since I was a teenager. But as I thought about the way I had sidestepped conversations with my daughters about lesbian moms, it occurred to me that I've never had this discomfort talking about gay dads, gay couples who adopted, or gay men or lesbians with children from previous, straight relationships. 

So the tentative conclusion I reached, bizarre as it seemed to me, was that I am afraid of talking to my daughters about artificial insemination—to be more precise, I don’t want to talk about sperm donation. And lesbian mothers with donor-conceived children raise the specter of that discussion. If a daughter asked, “Who’s their baby’s daddy?,” three questions along I could find myself talking to a two-, four-, or six-year-old about sterile rooms, sticky skin mags, and syringes.

Let me say, at this juncture, that I realize how absurd I sound. And not just absurd, but very unfair to lesbian couples, especially because many users of donor sperm (and there don't seem to be good numbers on just how many) are straight couples or, of course, single women, many of them straight. Many such mothers also happen to be white and college-educated, with good health insurance and some disposable income. That is to say: people like me and my wife. And while we have been blessed not to have any fertility problems, I’m pretty sure that if we had needed help to conceive a child, we would have gotten help. Lots of our friends have, including the ones who have told us and, surely, some who haven’t. The older we get, the more we and our friends seem to talk, over dinner or drinks or barbecues or children’s birthday parties, about all the troubles: miscarriages, false positives, stillbirths, adoptions that came achingly close to happening. Our thirties are the days of fertility and heartbreak.

But straight people’s reticence about how we get our children has saved me from some tough conversations with my daughters. When we see a man and a woman walking down the street with their child, my children don’t wonder, and I don’t wonder, how they got that baby. It's lesbians with children who make people wonder. (I don’t know any gay men who have used a surrogate to gestate their children; in my middle-class world, gay men adopt.) Lesbians with children are an avant-garde, a kind of honesty brigade: They make visible what straight people only talk about with friends.

Seen in that light, we really owe mothers of donor-conceived children, especially lesbian moms, a debt of thanks. They aren’t at liberty to be coy about how they got their children. They are walking, nursing, spit-up- and spill-mopping symbols of the astonishing human desire to reproduce, to have little people to love and nurture, even when those little people don’t always come easily.

So given my admiration for anyone who wants to be a parent, and given the extreme joy I take in parenting, the kind of joy that makes me want to wish babies even on people constitutionally incapable of baby talk, or who simply value sleeping past six a.m., why do I get the creepy-crawleys when I think I might have to talk to my daughters about sperm donation? 

I think I hesitate because the topic, and the women involved, announce the scientific revolution we are living through. I wish all would-be parents their beautiful boys and girls, their prams and bottles and birthday parties (actually, I wish children's birthdays on no one), but I haven't made peace with everything we know technology can, or will soon, do to people. Using abortion for sex selection; "selective reduction" of multiple embryos; engineering "designer babies"; sex reassignment for adolescents or even younger children—all of this makes me queasy, in some cases because I vociferously object and in some cases because I can't figure out what I think. If there is a stigma that still attaches to artificial insemination, it is there partly because few of us know, having always said yes to medical technology, when we can say no. 

So it’s not just my fear that I will end up in a conversation that glances on the subject of male masturbation. It’s also that, however much I am grateful for science—and I love science, and am married to a woman who believes the epidural is the great invention of Western man—I also mistrust it. And this mistrust has always been in me, something temperamental. I have long had some very specific revulsions toward what I perceive to be the misuse, or over-use, of science. (To give you one example, the thought of cosmetic surgery makes me feel ill.) I thus have what I will admit is a neurotic, idealized, aspirational version of the good life—not the life anyone actually has, but the one I naively think I can give my children. In such a life, everything happens naturally, and without extraordinary measures. In such a life, my daughters will live to ripe old ages, without the aid of valve replacements or chemotherapy. They will find their perfect mates, without settling, and without help of the Internet. And they will have beautiful children, my grandchildren, without science. 

I can easily assimilate lesbianism to this version of a daughter’s future. She meets a great woman, also in her late twenties. They get married, in a Jewish ceremony that manages to be both traditional and uniquely suited to their vivid, eccentric personalities. They get dogs. When my wife and I, at last empty-nesters, finally take a trip to Greece, they enthusiastically agree to dog-sit for our dogs. They cook well, but not pompously so. They don’t get “into wine.” When they decide to have children, which they do, they find adoptable children with the greatest of ease. 

In this vision, there is no science required. In this vision, my daughter is also insulated from having to make choices that I might disapprove of, choices that using a sperm donor forces on all prospective mothers. She won’t have to make ugly decisions about race or ethnicity; she won’t be tempted to choose the blue-eyed daddy with straight hair over the Mr. Kotter lookalike. She won’t worry about the daddy’s Ph.D. or lack thereof. She won’t choose the donor who refuses ever to be contacted—a choice that several of women I know have made, but which seems to favor the psychic needs of the moms over the hopes and questions their child may someday have. (One study showed that lesbian moms are much more likely than straight couples to choose a sperm donor who is willing to be contacted someday.) In the vision I have, the one without the sperm donor, life for my lesbian daughter is simple. Joyous and simple. 

Of course, that’s not how life is for any of us. In real life, even real heterosexual life, there is—in addition to all the grandeur and joy—chemotherapy, fertility treatment, infidelity, divorce, unemployment, estrangement, bad sequels to good movies, death of the first-born, death of the dog. Especially the dog. The dogs don’t live long. Our older dog is nine years old now, and I can barely grasp the idea that she won’t be around forever. How could you expect a weak soul like me to talk squarely with a first-grader about how babies without daddies got made?

My anxiety about lesbian mothers with strollers is silly. I know that. It scapegoats the lesbian for the choices of the straight couple: Plenty of sperm donation leads to non-lesbian parenting, after all. And I am obviously relying on an incoherent distinction between what is “artificial” and what is “natural,” in an age when the technologies everyone likes—the ultrasound, the prenatal vitamin, the autoclave to sanitize surgical instruments, Purell—are seen as beneficial, and are granted honorary “natural” status. No doubt I am also engaging in the sacred parental rite of judging other parents for anything I can find, assuring myself that whatever deviates from what my wife and I do, including different means of conception, is at least a little bit worse. That, too, is silly. But what's really silly is worrying about the conversations sperm-donor mothers will provoke with my children. Because, as any parent knows, conversations with young people about sex never go as badly as you fear. In fact, they don’t go anywhere you could possibly predict.

My wife tells this story. About a year and a half ago, she was returning from dropping our eldest daughter off at kindergarten; the baby was strapped to her chest, and she was pushing our middle daughter, Ellie, then almost three years old, in the stroller. Out of nowhere, Ellie asked that question, the one that all children ask at some point in their toddling years: “Mommy, how do you make a baby?” My wife was a bit surprised to get this question—why now? so early in the day?—but it didn’t matter, for there was only one possible answer, the straightforward, clinical, correct answer. “Well,” she said, “the man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina, seed comes out, and the baby begins to grow.” At this point Ellie turned around in the stroller and squinted at my wife with skepticism, her eyes narrowed and her lips puckered. “Mommy,” she said, “if the man puts his penis in the woman, how does he put it back on?”

After stifling a laugh, my wife explained the situation to Ellie’s satisfaction, at which point the topic was dropped—presumably in favor of more important questions, like whether she had earned back the dessert she had lost in that morning’s tantrum. I don’t suppose that if a lesbian mother had been spotted across the street, Ellie would have cared in the least. But if she had, at least she would have had the right parent to talk to.