Eight months ago, my wife Sabrina and I visited Chicago to meet her sister Sophia’s beautiful newborn, Delfina. Huddled around “baby Del” in the maternity ward of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, my mother-in-law squawked in her distinct Bronx accent: "She looks just like Marty!"
"Why do you think she looks like dad,” Sabrina asked. “Because she's bald and gassy?”
"She definitely has your mouth, Sophia," Sabrina said. “And her dad’s eyes,” I added.
It was this trip to Chicago that left me with an unfulfill-able longing—the longing to create a baby born of my love for Sabrina. It's one of the few things that makes me envious of straight people.
The irony of this is that I never wanted "the wife and kids." I wasn’t one of those normal-aspiring queers, rallying for the right to wed or coveting a place at the table. I relished my queerness because it meant—in the Judith Butler sense—possibilities of being we hadn’t yet fathomed. It meant an unpredictable cultural space, where new ways of being were hatched and old ways re-imagined. It felt vital to resist the tide of assimilation.
But then I fell in love for the first time in my life, and suddenly all the things I'd radically opposed—sometimes self-consciously, like a defiant teen—I started to accept because I couldn't bear the thought of losing Sabrina. If that meant marrying her as she wanted, "I do!" If that meant buying an apartment with her in Brooklyn, here's my nest egg. If that meant bringing Sabrina’s baby into the world, wonderful.
The reality of an anonymous sperm donor hadn't really hit me until I met our beautiful niece, however. Del planted an impossible desire in me: She made me want to corporealize my love for Sabrina, to create a biological record—a baby—of the fact that we were here and we loved one another.
On the plane back to New York, it occurred to us that we might be able to form a biologically cohesive family by asking my brother to be Sabrina's donor. The likelihood that Nick would agree was low: He was 42-years-old, newly divorced with two young boys to look after—and a Republican police officer to boot. But the idea seized us and we convinced ourselves he might say yes.
I dialed his home number in Carlsbad, California and extended the small talk for as long as I could before taking the plunge:
“As you know, Sabrina and I are in the process of searching for a sperm donor.”
“But we both feel lead-legged about combing through anonymous donor profiles.”
“And we can't agree on any of the gay male friends who are willing to donate.”
“We both realized that we could come closest to forging a biologically connected family if you'd donate sperm to Sabrina.”
I couldn’t get the words out fast enough: Asking my brother for his seed felt like rolling into a bed of incest. He may have thought so too because he paused for a long stretch.
“Well, I love you both very much and I understand that, wanting to have a baby that's part of both of you, and of course, I'd be honored to help you guys. But I had a vasectomy seven years ago. … I don't want to reverse it, but I remember the doctor telling us that there's a way to extract sperm without undoing the surgery. I’ll look into it.”
Moments later, I got an email from him linking to an article on various forms of sperm retrieval techniques.
Before broaching the subject with our mothers, Sabrina and I wanted to be sure that the procedure was medically (and economically) viable for us, so we called a vasectomy specialist in San Diego.
"Does your husband want to schedule a consultation with the doctor?" she asked.
"Oh, he's not my husband," I said.
"Partner?" she ventured.
"Ha, no, it's complicated."
I could sense her discomfort in the long, awkward pause that lingered after my explanation. I imagined her questions floating through her mind like bold-lettered crawl at the bottom of a TV screen: “So, your brother would be the child’s father and uncle?” “Isn’t this weirdly incestuous since your brother would be breeding with his sister-in-law, your wife?” “What will your brother tell his two sons, that they have a new half-sibling or cousin?” “Wait, you’d be the child’s aunt and mother?”
But what she actually asked was: "Do you plan on having more than one child with the same donor?"
"We'd like to freeze enough for a later date so we have the option," I said.
"Extracting enough mature sperm for future offspring will require microsurgical epididymal sperm aspiration, MESA, for short,” she explained, “a technique of retrieving sperm from the testes. It will cost around $11,000 alone. Transporting it to New York City and freezing it will be additional costs."
The price tag, which the insurance would not cover because a vasectomy is self-inflicted, was the first blow. But it wasn't enough to deter us, despite our meager savings, so we started spreading the news, growing more and more excited by the prospect.
Our mothers—two strong women with even stronger opinions—were not the ones who hurled the thorniest questions. Shockingly, they "got it." It was our friends—gay ones, included—and my brother's posse of conservative cops, who clawed at the concept. The queer parts of me relished the way it unsettled people. Uprooting convention, collapsing categories, reframing and reassigning blood relations was a subversive wet dream.
The important players—our families and most importantly, my brother—were on board, so we didn't care too much about the literal-minded naysayers. To us, it was clear: My brother would be the baby's uncle; we would be the baby's moms; and we'd explain from the get-go: "Uncle Nick helped us make you because we couldn't make a baby together."
But, of course, that would have been too easy. When my brother finally broke the news to his 36-year-old girlfriend of seven months, Stacy, she combusted. They'd met in the middle of his collapsing twelve-year marriage—a marriage he was happy in and fought to sustain. While he made it clear to Stacy that he didn't want to remarry or have any more children, the message had not been received. She'd never been married, nor did she have any of her own children, two things she wanted to experience in her newfound love for Nick. When he called to tell me about her reluctance to give her blessing, it was clear from the new hesitation in his voice that she, as well as his perplexed friends, had shaken his confidence. "I've got to think about this deal a little more. I hope you understand," he wrote via text message.
I suspected that my wishes wouldn’t trump hers: He felt a special loyalty to her for all the love and healing she brought to his life during his devastating and unexpected divorce. And the truth is my own misgivings started to creep in. My brother, 6'3", handsome, easygoing, and big-hearted, was our mother's favorite. He was everyone's favorite growing up. Throughout our youths, I was a growling pit bull to his sprightly golden retriever. My youthful desire to be a boy combined with my budding lesbianism made him the subject of my envy.
And while the image of his and Sabrina’s beautiful offspring crawling about our apartment filled me with love, it also filled me with dread: Would I be jealous of the special bond Nick would inevitably form with Sabrina? Would I feel left out? My mom and my mother-in-law, two attractive women who place a high value on beauty, seemed a pinch too happy that my brother would be the donor. They couldn't stop gushing about how gorgeous the baby would be, given my brother's and Sabrina's superior looks. Would the baby trigger early childhood rivalries between my brother and I? Would the baby reignite the acute inadequacy I felt growing up in my brother's shadow?
As these thoughts surfaced, we hit another roadblock. Because Sabrina was 35-years-old at the time, our gynecologist wanted to run a slew of tests to determine the state of her fertility. Maybe we were being naive or overly optimistic, but we didn't expect the bleak results we got: Her ovarian reserves were so low we feared she might not even be a candidate for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Our fertility specialist assured us that we'd have success via intrauterine insemination (IUI) because of Sabrina’s general good health. But we needed to act fast: Ovarian reserves begin to dwindle rapidly with every passing month after age 35.
At least, that was the doctor’s prognosis before he knew we were planning on using my brother’s MESA-extracted seed. Because sperm retrieved from the testes are not as mature or plentiful as “normal” sperm, IVF is necessary. And because IVF is not medically necessary for Sabrina, the procedure would not be covered by our insurance. On top of that, he told us that the law requires sperm to be quarantined for six months, so we wouldn’t be able to begin trying for another half year. At Sabrina’s age, that’s not advisable.
So, we’re back to reading anonymous sperm donor profiles. Never mind that it feels like we’re practicing a quasi form of eugenics—“Let’s go with donor X, he sounds cute. Wait, he’s too short. But he has a Ph.D. Wait, no, his family medical history is awful." What bothers me is that there’s no way to really know a donor from facts and figures on a page; their essence will forever remain elusive because we’ll never inhabit the same room with him, or shake his hand, or see him smile.
It also makes me sad to think that our child will not have a father or get the primal satisfaction of knowing where half of his or her genes originated. The different statuses Sabrina and I will have vis-à-vis the baby (she, the bio mommy and me, the non-bio mom) and all the layers of meaning that might hold adds even more complexity to the situation. Even if I have my own child with the same sperm donor—which I’m not sure I’ll do—I don't want to find out if Rebecca Walker's chilling words in Baby Love are true: "The love you have for your nonbiological child isn’t the same as the love you have for your own flesh and blood … Yes, I would do anything for my first [non-bio] son, within reason. But I would do anything at all for my second [bio] child, without reason, without a doubt.”
After endless sleuthing and debate, Sabrina and I finally agreed on a donor. It wasn’t his medical record, or his degrees or his height that swayed us. It was his words—he seemed thoughtful and kind. But as happy as I am with our decision, I still can’t adequately express the sadness I continue to feel when I realize that I’ll never look at a baby born of both of us. Instead, I will be looking at half of a man I don’t know, a stranger. I wish I could say that I’ve evolved from the selfish, animal longing to forge a bloodline with Sabrina, but I’m not there yet. Hopefully, one day, I will be. Maybe when the baby comes.