Dad Material

After choosing a sperm donor instead of a partner, a mother discovers a new kind of genetic family.

Whenever I tell a married woman I had a baby on my own, the first thing she says is, “Good for you!” The second is, “Men are useless, anyway.”

Four years ago, I bought a stranger’s sperm and gestated a baby. I have since taken care of this child solo, and, as a heterosexual woman who has done okay so far, I’m willing to grant that men can be useless. But husbands become fathers, and the equation changes. My heterosexual female friends with the most terrible exes—cheaters, drinkers, men erratic with visits and child support, men they can’t stand to be in the same room with—still want those men in their children’s lives. Because, even if the men are terrible partners, my friends think it’s important their children have fathers. Mine is doing fine without one, but I agonized for months over who should show him how to pee standing up.

I knew I would be a single mom before I was even out of high school. I was lying on my parents’ bed, flipping through channels, when I came across a documentary on my local PBS station that followed six women who had become single mothers by choice, via different avenues. (I have since tried to track the documentary down, with no luck.)

These were the Reagan years, long before Dan Quayle publicly chewed out TV character Murphy Brown for choosing to become a single mom in 1992. Then, conventional wisdom held that single moms were the cause of the fraying of the American family—and any family without a father was, ipso facto, a broken one. Single moms were also a valuable public wedge for racist rhetoric: Reagan had just dreamed up the “welfare queen,” an epithet directed at an imaginary army of black, single mothers who used their children’s benefits to avoid working. In 1994, Rick Santorum ran for Senate on this groundless stereotype: “We are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart,” he said, “and it’s falling apart because of single moms.”

Understandably, given this climate, the women in the documentary seemed a bit rattled. Holding their children on their laps, they expressed concerns not over the desecration of society, but of a more pedestrian kind: they worried about how to handle disapproving parents, discussed how hard it was to date, lamented the difficulty of something as simple as running out for a gallon of milk (I’ve since struggled with this myself). But if they were tentative, their eyes were completely unapologetic. They were mothers, this was love, this was family.

I thought, I’m going to do that, too.


The way you choose donor sperm is Dan Quayle’s worst nightmare: by browsing sprawling online catalogs advertising male genetic material. It’s hard to compute that there are living, breathing men behind the data. The search function breaks the donors down to their component parts: hair color, eye color, height, college degree. Each donor has a vague nickname, reminiscent of an ice cream flavor, or, as one friend noted, a strain of weed: “Modern Beethoven,” “Adventure Ready,” “Body and Brains,” “Shining Star.” Conservatives have railed that every child needs the influence of a father figure to survive and thrive. But in a digital sperm catalog, a father’s influence doesn’t count—only a donor’s effluence does.

That didn’t mean that I didn’t think of a potential donor as a person in the world. Rather, I was consumed with the idea of him as a person. I wanted to choose someone my child would be glad to meet one day.

Conventional wisdom held that single moms were the cause of the fraying of the American family—and any family without a father was, ipso facto, a broken one.

My heterosexual friends were consumed with a different question: Was the donor someone I would want to date? The idea was so outside the sphere of anything I had ever considered, it rendered me speechless. The donor was listed anonymously on a site that charged a fee for his genetic matter, the opposite of OKCupid. But, more importantly, I wasn’t seeking a sexual relationship. This was about the baby, not me.

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When it came to having a child, I fiercely avoided the topic of sex—even though sex is pretty much the leading cause of most babies. I thought about the ways in which purchasing sperm was different from seeking a partner. In some other life, I might have been married to a chubby, witty defense attorney, and had chubby, wisecracking kids. In that universe, I would want that man to be the father of our children. But having a baby the way I did didn’t feel like a pale shadow of that life. It felt like taking a valid but different direction, like deciding to be a ship’s captain rather than a train conductor.

Choosing sperm is different from choosing a father for your child, and different still from choosing a partner. I chose a donor with talents I wanted my notional baby to possess, skills in math, athletics, music—things that, unlike my own writing, might help you earn a living. Some women look for men who will take their kids outside to play catch. I wanted a donor who would make a baby with a killer serve and a facility with differential equations.

Once I’d made my choice, I began to constantly thrust the donor’s file, thick as a college application, at my friends. The women who looked through it said I knew more about the donor than they did about the fathers of their own children; men who perused the file tended to look at the donor as a possible buddy. One man commented that, in the event of the apocalypse, he would like to have my donor on hand, since he had traveled the world, excelled in sports, and could make a bike out of scrap parts. (Most of my male friends excel at sitting in office chairs and taking ten years to write a novel.) But that was the thing about the donor: he wasn’t going to be there for me or for my child. In fact, that was the whole point.

When I became pregnant, the missing male partner was a vacuum the rest of the world rushed in to fill. Distant acquaintances messaged to see if I wanted a donated Boppy; my brother arrived to put together my crib; a suitor kept texting to see if I needed a chocolate croissant. In pregnancy, it began to seem as though I had made the superior choice.

I knew that other women were buying my donor’s sperm, as well. One of my best friends had used a donor, and, using the details of his profile, Facebook-stalked him and discovered he was a jazz musician and the son of a judge. She also found out her son had six half-siblings—in Scandinavia. Before I had my son, I read many a salacious story on the subject, including those about the Escondido, California, “Nobel Prize sperm bank” that solicited from laureates from the 1980s through the ’90s, as well as a 2011 New York Times scare piece about a donor with 150 children that called for ethics committees and regulations.

I also knew that my donor had already produced children; I had chosen one who had on purpose, so I could be sure the sperm would work. But it hadn’t really sunk in that my son would have siblings—brothers and sisters he could one day meet.

Sibling registries exist for the parents who’ve used donors to report births. I knew dimly that the cryobank had one, and the summer before I gave birth, three child-free friends forced me to sign up. As they hung over my shoulder, practically panting, I found the site. I searched my inbox for my login, my donor number, and my order number. My pregnancy brain managed to produce my Social Security number, and I went through the two-step verification on my phone. I established I was not posing as a different sperm mother.

Choosing sperm is different than choosing a father for your child, and different still from choosing a partner.

The registry page for my donor popped up.

It was not fancy: there were two simple, spreadsheet-like listings, one on top of the other. The first was filled in with my donor’s profile. The second spreadsheet was for siblings. It contained a lone entry: a girl, born on January 19.

There was a real girl—already out there! The donor had only given very recently, and for a short time, according to the sperm bank. How many more were there? And were they all hanging out without me?

I clicked the entry. A short note popped up.

I have a beautiful, healthy baby girl and would be interested to hear about her donor siblings.

I clicked an email link and began to type.

Hi! I am due in November with a boy from our same donor. I just registered for this and wanted to get in touch and introduce myself. It was so great to see you two there, too.

I looked at the note, then added an exclamation point after the “too.” I hit Send.

I think that people tend to picture women who use sperm donors as radical feminist man-haters with armpit hair and collections of poetry books featuring vaginas. This is a pretty good description of me, but it did not at all fit W, a therapist in North Carolina and the mother of the “beautiful, healthy baby girl.” W immediately sent a warm note and a photo of her daughter, and we began to write back and forth. We discussed our financial issues: I told her about my fledgling literary imprint; she told me about building her practice. We talked about my siblings and her being an only child, how our parents felt about our having used a donor, what mysteries we liked. I sent the pictures of her daughter from her Facebook page to everyone I knew. (My mother declared the baby very pretty.) After W and I chatted about our favorite authors, I sent her a copy of Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life, which I had just read. She sent me an encouraging note before I gave birth.

At the time, I was living with my parents, who had put in a nursery so that they could help through the first months. This was, not unlike childbirth, both painful and absolutely necessary. I was mortified to be back at home, in suburban, snowy Englewood, New Jersey, where I ran into my old teachers in the street every day. But there was no way to avoid it. I needed my parents. And they were delighted. They would get a grandson without an interfering father, or, crucially, another set of grandparents.

Those first few months appear in my mind as a series of snapshots: my father rocking a one-week-old and whispering, “I love you. I love you. I love you”; my mother looking at his newborn face with a wondrous glee and whispering, “He looks like us!” In the early hours I dumped him in their bed, where he slept between them.

In the beginning, my parents had been visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of my using a donor—my father, I think, because it seemed to put a stamp on the fact that I would never have a husband, and my mother because she thought doing so might reflect badly on the child, as if we were back in the days of the Magdalene Laundries. Now, my father rocked my son contentedly and asked if I had any more of the sperm. And, when I jokingly asked my mother if she wished my son were hers, she nodded back, humorless.

But without a father for my son, some bizarre dynamics were laid bare. My mother constantly referred to my father as “your father” when addressing me or my son. (She was developing dementia at the time, but I am convinced she would have done this anyway.) My father spent half his time calling for a bottle and trying to get the baby to sleep, despite my trying to stick to a feeding schedule. I tried to keep my son from drinking old breast milk; my mother, a doctor, rolled her eyes at me.

I still preferred my parents’ presence to a husband’s. In those weeks post-birth, when you want nothing more than to merge your skin with your baby’s to keep you going for a few weeks more, I lay in bed with my son on my chest, thanking my lucky stars we could stew in each other’s pheromones in peace. I didn’t have to awkwardly ask anyone to sleep on the couch, didn’t have to correct anyone’s swaddle. I didn’t ever have to hand him over, if I didn’t want to.

At a breastfeeding class about four weeks after the birth, I was by far the oldest woman present, and the only single mother. My son had been wielding his gums like tiny knives, and the lactation consultant fixed his bite with one vigorous shove to his putty-like jawbone. Then, she asked me to stay on to show three other mothers what a successful latch looked like.

The three other mothers all looked like they were in high school, which means they were probably in their early 30s. They held their babies gingerly apart, like art projects they were worried they would break. Their husbands plumped on the couches beside them, emitting varying degrees of sullenness, desperation, and despair. They couldn’t breastfeed, either.

“She hates me,” one husband said bitterly. It turned out his daughter was taking the bottle, but not from him. “She’s having a really hard time, too,” he offered of his wife, and launched into an explanation of what she’d tried and how it had failed. “And how are you feeling?” the consultant finally asked the wife, who’d sat patiently by, patting the baby on the back and watching her husband speak. She tentatively repeated exactly what he’d said.

I knew that my donor had already produced children, but it hadn’t really sunk in that my son would have siblings.

Different versions of the same thing played out as the consultant went around the room. One father made uneasy jokes about boobs until the consultant warned him he’d have to leave if he kept it up. Another recited a litany of information from the internet, occasionally interrupting the consultant to press a point. I began to look at the clock. Half an hour had passed, and my son had almost drained my right breast. Soon, he would drop off, and the women would lose the chance to see what they’d come for.

I announced that the feeding was almost finished. The consultant, to my great relief, told the fathers to sit in the other room, and they went without grumbling. The women, still holding their babies, almost leapt out of their seats to crowd around me.

It had taken all my energy not to tell the other mothers they could eject their husbands at any time. It seemed cruel to me to have to sit in a room and listen to the feelings of someone who was completely superfluous to the issue ... or the problem. My own mother had always taken the opportunity to breastfeed upstairs in a darkened room, to bond with the baby and get a break from her other children. My father had ducked out of La Leche League meetings to catch the end of the game. That had always seemed fair to me.

When my son was three months old, almost six months after I’d first contacted W, I began to be a human who could think about something other than the color of her son’s poop and if she would ever master the sling. And I realized I’d forgotten to register my own child in the sibling registry.

I logged back onto the site and discovered, thrilled, that two more girls had been born. One was the daughter of a couple, J and R, two women who lived in New Orleans and worked in engineering and construction. Another was born to S, a woman who lived in New Hampshire and had been a champion equestrian. We messaged each other on Facebook, exchanged information about birth, baby weight, the best places to buy carpets, how many other children the donor might have. We looked through each other’s photos and commented on each other’s threads.

Most of all, we were obsessed with how much our children looked alike.

My son was the only boy, but he and the three girls shared what must have been the donor’s eyebrow line, his pointy chin, his face shape. They were by no means identical; some features just gently passed, like currents, into the other faces. One girl looked so much like my son that I would periodically see her photo and think it was his. As I got him dressed in the morning, I would see his sisters’ faces cycle through his own.

Outside of our circle, all of this attracted a lot of flack. “Those aren’t really his sisters,” my father said, and my older relatives agreed. My parents’ views had evolved, but not enough. It was okay that I’d used a donor—but learning about the other children was unnecessarily leaning in.

“What do you mean, they’re not sisters?” I objected. “They are literally the textbook definition of sisters.” My sister-in-law, one of nine children, leapt to my defense.

I was annoyed, but undaunted, by their resistance. I kept thinking of all those videos on YouTube of siblings separated at birth who’d finally learned about each other, and been reunited. Decades later, those relationships were celebrated. Did you have to be long-lost for the relationship to count?

When you use donor eggs or sperm, there’s an opportunity to tailor-make the affair. I have friends, coupled and single, who have used donor eggs or donor sperm and express a studious lack of interest in knowing any of their children’s genetic relatives. My friends who’ve used egg donors often don’t have the ability to know those donors—unlike sperm donors, egg donors are more likely to sell their eggs to support their own families. Some of these egg and sperm recipients will graft new relationships onto the old ones: they’ll call the biological father an uncle, the egg donor an aunt. Some don’t know the egg donor but have an ongoing relationship with the surrogate. There are lesbian couples who’ve arranged things such that both women use the same donor and carry babies at the same time, and male partners who each give sperm so as to produce two biological children.

Of course, humans have been dispensing with inconvenient genetic truths since Jesus. But somehow, I was starting to learn, people see a child conceived through a donor as Tofurkey—a compromised version of a thing that you ought to politely treat as real. People asked me not when I was going to tell my son but if I was going to tell him—what I would do when he asked where his father was. They left no place for a story in which the father is a sperm donor and that kind of donation is a way to get here, as bona fide as anyone else’s.

The summer my son was one and a half, one of his sibling’s mothers declared that it had been long enough: it was time to meet. The four families convened at her rural home in New Hampshire (anything with horses is rural to me) for a four-day weekend—five moms, three little girls, and one boy. We had already spoken on the phone, sent birthday gifts, marked growth milestones. But watching the children screech and run by while we mothers finally spoke in person was entirely different. It felt awkward but weighty, like we had been drafted by an athletic team and were getting to know each other in preparation for a long season.

I also found that, where I had felt prickly and unwilling to share my son with an imaginary husband, I didn’t mind it with the other mothers. I left them to watch him, and they left me to watch their own children. In fact, I was thrilled when, one morning, one of the women plucked him out of his crib when I didn’t hear him crying. A half hour later, I found the mom, her daughter, and my son in another bed, snuggled and reading. I would have felt judged by my own mother in such a situation, beholden to a friend, amazed by a husband who’d done the same. Now, I simply felt relieved she had taken care of him.

Since then, we have taken a family trip every year: to swimming holes in Tennessee, Great Wolf Lodge, Mardi Gras. We’ve met each other’s parents and put our children in the same bathtub; we’ve discussed former boyfriends and talked about our childhoods. We all came to use our donor for different reasons, and I think I am the only one who hit on it as an option before leaving puberty. But the shared experience of being recipients holds meaning, for us and for our children.

Because there is absolutely no template for it, the formation of this kind of family is a fragile thing. We are all profoundly unlike one another—politically, culturally, even personality-wise. We disagree about what level of loud is normal, if you can hit back, who should clear the table, what happened after Hurricane Katrina. We judge in close contact; we object to each other’s rationales.

Of course, being different women means that our children are being raised differently, and each of us is focused on different aspects of our donor. One mother is obsessed with her daughter’s gift for sports, another with her daughter’s impressive spatial awareness, and another with her daughter’s musical talent. My son goes to a school where the pledge of allegiance is said in Spanish—the donor is Mexican and Colombian—and when I tell him to do something he’s not happy with, he says, “Callate la boca!” I’m also alert for signs of the donor’s engineering background and thrilled by my son’s nerdy interest in hurricane patterns and how filaments work.

My son and the three girls were by no means identical; some features just gently passed, like currents, into the other faces.

Some of the mothers stalk our donor online, trying to match a constellation of details to an actual, living person. We have done the same with other families found through the registry, which has grown over the years, and have kept a spreadsheet of births, genders, and states. We have gone into deep group dives on Flickr and Facebook and written to parents to see if they might want to be in touch. So far, we know of 13 kids, but there are probably more; one co-mom coincidentally met a lesbian couple at a neighborhood party who turned out to have a daughter from the same donor. She looked exactly like one of our girls, with straight black hair, the donor’s eyeline, and brown-black eyes.

In that particular case, one wife wanted to meet us, but the other didn’t. That one can simply choose to either acknowledge the sibling relationship or not is what makes this fledgling family both so miraculous and so anxiety-inducting. It’s worth noting that there are no straight couples on the registry at all, but there must be some outside of it. Are they not there because they’re threatened by the idea? Does it seem to them to violate the kind of family they are trying to have? And is this contact something parents should even decide on—or is it for our children to work out? I worry: if a family we approach can simply nix the idea that their kids and ours are siblings, what stops any of our children from dropping out at some point? Plenty of parents leave their children, but they’re not supposed to. The jury is out on letting children leave each other.

Our kids, who are all five or close to five, are approaching a time when they’ll be able to remember our times together, not just experience them. Right now, in addition to one-on-one visits, we convene for a major gathering once a year and assemble for family portraits, which live in a Shutterfly album. All of this because our children are related via a father we know only as a number.

Our family doesn’t seem compromised or cobbled together to me. It seems both singular and like every other family: mysterious, natural, dangerous, magical.

My son attracts father figures unsolicited, like the soccer coach who gifted him with a soccer ball when I mentioned in passing I was a single mom. These men—male friends of mine, the fathers of his friends—treat him like a ready recipient for the valuable techniques they have to offer. They want to teach him to ride a bike and block a shot. They look on approvingly when he brawls, show him batting stances, fling him in the air and shadowbox. They lift him to hug him and tell him to tough it out.

My son has asked about where his father is. I tell him: his father was a nice man who helped me. Lately, he has put this knowledge to work in lobbying for a baby. “Mom,” he said the other night. “Just go up to a nice man on the street and say, ‘Hey. Want to help me have a baby?’”

I imagine these questions will become more difficult over time. It’s one thing to talk to a toddler about “seeds” and “eggs”; a 12-year-old may want actual answers, and harbor actual resentments. I worry my son will feel cheated because of my choice, that he will think I was selfish to choose a father he can’t know yet. Then I worry that we will figure out who the donor is—and I’ll struggle with whether I should keep his identity a secret until my son’s 18, when the sperm bank could facilitate their meeting.

I also remember that the “nice man” might remain abstract. My son has three sisters who only have moms, as well as plenty of friends being raised mostly or solely by mothers. I grew up around heterosexual married couples; my son’s world is only partly made up of that paradigm. He was born during the Obama administration, when the son of a single mom was president. Dan Quayle’s world came to pass, without the fabric of society shredding.

Once my son hit two, I thought for months about who should show him to pee. My father? (Perhaps.) My brother? (Possibly.) An ex? (No.) YouTube? (Definitely not.) Would it be best to just wait until he figured it out? Was a penis something you figured out?

One day, my son simply hopped on our stool and peed standing up. As it turned out, my father had been showing him how to do it—partly because when he went to pee, he couldn’t leave his toddler grandson alone.

I told my married friend this, and she snorted. “I had to teach both my son and my husband how to pee without getting it all over the floor,” she explained. “Men are useless.”

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