This is a common circumstance in today’s morally complicated world, but in my case, I was never a single mom and for the past 16 years have been happily married to Larry Wahl. Our son and daughter were the result of Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), which is a simple process involving the injection of a concentrated dose of sperm directly into the uterus.
CHASING AFTER MR. GOOD GENES
The biological father of our children is an anonymous donor whom we only know as Donor 1476. Strict rules of donor anonymity prevent me from learning 1476’s actual identity. However, before choosing him to father our children, we learned everything about his physical characteristics including such things as height, weight, body-type, hair coloring, etcetera. We were able to retrieve details about the donor through his online profile uncovering such important collateral facts as that he had no dyslexia or allergies, he had living grandparents, and was captain of his rugby team. Further precautions are taken by the clinic including testing for AIDS and other diseases.
Larry and I were careful to choose the best possible genetic material for our babies — for example, rejecting one possible donor because of the shape of his earlobes. Some people scoff at this kind of sorting and sifting, dismissing it as, “yuppie eugenics,” but who wouldn’t take these kinds of precautions given the ability to do so?
While considering 1476 as the donor, we got copies of his pertinent medical information and a personal essay recorded on an audio CD. Of course, I wished to learn some of the more personal details of this individual who would father our children. Fortunately, sperm banks have begun to permit “staff impressions,” which include gossipy sorts of notes about client donors. A counselor at the clinic described Donor 1476 as “tall and muscular” with “sort of a baby face.” The counselor further noted that he is “a nice guy,” and one who “…always seems to be in a fairly good mood.” Years after we made the choice, I saw a picture that showed Donor 1476 as a child. He looked very much like our son.
To preserve anonymity, the staff at the clinic would not show us the donor’s adult picture. One staff member, however, said that he looked like Ian Ziering, the buff and blond Steve Sanders character from the old 90210 TV shows and one of the celebrity dancers from Dancing With The Stars. If Donor 1476 looks anything like hunky Ian, then I imagined we had the father’s side of the pulchritude part of my kids’ genetic legacy covered.
I wish I knew more about Donor 1476 so I could share details about his life with my kids because I imagine that someday my children will be curious about their biological parent. They will probably wonder about his motivation and will, perhaps, make up little scenarios to explain his act of donation. Perhaps they will imagine that he did it for the money. He was in school, so maybe needed the cash to help with college expenses. One positive fantasy that our children could have about Donor 1476 — and one that I might reinforce in subtle ways — is that he was just a good person who wanted to help people have children. Perhaps his donation was a small sacrifice that he made, in giving a part of himself away so that barren couples, like us, could become parents.
I joined with a number of my sister-moms in a Yahoo Group. Some of them were very interested in trying to figure out the identity of Donor 1476 and set off on investigations to learn the truth, fortunately to no avail. It is particularly important for these donors to preserve their anonymity in light of the fact that they will potentially end up fathering an auditorium full of kids. My dad is into family trees and enjoys displaying the genetic roots of family members. His grandchildren’s 160 half siblings confront him with an enormous sideways element impossible to show on a standard genealogical chart. If 1476 had the slightest interest in assuming a fatherly role to all the children that have come about as a result of his sperm donations, that would be a lot of Christmas gifts to pick out, recitals to show up for, and a lot of little league games to attend. Of course, he has no such desire. The whole point of the process, in fact, is that even though Donor 1476 may have fathered these kids, they are not his children.
OPENED DOORWAY TO PARENTHOOD
Assisted reproduction is a technology whose time has come. For example, there are 63 fertilization clinics in California, four of them in San Francisco. The world is beginning to wake up to this emerging reproductive technology that affords the gift of parenthood to an increasingly diverse population. Details of the assisted reproduction revolution were captured in a book called Everything Conceivable: How the Science of Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Our World. The 2011 award winning documentary, Donor Unknown, also represented a step forward in confronting and exploring some of the underlying issues by putting them in the context of real people and revealing them through heart-moving stories. A few years ago, an episode of 60 Minutes did a piece on Assisted Reproduction during which they interviewed five Denver teenagers who are half siblings and who had found each other via the Donor Sibling Registry.
HELPING OUR KIDS COME TO TERMS WITH THEIR NONTRADITIONAL HERITAGE
After giving birth to our two children, I found myself in a somewhat strange situation that other people — some of them dear friends — called “weird.” They wondered how I could have gotten myself into the situation of having given birth to children who were not related to my husband. “Achieving motherhood” is an answer so obvious it is scarcely worth voicing. Assisted reproduction offered both Larry and me the gift of parenthood — complete with all the trials, tribulations, rewards, and payoffs of birth and child rearing, beginning with the very first moments of conception.
Nevertheless, we soon came to realize that assisted reproduction had drawn me into a murky world of familial relationships that not only lacked clearly defined social definitions, but that would have been unimaginable only a couple decades ago. I could have no social contact with my children’s biological parent — nor would I ever actually desire such a thing — but what about those 160 half siblings? What about the mothers of those children — a relationship that I began to think of as sister-mothers?
The most obvious response to these irregular relationships would be to simply ignore them and especially to attempt to keep the matter of our children’s biological origins a family secret. We ended up rejecting that, however. For one thing, I have always believed that, to the extent possible, we should live in the real world, and I sometimes get into trouble by not ignoring uncomfortable realities that the people around me seem to deliberately room!” is not the announcement that everyone around me wants to hear.
Furthermore, assisted reproduction creates issues that make transparency essential. For one thing, perfect honesty would eventually be required in order to avoid the admittedly remote possibility of one of the children entering into a relationship with someone who might be their half-sibling or even a half-first-cousin.
Keeping Donor 1476 a permanent secret from the children would be a hopeless fantasy given the access that we have to information, especially through such emerging sciences as Genetic Genealogy. Even now, anyone can send in a cheek swab and for less than $200 learn the answers to such questions as who his/her ancestors are, where they came from, how the individual is related to other people with the same last name, and see the family branches. DNA can be used to trace the lineage of every human being back to a common ancestor, called Adam, who lived in Africa more than 50,000 years ago.
Besides that, who knows how much more simple, elegant, and comprehensive the process of tracing family lines will be by the time they are teenagers? What would happen if we kept their paternal origins a secret and then our kids sent a cheek swab to a lab and discovered that they are not related to their father and that they have hundreds of half siblings about their same age?
Part of my desire to live in the real world means, for example, anticipating and embracing the fact that when the kids are teenagers there will be times when they will hate Larry and me. That’s just normal! However, we are guarding both them and ourselves from the horrible fallout that might occur if they would learn, as teenagers or even 20-somethings, that half of their genetic heritage had come from some faceless individual that neither they nor even their parents had ever met. The psychic trauma might only be increased if they then learned the collateral truth that they had innumerable half brothers and sisters about whom they knew nothing. The rude awakening might result in an identity crisis from which they might never recover.
I’ve come to believe that any climate of secrecy is destructive to families. “You are only as sick as your secrets,” someone said. I am determined to bring our nontraditional realities into the sunshine and to live in the world as it actually is. I refuse to attempt to keep as a secret something that, after all, I believe has nothing shameful attached to it.
Because of these considerations, my children began to learn the truth about their conception from the beginning. Almost as soon as we could talk about such a thing, we began to imprint them with the understanding that even though they were not related by blood to Larry, he was certainly their real dad. We undertook disclosure as a series of steps; giving the whole story in a sequence of incremental revelations.
A woman named Wendy Kramer started a website called www.donorsiblingregistry.com that enabled nontraditional families to reach out to other people in their donor group. In the summer of 2012, we mounted a cross-country trip that provided our children exposure to a handful of other progeny of Donor 1476. The trip was full of surprises and revelations.
Larry feels none of the resentment at not seeing family traits from his side reflected in the children that a less centered or insecure man would have. He merely said he was grateful for the ability that Donor 1476 gave him to experience fatherhood. “If we hadn’t used a sperm donor, I wouldn’t be a father.” Then he said one of the great lines that makes him such a loveable human being. “I’m just glad that I have kids!”
Our story became part of a book, Scattered Seeds, written by Jacqueline Maroz that is scheduled to be published next fall. Check it out.