Family / Kids

What we talk about when we talk about sperm donors

ultrasoundWhen my wife Tracie and I chose to conceive our children using an anonymous sperm donor, we entered our family into sparsely documented psychological territory. At the time, the first children to participate in our sperm bank’s donor identity release program were turning eighteen years old, and as the program promises they can do, they were meeting their donors for the first time. What those eighteen-year-olds–and eventually our children–would experience we could only guess. Like many new parents, I was uncomfortable guessing, so I did my best to learn about the path my children would walk.

With this goal in mind, when our kiddos were mere bean pods, I attended a panel discussion about talking to donor-conceived children about their origins. Like many parents in the audience, I hoped to leave that panel armed with sound child development theories and scripts for future conversations. Instead, I left with lots of questions and one solid bit of advice: start talking to your kids about their origins right now. [pullquote]I hoped to leave that panel armed with sound child development theories and scripts for future conversations. Instead, I left with lots of questions and one solid bit of advice: start talking to your kids about their origins right now.[/pullquote]

So we did. Tracie and I chatted with two-year-old B-Man about this guy called a donor who helped us make him, and when then-infant K-Bird was old enough to comprehend, we made sure he heard the same news. Aside from those conversations, Tracie and I decided we’d follow the kids’ leads when it came to donor talk. And mostly, there’s been very little talk. Until yesterday.

While K-Bird, B-Man and I were on our driveway, washing our car, out of the blue, B-Man asked, “Why do we have to wait until we’re eighteen to meet our donor?”

“Good question,” I nodded, continuing to suds up the car’s flank. “Maybe because when you’re eighteen you’re considered a legal adult?”

“Yeah, but why do we have to be legal adults?” B-Man wrung his washcloth out over the hood, watching the released water split into rivulets and roll down the sparkling blue metal.

“Does that seem like a long time to wait?” I asked, guessing he wasn’t really interested in the legalities.

K-Bird jumped in, “Yeah, I mean, like, how do we know he’s not, like, Marco who came to paint our house?”

I smiled at this view into K-Bird’s mind. “I bet it feels like that, right? Like anyone could be your donor?”

My two-pack chimed in tandem, “Yeah.”

I imagined what that would be like–a question mark looming over the head of every man they pass on the street. “Well,” I said, “we do know some things about him.”

“Yeah, because East Lansing you met him.” K-Bird said.

“No,” I corrected him, “Mama and I never met him.”

“You didn’t?” B-Man asked.

“No,” I shook my head. Then I explained something I thought they’d already understood: how the donor had left his sperm at the bank, how we’d chosen him based on a profile we’d read, how when we’d picked up the sperm it had been the sperm bank staff, not the donor, whom we’d met.

“Did you even see a picture?” B-Man asked.

“No picture,” I said. “But I can tell you what I know about him.”

“Like what?” B-Man asked. K-Bird stopped polishing the wheel he’d been assigned and looked up at me.

I described all the characteristics I could remember from the donor’s profile, hoping to fill in some blanks and help them remove the question marks from at least those men who don’t fit the donor’s description.

Halfway through the list, B-Man interrupted me, signaling “conversation over” via non-sequetor, “Mom, at school today . . . ”

And that was it. I let B-Man tell his story then I asked K-Bird if he had any more questions about their donor. He didn’t. For now.

I learned a lot in yesterday’s conversation. For instance, I learned that my guys are (of course) imagining their genetic other half. I learned that they feel comfortable enough to talk about this casually, while polishing a car. I learned that these conversations don’t need to be scripted or psychologist-approved or anxiety-producing for anyone involved. They can be just like any other conversation we have about what it means to be who we are, where we are, at this point in time.

Like so many aspect of parenting, choosing to conceive via an anonymous donor is a leap of faith. We have to believe that the sperm bank will operate ethically. We have to believe that the donor provided the sperm bank with true and accurate information. We have to believe that he will make good on his promise to keep in touch with the sperm bank so when our kids turn eighteen, they’ll be able to find him.

While at times I wish I could reference a “Donor Conversations for Dummies” book to guide us through this process, I know that in the end the only people who will be able to tell Tracie and me what K-Bird and B-Man need will be K-Bird and B-Man. So we are taking yet another leap of faith, hoping we can keep our lines of communication open, so as our guys filter through their feelings about their origins, they will show us what they need, and we will rise up to help them.

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  1. Wow. Imagine telling a grownup what confuses and concerns you and have them really hear what you’re saying. Imagine if they listened to the point of understanding. B-man and K-bird are growing up in a home where it’s okay to have questions, and where they can be heard. Lucky, lucky children!

    • I agree! Everyone should listen to their kids so well, and treat them with such respect. I hope, when he starts asking, that I understand with my kid’s questions so flawlessly.

      • Thank you, Levi. A friend once shared with me that when kids ask questions about sex, it is best to make sure you know what they are asking before you answer. I find that advice works well for lots of other topics, too.

    • Hi, friend who taught me the “make sure you know what they are asking” trick! (See response to Levi.) I am a better parent for having watched you walk up ahead of me on this path.

  2. There is so much I love about your account here, Cheryl. So much to love. But maybe this most:

    “They can be just like any other conversation we have about what it means to be who we are, where we are, at this point in time.”

    Before launching out into this oceanic abyss of parenthood, the even less-charted alt-conception / alt-parental gendered kind, I worried about so much, and this was among the chief worries. I couldn’t agree more: start where we are, start today. It helps so much that you place this in the larger context of the dozens and dozens of conversations we all have with our kids about the big things that matter to them.

    • Polly, I was relieved that they were so comfortable talking about it. Their ease is what reminded me that the donor question is just one amongst so many ongoing questionings.

  3. I loved this post so much. We too had a child conceived via an anonymous donor and I love to hear stories about how parents handle that conversation with their children. Our daughter is only 1 now, so this conversation hasn’t needed to happen yet.
    Our biggest difference though, is that we went with a closed donor – our daughter will never be able to know who he is… We did this because we went with the healthiest donor we could find that we felt the biggest connection with. At that point, we weren’t set on whether we wanted a closed or open donor and in the end, settled on a closed one. While I would never say we would go back on our decision because he gave us our amazing daughter, sometimes I wonder how she will handle the fact that she will never know who he is… Like you wrote, “a question mark looming over the head of every man they pass on the street” – she may have the same experience, but that question will never be answered.
    Maybe she won’t care and it won’t be a thing to her, but maybe it will. I’m curious how other parents handled this situation. And how other children responded.

  4. This is a lovely post. Queer parents spend a lot of time telling each other that we should talk about this stuff, but actual examples of conversations are hard to come by, and this one is lovely. When our daughter was tiny, I feared these conversations, but now that we actually have them, and our kids ask such interesting things, I find I don’t mind at all. I love the glimpses into how our kids understand their family and their origins.

    • Thanks, Ezekiel. It’s true here, too, that the conversations are not at all as angsty as I feared they would be. They’re quite tender, creative, honest, and hopeful, actually.

      This is why I love VQ: because intsead of just telling each other we should talk about this stuff, we’re actually having the conversations.

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