The One About the Sperm

by Robin Silbergleid

In the car, climbing across the car seats to look for his favorite Jim Gill CD, my son tells me he’s going to give his Father’s Day gift to Uncle Jesse, since he doesn’t have a dad. He says it casually, as if it’s something he’s explained before. Okay, I say—before I even ask what this particular school project is— or you can give it to me, or your sister, or Grandma, or anyone else, but sure, I think Uncle Jesse would like that.

As I have explained to him in various ways from the time he was old enough to listen, he doesn’t have a dad but a donor, who generously provided the sperm (or “magical seeds”) necessary for me to have him as a single mother. I’m glad it’s not a big deal for him today; other days the situation is more complicated and emotionally fraught, like when he was about three and concocted an involved fantasy about how his father was a construction worker who lived at a blue house that you could see from my bedroom window and let him drive his excavator at work sites; after that scenario, he claimed his dad was, interchangeably, Santa Claus and Batman. He told this tale to his preschool teacher who, I think, was more upset that my Jewish son had ruined other kids’ perceptions of Santa Claus than anything about his parentage. The construction worker fantasy worried me, as it seemed so real. I kept reminding him, you know you can’t get into a car with anyone other than mom or grandma or our friend A., right?

From what I can tell, now at five and a half, my son does not have deep longing for a father–nor does his sister, who had a similar imaginary dad fantasy around that age, hers involving a plane trip to Africa (a detail borrowed, no doubt, from her readings of Curious George). For a while, as an elementary-schooler, she liked the fact that the donor was Irish (like, first generation from Ireland) but mostly she hasn’t asked any questions or even to look at the profile, though I’d be happy to give it to her. It’s been years since I’ve read it myself.

Mostly, the fact of using a sperm donor to build our family is just not a big deal in our day-to-day lives, although it’s a huge deal in terms of my gratitude. My kids wouldn’t exist without his generosity even if, I know, he was compensated financially for his donation, and I’m reminded regularly that my children aren’t my clones but have features that could only have come from the donor—my daughter’s musical ability, my son’s interest in machines, the shape of their toes. Although neither one of my children has expressed a keen interest, I think at some point it would be nice to celebrate the donor on Father’s Day, although I understand that ‘holiday’ has more to do with social role than it does biological connection.

Before I had my children, I thought in a vague way of how I would talk to them about the donor. With my son, books have been helpful in opening conversations. We particularly like the picture book What Makes a Baby; I’d recommend it for anyone who has used donor gametes, surrogacy, adoption, or, really, anyone who wants to explain family building without needing to talk about sex or gender. Because babies, as fertility patients know all too well, don’t always come from sex. They come from desire, labor, egg, sperm, and uterus.

My son knows now that he came from a special sperm and a special egg and my uterus. He also knows he was born in the hospital operating room, where, I’ve assured him, the doctor gave me a lot of medicine and sewed me back up, and I was so in love with him I didn’t really feel a thing. Because he’s five, he also asked how I got the sperm, if the donor held it in his hands and gave it to me, like a present I might open on my birthday. No, I explained, trying very hard not to laugh, it came in a small jar called a vial. (I didn’t tell him my favorite detail, that the fluid the andrologist used was pink.) I know as he grows he will continue to ask, and I’ll continue to reframe the narrative of his conception, giving him more detail each time.

I don’t know if our sperm donor is also a dad, whose family will acknowledge him on Father’s Day. I do wonder about him sometimes, and wonder if and when he thinks about the families made possible by his generosity. Because of him, a child exists who has made a hand printed card in preschool and asked about how he came to be.