Our attempt at having a second child began when our daughter, Abbie, was 4. By the time she was 6, we had started seeing a fertility specialist.
Getting pregnant the first time in 1980 hadn’t been planned, so I figured it’d be simple the second time around, especially since we were doing all the right things to make it happen.
I was wrong.
Infertility feels endless and impossible to navigate, and it eventually becomes a state of mind, a definition of one’s identity.Hello, nice to meet you. I’m the woman who keeps trying to get pregnant, who has been consumed with grief month after month after month for three years now.
Secondary infertility can be just as difficult as primary infertility because once you’ve had a child, and you know what the experience looks like and smells like and sounds like, not being able to go through it can be nothing short of devastating. You’re intimately familiar with what you can’t have (again). And besides, no one wants to hear you complain.Be grateful for the child you have. Look how lucky you are!
I kept the heartache mostly to myself. But then one day, upon a close friend’s recommendation, I decided to see a psychic.
Her small apartment was cluttered with piles of books, newspapers and laundry. A half dozen cats were slinking around the place. She said she was glad I had come, that she had some things to tell me.
The psychic told me things about myself that I had never spent much time considering; she had impressive accuracy. After a while, she paused. Her eyes settled on the space just above my head.
Ask me about anything. Past or future.
Abbie was 7. The psychic hadn’t mentioned my remarkable daughter, and neither had I, but my thoughts kept turning to her. I loved being Abbie’s mother. I constantly marveled at her curious nature, her creativity, her kindness, her smarts. She was wise beyond her years. She made me laugh. She filled me up in every possible way. That should be enough. She should be enough.
But I finally mustered the courage to ask.Will I have more children?
I uncrossed my legs and stretched them out in front of me, trying hard to keep my knees from knocking.
After an extended silence, an answer fell from the psychic’s lips. The words hung in the air for a few moments before they made their way toward me, like the slow, steady beat of a drum.
There is a boy who is trying to find his way to you. He will not come in the usual way. But he will come.
My breath caught in my throat.But he will come.
The words made me dizzy.
He was on his way.
Long before it became fodder for reality TV and movies starring the likes of Vince Vaughn, artificial insemination for heterosexual couples was usually shrouded in secrecy.
Sometimes the truth was kept from the husband. Sometimes the truth was kept from the wife. Almost always the truth was kept from the child.
This past November, just before my son turned 25, I got hooked on an MTV docu-series called “Generation Cryo.” It featured a teenage girl who was conceived by artificial insemination using donor sperm. The girl was searching for possible half-siblings and wanted to find her sperm donor, too.
When I switched off the television after the last episode, I picked up my laptop and began writing this essay; I wanted to share my story and celebrate my wonderful son.
Eddie and I had begun trying artificial insemination months before my visit to the psychic. The OB-GYN we’d been seeing finally quit subjecting me to test after test and did a quick analysis of Eddie’s sperm.
Eddie was in his 20s when he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder.
A decade of medication had taken its toll. His sperm count was low, and the sperm not particularly plentiful nor brawny. But we used them for the first few months of the procedure.
Our job was to collect Eddie’s semen in a container, then quickly deliver it to the doctor’s office. Once in the hands of the technician, the sperm was “washed” — a process that eliminated all the poor swimmers.
The Olympic contenders of the group were promptly inserted into my uterus.
At first we asked the doctor to dim the lights. We even played our favorite Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon songs on a tape player we’d brought along. It didn’t matter to me that our lovemaking had suddenly taken on a very different style. I still wanted an afterglow for a few minutes once the doctor left the room. I’d stare up at the ceiling, Eddie’s hand in mine, and we silently cheered on the sperm that were muscling their way toward my eggs.
After the third or fourth attempt, it wasn’t so romantic anymore.
The infertility doctor eventually recommended using someone else’s sperm — someone who had millions of robust swimmers.
The first recorded experience with donor insemination in America happened 130 years ago in Philadelphia when a doctor inseminated an infertile woman in a medical school experiment. The woman gave birth to a son, but the case was not reported until 25 years later, in 1909, in the Medical World journal.
Before we went any further, Eddie and I met with a social worker specializing in fertility issues. She greeted us with hugs and cups of steaming tea, her Birkenstocks clip-clopping across the hardwood floor.
The year was 1987, and adoption and fertility experts had just begun a heated debate about whether a child born of donor sperm should be informed of the true nature of his/her conception. Our young, forward-thinking social worker advised us to be open with our yet-to-be conceived child.
Our doctor disagreed. Like most fertility specialists at the time, he believed donor insemination for heterosexual couples was a secret that should be closely guarded. The doctor advised us to never tell anyone, especially our child.He will feel angry and resent you. His self-image will suffer. He may never accept Eddie as his real dad.
Eddie and I had already decided to be honest with our children. Keeping it a secret would suggest we had done something wrong — something we were ashamed of. We scheduled the appointment for our first donor insemination.
I started to pay excruciating attention to Abbie; I realized how much she looked like Eddie’s sister. It occurred to me that she was good in math and science because Eddie was. Her attention to detail, her ability to quickly solve problems, her strong sense of loyalty and ethics, her even temperament: these were traits she’d gotten from her father. When I look at my next child, I will not see even one single trace of my husband. There is a lot of sorrow that comes with infertility.
And then eventually you accept the way things are, and you take a leap of faith.
We were handed a list of available sperm samples. There were at least 50 numbers to choose from.
It was as if a waiter had handed us a menu. Beside each donor number was a column listing weight and height, hair and eye color, skin color, ancestry, education level and hobbies. OK, hmm, I think we’ll take the curly brown hair with sides of Judaism and geology. Oh, and soccer for dessert, please.
Eddie and I studied the list, and then I folded it and stuck it in my back pocket. We had some time to decide whose traits we liked best, because according to my carefully kept chart, we had a couple of weeks before ovulation.
At the doctor’s suggestion, we selected a donor who seemed to most resemble Eddie.
This is the truth: Eddie is the only man I’d ever slept with. It seemed ironic that I was going to try having a child with another man’s sperm. There had been no other men.
But now, of course, there was.
I knew him only by his alias: Number 11. Like Eddie, he was Jewish, his family was originally from Eastern Europe, he had olive skin, brown eyes and brown hair. He was virtually the same height and weight as Eddie, and he played the guitar. It wasn’t much information, but it was all we had. He was perfect.
Number 11’s sperm did the trick. After three attempts, I was pregnant.
Eddie and I suddenly found ourselves on a path that hadn’t been traveled by anyone we knew. There were no donor-insemination instruction manuals at Barnes Noble. “Googling” was just a glimmer in someone’s eye in 1988, so we couldn’t seek out blogs or websites.
As my belly swelled, we found it easy to tell some people about the way we’d gotten pregnant; we withheld the information from most, though, believing it should be our child’s call as to who should know.
That child — that boy the psychic had said was trying to find his way to me — entered our lives a few days before Abbie’s eighth birthday. We named him Jeffrey. I was happy to be his mother, but honestly, I was overcome with sadness: I did not recognize him.
I am an artist, a portrait photographer. My world is visually driven. When Abbie was born, I saw members of our families stretch out before me in her chocolate eyes, her small curved ears, the slant of her nose, the fullness of her lips and the shape of her head.
As hard as I tried, I could not figure out my newborn son. I couldn’t place him. Quite unexpectedly, everything seemed out of order and illogical.
Little about him made sense to me; in the big picture that was my life, I did not know where to put him. I was ashamed of the way I felt.
The more I looked into his face, the more I needed to know about Number 11.
Did he part his hair on the left or the right? Did he listen to jazz? Did he like to cook? How old was he when he learned to crawl, walk, talk, ride a two-wheeler? Was he allergic to bee stings?
Suddenly I realized there were too many blanks to fill in. I began to wonder if I’d made the right choice, if I’d done a disservice to my child, cheated him somehow. I found myself making a promise to my tiny son: I will find out as much as I can.
Of course, that was not an easy task. Twenty-five years ago there was no such thing as open-identity sperm donation. There was no database to search, no online registry, and there was certainly no one at the sperm bank willing to divulge anything other than what was listed on our one-page donor profile.
Despite assistance from our lawyer and pediatrician, both of whom wrote compelling letters to the director of the sperm bank seeking at the very least a more complete medical history for Number 11, we were unable to learn anything new.
I took matters into my own hands.
The sperm bank we used was near a major city. I took out an ad in all the surrounding college newspapers.Sperm donors wanted.
I was now in the business of “conducting a survey for a story I was writing,” paying $25 a pop to sperm donors who were willing to answer my questions. I figured maybe I could find Number 11 by matching up his physical characteristics (that was the first group of questions on my questionnaire) to those listed on our donor profile. It may not have been the right thing to do, but it was all I knew to do at that point.
My post office box filled up quickly. The survey I constructed was several pages long and included questions that required some soul-searching.
Why are you a sperm donor? Do you ever think about the offspring you are helping create? Would you ever want to meet them?
The answers were honest, sweet and compelling. The guys seemed like people I’d want to know. Even though none of the surveys was filled out by our particular donor, and I never met any of these donors in person, I finally felt something of a connection to him — that he, like these young men, was an actual person with real thoughts and feelings.
In each of the donors’ well-considered, hand-scrawled responses, I actually took comfort.
Shortly after this, I traveled to the colleges and universities that were best represented in my survey. I knew our donor’s major: anthropology. So I hung out in anthropology departments. I sat in on some anthropology lectures. I found myself looking into the face of every young man I passed on campus. I searched faces in the libraries and the student union. Soon, guys with medium builds, olive skin and brown eyes started to run together, like a repeating pattern on a giant jigsaw puzzle. I became exhausted.
I did not know who I was looking for.
Eventually, however, I figured it out. He’d been right under my nose the whole time.
He started walking at 8 months; he liked the crust cut off his peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He changed his name to Max when he was 5 because, frustrated that his fellow kindergartners insisted on calling him “Jeff,” he wanted a name that couldn’t be shortened.
He was a Lego-maniac, played the drums and had his ear pierced in fourth grade. He loved taking things apart and putting them back together. He rode horses. He was a loyal friend. He had puppy dog eyes and dimpled cheeks. He was good in math and science.
My son was growing into a bright, curious, funny, gregarious, confident, resourceful and charming boy.
When he was 9 or 10, Eddie and I told him the story of his conception. We were prepared for a slew of difficult questions but didn’t get them.Can I use my allowance to buy the new Lego pirate ship? Oh, and can James spend the night this weekend?
One wintry Sunday morning in November, just before Max’s 16th birthday, there was a story about sperm donation — and a sizable group of related donor offspring who had found and met one another — on the front page of the New York Times.
That was the day I learned about the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), an online resource for donor offspring, parents of donor offspring and donors themselves. As soon as I finished reading the article, I walked toward my computer. Eddie was outside shoveling snow.
One tentative click, and I was on the site. I entered the name of the sperm bank and the number of our donor. Part of me hoped Number 11 had also read the article, had walked over to his computer, taken a great, trembling breath and revealed who he was.
“Happy Mother” had apparently just put down her copy of the New York
Times and added Number 11 to the registry, sharing a donor profile that was identical to the one we had. She noted that her donor-conceived son was 12 years old, and she was looking for possible half-siblings.
I could hear the scraping of Eddie’s shovel on the sidewalk. I could hear a song by Phish drifting from Max’s bedroom. I tried to keep my hands from shaking as I began to type.Hello! I am Photo Mom.
There are lots of ways to form a family.
Over the next few days, I learned that Max has five half-siblings (there are probably more; these are just the ones who have signed up on the registry). Two were born to single-moms-by-choice, the others to married heterosexual couples.
“Happy Mother” and I began a furious email exchange on that snowy November day. We cautiously ditched our user names after a few weeks and properly introduced ourselves.
She and I had a million questions for each other. We shared the details of our sons’ babyhoods, childhoods and adolescences. I couldn’t wait to get the next missive and write her back. We were like giddy teenagers falling in love, hanging on each other’s every word and revelation.
We were amazed at the similarities in the boys’ personalities. When we finally exchanged pictures, we couldn’t believe how much they looked alike. She and I shared our deepest feelings about having used donor insemination and talked about who we had told and how.
We discussed our doubts, insecurities and fears surrounding DI. We shamelessly declared our love for our sons and didn’t hesitate to brag about them to each other. We shared stories about wonky behaviors and laughingly attributed them to Number 11.
We talked about our husbands and how all of this affected them. “Happy Mother” and I filled a space in each other’s lives that no one else could have occupied. To this day, she is one of my closest confidants; we consider each other family.
My son has met three of his half-siblings. He has formed a close relationship with one of them.
Abbie, who warmly welcomed her little brother into her life, has never considered Max anything other than a full-fledged sibling. As the years go by, their bond grows stronger.
Max and Eddie love each other as much as any father and son possibly can. They are a lot alike, and they are very different, like most kids and parents.
Max is easygoing, grounded and very comfortable with himself; he has never had any qualms about telling people he was donor-conceived. He has no interest in trying to track down and meet Number 11. He respects completely the donor’s wishes for anonymity.
Every few years I call the sperm bank. I ask them to contact Number 11 to see if he’ll update medical information and possibly share more details about himself. One time he said he would consider both but then admitted that his wife wasn’t really comfortable with that. More recently, he shared that he was healthy with two healthy kids of his own and asked to pass along a message.I wish any donor-created offspring the very best.
Sperm donors reveal much more about themselves these days. Most sperm banks offer “open” donor options, meaning the donor will provide pictures from various stages in his life, an audiotape of his voice, an essay he has written about himself and a commitment to be available for contact when any offspring turn 18. Many sperm banks also offer “staff impressions.”
We came to DI too early for that smorgasbord of options.
There is a part of me that will always wonder about Number 11. Sometimes when I look at Max and see something I can’t quite identify, I think of him.
Number 11 is still unknown to me, but I feel like I know him quite well.
During my most recent call to the sperm bank, I asked if there was anyone who might remember Number 11, and if so, could we get a “staff impression.”
One doctor who was on the roster in 1988 still works there. He said he’d look through our donor’s file and see what he could recall.
Number 11 was one of the first donors in the program.
The doctor did indeed remember him and was willing to provide a few recollections. For the first time in 25 years, I got adjectives. Number 11 was not just a bodily fluid or a page of checked boxes; he was a young man. The doctor’s description brought him to life.
Polite, easygoing, intelligent, could strike up a conversation with anyone, full head of thick brown hair, olive skin that would tan easily, communicated well.
As for Max, I found the perfect place to put him after all: right in the middle of my heart. I am grateful beyond measure that Max found his way to me, just as the psychic said he would, and mostly, that he waited for me to find my way to him.