Answering the Question “Who Is Your Father?”
The choice of route to motherhood is also a decision about how women, and consequently their children, will answer to society. With the question “Who is your father?” so inescapable, women and children rehearse an answer. Those women least likely to break the rules of reproduction are the most likely to have a man to point to, or at least paternal kin to present as an answer to this question. But the question of fatherhood is complicated in the United States, as genetic paternity and being a dad are usually treated as one and the same (with the exceptions created through remarriage). In other cultures studied by anthropologists, components of what American society terms fatherhood are distributed very differently. For instance, the biological father in Botswana, as in many other African countries, is not automatically the social father and, depending on circumstances, may never become one.12 In other cultures, the mother’s brother may be delegated the responsibility for the child’s upbringing, something usually within the jurisdiction of genetic fathers in the United States.13 However, that said, the coupling of genetic parenthood and social parenthood complicates the relationship between children and paternal kin (grandparents, aunts, and uncles). For example, in the case of biown donors, it is the father that is the base of the paternal kinship network, and if he is contractually excluded, so is his family. For example, Sophie, who first approached an old friend to be a known donor, was aware of the inextricable linking of the man she approached and his kin:
And then also, Jason said at one point, “What about my mother?” And IVe biown his mother since I was eleven. And I said, “Well, you blow. . .” And he said, “Well, Jack won’t have a grandmother.” So I said, “I’d kind of love it if your mom. . .” And he said, “You really have to think about that because she’ll take over.” It was very, very complicated.
As much as she adored Jason’s family, Sophie could not fathom either their involvement or their lack thereof. Other women, such as Lori-Ann, want known donors enough to eventually expand kinship to include his family, even if this was not initially a part of their agreement.
By contrast, women who chance pregnancy, particularly those who thought they could cement their relationships by having a baby, more readily accept ties
between paternal kin and the child. Regardless of the father’s social involvement with the child, in these cases he is labeled as the father and provides the connection to kin. With placement of his name on the birth certificate from the start, women are weaving themselves and their children into a web of connections. Apparent from the range of reactions toward fathers and paternal kin are the multiple layers of the question of “Who is your father?” This question of a child’s identity includes not simply the face of the father but also paternal lineage.
Known donor insemination provides a borderland for a child’s paternal identity. Known donors are providing an identity, a tangible but absent father and sometimes his kin. Like other women with known donors, Lori-Ann wanted to know her child’s father, a man to whom she ultimately could introduce her child, but she also wanted to be a sole parent without interference. She wanted intimate details of this person, such as whether he prefers preppy clothes to punk ones, is right-handed or left-handed, is a dog person or is allergic to all canines, is a couch potato or a sports enthusiast—in other words, information that a sperm bank profile alone does not reveal. Annette, who chose a former lover as a known donor at age thirty-eight, described her decision:
I decided on a known donor for my own peace of mind. I felt like it would always bother me if I weren’t able to say things to my child about who his father was.
And I saw the kind of information that the friends of mine in the single mothers’ group were getting about the donors from the sperm banks. And it was very minimalist. You know? It was like height, and weight, and maybe a little ethnic history, but nothing about temperament or personality. And I just wanted to he able to know that, to be able to tell my future child.
Using a known donor, however, guarantees one form of peace of mind but not another; this choice carries with it both legal and social risks for the mother and child. The choice to use a known donor, then, serves as a trade-off for future security surrounding the mother’s rights. Though providing security that known donors cannot, anonymous donors (and their kin) become a collection of facts— health, demographics, and test scores become stand-ins for a more substantial identity. The paper profile is proof of a father and intergenerational kin.
Children who are adopted may trace their birth parents to answer this question of identity. Those with open adoption have this more readily available as an option. However, for children who are adopted internationally, these connections are nearly impossible to make at this time. Often in these cases, it is a country that becomes a stand-in for people, an answer to the question of “Who is your father?” The history of the country is woven into the creation narrative and into the women’s story of becoming a mother. Often the circumstances that were most important in leading a woman to choose a child from a particular country, whether it is a love for that country or tragic events that disrupted birth families and created orphan children, provide a gracious exit from this line of questioning, one that places blame outside the birth family’s control (which is not to say the children themselves do not wish for more information). Thus, in these cases, the global displacement requires mothers and children to connect with a culture rather than a person.
The use of known donors versus anonymous donors and adopting children domestically versus internationally becomes about the mother balancing the importance of her imagined child’s ability to know his or her paternal identity with the mother’s need to shelter her parental rights from the reach of patriarchal family policies and law. In sum, women on the threshold figure out a passageway to motherhood that makes sense to them. Women weigh the potential for knowledge of the father against the protection of anonymity. Each choice is fraught with compromise.