Birth Narratives: Crafting a Father
In most of these women’s narratives, anonymous donors have not rejected their offspring but have instead given the mothers the most awesome gift of their lives. The anonymous donor is not the “bad dad” who walked out (e. g., divorced fathers or birth fathers), but a “good man” who helped the mother and child become a family. These women recast the anonymous donor as doing something positive for them and hence for the child. The mother and child can fantasize together about the genetic father. In addition, the anonymous donor cannot disappoint the child in ways that dads often do. Creating a visual and idealized image has protective power until the child is an adolescent.
All of the children in this study who were conceived from donors knew that they had genetic fathers. Their mothers did not delete the donors from the
birth story, instead finding a way to creatively include them. How do children conceived by anonymous donors make sense of a father who is not part of their lives? While mothers attempt to explain to the child his or her origin, they also explain ties to other individuals and the meaning of kinship terminology attached to those individuals. Put differently, family life occurs through naming individuals and interacting with them. In the earliest stories of how they became a family, women use the term donor to reinforce this concept as an ordinary way to create a family. The inclusion of a donor is an imaginary leap: the child learns that someone neither she nor her mother knows helped create her. Mothers report that their children’s early questions are about kinship boundaries and formation: who’s included, who’s not, and who’s missing. But the questions are not simply an exercise in taxonomy. They are about identity and place, that is, “Who is my dad and where is he?”
Children come to understand the social implications of blood kinship from the language of their births. Melissa, whose twins were born when she was thirty – six years old and were toddlers at the time of the interview, talked of her plans to present the children with an account of their birth:
I’ve read some books and things like that [on children with donor fathers]. T mean, they’re really young and T guess I’ll just tell them the basics, which is “Your father is in California.” I think we’re all going to be telling them (because the sperm banks are in California) everybody is going to think their father is in California. Because I guess that’s what kids want to know at that young age. And then as they get older, I’ll tell them more [from the profile].
Children will learn from this explanation that a human being exists who is their father. He lives in another place but not in their house or even in their town. Early on, women author narratives of a father and connect the child to him. They follow professional advice for explaining how children are created, revealing to the child pieces of his or her birth story as requested.
Women contextualize the birth stories of their children by identifying the place and events that transpired. They explain the donor not simply as sperm (a product divorced from a person) but as a man who is located in some place or who was located through someone. A father exists who values their existence.8 For example, Nadine was under forty when she gave birth to twins. She explained to her preschool children the meaning of the word donor as she situated the actors and the action within a medical context. Embedded in her explanation was Nadine’s gentle way of connecting the children to their donor through describing the similarities that she guessed they shared.
Very recently, one of my sons has begun to ask me about a [father]—I have told them the story at other times about a doctor who helped me find a man. Now it’s sort of dovetailed with the facts-of-life discussions. And about eggs and hatching. So that mommies have eggs and fathers have seeds. So I went to a doctor who found a very nice man called a donor who gave me his seed. And that is basically how I’ve discussed it. And he said, “What’s that word, dovorV And then he said, “Will we ever meet him?” And I said, “No, I don’t think so. Mommy’s never met him.” And this was just in the last few weeks. “But he must be very smart and very handsome because look at you,” you know? That’s been it.
Although the mother may have received his seed, she transforms the donor into a man and crafts him in her son’s image. Yet without a visual image women can only guess at the characteristics of the donor they observe in their children. They piece together the written profiles with the parts of their children they imagine come from the unknown donors. Without a real image to counter the fantasy, the women conjure a wonderful man to tell their children about to buffer the child’s feelings of rejection by an unavailable genetic father. The self is fragile and requires affirmation.9 In this case, affirmation of self occurs through the mother’s socially shaped imagination about a man she has never met.
Abby, age thirty-six when her child (two years old at the time of the interview) was born, claimed that she preferred an anonymous donor to avoid potential legal hassles. But behind this legal veneer she saw the donor’s anonymity as a shield against “letting her child down.” By protecting the child from rejection, she also prevented the donor from embracing him. She fantasized with her child about the man they would never know, but the fantasy—like writing letters to Santa Claus—was unattainable.
Bryan’s father is the best thing that happened to us. He didn’t let Bryan down; he didn’t let me down, and he never will. And if it were a known donor, he can let Bryan down. I don’t have any expectations of anyone, but Bryan might. But at this point, we can both be sad that we don’t know who he is, but we both know that he’s the best thing that ever happened to us. Or at least I know that, and hopefully Bryan will know that. We can draw pictures of what we think he looks like, and we can write letters to him in case we ever know who he is, but he hasn’t let us down. Because I chose it this way. And if anything, I let Bryan down, but his father didn’t.
These comments reveal a cognitive construction of the genetic father on the part of the mother as a way to protect the child and herself from the “less-than – perfect” way she went about having a child and becoming a mother. Abby, like the majority of women who became pregnant with anonymous donors, could not find a donor in the sperm bank registry that she liked who agreed to have contact with the child at age eighteen if the child wished it. She settled for a donor she thought was a better match even though he would not accept future contact. Fewr anonymous donors give their consent to later contact with the child. Further, the broader cultural values of privacy and anonymity of donors structure the psychological price the children may pay. The child is denied full knowledge of his or her genealogical heritage and the face of the father.10