Even as mothers affirm some important ties—most prominently, kinship by blood—they undermine others by separating reproduction from marriage, intercourse, and love. The intimate accounts of these women afford glimpses into how these mothers and their children experience the contested terrain over family life, namely, the power of a two-parent ideology. In part motivated by a cultural ideology that emphasizes the importance of fatherhood and marriage, these women attribute unexplained characteristics of their children to imagined fathers. But ironically, as new reproductive technologies create the possibilities of multiple types of fathers (and mothers), these women work hard to protect the boundaries between social and genetic kinship, in the belief that only one man can be a child’s dad. These women protect these boundaries in the hope that another person will come along, marry them, and adopt their children—the ultimate fantasy.^5 Adoption will then give the child a legal second parent. In the uncertain future, middle-class heterosexual women may more readily accept multiple fathers for their children, thus acknowledging genetic ties and social ties as distinct dimensions of family life. However, as children grow up they may make their own set of demands and call for anonymous donors to reveal themselves, not unlike adoptees. Children may also negotiate different relationships with known donors than the ones they currently have.
Although it may be possible to know everything there is to know about our children and ourselves genetically, medical testing cannot produce a man to touch, to hug, or to share the child’s deepest hopes and fears. The self emerges in relationship to significant others: the search to know them is deep, and as a culture we deny these children a fundamental right by allowing anonymous donors who never have to reveal themselves to these families. Perhaps the use of anonymous donors needs to be rethought in light of the data I have presented on “imagined fathers.”
As medical technology makes possible the ability to uncouple genetic and social parenthood, new forms of families will continue to emerge that challenge kinship boundaries. One of the most fundamental issues is that of self and other within the family context. In this study I find that biological, social, and sexual sources are distinct but have to be unified in some way that I have called, after Cooley, “the looking-glass self,” as mother and child imagine a father. The women’s stories show in rich detail the many nuances that anonymous and known donors must cope with in order to sustain the idea of the father for the child and for the mother. There are important distinctions between anonymous donors and known donors. In the former, the crafting of a father is an act of imagination that belies concrete description (characteristics such as smells, sounds, feelings, voice, etc.). A woman must bring to life pieces of information that she feels comfortable loving about this man and, by extension, in their child. The child becomes a looking glass, refracting an image of the man they will probably never meet (which is why contact with other offspring of the same donor becomes an important linkage).
Through deepening love for her child, the mother gradually crafts a man the child believes is a “good” father, and because the mother created this image and mother and child jointly imagine him through this image, the child’s self is positively reflected. In the case of known donors, an asymmetry exists between the mother’s knowledge and experiences of the known donor and the child’s firsthand knowledge of this same person. The mother has intimate knowledge of times shared with the donor that does not usually become the basis for the development of father-child relationships. Children’s expectations of known donors are often limited. But innovations that include these men, even in vague and unspecified ways, may have some transformative value and power within individual kinship systems. Although the child is at a distance from the father for the most part, the child sees himself or herself in the man even if he is not a father in the conventional sense.
Donors may become relevant to family life in ways the women themselves do not foresee. Both anonymous donors and known donors are deconstructed, but in different ways. Anonymous donors are fantasy men who provide their sperm without taking on any legal, moral, or social obligation to the child it creates. The deconstructed father is reconstructed by the mother-child dyad as they search to give meaning to the donor in their family. Genealogical lineage remains severed from social kinship on the paternal side, even though the mother and child wish they could meet the man who lives as a vague presence in their lives.
Known donors are also deconstructed because their social role as dad is detached from their genetic relationship to their child. In these cases, the metaphor of the photographic negative is critical: the child knows his or her genetic identity, but the man remains in shadow socially. The asymmetrical knowledge of the mother’s relationship to the man versus the child’s is striking. Her choice of a biown donor derives from a former (and often present) relationship with him, yet she remains a gatekeeper determining how and if a relationship between father and child develops. While multiple kinds of relationships exist between known donor fathers and their children, in this culture kinship boundaries are tied to particular types of acbiowledged paternity that these women and donors prefer to leave legally vague. However, as I have demonstrated, some of these women have expanded the boundaries of kinship, and their children do have relationships with their genetic fathers. Policies that guarantee sperm donor’s anonymity may change, and other mothers with biological half siblings may come forward. We have yet to label this possibility or discuss it as part of the broadening of kinship through these new family forms. This transformation of kinship terminology that rests on the relative power of gametes to unravel master narratives is “kin claiming.”36 Attempts by women to label sperm donors “bio dads” is an example of bn claiming. However, kinship that continues to be rooted in traditional marriage will preclude the possibility of expanding the ways in which donor father/child relationships develop within the United States.