Escalating Relationships: The Donor as Dad
Despite contractual agreements, the relationship between the known donor and the child may escalate. These known donors become “bio dads.” That is to say, fatherhood grows out of their genetic contribution to the child; being a dad, the social part of fatherhood, is an afterthought. They set out to become not dads but fathers in the shadows. The mother acts as gatekeeper, regulating the known donor’s ability to physically spend time with the child. Sometimes the man may want to be more involved but the mother does not want more involvement. Other times, agreements made between the known donor and mom-to-be before conception change once the child is born. Two of the women interviewed had been involved with the donor in the past, as what they characterized as “ambivalent lovers”; for a third woman, the donor had wanted to be the woman’s lover (he had a common-law wife) but she was gay, and the intercourse that produced the child was solely instrumental. The fourth woman became pregnant with a good friend who offered his sperm as a favor. з2 In these four cases, the genetic father was dad to the child. But while he might be emotionally and socially involved in the child’s life, he did not pay any child support. The child typically spent time with him alone. The donor’s extended family was socially involved in the child’s life as well. In effect, the role of dad was not assumed from pregnancy on but evolved over time. The women allowed this even though they might be ambivalent about shifting the original terms of the donor’s role.
The need to deal with ambiguity gives rise to innovation and new values, and in rare instances dramatic transformations can occur.33 The bio dad is conceptually interesting because he intersects with and acknowledges both the social and biological aspects of kinship that attempt to reconcile an initial gamete donation and a social relationship. The nomenclature of kinship expands. Additionally, it leaves room for the possibility that in the future the mother might marry and the child could have a second dad living permanently with him.
Sometimes the known donor’s relationship to the child changes over time, escalating in ways initially unanticipated by the mom or the donor. As powerless
as children may be, occasionally they do influence this change. Eavesdropping and observation help children to frame an understanding of their social world and the norms that govern the relationships in their worlds.34 Children absorb both factual information and the affective load attached to that information—who is kin, who is not, and whether their mothers are happy with the respective relationships. Children interpret their mothers’ affect in the context of what they already know about the structure of their social world. Those children with mothers who are vigilant boundary keepers may sense their mothers’ firmness, making it more difficult for them to negotiate time with this “special” man than it is for children whose mothers are ambivalent (and who may want more time or emotional investment from the known donor). Young children sense their mothers’ ambivalence and ask their mothers about future plans with this “uncle”: this is a way young children may facilitate further and extended contact. Even mothers who have set limits on contact know that as their children grow older they might initiate closer relationships with these men. But these men would have to be willing to participate in their children’s lives differently, abandoning the vows of limited involvement agreed to in pre – and post-conception contracts.
Although the man Heather selected as a known donor was a good friend and liked having a child in the world created by his genes, he did not want to be a parent himself. The donor’s friendship with the mother—they were, as she characterized it, “pals”—precipitated his slowly growing relationship with the child. It was the friendly part of the dad relationship that had evolved. When Heather’s daughter, Sydney, was younger and needed more physical care, the three of them would go on vacations together, looking like a “traditional” family to strangers, but at ten Sydney was old enough to take care of herself on the first solo weekend the known donor and child spent together.
He knows her. He visits. We go on vacations every year. Some kind of family vacation thing, where we look like a nuclear family. He is a close friend of mine. When she was verv little, he would sort of not know what to do with her. He was just all thumbs. But he and I were friends. We’d go on vacation, the three of us.
Aid slowly he got to know her. Aid actually this year, for the first time, he’s gonna take her for a weekend skiing without me. Aid now he’s just starting to take her by himself, now that she’s older and old enough not to be too fragile and they’re kind of buddies now.
Sydney loved to replay these weekends for her mom, and at the end of the retelling Sydney would ask, “When are we going to see Uncle Mark again? I had so much fun with him and I love him so much.” Further, even though her child and her good friend had seen each other infrequently over the years, Heather was startled by her observation that the child had grown up to be more like him than her. This cemented the importance of letting the known donor become more actively involved in Sydney’s life. Remarking on this observation, Heather was attuned to the importance of noticing the man, not just the availability of his sperm:
Now that I’ve had Sydney, now that I’ve had my daughter, she is just like a carbon copy of her father. There’s an amazing amount of things that are genetic.
She danced exactly like him. But they’d never danced together. She’s never even seen him dance. And when she started dancing, I went, “Oh my God, you dance. . .,” all the body movements were the same. There were just so many things. They furrow their brow the same. They look a lot alike. The same school issues. Just an amazing number of things are genetic. And I feel like I’m sort of a case study for what’s genetic and what isn’t. Because really for the first few years, he had very little impact on her at all. He’d visit two or three times a year. And they weren’t close.
This realization changed her views about the known donor remaining at a distance, and instead she encouraged him to become a bio dad. In effect, she saw her close friend in her daughter constantly. She could pick out his reflection and imprint. Heather knew the whole man when he became the donor, but her daughter was only just beginning to know the man whose genes she shared. The donor for this child was not a complete dad. She knew only pieces of him—the pieces her mother told her about. The mother, in contrast, shared a history with the known donor, particularly because they were old friends. This knowledge about the donor was asymmetrical. Further, the known donor masked his identity—Sydney knew him as “Uncle Mark,” a family friend who helped her mom have her. Both Heather’s and Mark’s views changed as Heather encouraged Mark to become a dad and as Sydney became older. Her genetic father, once an external figure in the child’s life, was about to become more involved. Sydney and her dad were developing an independent relationship in which Sydney could replace her mother’s memories of the man with her own experiences of him.
While Sydney and her dad may continue to grow closer, into more than pals, Annette’s friend John became her child’s dad early on. Annette had severe endometriosis, and after treatment her doctor told her that if she wanted to have a child, she should try to become pregnant soon. She told the doctor that she was not involved with anyone, and the doctor responded that her practice had many single women. At age thirty-eight, Annette became pregnant with a former lover, a relationship that had ended years before. Annette told how the donor’s feelings toward fatherhood changed:
That was a surprise because going into it, this donor was not particularly keen on the idea of fatherhood in the sense that he made the statement, “Having a child is just not part of my life plan, it’s not something that I’m yearning to do, wanting to do, have always wanted to do and ‘Oh, great, now’s the chance.’ ” It just wasn’t part of his horizon. But his motivation was because he really cared for me and he could see that this was something that I very much wanted and he wanted to help me out. So he wasn’t anticipating that he would glom on to this kid and that it would be all fulfilling and wonderful. But he didn’t anticipate that he would fall in love, kind of, that he would be so emotionally bonded. And that’s what ended up happening. He got very involved when Ben was born and just through the months and years of parenting, he’s not faded into the background.
It’s like all exciting when the kid’s first born, you know? You might sort of expect he’d be around there then. But maybe when it got kind of tough, that he might have disappeared or gotten less interested. But that didn’t happen. He just kept getting more and more interested. And at this point, there’s not any wavering about it. My son has a dad.
Annette had been skeptical that the donor’s initial enthusiasm and euphoria about the baby would last, but it did. The donor did not fade into the background as she had expected and as they had specified before conception. In fact, the first thing she did every morning when she got to work was to leave a message for John about how the child was doing. She described a weekly routine that resembles those worked out by cooperative divorced parents:
We don’t have set times. We didn’t negotiate it or go to court and sign a document. But it’s evolved to a pretty patternized kind of thing which involves one night a week that Ben stays at his house without me, and one night a week after school like on a Wednesday or something. The overnight I just said happens on a Friday, usually, sometimes Saturday. And then usually Wednesday nights (but sometimes Tuesday and sometimes Thursday) his dad will come over to our house around seven-thirty or so and spend an hour and a half, or however long it takes, to do the visiting and bath and bed routine and put Ben to bed. So that’s a time, for those couple of hours if I want to go out, I can also go out because I know that I’ve got that coverage. So that’s what we’ve evolved to.
We also spend time usually on Sundays all together, the three of us; sometimes on Saturdays too. It depends. Every weekend somebody always has something, whether it’s Ben having a birthday party, or me having something, or John has something that he’s got to do. So we’re very flexible about that. But we certainly do try to have some time in the weekend where we’re all three together, because that has become very important for John. He really—that’s what keeps him in this, is the family time. He really likes that a lot, much more than he anticipated.
Whereas the donor particularly liked the time spent as a family, Amette was much more uncertain about its meaning, seeking therapy to sort out her feelings toward John and his unexpected reemergence in her life.
I have kind of mixed feelings. In one sense I do like it that it’s a lot easier to take care of a kid when there are two adults around, I won’t deny that. The part of it that I don’t like is I feel a little bit false in that it’s like playacting, or pretending to be a family when we’re not a family. And I feel a little bit like living a falsehood there. What does the world see when they see these people going along with their kid? But I guess I’m not going to worry too much about what the world sees because if that had bothered me a lot I would have never gone this way in the first place.
The child had always gone back and forth between the two apartments. He was used to the differences in how his mom and dad lived. I asked her how her son felt, and she explained:
Well, I haven’t asked him how he feels about it. I mean, he seems to go along pretty well with the notion of “Okay, we’re going over to Daddy’s house now, and you’re going to stay at Daddy’s house tonight.” I mean, it’s a whole different scene over there; it’s a whole different house. Very differently ordered and paced. He’s got a different place to sleep there. He doesn’t sleep in his own bed at our house; he sleeps at this other bed at Daddy’s house. And there are other toys there. And his father has all these entertainments. He has a big, big, big – screen TV, so they are always renting videos. And that’s just not something that I do. I have this decrepit old TV that’s like twenty years old. T barely get color most of the time, you know? So he has different things that he does there. His father really likes to play baseball with him. And I’ll play baseball with him a little bit because I know that he loves it, but I just can’t get into it for hours and hours the way a guy can. And his father loves it. So that’s a real joy that they share. Hey, I’m all for it.
In addition to checking in by phone in the morning and evening, this dad was concerned on other levels not mentioned by other women whose children were fathered by known donors. For the most part, known donors were brief visitors who played with their children in the mother’s presence. But John was actively concerned.
And he is very—oh, how can I say this?—he tends to be a little bit hypochondriac. He’s very keyed into medical things and kind of takes a gloomier view of things than I might be inclined to otherwise. But it’s kind of a stabilizing influence. Because if I’m going to let something go by, he’s never going to let it go by. So together we make sure that Ben’s welfare is always being taken care of.
So if he notices something about Ben, he’ll always mention it to me. And he likes to get daily reports, basically.
Annette viewed her relationship with John as platonic, but he would have liked a romantic involvement with her. lie was the father of her child but not her partner. John is the best example in this study of a known donor who became a coparent. But as a result of what Annette called a “non-relationship relationship,” the boundaries were murky. Not setting boundaries and allowing the biown donor to become the child’s dad left the mother wondering how men she might meet in the future would view this situation.