Half Adopted: The Fantasy Father
From the partial information women have about their donors we can see how they construct a notion of a whole man—the fantasy father. Instead of denying or remaining silent about him, women make him present in everyday life and conversation. Often these mothers think of their children as “half adopted,” a term used by one woman. “Half adopted” is a way to explain the traits that the mother cannot identify in her own extended family. Differences—both physical characteristics and personality—are tentatively assigned to the genetic father. As Nadine commented: “I can see more what comes from me. It’s hard for me to know what comes from him [the anonymous donor]. That’s the mystery part.” But regardless of whether they believe in environment or nurturance as the primary factors shaping their children, most women would still like to know more about the anonymous donors. Melissa explained why she would like to exchange photographs with the donor:
Their personality, I see their personality as things coming from me, and I think the other things must come from him. Some of their looks come from me, definitely; some of their looks must come from this other person. And I think that those things are important. So I think this person is important, I don’t think this person is just nobody. . . . So I would not mind exchanging pictures or things like that. … To give them a sense of genetic identity, of who this person is, and who they look like.
Before conception, Melissa believed that environment was more important than genes. But her children’s unexplained mannerisms have challenged her former beliefs. That is, the social implications of blood kinship arise as a mother notices parts of the child not recognized in herself.
Melissa’s realization is a reminder that the self is not a thing but a process that is developed, sustained, and transformed through social interaction.11 Her child’s unrecognizable gestures, personality, talents, and physical traits transform Melissa’s awareness: she must rethink how to engage characteristics of the child that come from the father’s genes. In effect, a profound revelation has occurred. The mother not only perceives the child as containing elements not from her, but also acknowledges that she must socially interact with and embrace those elements in order to affirm the child’s sense of unity of self.
Susan, who was thirty-nine when her daughter was born, described how the child’s attributes caused her to rethink how to integrate the donor into daily life as an actual person:
See, initially I didn’t talk about him much and I sort of put it off and I didn’t really want to treat him as a person but just a sperm donor. But as time went on, I began to think of him—I changed my attitude about the whole thing and began to see it more as she’s half adopted. And that she has, there is this person and he
is her biological father and she does have a father. . . and so we talked about him more as a real person. If there are certain traits I don’t have in my family, or myself, I might say, “Well maybe you get that from your father.” But, like, he was musical and played the piano, and she’s musical. And he was athletic, and she’s very coordinated. So I just kind of introduced it and then we’ve talked about him as more of a real person and his different ethnic background. . . and then also, he’s someone I can talk positively about. He is a physician. I can say he’s smart.
Susan indicated that conceptualizing her child as “half adopted” is a process of normalization for her and her child that occurred as her thinking shifted from denial to acceptance of the donor. The concept of being “half adopted” may legitimate a procedure that carries great stigma—being created using donor sperm.12 But “half adopted” may not be sociologically accurate. Susan equated her child’s anonymous donor with a birth father. But her child was not adopted. In the case of adoption, the birth father has legal standing until he gives up his legal rights. The anonymous donor never has any legal standing. Fatherhood is given meaning at conception through the social act of intercourse that does not occur when artificial insemination has taken place. The body of a father is missing from the creation of the anonymous donor child. A mother grounds the donor in what she sees in her child, using her child as a reflection of the man she has never met.
The sperm is a detached product that helped to create a baby, what clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft refers to in her 2000 article “Alternatives to the Stork” as the part-object father; it does not make the producer of the product, the donor, a dad. Put differently, these mothers may feel the absence of a parenting partner and create a fantasy father for the child, but they are not imagining that man as a parenting partner. Instead, they refuse to leave “the sperm from the vial” in limbo, preferring to construct a man from the gamete. What is the psychological status of the father when the father is only a sperm? It is difficult to imagine that the child is an offspring of a mother and a sperm. Because this situation is psychologically problematic, Susan borrowed adoption terminology to give meaning to her child’s genetic (not birth) father.
The use of adoption terminology allows mother and child to discuss the meaning and implication of genetic heritage and how “pieces” of the child are unexplained and might come from someone else. Children learn to internalize the biological inheritances assigned to them, even if they are fictive. Further, adoption scholars have argued that the search for birth parents by adopted children is a search to establish their genetic heritage and solidify their physical self; that is, the physical traits that they share with other family members are affirmed on meeting genetic kin.1 з
Searching for birth mothers and the relief and realizations that result from such reunions is an important theme in the open adoption literature. Maternal knowledge seems to provide the missing genetic heritage necessary for self-unity. Adopted children find themselves reflected in their biological mothers, and this
seems to satisfy the self. In contrast, the children of anonymous donors live with their genetic mothers, whose physical presence echoes in their sense of self. This is not to suggest that birth fathers are not essential. I am only noting that there is an absence of information about birth fathers and how they might contribute to the self of a child created through anonymous donor insemination in ways that might be different from how finding the birth mother operates for adopted children. Certainly these mothers of anonymous donor children sketch fathers based upon profiles that list height, build, eye color, hair color, skin tone, and in some cases other pieces of information about bodily features.
Perhaps more important, the mother and child together consciously help the child see themselves as the offspring of two parents, thus recognizing the father as blood kin, if only in their imagination. In this regard, “half adopted” also represents the idea that the sperm is not simply a deconstructed part of a man but is connected to a human being. Therefore, the pieces that the mother regards as unbiown become clues to the human being that the mother and child are trying to put together. This process is similar to solving a puzzle without an accompanying picture to guide what the completed puzzle looks like. Putting these clues together provides a way for the child to visualize and identify with the self as an object and the father as an object. By giving an object—in this case, the father—a name, mothers help children figure out how to relate to it and what to expect from it. r4 Of course, a certain mystery remains. In addition, since donors have no place in the nomenclature of the family, their reality is entirely contingent on this talk between mother and child.
Mothers carefully store, as though they are cherished mementos, secondhand information and passing comments given to them by various medical personnel who actually met the anonymous donor. The mementos are eventually passed from mother to child. These clues indicative of a man not only become central pieces but are inflated and conflated as the man. Susan continued: “The receptionist in the doctor’s office said he was incredibly handsome, drop-dead handsome. So he’s handsome, I can describe what he looked like physically, some of his hobbies, things like that.”
Even though Susan’s child’s father was not an anonymous “yes” donor (a man who has agreed to contact with the child when the child is eighteen years old), she and her daughter talked about half siblings and what they would say if they could meet him: “The likelihood [is] that he’s a lot younger than I am. And so by the time he went off and got married and had kids, they will probably be a lot younger than she is. But I’ve talked to her about the possibility that she might someday meet him and that he might have—there might be a whole extended family, half siblings.”15
These imaginary conversations reinforce the child’s bond to a biological family that extends beyond the mother-child dyad. Susan recounted the fantasy conversation she had with her nine-year-old daughter about what each would say if they could meet the anonymous donor.
One time she was saying she thought she would like to meet him sometime, and I said, “Why?” And she said, “I’d like to see what he looks like and if he’s nice and if he likes me and things like that.” And I said, “Yeah, me too.” So we got into this great conversation and I said, “I’d like to meet him too.” And she said, “Oh, why? What would you say?” And I said, “I would hug him and kiss him and tell him how much I loved him and how wonderful he was to give me a wonderful daughter and how grateful I was and how I just love this man to pieces even. If I ever met him, I would just thank him and thank him.” So she was beaming by the end of the conversation because it made her feel good about him and herself.
Paradoxically, children learn that although men helped to create them, the men remain unavailable to them—even a photograph is lacking. The notion of a father whose presence is felt continuously and may be incorporated into conversations is still more ghostlike than real. They are asked to accept on faith that they have genetic fathers who gave their mothers the most important gift of their lives, but these men do not wish to meet them.
Alother and child cannot help noticing that the genes of an anonymous man have left unanswered questions in their lives. These stories of unknown donors point to the continued importance of blood ties. Mothers believe that their children want the acknowledgment that all children desire: they are loved not only by the people who raise them but also by the men who provided the gametes. Having a social dad might mitigate this importance. Yet grown children whose parents used donor sperm and kept it a secret, as the medical profession once advised, often had haunted childhoods. They felt that they did not belong to the families in which they were raised.16
When a child starts to ask questions the mother cannot answer accurately, the mother sometimes returns to the sperm bank to ask that the donor be contacted, despite knowing when she became pregnant that she would never have access to the identity of the genetic father. Since the majority of women in this study had children who were young (under age six) at the time of the interviews, they had not yet actively lobbied the banks for more information. Older children, mothers report, want more information about their genetic fathers than donor profiles give. The women and their children find the present donor system problematic for this reason. However, bureaucratic control over which pieces of information women can receive in personal and genetic profiles means that they will get, at best, only clues to a genetic father. The profile is static. Updates on medical histories do not exist. Personal information is limited to hobbies, interests, physical traits, and any additional comments the anonymous donor might want to add. Sperm banks are private and self-regulating, and the information a woman receives varies. Susan attempted to relieve the pain of being unable to answer her child’s questions by creating a human being for both herself and her daughter. Abby, Susan, Nadine, and Melissa may never know if attributing to the genetic fathers the traits and abilities that they could not find on the maternal side was simply a jointly constructed fiction that they and their children created.