Known Donor Fathers: Ghosts, Uncles, or Escalating Dads?
I know when we were doing the contract, you sit there and you talk about these things, but everything is so abstract and that’s kind of what this feels like. It’s so abstract; you’re talking about this being that’s not even there. And until it actually happens, you just can’t really think about what it’s really like.
But you did say that he did in fact agree that he would have a relationship with her, which sounds like that was important to you.
Well, originally, I didn’t know. Mostly, I wanted her to know who her father was and have something—I wanted some kind of history, I wanted her to know who he was. I didn’t want some anonymous person. And I don’t know what I had in mind in terms of a relationship. Even he said, like when we were talking about this contract thing, “I’d like to see her this many times,” like who knows? Neither of us really knew. We were just kind of grabbing at what seemed like it might be good.
Known donors are not simply sperm donors, as the preceding quote from Deborah makes clear. A physical man to display to her child is critical to the woman’s decision to become pregnant with a known donor. Men typically selected as donors are either old friends or former lovers for whom the mother has a special fondness. All the known donors agreed to contractual arrangements that stated that they had neither rights nor obligations to the children.
The child is told that the donor is a special man who helped Mom “make” him or her; the donor is not the child’s dad, only a family friend or the equivalent of an uncle who visits on occasion. That is, he remains an interested party but not obligated emotionally, socially, or financially. He is not a provider, a pal, or a male role model, as a dad is supposed to be.27 The relationship between a father and his child does not automatically translate into dad and son or daughter. The child knows the donor as a good friend, calling him by his first name. Known donors may spend time with the child and mother as someone special to both of them—even someone who has special feelings for the child. But the child has no fundamental ability to turn this man into a social father; adults define and set the boundaries of relationships even though children may try to exert some influence.
All the children in this study who had known donor fathers, with the exception of one family, had met their genetic fathers. The children and fathers had a range of relationships: some men had minimal contact with the children, and some were considered dads. In the former case, what is the relationship of the donor to the child? Is he simply a genetic abstraction? Although at the time of conception all the men agreed to be bystanders, a few men became dad after the birth.28 That is, the child had explicit emotional ties to the donor as a daddy, but he was not a co-parent. What makes a known donor a dad? And under what conditions will a contractual agreement escalate into a different arrangement?