The Deconstructed Father: Ghostly but Present
The known donor becomes a more complicated figure once the child is born. The mother, through her talk, can help her child navigate the challenge of the “looking-glass self.” However, when a physical person enters and leaves their lives, certain contradictions arise and have to be dealt with by the mothers. These include terms or names used for the donor father (“uncle,” “friend,” etc.), the context of the past, present, and future relationship between the mother and donor father, and the potential network of kinship. In short, all of the matters that emerge over time to create a family are mediated through the mother’s activities and wishes to include or exclude the known donor, and the donor’s wishes as well. Thus the idealized version of the father and the everyday reality of the actual man come into tension in various ways.
The known donor’s image resembles a negative of a photograph. The negative offers a glimpse of a person who is there but missing. The child knows his or her genetic identity, but the man remains in the shadow socially. Ironically, the mother knows him as a whole person (the positive print) because of a past relationship. The child still must imagine what it would be like to have a dad, even if the mother’s history and memory form the basis of talk with the child about her imagined father.
In the first account below, by Lori-Ann, the known donor had a continuous relationship with the mother and child. In the second account, Jennifer’s known donor appeared sporadically as a shadow.
Lori-Ann, featured in the opening to chapter 3, became pregnant by means of insemination with the sperm of a good friend, Bob, whose family she had known since her childhood. She thought of the known donor as an “uncle” who occupied a parallel relationship to the child as her brother, the child’s real uncle. In cases such as this, the father is more of a constant figure in the child’s life with whom some relationship can be shared. However, he too remains in the special category of part-object father. T о return to the photographic negative metaphor, the biown donor appears visible on the unprinted negative, forming an image for the child, but not as a developed self of the dad.
Lori-Ann’s son, Andrew, at age four had a relationship with his father, but not as a dad who was raising him. Lori-Ann, forty-one, explained how she gradually introduced her child to the concept of father. She knew that the questions from her child would become more difficult and would challenge her to explain why his genetic father remained only a friend and not a dad.
So they have a very particular relationship. I mean, they have a strong relationship, and Andrew thinks of him as “Pennsylvania Bob” because he lives in Pennsylvania. My brother’s name is Bob too. So my brother is Uncle Bob, so this is Pennsylvania Bob. And ever since he was a baby I’ve said, “Pennsylvania Bob is important because I wanted to have a baby and he helped me have you.”
And when he was little, that was as much as I said. So he blows that Bob has something to do with him being around.
And more recently, I had a conversation with him where I was a little more concrete about it. . . “So Bob gave me sperm and I put it with the egg and that made you.” Because we were talking about how some of him looks like me and some of him looks like Bob. But I’ve never used the word father and he hasn’t so far made that connection, although at some point I’m sure he will. He’ll figure out that what a father is is that person. But I haven’t used the word because I feel like it’s not the relationship that he has with him. That his relationship is much more like an uncle or something. And I don’t want him to have some confusing ideas about what Bob’s relationship to him should be. And I imagine at some point he’ll have questions like “Well, if Bob’s my father, then how come he doesn’t live here?” Or “Why don’t I see him more?” I’m sure that those things will come up. But I feel like it’s like he’s always brown. It’s like “This is the story: I wanted to have a kid, and Bob helped me. Bob is important.” So he knows that Bob is special in a different way than other people, that Bob has a particular bnd of role in his life. Mid I’m very fortunate because this is exactly what I wanted.
I wanted somebody who would be biown and who would be important to him but who I wouldn’t feel threatened [by] because he would suddenly want custody.
If Lori-Ann’s son wanted a deeper, more intimate relationship with his genetic father than her friend was willing to have or could give him, her son might feel cheated and angry. The future concerned her, as she felt caught between having to protect her child from being disappointed by his father and having to protect the donor, who had no obligations and a contract that freed him from fatherhood. This dilemma underscores the rationale some women give for their choice of an anonymous donor as a preferred route to motherhood. Lori-Ann’s choice of Bob as the donor for her child generated the potential for a tangled web of hurt feelings:
There’s something about the father thing—and you know, Bob and I actually haven’t talked about this much recently, but part of it is protecting Bob because he really doesn’t want to be a father. So I don’t want him to feel like Andrew sees him as something that is not what he wants to be. So I think that is all to be worked out, still. Because as he gets older, there are going to be more questions about it.
Lori-Ann wanted Bob to be the donor because she thought that his ambivalence about becoming a dad would keep him at a distance. She also believed that he would be less likely to claim paternity than another man eager for a child. Lori – Ann and Bob have yet to figure out answers to future questions. Donors have no clear place in kinship systems. But Bob agreed to known donorship, and he had a contract with Lori-Ann that specified he had no parental obligations or rights. As Deborah pointed out at the beginning of the section, however, who could predict how the child’s presence might alter the contract? For the time being, the contract between Lori-Ann and Bob remained the guide: Bob had no obligations to become a dad, and Lori-Ann was the sole parent. She hoped that if she should find a partner, that woman would become the co-parent. In this regard, Lori-Ann had no baggage of other parents to feel conflicted about or to compete for the child’s affection.
Bob came to town a few times a year to visit his mother and siblings. He always made sure to schedule a few extra days to stay with Lori-Ann and her child, just enough time for the child to know “Pennsylvania Bob.” Lori-Ann saw the distance as important for maintaining boundaries that would not allow the donor to become more involved even if he wanted a different relationship: “It does help that he doesn’t live around here, I think. I mean, I don’t know, it might be fine if he did, who knows? But it gives the relationship certain kinds of limitations, you know.”
This child also had some contact with the donor father’s relatives, who knew this child as Bob’s biological son. The relatives would have liked to be treated as “real” kin, but Lori-Ann remained ambivalent about these ties because she did not know how to name them and could not give them the same weight as ties to her kin. In such situations, the mother’s kin ties determine kinship relations; the donor’s family raises too many unanswerable questions. How can he be a friend
to his genetic child while his kin become grandparents, aunts, and cousins? Without the father these relatives exist in the abstract.
Jennifer, by contrast, believed that it was important to have special feelings about the man who fathered her child. She rejected the idea of an anonymous donor because she could not imagine herself having a child with a man she had never met. Jennifer and the donor, Sam, had been ambivalent lovers who finally decided to end their relationship but try to have a child anyway. Jennifer could convey intimate knowledge of the father to her child because they had been lovers. Jennifer explained how her feelings about her former lover made him more than a deconstructed father, which was how she saw using an anonymous donor:
It was real important for me and my issues of control to know. I know that I can tell Zoe about her father. I also love that I have feelings about him as a person.
I feel like there’s a history I can share with her about him. When he was over here the last time, I asked him to create a genealogy of his family for her, and although there really isn’t control there’s the illusion of greater control and I feel like I got good genes for her and that was very important to me. Because I feel like I wanted her to be healthy, I wanted her to be smart, I wanted some of those things that I felt I couldn’t get from a written document [from a sperm bank]. And the other very significant thing for me is that I have his support.
When Zoe was ten months old, Sam wanted Jennifer and Zoe to celebrate holidays with his new wife and his children from a previous marriage. Jennifer was ambivalent about such kin gatherings. She did not want to be drawn into circumstances that resembled the ties of divorce-linked families.29 She set limits on socializing as a way to define kin, deliberately not sustaining the social interaction necessary to establish kin ties. Sam was a deconstructed father to the child: the child had a genetic father but not a social dad. They met in a public place a few times a year so that Sam could see the child, but he was more of a stranger than anything else. While Sam would have liked more contact, Jennifer created a tightly controlled boundary around her daughter, establishing herself as a single mother and her child’s father as someone who would not be a part of her and her daughter’s future. She then was able to present her daughter to the men she dated as “daddy-less,” as she put it. These actions set the stage for finding a man who would not have to compete with another man for her child’s affections. The result was a known donor who lived in the shadows.
Did she hold tight to her strategy? A second interview, two and a half years after the first, revealed that not only was Jennifer engaged, but her future husband planned to adopt the child. As she described it, Charles, her fiance, understood that since she had deliberately left the father’s name blank on the birth certificate blank, he could freely adopt the child. Jennifer and Sam’s pre-birth contract had specified that he would not contest an adoption. However, Jennifer suspected that the reality of another man becoming the dad would hurt Sam’s feelings because an adoption would push him further away from the child. She told me in both interviews that she had “feelings for Sam as a person,” which was an “important history [she could share] with Zoe about him.”
However, Jennifer did not wish to erase the known donor from her child’s life. Beneath the physical resemblance lay a deeper psychological tie between mother and donor. She hoped he would retain “some spot” of feeling for the child, though reciprocity from the child was not likely at the time. I asked Jennifer about how she felt about the known donor when she was on the verge of getting married to another man:
I would like him not to be absent from her life. But I really don’t want him to be, which he wouldn’t be, too in there. I reallv want Charles to be her father and her daddy. But I would like Sam to have some spot for her. I really do still feel connected to him, and she looks like him and me.. . . And there are things about her that remind me of him and I want her to know that they come from him.
So I have some investment in him, but I don’t know the answers. It feels like a mess to me.
During the first interview Jennifer remarked, sounding a bit hurt, that Sam had not bought the child a birth gift. But the last time they had met he’d actually bought the child, then three years old, a few things. She noted this detail in both interviews even though I never inquired about gifts. Jennifer had never asked Sam why he suddenly bought gifts, but she explained to me, “I have no idea what possessed him to do it. He said they looked cute.” I suspected that she had never said anything to him about this because gift giving made him more like kin. Neither she nor the donor felt comfortable with this designation, even though she was hurt by the lack of presents, and so she did not pursue a deeper meaning behind a first-time gift at age three for their child. This exchange of gifts symbolized a social relationship between the participants, the meaning of which was laden with entanglements and intimacy. Yet they shared only minimal time, always in a public place.
Kin is constituted through chosen ties to biological and nonbiological individuals. 30 A social distance between fathers and dads is not uncommon in other cultures; dads who are not biological kin frequently have a more important role than biological fathers.31 But in Jennifer’s case, the social ties defined kin, clarifying the meaning of a donor. Sam, the donor, did not really have a place in the kinship system except as a shadow figure who appeared occasionally. Jennifer tried to find the language to locate the donor within a socially based kinship system, comparing him to other individuals who are important but not legally family (e. g., the fiance’s ex-wife). The donor is a past lover of the mother’s. But for Zoe, the child they jointly created, the relationship between father and child was only genetic. Jennifer made a choice to foster the social kin relationships through her husband – to-be and his kin because they would be the basis of emotional and social interactions. Her child’s genetic family remained in the shadows.
The Donor as Vague: Dad at a Distance
Known donors who live far away may be termed a dad by the mom and child even though they are not easily accessible to the child. While Jennifer’s daughter, Zoe, saw Sam, the known donor, he was never called a dad. By contrast, one woman in this study, Althea, used the term dad, not donor, when I asked about how her child’s known donor fit into their lives. Since an ocean limited the potential for contact between her child and this man, she did not worry about gatekeeping in the same way that Jennifer did. Further, both she and the known donor agreed that maybe when the child grew up and became a young man he would travel to visit and perhaps stay with his “dad” and paternal kin. The donor wanted this child to be his son—even at a distance. Althea agreed to a possible future relationship for her son with his paternal kin when she decided to try to become pregnant by her friend.
Althea knew the relationship between her child and his genetic father would never amount to anything more than sporadic contact until perhaps the child reached adulthood: “Before Josh’s father came to visit, he had pictures of him, but he hadn’t heard his voice. But we talked about Ethiopia, he knows his daddy’s a doctor there.” This child has a photograph of his genetic father, which demonstrates the father’s existence. But images are objects to fantasize about; they can generate a wish to know the person behind the photograph. The photo of a genetic father who lives far away signifies an identity, but it is unlike other photographs that allow a child to recall a lived moment (e. g., a picture of the child with Donald Duck recalls the trip to Disneyland).
When Althea’s child was three, his father visited for the first time for a week. She described the moment they met:
So he did get off the plane, he came over and gave me a big hug and I guess Josh just stood there. And then he picked up Josh and just this look on my son’s face— this big smile came out and they hugged each other, and spun around in circles.
Aid it’s been love at first sight.
Though the child’s half siblings did not know about him, his father told Josh about them, showing him pictures. Josh and his dad grew close as they played together that week. He visited Josh’s day care center and met his playmates and day care providers. His dad provided a momentary but monumental presence: 
still, I just figured that it might be a little bit easier for him to say, “My dad lives in Ethiopia, I haven’t seen him for many years,” and that’s it.
Having family in another country did alter the donor’s ability to visit his son. He acknowledged the child differently than the men presented earlier. He was called dad when Althea and Josh talked, but he was not involved in any consistent way in this child’s life at that time. However, the genetic father considered the child his son—more for his own self-image than for the child’s. That is, he knew he had a male offspring. A fading memory of a visit from a father in a photo made Josh like other children in his day care center who may have had fathers but not involved dads.