What Are Men to the Making of Mothers?
As Sophie, thirty-nine years old with a one-year-old, humorously points out, sperm is easy to come by:
While I was thinking about donors, a friend of mine said, quoting from the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” because I was thinking, “Where am I going to go?” And she said, “You know, it’s just amazing. I look around and I think, there’s sperm, sperm, everywhere, and nary a drop to put in Sophie’s vagina.”
However, securing sperm for the purposes of single motherhood involves evading the patriarchal reach. Patriarchy is a broader system of rights and power, often reflected in the law but also part of the cultural fabric, that governs both men and women. Choosing a route to motherhood requires maneuvering around these regulations and the weighty cultural expectations surrounding reproduction. As Lori-Ann describes in her story, all routes to motherhood involve extensive negotiation and are beset with many threats to the centrality of the mother-child relationship.
Deeply embedded in these customs of reproduction that govern women’s behavior is a cherished bond between intimacy and intercourse, both essential ingredients in the ideal.6 Intercourse’s unchallenged dominance as a method of conception for the majority of the twentieth century meant that it was impossible to avoid the physical involvement of men in the making of children. However, when it comes to men’s involvement in their becoming mothers, today women face an array of options, some of which were once reserved for heterosexual couples only, such as the use of donor sperm and adoption. Their decisions are as much about how they will become mothers and the story they will tell their children as how far they are willing to stray from the normative path involving intimacy and sexual intercourse. For some women, in particular those who have no other option but to adopt because of their age, the decision is made for them. But even a choice to put off motherhood until it is no longer physically possible is a de facto decision that some women may have unconsciously made. Defying the traditional story of sex, reproduction, and birth—what I term the “reproduction narrative”—is a daunting task, and women vary in their willingness to undertake it.
Women who are gay have already dealt with the task of rethinking the reproductive narrative in the formation of their sexual identity. Part of their understanding of romantic relationships means accepting that they will not be able to create a baby with their partner’s gametes. Likewise, there is no confusion about sexual intimacy creating a baby, as it is simply not biologically possible. Therefore, gay women do not hold on to this reproductive narrative in the same way as their heterosexual peers. These women have already reevaluated their relationship to traditional reproduction in the course of coming to terms with their sexuality. While once this reckoning might have been concluded with an either-or scenario, presenting motherhood and lesbian identity as mutually exclusive, younger generations of gay women do not feel that children are out of reach because of their sexuality. As a result of contemplating alternative families (with a partner of the same sex in mind), these women are aware of different routes to motherhood in ways that heterosexual women in this study are not."
In contrast to Sophie, whose entertaining outlook on sperm opens this section, Elyce had been contemplating where to find sperm since she was in college. At that time, ten years earlier, she had teasingly extracted a commitment from a college chum that he would be a known donor for her child.
I came out as a lesbian when I was early in college—I fell deeply in love with a
woman—and so I knew I would he needing a donor if this was going to happen.
Jade’s father is a friend from college, so I had already started asking him when we
were twenty, “Will you be the donor?”
Having already broken with the societal norms when they came out, gay women such as Elyce have already rejected a man as essential to family life. However, this does not mean that they exclude men completely—as Lori-Ann notes at the start of this chapter, men are the source of gametes. Perhaps more important, many gay women include men as friends of the family and, in one case, even a coparent, though never as a part of a romantically linked parental unit.
Women who intentionally chance pregnancy take the most conservative path, one that maintains the intimacy narrative of two people creating a “love child.” Either by refusing to use birth control or by playing Russian roulette through lax use of contraception, women are able to take a chance for the child they want, comforted that the story of the child’s beginning would always include the face of the father. Though the men in these stories vary from the steady boyfriend to the casual vacation passion, about mo-thirds of the women who chanced pregnancy informed the men that they were doing so. Others had various mishaps with birth control.
For these women who chanced pregnancy, another choice lay in their decision to keep their child and go it alone. Put differently, intercourse was a technical method for becoming pregnant that was easier than artificial insemination, a process that involves arranging semen deliveries and scheduling appointments at fertility clinics. It is the time between conception and birth, when they make the choice to become mothers to these particular children, that these women’s agency is most salient, as seen in the story of Rosalie, who held firm even after her boyfriend, Javier, left her.
As they imagine being a mother, these women seek the outward appearance of the couple in love having a child, or the intimacy narrative. Hoping that the men who impregnated them will be dads, they settle for a father with a face. While these women could be viewed as having been left in the lurch, jilted by men, even this interpretation of their stories belies a larger narrative of men and male power in reproduction. This particular narrative tells of men’s entitlement to parenthood: that they can stay or leave, being a dad only if they want to. Thus the story of the woman left with a child is one that serves a larger male-focused narrative, inserting men into family only if they choose it. The story line disguises women’s agency in choosing motherhood, giving the illusion of men’s control over families. This misdirection, while not an intentional manipulation, in effect keeps such women’s bid for solo motherhood below the radar in a way that other routes to motherhood do not.
The desire to disguise their own agency is also articulated by women who use donor-assisted routes to pregnancy. Women who inseminate told me that they often prefer to let the assumptions made by strangers and acquaintances stand. A story of a man who left, not willing to shoulder fatherhood responsibilities, is preferred to that of a woman who creates a calculated child. These women’s desire to “pass” is a testament to just how threatening their real story is to the cultural constructs of motherhood. To use a donor is to sever intercourse from reproduction, replacing the entire man with solely his gametes.8 Anonymous donors become the extreme—the physical presence of a man is replaced by a paper profile, dispersing any illusion that the whole man is attached to mother. This route circumvents any claim men could make on women, and the resulting children are a strong statement of women’s agency. Even the women who choose known donors usually elect artificial insemination, separating themselves and their resulting child from the men. Insemination clarifies the known donor’s relationship to women and children. Women use the intentional avoidance of physical contact as a barrier to these men’s future involvement. Unlike the women who chance pregnancy, women who become pregnant through donor assistance break the entanglement of an intimacy narrative and reproduction.