Your Father, Your Self
Abby’s experience points to the utility of blowing one’s biological parents in order to construct an identity. On one hand, the politics of anonymous donor – assisted families do not allow women to answer these fundamental questions of identity for their children.2 Humanizing an anonymous sperm donor can only be approached by using the child’s own characteristics to sketch the man behind the sperm. On the other hand, women who become pregnant through known donors highlight this man differently, having a tangible man separate from the child to reference.
Women such as Abby and their children grapple not only with the way they see themselves but also with the way they think others see them—something theorist Charles Horton Cooley described as the “looking-glass self.” In other words, a child’s self-image is composed of many things, but principal among them are how he imagines someone else seeing him, how he imagines that other person judges him (e. g., handsome or clever), and how he feels about that imagined judgment.3 Mothers who use anonymous or known donors as fathers for their children need to help children imagine how they appear in the eyes of these fathers. In addition, the mother evaluates her route to parenthood positively, including the value of the father as having given her a gift, as we see later on. The mother decides how these traits she has identified from the father should be valued in the child (e. g., intelligence, physical appearance, talent; in the case of an anonymous donor, information she has gleaned from a paper profile). A woman who uses a biown donor also helps the child to imagine the appearance of a positive father through more concrete, personal knowledge. These fathers, the women told me, often appreciate and know the child from a distance. The absence of an actual father makes the mothers’ effort to create a looking-glass self (that is, how the child sees the father seeing himself or herself) more central to the child’s self. Therefore, in the case of both anonymous and known donors, there is an evaluation and imagination of the self that contrasts sharply with the ideal father – present family.
While “paper fathers” and known donors may periodically enter the scene, offering glimpses of how they influence children’s identities, the more enduring and impactful influence on a child’s early identity is the active relationship he or she has with his or her mother. Donor gametes are only a token of the child’s identity. Mothers, and then mothers and their children, are the ones who create stories about who those men are in order to help children pin down or concretize their self-images.4 Like all valued objects, the child’s sense of self is fragile; it needs to be constantly reaffirmed. This effort at affirmation—to-ing and fro-ing about who the father is and who the child is—also has an effect on the relationship between mother and child. Theorist Anselm Strauss put it nicely: “involvements become evolvements” that transform the mother-child relationship as together they imagine the father.5
This chapter examines fatherhood fantasies as well as various arrangements between fathers and their children. In this chapter, I argue that fathers are more ghostlike than real. I am most interested in the accounts women give to their children about paternal kinship and how those accounts arise. All families tell stories to their children ofwhere they came from as part of the fabric that bonds children to the adults with whom they are close. These early memories are accounts of the self that children love to hear repeated, akin to favorite bedtime stories. An account of the family and each member’s story is constantly in progress.
The story woven by the mother combines genetic and social identity. The importance of genetics must be considered apart from the medical perspective, particularly with regard to how much weight to give genetics in shaping lives over nurture. But from a purely social perspective, genetics is both an idea and a road map of identity. These mothers are searching for a means to “locate” their children based on the information they have. Genetics is one of the few building – blocks women have to work with as they tell their children about their fathers; for instance, stories become created from anonymous donor profiles. Even though the women are sometimes confused about the meaning and importance of genes, they use them nonetheless as a road map to instill in their children an identity that assumes two parents are essential to create (though not always to raise) a child.
This chapter focuses on the thirteen women who became pregnant through known donors and the fifteen women who used anonymous donors. They are an interesting subset of this study because they represent women who deliberately sought to give birth to children in a radical way. With one exception, they had no expectations that the men who fathered their children would become anything other than gamete donors. Even those who became pregnant through known donors wrote contracts before pregnancy specifying that these men would relinquish all rights to their biological children.6 By looking at these cases we can begin to understand the symbolic ways in which donors’ absence forms a presence within families.
In short, the child must rely on the mother’s imagination because the child cannot see herself or himself in the glass. Mother and child actively talk about the donor as together they imagine the donor as part of creating a sense of the child’s identity. I discuss this in the next sections.