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Things We Cannot Know

By Vikki Reich


When I watch her play the piano and the guitar, when I hear her singing in her room, I know some of that comes from me yet we know the donor was in a choir and I find myself wondering about the sound of his voice.


One Sunday night, I was reading in bed when my daughter skipped into the room and asked to cuddle. I put my book aside, scooted down to lie on my back, stretched out my arm and waited for her to curl into my side and put her head on my shoulder as she usually did. But she didn’t move and I turned my head to see her lying on her side facing me with her hands together and tucked under her cheek, “I want to see your pretty face,” she said, and I laughed and I turned to face her.

We stared at each other and said nothing, one of those rare moments of reverence when you take the time to really see another person. I noticed the way the light hit her dark brown hair and gave it highlights that looked like fine copper threads, the smoothness of her olive skin so different than my own, her brown eyes that seem so much warmer than my pale blue ones, and her full lips just like mine.

“Now, I’m going to tell you everything I did this weekend,” she said and began to give me the rundown, the details of which are lost to me. Then, she inched just a tiny bit closer and said, “So we can never know our donor, Mama?”

She’d spent part of the day with our friends’ daughters, who have known donors, so I knew immediately why she was thinking about this. There was no way to soften the edges of my answer so I spoke after only a beat, “No, baby. We can’t.”

She looked back at me with those dark eyes, “Well that’s a little bit sad.”

I knew I had a choice in that moment. I could ask about the sadness and try to untangle it or I could sit with the truth of her statement and, in the end, I chose simplicity.

“Yes. It is.”

But that truth is not hers alone.

When I watch her play the piano and the guitar, when I hear her singing in her room, I know some of that comes from me yet we know the donor was in a choir and I find myself wondering about the sound of his voice.

When I watch my son draw with his left hand, I wonder if the donor liked to draw too and if his hand smudged the paper just like my son’s.

When I brush my daughter’s thick hair or run my hand through my son’s, I think (and often say), “You’re so lucky you got the donor’s hair,” because it’s so clearly nothing like mine. And then I wonder what he looked like, wishing we had a picture so that I could marvel at the unexpected ways our genes combined to make these beautiful children.

But these are things we cannot know.

And then she asked another question, “Why did you pick an unknown donor?”

I wanted to say that it was complicated which is my response when I think something is too complex for the kids to understand or, less nobly, when I don’t want to take the time to explain it. But I resisted because the truth isn’t very complex at all.

We chose an unknown donor from a sperm bank in Minnesota because there were laws in place to assure that the donor could not have any contact with our children, even after they were adults. We chose the most restrictive type of donor arrangement possible and we had our reasons.

I explained that we made the decision when gay people didn’t have any protections under the law, when children could be taken away from someone simply because he or she was gay, when we weren’t sure that both of us would be legally recognized as their parents.

We did it to protect ourselves.

We made that decision 14 years ago during a very uncertain time. We didn’t know then that judges would change and second-parent adoptions would become easier. We didn’t know that we would someday be able to legally marry.

And because there were things we could not have known then, there are these things we cannot know now. We will never know more about the donor than what is contained in the few pages of that profile we received all those years ago.

I reached out and took her hand in mine and told her that I could show her what we did know about him and she said, “Okay. I don’t really need to see it. Not now.”

I have no doubt that she will someday have more questions and we will tell her everything we know but that information is finite and there will always be questions we can’t answer.

Before I got pregnant, my mother asked, “What will you tell your child about the father?” She meant to unnerve me, to put me on the defensive. But our decision to have children using an unknown donor is not something I will ever feel the need to defend. We made a choice and I have no regrets though I do have this feeling that I can’t explain—not quite sadness but more complex than curiosity. I would love to meet the donor, to watch him in the world knowing that he is partly responsible for these children that have brought such beauty and chaos into our lives.

But he is only a myth, a story we create. He is the person about whom my partner and I both say when watching our children with amusement, “He must have been a piece of work.” And yet, we will never know for sure.

Vikki Reich writes about the intersection of contemporary lesbian life and parenthood at her personal blog Up Popped A Fox and publishes VillageQ, a site that gives voice to the experience of LGBTQ parents. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner and two kids who provide the soundtrack of her life, which involves more beatboxing and improvised pop songs than she ever could have imagined.

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