What a Father Is, and Isn’t
By Jennifer Berney
My children have two mothers, two dogs, fifteen chickens, and zero fathers. That is the accurate headcount in our household.
When acquaintances are feeling bold, they sometimes ask about the father of my sons. “Do they have the same father?” they might ask in a whisper, or, “Is the father someone you know?”
My children have two mothers, two dogs, fifteen chickens, and zero fathers. That is the accurate headcount in our household. There is no father living out of state, or just out of sight, no one whom they will one day call “Dad.” Instead, they have a donor, which is a different thing entirely.
Fathers, as we all know, take countless forms. Your father might be the person who bore witness on the day you were born. He might have stayed through a long hard labor with one hand on your mother. He might have cut the cord when you came out. Or perhaps your father was banished to the waiting room, where he tapped his foot and checked his watch. Or he might not have been there at all. He might have been overseas waiting for a letter, a phone call, an email. He might have been off at the bar or away on business.
If it matters where he was, whether he was there or he wasn’t, whether he was hopeful or anxious or indifferent, he’s a father.
Your father might be the person who taught you how to ride a bike, who trailed behind you steadying the seat, who let go without saying a word and let you glide down a gentle slope. He might be the one who wiped the gravel from your skinned knee and spread a layer of bacitracin over the wound. Or he might have been the one who yelled out in annoyance every time you fell and cried. “Toughen up,” he might have said. “It’s easy.”
Maybe your father was the one who came home from the store with a box of cookies and didn’t care if they disappeared before he ate one. Or maybe he was the one who had a stash of licorice that no one was allowed to touch.
Maybe your father was a greeting card father, a #1 Dad who liked fishing and golf, who’d happily unwrap a box of cigars or a tie every year on his birthday. Or maybe your father hated sports and was hard to shop for because he only liked the things he liked, and these were not the things you gave him.
Maybe your father took over when your mother needed a break, or when she left. Maybe he was up to the task of making breakfast, wrapping presents, walking you to the park in a wagon, or maybe you just carried on as if you were alone.
Maybe your father was the only one you had. Maybe you had two. Maybe you’ve got gay dads, or step-dads or granddads who took over the role.
Our fathers leave us with internal landscapes. Even the best fathers may leave us with little ruts and gullies that mark the places we’ve been hurt. A father who leaves and never returns or a tyrannical father might leave a chasm. And then there are smooth swimmable lakes created by consistent paternal love.
We measure our fathers by how often they show up, and what they offer when they do. But an absent father and a sperm donor have little in common. We measure a donor mostly by what he offers before a child is conceived. Do the sperm swim towards the egg? Do they reach it?
And in the aftermath of conception, once a baby is born, we measure a donor by how well he honors his agreement. Perhaps he is nameless and will always be so, or perhaps he agrees to release his name and number once the child turns eighteen. Or perhaps he participates from a meaningful distance in the role of family friend or uncle. In a donor’s case this distance, this absence, is love.
If you ask my older son about his father, he will quickly correct you. “I have two moms,” he clarifies, and I note that so far he frames his family in positives; he accounts for what he has not what he’s missing.
And so I worry that it’s confusing to him when people ask me about his donor, but use the word father instead. I know what they mean of course, but if I answer without correcting them what will my son think? That he has a father after all—a potential parent who has left him? That is not the case, I want to whisper in his ear; no one has abandoned you. You have one mother who bore you, and another who welcomed you, and a donor who was generous enough to help bring you into the world, and who honored our agreement that he would be a friend and not a father.
This is why when people ask in hushed tones about my children’s father, I try to be consistent. “Oh, you mean his donor?” I answer brightly, trying to chase the shadows into light.
Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.