By Judith Marr
One day last week, I took a long lunch from work to drive across town, plop myself onto a table at my doctor’s office, and lie back as she planted the seed of a total stranger inside me. If I am lucky, the sperm she squirted into me with a cheesy disposable baster will corkscrew its way to an egg tumbling merrily down one of my oldy-moldy, forty-one-year-old fallopian tubes. And you know what that means.
I like my doctor, very much. Yet this is hardly what I had in mind when, as a girl, I looked forward to having children. But if I can conceive a child as a result of this odd rite, and if my body is still hospitable enough for a fertilized egg to implant itself and grow to term, I plan to bring him or her up on my own. I am not married.
When I was a child, my family always called my theoretical husband “Tungsten”–a joke name that really means the type of metal used in lightbulb filament. The name was my father’s idea of fun, and together with the notion that an ideal husband existed out there for me somewhere, it stuck in my family’s lore. My father has been dead now for twenty-two years, though, and in that time Tungsten seems to have gotten lost or waylaid on the way to whatever cosmic rendezvous we were supposed to have. Perhaps I scared him away or drove him off when he did exist in my life, but in proto-Tungsten disguise as a mere lover or boyfriend. And that’s the trick of it, you see; you can’t go about asking, “Are you Tungsten?” every time you meet a nice man or an attractive one. It’s not only because you might scare him away, but also because it’s an adolescent way to look at dating and courtship.
And sometimes I’m not even sure I want to meet him anymore, anyway. I’m fairly happily set in my persnickety ways, and I have a rich life, full of laughter and lucky friendships. Other times I really do think Tungsten got lost on the way to meet me. Because those times when I think I do see him, in the supermarket, or walking on the street, or at a bookstore, he’s wearing a wedding ring or clearly with somebody else. With Tungsten AWOL, I turn to a sperm bank. The process of picking a donor is not easy, though friends make it fun by helping me go over the odd little preliminary questionnaires that the men fill out, and that cost prospective mothers $5 apiece to read. More detailed questionnaires, in which the men answer questions about family medical history, cost $15; audio tapes, in which they answer questions from an interviewer, cost $25.
“There are so many bad, narcissistic reasons to do what I am about to do,” I write in my journal a few weeks before the insemination. “I think about some of the angry single mothers I’ve encountered. I’ve put off doing this longer than I should have, because I’ve always known that if I did it while I still felt angry at men it would not be a good thing. Still, I’m aware of some angry feelings towards men nibbling at my consciousness.” There’s a eugenic aspect to what sperm banks do–and how they advertise–that makes me very uncomfortable. Perhaps this eugenic aspect touches on unattractive prejudices of my own that I don’t want to acknowledge. I don’t, for example, want a pear-shaped man to be the father of my child. I realize that many of the women using the bank are married to men who are infertile, and that the descriptions of the donors’ coloring and such in the catalogue allow them to pick men who, superficially at least, resemble their husbands. But single or lesbian women choosing this option find themselves at an uncomfortable nexus of feminism and eugenics. A recent Washingtonian magazine article said the California Cryobank, almost half of whose customers are single women, has put together a profile of its clients’ ideal donor: He’s six feet tall with blond or brown hair, blue or green eyes, a college degree, and–yuck–dimples.
When the sperm is delivered to a doctor’s office, the little vial has a white cap if the donor is Caucasian, yellow if he’s Asian, black if he’s African American, and red if he’s American Indian. One almost has to laugh at the bracing political incorrectness of it all. Somebody told me sperm banks do this because one of them was sued when a woman who ordered sperm from a donor of the same race gave birth to a mixed-race baby after an apparent mix-up at the sperm bank.
I can imagine it might be startling–but would that mother really love the child less? Maybe she was one of the women hoping for a donor who looked like her husband. I once read of a husband who insisted on a donor who was his dead ringer, down to blood type, so that no one–not even his immediate family–would know that the child wasn’t his. I’ve also heard of single women who insist upon donors with their exact same coloring–a child that, superficially at least, will look just like them. I don’t really understand this. Aren’t they curious about the serendipity of combining their genes with someone else’s? But then, here I go, talking about creating a child as one might speak of mixing up a can of paint.
For me, the process of choosing a donor sends me smack bang into my sadness about Tungsten’s non-existence and into a lot of residual anger I have at men. I’m angry at them for behaving badly, for judging me by my looks, for not living up to my expectations, and sometimes, I’d have to admit, for just being human. At times in my life I have been so angry at men for judging women by their weight, and yet here I find myself giving importance to all the same factors I accuse men of focusing on too much. Hair color, eye color, weight.
I write in my journal: Kathleen gave me some very good advice today–“Get your ego out of the way.” We were listening to an audio tape of a prospective donor, and I said I was dismayed at his slightly pretentious, inarticulate way of speaking. He seemed like the type of person who might say “utilize” when he means “use,” or “individual” when he means “person.” By telling me to put my ego in the back seat, Kathleen helped me focus on how big-hearted the man sounds. I also realized that, though I felt like I was about to go on the ultimate blind date, one with lifetime consequences for me and for my child, it was a mistake to judge the donor by whether he was someone I might enjoy spending an evening with. Except in the most fundamental, biological sense, this process is not about finding Tungsten. It’s about finding a healthy, sound person with a family history of robust health and preferably no alcoholism, schizophrenia, diabetes, or the like. After all, I am going to love this child no matter what.
And Kathleen’s right. This donor does sound like a good man, and I think I’ll choose him. A dental student who wants to heal people, loves his parents, and wants to have a family of his own some day. Would he be open to even being contacted by a child of his conceived through the sperm bank? I liked his answer. He wasn’t sure. The bank I’m using requires that donor and recipient both consent before the bank will break the anonymity of either. It also has some very good advice to donors and recipients alike on the question of whether to do that once a child is born: Don’t decide this question now. One’s thinking on the subject could change a great deal in eighteen years. I worry about the feelings my child might have about not having a father.
What motivates a man to donate sperm? It may be snob appeal as much as money; sperm donors are an exclusive group, with most sperm banks accepting only five to ten percent of donor applicants, the Washingtonian reported. Donors must be between eighteen and forty, meet strict height and weight specifications, and be students in, or graduates of, four-year colleges. Also, their sperm sample must meet certain standards of concentration and swimming ability. Most sperm banks pay about $50 per specimen, each of which produces about seven vials of sperm–each of which then sells for about $165 to $200, not including shipping. Many banks require donors to commit to at least one donation a week for six months to a year, with a promise to abstain from sex for forty-eight hours before a donation–with some banks paying a bonus for a seventy-two-hour abstention.
My friend Melanie has taken to calling my donor “Surfer Dude.” We know from his questionnaire and audio tape that this is his passion. It’s interesting. A therapist once urged me not to assign such names to the men I met on blind dates–“The Blinking Chef” or “Mr. Glandular Condition” or “The Dreadful Accountant” (truly, a doomed relationship). Her point was that the nicknames, which I used in conversation with her or with friends, were hostile and only fed my sense of alienation from men. And yet, “Surfer Dude” sounds better than calling him by his four-digit donor number. And better than “Snake Man,” my friend Mary’s handle for another prospective donor who, according to his questionnaire, is very fond of snakes.
I’m not allowed to see my donor’s picture, but in a weird exercise, I pay for a telephone session in which I’m allowed to ask questions of a “counselor” at the sperm bank as she studies a photograph of Surfer Dude. It brings back memories of junior high school, like hearing a friend describe the cute boy she met at camp. The counselors rate the men’s looks on a scale of one to ten. Nobody, I’m told, has ever earned a ten. Surfer Dude is an eight, and I’m told his forehead “is just like Brad Pitt’s.” Hmmm. Where do I get off feeling enraged at men for focusing on appearance?
Though I ascribe far more importance to nurture than nature, I still wish I could ask the donor I’ve chosen what he means on his questionnaire when he says he’s “English.” I know he doesn’t mean that his mother or father is from England, because he names the states where they were born in his audio interview. He probably means it in the way that many Americans with English-sounding last names mean it, though I once read that many of these Americans–people with names like Jackson, Taylor, and Porter–are more accurately described as being of Scots-Irish descent. Their ancestors–and mine–came from the strife-torn border land between England and Scotland, a place where clan warfare, blood feuds, cattle rustling, and extreme violence were a way of life. Or else they came from the Ulster Plantation, a colony of such people who settled in northern Ireland in the 1600s.
Historian David Fischer describes the appearance of these immigrants upon their arrival in Philadelphia in 1717: tall men with long, weather-beaten faces, and women with full bodices, tight waists, bare legs, and scandalously short skirts. (I believe this comely stereotype lives on in more contemporary American lore in characters such as the Beverly Hillbillies’ Ellie Mae.) The sensuous appearance of the women so scandalized the fuddy-duddy Quakers, Fischer says, that they shooed them out of the city, off into western Pennsylvania and Maryland and down into western Virginia and North Carolina, and then Tennessee and Kentucky. Eventually they, or their descendants, spread west, as if a butter knife smeared their genes across the lower half of the United States. A custom of these earthy, sexy people–both in the Old World and in the American backcountry–was the abduction of brides. They were also known for their “love feasts.” On the way to one of these nighttime parties, they would deposit stashes of whiskey in little byways and glens. Then, on the long walk home, they might tryst with someone of the opposite sex–a custom that resulted in high rates of illegitimacy and prenuptial pregnancy.
Why do I care if my donor is of this stock? It brings up a nurture versus nature question that hits close to home. My child would have double-strength Scots-Irish genes, a heritage that frightens me a little. The Scots Irish, in stereotype at least, are known for being a little hard, quick to take offense, and for bearing grudges–just think of the Hatfields and McCoys. With an inherited disposition like this, I shudder to think of the toddler years, or God help me, the teen years.
Planning to conceive a child from a stranger’s sperm frozen in some strange bio-warehouse across the country may be the farthest thing there is from a love feast, even if my donor and I are both descended from such stock. Insemination is a miracle of scheduling and technology. It requires a convergence of ovulation, punctual Federal Express delivery, time off from work, and a free slot on the doctor’s schedule–and it still might not result in conception. To schedule my doctor’s appointments at the right time, I chart my morning temperatures until I can pinpoint my ovulation with confidence. It’s marked by a dip and a rise in temperature, marking my fluctuating progesterone levels. It’s essential that I know my fertility window precisely. While sperm can live up to five days inside a woman’s body, the egg is believed to live, at most, twenty-four hours–more likely, only ten to twelve. Upon this fact hinges the timing of the doctor’s appointment and the ordering of the sperm, which the sperm bank won’t allow without a shipment date in mind.
“Why not just pick a handsome guy in a bar and have a one night stand?” a married friend with children once asked me. Easy for her to say, but the answer is absolutely not. Aside from the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and the chance of taking home a wacko, it’s a lousy legacy for any offspring that might result, and a truly crummy thing to do to a man. I admit, my child might have some psychological baggage with sperm-donor paternity, but it’s possible he or she may meet Surfer Dude. What’s more, Surfer Dude has elected to do this and presumably put some thought into it, while One Night Stand Man would not have. I actually know a man who inadvertently conceived a child this way with a woman he met in a bar who told him she was on the pill. He pays child support for his daughter, who lives across the country, and yet has no real relationship with her. It’s a situation that makes him sad and angry. Even if my theoretical One Night Stand Man were never to know he’d fathered a child, I’d still think it was crummy treatment of him. With all my mixed-up, often-angry feelings towards men, even I know this.
Another friend wondered why I didn’t ask a male friend. Aside from the fact that I think this is an awful lot to ask of a man, social worker Jane Mattes, in her book Single Mothers By Choice, points out that using a sperm bank eliminates the potential for angry misunderstandings with the father about the rearing of the child. And so I make a date with my gynecologist and her syringe.
From my journal: Question: What does a (not so) well-dressed woman wear to her insemination? I’ll be naked from the waist down, of course, and in some work blouse from the waist up. But some friends are urging me to at least dress to the nines for the trip out to Dr. G’s office so as to be festive. One friend is urging me to wear some sexy red negligee or corset or something for the procedure. We saw one in the window of a sex store. I guess it’s supposed to be a whimsical idea, but it’s a little too silly, even for me. Plus, Dr. G. might get the wrong idea, or she’ll just think I’m weird. I think that to mark the occasion I will get a pedicure though, with some subtle, sophisticated pearlescent shade. That way, my toes will look festive in the stirrups. One of the nice things about attempted fertilization by a female doctor holding a plastic baster: I don’t have to worry about whether my partner will be sufficiently turned on to accomplish the task.
One of my more anxious moments comes just an hour or two before my scheduled lunchtime insemination when my doctor’s office informs me that the sperm, in its special freezer tank, has not yet arrived. I call Federal Express, and a representative, using a tracking number, tells me that because of bad weather the package has been delayed and has just been unloaded from an airplane. They cannot guarantee delivery at my doctor’s office by noon. They offer instead to bring the package to my workplace, which is more centrally located. Horrified at the thought of a big tank-sized package marked “Biological Specimen” in red arriving at the reception desk, I beg them not to do that–all in a frantic whisper, lest my workmates overhear. For one horrible moment I have a vision of our receptionist paging me over the office loudspeaker to tell me my sperm has arrived–or bringing it over to my desk, cryo-smoke pouring out of the box. When I explain in a furtive whisper what is at stake here, the Federal Express representative on the phone snaps to attention. “In that case,” she says, “if it’s something biological, we’ll guarantee its delivery at your doctor’s office by noon.” It is 11:40. At 11:55, my doctor’s office calls to tell me the package has arrived. Needless to say, I’m feeling warm and fuzzy these days towards Federal Express.
This type of scare masks my real fears: whether I’ll have a happy child, and whether I can serve up a worthwhile childhood for him or her without a father. Will the child have an identity crisis upon reaching adolescence sparked by having a sperm- donor daddy? When he or she is old enough, I will have to be honest, too, about my failure to build a relationship–unless, of course, that changes. Will I be a good mother if I am not able to overcome the fears that have doubtless held me back? And is it selfish to choose this route instead of adoption, instead of loving an already-existing child who needs it? I had slightly nutty New Age ideas of engaging in some ritual before the insemination, like flying my kite, perhaps with a little prayer for conception attached. Instead, I focus on extricating myself from a crisis at work, getting my car from the garage, and making arrangements to pick up an older friend who’s very nicely offered to accompany me to the procedure, which she’s taken to calling “the docking.” I say the Lord’s Prayer before I zip my ovulation test with the two purple strips in a baggie, check for the directions to my doctor’s office, and make sure I bring the tape of my donor answering insipid questions from the sperm bank so we can listen on the way.
I want my friend to hear him. She agrees with me that he is nice if somewhat bland. We drive down the highway, listening to Surfer Dude on my car’s audio system, though Tancy, who is rather astringent, keeps thinking of hectoring, Mike Wallace-type questions the interviewer could have asked, such as, “Why are you donating sperm?” and “How much are they paying you for it?” and (my favorite) “I notice you’re in dental school. What’s the matter? Couldn’t you get in to medical school?” Instead, we hear him answer questions about his favorite color, his favorite meal, and the like.
Afterwards, I write: Dr. G. was in fine form, competent and reassuring. She brought in this big tank that looked like something you might buy for blowing up helium balloons. She read all kinds of paperwork that came with it, and I read too–packing slips to make sure it is Surfer Dude’s sperm, stuff that she was supposed to fill out and send back to the sperm bank about the motility and quality. Then she pulled out this narrow, well, thing, in which two vials– costing almost $200 apiece–were ensconced. Tiny vials. She said she’d rather warm the vial up in her hand than in the special bath they recommend. She stuck the speculum in me, and then, with this disposable syringe, she slowly squirted a little right at the entrance to my cervix. Then scooped and re-squirted what had dribbled down. Then she had me stay supine, though I’m a little worried about this actually, because the table was slightly inclined the wrong way. There were jokes about how this would be the juncture at which to have a cigarette. When she said she had to attend to another patient, I said, “It’s always wham, bang, thank you ma’am, with you types!” and she laughed. She said my cervical fluid showed my timing was perfect (I am quite proud of myself), and that this would help my chances, which she said were at about eighteen percent. I go back tomorrow for a second go, which is recommended. It could take several days for the sperm to actually meet the egg and then for the fertilized egg to implant in my uterus. So I am in what’s called the “luteal phase.”
After the insemination, I walk around feeling almost a little moony about him–my handsome, 5’11” dental student with black hair. I suppose it’s a common reaction. I’d forgotten that he’s 230 pounds until we listened to the tape en route to the docking, and I had a moment at the entrance to the doctor’s office in which I faltered. “Gosh,” I thought. “Two hundred thirty pounds, that’s pretty big–what if it produces a baby so big I can’t pass it through my birth canal!” I got over it, though. If I am lucky enough to get pregnant, I will be what doctors call an “elderly” or “senile” prima gravida–terminology I don’t like. But then, I must be realistic, and not just because of my age. One disheartening study of heterosexual women attempting to conceive by donor insemination noted that, after the first several attempts, the women actually stopped ovulating. The authors concluded that artificial insemination is on some level a “traumatizing” event that leads to the inhibition of the very process it is trying to accomplish. Traumatizing? I find it empowering.
From my journal the next day: I went back to see Dr. G. this afternoon. She’s great, and she let me see Surfer Dude’s “guys,” as Melanie calls them, under the microscope! Electric! They looked sort of lit-up, translucent, spasmodically writhing. I don’t know if they always look electrical or “charged” or phosphorescent the way they did when I saw them because it may have been the microscope’s lighting. I worry a little about the wiggling though. Won’t it make it harder for them to stay on their little surfboards?
So, even though I never married Tungsten, maybe I will enjoy the ultimate cosmic rendezvous after all–that of a tiny surfer connecting with my egg. If it happens, I’ll always be grateful to Surfer Dude, a man I may never meet. In that regard, at least, Surfer Dude and Tungsten definitely have something in common.
Author’s Note: I noted with some interest a mild controversy when a reproductive endocrinologists’ group recently launched an “Aging Eggs” campaign aimed at making women aware of the possible consequences of putting off childbearing into their late thirties or forties. At least one feminist group criticized the campaign as alarmist. The conflict might provide the seeds for another essay.
Brain, Child (Winter 2002)
About the Author: Judith Marr did not get pregnant after several attempts and is contemplating various other options. She grew up in New York City and has lived in Hallowell, Maine; Santa Cruz, California; and Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Feckless Writers Over Easy (Feckless WOE) writing group, whose members live in Baltimore and D.C.
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