I am about to buy sperm.
I've spent the past four hours sitting in front of the computer in our spare bedroom, poring over an online catalog of sperm donors. There are several sperm catalogs on the Internet -- a virtual mall of reproduction for the discerning shopper. In one, I click on donor No. 4356 and read that he is outgoing, friendly and athletic, but his family has a history of cancer. Donor No. T98, from another catalog, was raised Lutheran and is now agnostic. His mother has high blood pressure; his uncle had a stroke. Donor No. 574 is a 6-foot college student with blond hair and hay fever who likes to work on cars, enjoys jazz, and wants to travel to Nepal. Which one of these could be the father of my child?
I stare at the screen, wondering what the donors might look like, whether or not I would like them. Red flags wave wildly: Don't take anyone who says he likes to laugh at his own jokes. Avoid donors described by the intake worker as "unique." Are these the rules straight women use when deciding whether to accept a blind date?
I am trying to imagine what is essentially unimaginable: what a baby will be like before it is even conceived. I try to forecast which of my own traits I'd choose to contribute to the genetic roulette. Ideally, I'd like to give a child a sense of fun, a love of words and a fast metabolism. I want to find a donor who can be a genetic proxy for my partner, Jane. I want this anonymous man to transmit the qualities she would give if we could make a baby together. I look for intelligence: She is a university administrator with a Ph.D. who enjoys reading biographies of Cicero. I look for someone nurturing, to match Jane's strong maternal bent and fondness for small animals. Jane's a singer; I look for someone musical. At last, I find a donor who has a doctorate, sings in a choir, and -- the clincher -- is a cat lover. That's my boy, my lesbian stand-in.
I have already pre-registered with the sperm bank, signing on the dotted line to confirm my understanding that the donor is now and shall remain anonymous, that I cannot sue if any resulting offspring turn out to have genetically transmitted diseases, and that the bank cannot promise that I will get pregnant. I have heard of women who buy 12 or 15 vials of their chosen donor's sperm, hoarding as much of it as they can get. But at $195 each -- which, according to the online catalogs, seems to be the going rate for sperm -- I decide to buy two and hope that I get pregnant quickly.
I call the sperm bank, Visa in hand.
"He's gone," the woman on the other end of the line says. Gone? My guy is out of stock. I feel as if I've been stood up. I am sent back to the catalog to pick another.
It's a bizarre roll of the dice, this business of shopping for sperm. I am picking genes based on a paragraph of personal description and a short family medical history. I realize it is unlikely, and perhaps undesirable, that I will ever meet the donor. I realize he might be unhappy if he knew that his sperm had gone to a lesbian. But on some level I need to have a sense of who he is. The sperm is just the genetic key that I need to unlock my egg, but within this anonymous donor's intertwined ribbons of DNA are generations of love and hate and history that I will never know, and I would like to be able to offer a child something more than a catalog number.
Finally I find another donor who seems to fill the bill. He comes from the same mishmash of European heritage as Jane, has completed a master's degree, and has parents who are both university professors. He's a practicing Christian, which could mean anything, so I choose to assume that he's not a fundamentalist. I order two vials and pay the additional $50 to have the sperm delivered in their casks of liquid nitrogen to the doctor's office. Now, I wait for my egg.
Three weeks later, after confirming with the help of an ovulation predictor kit that my egg is about to roll down one of my fallopian tubes, I am at the clinic. The sperm I selected has passed muster with the nurse who checked a couple of droplets under the microscope to make sure that it emerged from its deep freeze without compromised motility. I am lying in the exam room waiting to be impregnated with the sperm of a complete stranger by a perky woman whom I just met. Jane and I could have done this at home, but we know that I am more likely to get pregnant if the sperm is deposited as close as possible to the egg. The nurse can get the sperm all the way into the uterus, whereas a do-it-yourself job would only get it into the vagina, leaving the sperm with much more work to do on their own.
The procedure goes something like this: Lie on the table with my feet in the stirrups while the nurse inserts a catheter into the cervix. Lie there some more while she tries another catheter because the first one couldn't find the opening to the uterus. Lie there some more while she tries a second speculum in case the first one was blocking the entrance. Lie there some more and think about how it feels remarkably like having a pair of garden trowels stuck inside me. Lie there some more while she tries catheter No. 3. Keep lying there while she goes to get backup. Shirley, a much older and more experienced nurse, comes into the room.
"We're having some trouble, are we?" Shirley says. She takes over and within a few seconds announces the mission accomplished. "Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?" she asks. I open my mouth to answer, but nothing comes out. My god, a baby.
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How do you decide to have a child? Jane and I spent years discussing it: Should we, shouldn't we, should we, shouldn't we. We took a "Maybe Baby" class in our Minnesota town specifically designed for lesbians and were shocked to discover that we were the only ones, out of a group of some 40 women, who fell into the "maybe" category. Everyone else was actively planning to have a child; some were already babymaking.
We've talked to friends with infants, friends with toddlers, friends with adolescents. They tell us about the wonders of raising a child and how sometimes they just want to flush the kid. We got stuck in a six-month stalemate after one couple we knew had twins and decided to use the attachment model of parenting, which included "baby wearing" -- holding the child as close as possible to the parent's body for as much time as possible over as many months as possible -- and "co-sleeping," where everyone sleeps together to promote a sense of security and closeness.
"No," Jane said after visiting them. "Just no."
Because we believe that it is virtually impossible to overthink a decision, we created our own structure for methodically considering the pros and cons of parenthood -- we held retreats for ourselves, complete with homemade agendas and banana muffins. At our half-day sessions, Jane and I sat on the couch and compared our answers to open-ended questions that we made up, such as: "The things I like about having a child are ... play, tradition, we have a lot to offer, love." "Things that scare me about having a child are ... will I like it? What if I'm a terrible mother? Do I have to drive a minivan?" And "I think my partner wants ... to have children in her life in some fashion, to avoid becoming fertility-crazed, to have this decision made in an easier way."
Friends have repeatedly accused Jane and me of not being spontaneous, and it is undeniable that we do not make decisions quickly. But to parent or not to parent is a massive decision. We sidled up to it, gently trying on the idea. Over the years, the conversation has veered from the general to the specific and back again, bouncing from happy fantasies about life with baby to fears about finances and careers and the thousands of things we don't know. We have repeatedly tried to set the issue aside for a while, but it is as sticky as sap. Should we have a child?
Other people tell us that we would be good parents, but this has not made our decision any simpler. We suspect that they think we are good parenting material because we are -- well, boring. We have been married, effectively if not officially, for a decade and a half. We are so monogamous that we even have a hard time identifying celebrities who we think are sexy. Helen Hunt made my list for a while until I discovered that my father also had a thing for her, which doused my crush in icy water. Jane's ideal evening is snuggling down on the couch with two cats and three or four books on her lap while "Songs of the Auvergne" plays on the stereo. Meanwhile, I settle in on the other end of the sofa, sip my vanilla tea, and do some cross-stitch. For excitement we play Scrabble.
We had dinner recently with friends who are the mothers of a toddler. "It was pretty easy for us to adjust to parenthood," one of them said, "because we never did much of anything before." Like us, they seldom went out dancing or partying. A big Saturday evening was having a few friends over for dinner. If this kind of lifestyle lends itself to good parenting, maybe we are ready after all.
Jane and I have searched for a reasoned answer about parenthood, or even an instinctive one, and have come up empty. We could choose this path ... or we could choose that one. We have analyzed and thought and discussed and considered. We have looked around at the people we know, who include happy parents and miserable parents, fulfilled childless couples, and people who have replaced children with disturbingly close relationships with their pets. There is no right answer.
One night, over dinner with friends, we discuss our extended decision-making process. "Why don't you just pick a date and start trying?" one of them asks. I note that they are childless, but our next move suddenly seems obvious. Why don't we just try and see what happens? Sooner or later, you leap or you don't.
Later that evening, after our friends have left, Jane and I talk again about pregnancy and parenthood. Maybe we just needed 10 years to grow into the idea, but somehow we have muddled through to the point where trying for a baby feels surprisingly right. There's no guarantee that I will get pregnant, of course, and we have already decided that we do not want to go down what appears to be the very slippery path of fertility drugs and hormone shots.
If we were straight, we would throw out the condoms and the pills. Because we're not, the process is more complicated and involves more people and more money, but it's fundamentally the same. We will start trying and wait to see what happens. And so we have decided to put ourselves in the path of pregnancy. It is our way of making ourselves available to the fates -- with a little assistance from a speculum, a catheter and an anonymous donor.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
At the clinic, Jane sits on a chair next to the exam table where I have been instructed to remain for the next 10 minutes with my hips propped up to get the little guys pointed in the right direction. I am so grateful that we are doing this at a time and place where I don't have to pretend to be straight and single -- or worse, straight and married. Until relatively recently, fertility clinics have been the domain of heterosexual women and their slightly embarrassed husbands. But here we are in our very mainstream clinic in Edina, Minn., with its flouncy valences on the windows and its medical art -- large geometrical shapes in lots of pinks and light blues -- and the nurses seem to think it's just great that a couple of lesbians want to get pregnant.
Lying on the exam table, chock-full of sperm, I feel weirdly relaxed. I was afraid that I would come to this point and panic, suddenly realizing that I was hurtling down a highway with no remaining exits. But in this moment, I feel it is a fine thing that we are doing. I lean over the edge of the table and kiss my Jane. I hold her hand, pet her hair. We are part of intersecting modern phenomena: medically assisted conception and the so-called gayby boom. But we are also part of a timeless tradition: two people coming together in love and hope to make a new life. The possibility of becoming pregnant feels like venturing into a rushing stream, not knowing where the current will take us. I close my eyes and trust that there are steppingstones under the water, made of history and dreams, and that our feet will find them.