Ben Sommer knew that his mothers were his parents, but he wanted to know his father as something more than Donor #35.
I grew up in a middle-class home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with two loving parents, both of whom are women. My conception was perhaps the most organized and scientific miracle of the modern American family—my architecture, the dream of dozens of individuals conducting their work across thousands of miles.
I was conceived through alternative insemination. A donor submitted his sperm to the Sperm Bank of California in Oakland (TSBC). Later, it was sent to the Fenway Community Health Center in Boston. Since opening its doors in 1982, TSBC has helped families without the ability to conceive on their own to birth over 2,000 children. Two thirds of those have ended up, like me, being raised in a lesbian household. TSBC is also the first sperm bank to offer a donor-identity-release program, which allows children of alternative insemination access to their donors’ information when they turn 18.
I am not as much an oddity as you might think. As of 2005, some 270,000 children in the United States had same-sex parents. We are a generation that is just now beginning to come of age and able to share our stories. This is mine.
Growing up in a lesbian household was much like growing up in any other family unit, I imagine: vacations to Cape Cod, parents working late and sometimes not, play dates with a diverse group of friends.
I never gave much thought to that mysterious figure across the country. I never questioned the fact that I didn’t have a father. As far as I was concerned I didn’t need one. Is having two moms really all that different than having a mom and a dad? Parents are parents, right? I didn’t see a difference at the time. My parents didn’t either—at least at first.
They decided to conceive through a donor, in part, to avoid the complications that a third parent would bring. Asking a close male friend to donate, like some couples have done, can create unforeseen consequences. In the past, there have been custody battles between the donor and the parents raising the child. This was the case with a friend of mine, whose parents arranged donation from a male family friend. With a semi-anonymous donor like the man my parents chose, it would be clear who my parents were. And it was.
That’s not to say that it was smooth sailing. “When we first learned you were going to be a boy, we really panicked,” my mother told me recently. “Who’s going to teach him to throw a ball? We didn’t have many male friends. There was even basic stuff, like who’s going to teach him to pee standing up. That doesn’t come naturally.”
They tried to make up for it. I remember feeling self-conscious when my biological mother took me to the batting cages in the suburbs of Boston, in former warehouses and factories that smelled of sweat and pine tar, and had no heating—places built for father-son time, where my mother, barely 5-foot-6, placed herself next to burly dads and fed me fastballs through the Iron Mike.
As I grew up and made male friends, I was surrounded by fathers. Technically I was not their son, but I was part of the community in which they and their families lived, and everyone’s parents shared collective responsibility for one another’s children. My friends’ fathers took over the role of father figure. I couldn’t wait for the daily drives to and from MIT day camp. One father told us stories of Robin Hood and his adventures in Sherwood Forest. Another father took us out for after-school pizza night—just guys—at Armando’s.
As I got bigger, and my throwing arm got too strong for my mothers’ battered gloves, there were plenty of lace-patterned bruises. When the injuries became too much, they passed me off to some heterosexual family, whose dad could take the physical blows I delivered. Maybe I didn’t have a father of my own, but I wasn’t without fathers—coaches, teachers, or male family friends who all helped raise me.
It was only this past summer that I made the decision to contact my donor. Most kids I’d talked to went through the process when they turned 18. I was 21. My parents had, from time to time, brought up the subject casually, but I always feigned apathy. But recently I realized that I may have not been as apathetic as I pretended to be. Hollywood may have something to do with it.
I finally saw the movie The Kids Are All Right at my mom’s recommendation. “Go see it, it’s terrible,” she said. We dragged my younger sister to the theater. The first half of movie was believable. The family structure mirrored our own, even down to the mother with a career in health care. This could be my family, I thought. But when the sperm donor and one of the mothers sleep together, my sister gasped. “Oh, God,” she said, “I can’t sit through this! This would never happen.”
Walking out of that movie, I remember wondering how my sperm donor would fit into my life. Mark Ruffalo’s presence in the movie is destructive—he’s no father figure. I know other kids who have met their donors. Often, the situation plays out differently. In many cases, the donor does become a part of the family.
I’d had a hard time envisioning a stranger becoming my dad overnight. There were questions I’d been reluctant to face: Would I have a responsibility to him as a son? Would he have a responsibility to me as my biological father? Would it turn out to be an immense disappointment? I’m not sure which possibility I feared more—but I decided that knowing was better than not knowing. I began preparations to meet donor #35.
After I sent in all my information, notarized and witnessed, to the Sperm Bank of California, I was prepped over the phone by its executive director, Alice Ruby. Of the 2,000 children they’d brought into the world, only about 50 had called to receive their donor’s info. She told me not to get my hopes up, that some sperm donors don’t want any contact. Some expectations cannot be met. Some decisions to donate, over 20 years ago, may not have been made with a lifetime commitment in mind. Some are fathers—in the very real sense—with children of their own. Some haven’t told their families.
A week later I received his information: email, phone number, and an address in California. He’s unmarried and has no kids. A 10-year-old picture—a middle aged man standing against a marble wall—was included. He had short black hair, darker than mine. Despite the pink polo shirt, he looked serious, even tough. My parents said he looks like me “in the eyes.”
I remained committed to contact this man, whom I could finally put a face to. I sent him an email.
He sent one back, signed “Always Yours.”
After our first email correspondence, my donor, Jack, and I began to talk on the phone some, but I always had it in my mind that I would meet him in person. That seemed like the right way to do it—present myself at his doorstep.
My pilgrimage to the frontier of the modern family brought me over 2000 miles to Sunnyvale, California—across mountains and deserts, through blizzards and rain in a beat up Camry.
My sperm donor left me a message. “Hi, Ben, it’s your father. I love saying that. Just calling about your coming visit. So give me a call.”
The word “father” surprised, even angered me. It definitely gave me a lot to think about while driving to his house. I never said he could be my father. I never signed a contract—which is why when I call him I say, “Hi, it’s Ben,” not “Hi, it’s your son.”
I’m my mothers’ son. I’m already spoken for.
Biologically he is my father, but it’s all about how the word “father” is defined. How I choose to define it will then define the relationship, and advise our interactions.
But I’m not ready to put a label on it; after spending 21 years without a father of my own it’s going to take a lot of adjusting to allow him to become that person for me. And so, I go in blind and open.
I shouldn’t be so harsh on the guy. He is a sweet and approachable man. My ambivalence is more about the idea of him. He didn’t use the word “father” to lay any claim; he was signaling that he was ready to accept me into his home and life, to accept the relationship however I chose to define it.
It’s December, and the Bay Area is soggy. I’m nervous. I park in front of his house at exactly 1 p.m. I don’t want him to worry if I’m late.
He has a truck and a tractor parked in his driveway. Although he owns some property in the neighborhood, he lives in a remodeled carriage house. Inside it’s small, but warm and clean. A cat wanders in from another room and then wanders out again.
On the car ride over I got choked up, not knowing what to expect, what to say, what to feel. But now, neither of us is visibly emotional. Maybe playing it cool is a genetic trait.
The radio is on, tuned to a fashionable station, probably for my benefit. Punk rock Christmas songs provide the soundtrack to our conversation. He is very talkative, but says that he is usually more quiet; the listener among his friends.
We take a walk around his neighborhood, looking at his properties. He tells me how, single-handedly, he cleaned up the neighborhood, formerly a high-crime area, filled with prostitutes and drug dealers. He is proud that he took matters into his own hands—videotaping drug deals, testifying in court. Now the area is much safer, and home to a growing number of artists.
I’m an English major so we talk about literature. He recites a verse from a Walt Whitman poem he is trying to memorize: “I too had been struck from the float held forever in solution.” We discuss its possible meanings while smoking cigars and drinking orange soda. The cat comes in through the front door and leaps up on the table. I’m a little allergic and I begin to sneeze. He shoos it away. We are relaxed and the conversation is casual; it feels more like two men meeting rather than a father and son. The conversation turns to women and booze.
I ask him why he became a donor.
He was sitting in a coffee shop in Oakland and saw an advertisement in the back of a newspaper calling for sperm donors. He thought, why not? Nine out of 10 applicants were rejected for various reasons, but he passed. They asked him to stop smoking pot, so he did, and hasn’t since.
He made his decision seem so nonchalant, but the consequences are clearly a big deal to him. He is proud of his contribution. On his bookshelf is a framed photograph of his daughter, my half-sister. He is her donor, too. There are at least 10 other kids out there who have not contacted him. Ten potential sons and daughters. Ten potential brothers and sisters.
After a couple of hours I have to go. He walks me to the car and I leave with a “see ya later.” No hug. We go back to our lives.
Jack is a very sweet man, thoughtful, and worried about making a good impression on me. I am grateful to him for what he did for my family, and thankful that I got the chance to meet him and initiate a relationship. It won’t be easy. There is no literature or wisdom from a previous generation that my mothers or I could use to prepare ourselves for this situation.
Right now I don’t see Jack as my father, but I can see him as a father figure. Everyone in my family, now that much larger, will need to adjust their notions of what family means.