Express Male: When Sperm Donation Gets Emotional

*All names in this article have been changed to protect privacy

My story as a sperm donor started with a phone call and ended with a marriage.

At the time, I was in my mid-fifties, living in New York with my long-time girlfriend, Rena; I had long been ambivalent about marriage. The phone call was from a young lesbian couple in Seattle whom I knew well because one of them, Leigh, had lived with my brother’s family after graduating from college. During that time, Leigh met Sara, her partner-to-be. My extended family attended the young women’s wedding, and in the years that followed we remained close.

Time passed. Leigh and Sara finished professional schools, started careers, and were ready to start a family. They wanted their sperm donor to be someone they knew and cared about, to be someone who would be in their child’s life, but in a very circumscribed way. The process of vetting possible donors, necessarily a complicated and cautious one, took several years. In the end, they chose me. All the reasons I thought I was an unlikely candidate — I was twenty-plus years older than they, I lived 3000 miles away, my girlfriend and I did not have children — paradoxically made me attractive. Leigh and Sara didn’t want a young, vigorous “Daddy figure” who might compete to be a parent, nor someone living nearby who might be intrusive, nor the complexity of potential half-siblings. I am a short, Jewish guy with glasses, so they could not exactly count on their kid looking like a movie star. But they picked me.

Rena and I took long walks to discuss this idea: that my semen would go to another woman, that I might become the biological parent of another family’s infant — that, actually, I told Rena, I was going to do this no matter what. This was a huge thing to ask her to understand, but she gradually realized how much I wanted to be part of a generational cycle, and that this was probably my last chance.

Rena loves kids, but she had never seen herself as a mother. Over time, she became completely supportive. She even started to feel that entering this set of relationships would enhance our own life together. It was interesting, even funny, to experience how much daydreams played into our developing understanding. For instance, picturing how we would fly out to Seattle for birthdays and gatherings as part of the little family’s extended mishpacha. We even imagined whether it would feel right to have the baby’s picture in a little frame on our shelf. What would we do when somebody asked, “Oh, whose baby is this?” These imaginings made the process, and our roles in it, feel more real.

The moms-to-be and I drew up a contract (that dealt with finances, insurance, guardianship, etc.), using a lawyer whose specialty was gay and lesbian issues. Most important, the contract made clear that Leigh and Sara had all the parental rights, while I — though biologically a parent — had none. (Our shared was that we liked one another perhaps too much, running the risk of emotional entanglement once a child was born.) The plan was that I would be a nurturing-older-uncle type or even grandfather figure who lived far away, who was definitely not a father. We made this quite concrete, specifying, for example, that Leigh and Sara would have control of the baby’s name, and that inseminations would be done only at the fertility clinic.

What followed were almost two years of monthly semen donations and fertility treatments with Sara. This meant that when her cycle was at its optimal point, I would get called out of my office or away from a dinner and leave instantly for the airport. This was in such contrast to my usual highly routinized life — and work ethic — that I felt like a secret agent being summoned on a mission. Once I did a round-trip in one day, only to get a call the next day to fly back — which I did. It was stressful, but exciting.

Emotionally, the experience of sperm donation was profound, stirring up fantasies from the trivial to the life-changing. I pictured a future of flying in to fill the role of the beloved old relative, with hugs and kisses all around, and then departing with smiles, leaving the annoying tasks of actual child-rearing to the parents. I imagined getting school photos, attending a bar or bat mitzvah, a wedding. On a deeper level, I felt pulses of almost physical gratitude that I had been given a chance to have a biological, personal connection to the next generation.

Month by month, I would inseminate, fly home, and then anxiously wait for a phone call. I researched the odds and made up tables of probability calculations to try to stay anchored — and, well, to have something to do — as I held my breath.

We produced embryos and even brief pregnancies, but, sadly, they were never successful. Finally, as Sara’s fortieth birthday approached, the women decided to stop trying with Sara and instead switch to Leigh, who was four years younger. To me it felt vaguely polygamous to go from one woman to the next — I was Sara’s donor, not Leigh’s; it felt wrong to have such emotional and biological intimacy with a second woman. I was also, at this point, emotionally exhausted. I know that my thinking was scientifically and logically irrational, but affectively things were clear.

When the whirlwind stopped, we all dispatched letters and e-mails reflecting on the stress, the waiting, the medical procedures, the anxiety, and also our very amplified affection. We talked about grief and disappointment, and the wistfulness of dreams that are not to be. At the same time, we shared a sense of closure, and, for me, in any case, a heartening feeling that at least there had been embryos and pregnancies. Even this, for me, had an emotional and spiritual value.

After a period of Sara’s mourning, Leigh and Sara decided on an anonymous donor. It was successful, and today they have a cheerful little preschooler. I visit them about once a year.

The end of the story is that after my sperm-donor role was over, I felt empty, lonely and isolated — especially as I compared myself to Leigh and Sara as they started their new, young family. I also found myself feeling differently towards Rena. I wanted — needed — solidity after feeling so airborne, both literally and emotionally, for over two years. She had supported me in an emotionally risky proposition — that I might create a child with someone else — and I felt profoundly grateful.

I soon proposed marriage to Rena in a coffee shop, and we were quickly married in a big ceremony with all the trimmings. Our marriage enhanced all of Rena’s and my relationships — with each other, with friends, and with family. But the most important thing is that I myself felt more real and substantial, not just the guy who runs to the airport largely for the sake of somebody else’s intimacy and happiness.