My daughter was just turning three when she began to ask about a father. Sarah was no dummy; she had noticed for more than a year that other families tend to have one of each—a mommy and a daddy. In spite of my best efforts to normalize our single-parent, lesbian-headed household by pointing out to her all the other single-parent families we knew, I would hear her talking to herself as she played with her blocks, “This is the Mommy block, this is the Daddy block.” I took her to the Natural History Museum with her cousin Linden. As they peered into the huge exhibits of American mammals, she explained to Linden, “That’s the Daddy gorilla, that’s the Mommy gorilla; that’s the Daddy elk, that’s the Mommy elk. That’s the Daddy moose, that’s the Mommy moose.”
The powerful message of what a family “should” be had sunk in deep even though we live in a building with many single-parent families; we know families with adopted children; families that have two moms. Her own beloved cousin Linden is being raised by a single mom and has a dad “in heaven.” When Sarah plays, I resist the impulse to say, “This is the Mommy Bear and here is the Baby Bear who lives just with her mom. Together they make their family.”
In her daycare, every single child except Sarah comes from a family with heterosexual parents, and I’m delighted Sarah has no problem fitting in with them. She’s mustering her intelligence to cope with the discrepancy between her own experience and the way family is typically depicted in children’s books and on TV. There are moments when I wonder how my child will feel about coming from a family with a single lesbian mother—at this stage, she doesn’t seem to feel badly about being different or experience it as a deprivation or loss. Despite the fact that the animals at the museum needed to be a Mommy and a Daddy, at home Sarah works to make sense of it. “This is the Mommy and here are the 92 aunts,” she narrates, carefully arranging her stuffed animals on the family-room floor. I eavesdrop from the kitchen, chuckling to myself.
When I was 14, my dream was to marry an airplane pilot who would be out of town ninety percent of the time. When he was home, I would welcome him to the hearth, feed him, let him play with the kids and then send him back to the skies. In addition to being almost totally independent as a parent, not to mention well-funded, the children and I would get free air travel to anywhere in the world!
When I came out as a lesbian at age 18. my life-long intention to become a mother didn’t waver. My own mother was a free-thinking, politically active liberal. She wasn’t thrilled, however, when I told her I was a lesbian—she had just never heard of that as a positive outcome of child-rearing. In her world view, lesbianism belonged on a list with alcoholism, murder, sexual abuse and maybe grand larceny. But, seeing as she had never been conventional in her own life, and seeing that I was happy and healthy, and a lesbian, she re-evaluated her position and reaffirmed her steadfast support of me. We both knew that I intended to have children, and while she was open to the idea, she was not in a position to provide specific guidance about how a single lesbian could get kids.
My father’s view was slightly different from my mother’s. He worried that I would be hurt somehow, and that it was impossible for a woman to maintain a family without the support of a man. I once asked him what it meant to him to be a man, and he answered, “To provide for the family.” It was difficult talking to him about my decision without challenging his identity in our family. My four sisters rallied around me with support and encouragement. I liked to imagine how my future children would have a pack of enthusiastic aunts ready to lavish love and attention on them.
I did know a few lesbian mothers, but they’d had their children from previous heterosexual marriages. By the mid-1980’s, when I was ready to start creating a family, there was some information in the women’s bookstores and through word of mouth about conceiving children with donated sperm. But there was no established path or etiquette or how-to book for lesbians wanting pregnancy without a man. I found my donor in a most unexpected way. I was talking with my close friend. Tess, about my new plan to become pregnant through alternative insemination. To my utter surprise, this married woman with three children said casually, “You should use my husband’s sperm. One thing Jacob is really good at is making babies.” I was amazed at her total openness. After establishing that she was really serious, I did ask him. The way I figure it, Tess was my dearest friend, I knew and loved Jacob and he knew and loved me. It made perfect sense to form a family out of this love.
Jacob was honored by my request. It was clear to all three of us that he would only be a sperm donor, not the father to my child, that he would have no legal rights to or responsibilities for my child. He said he was comfortable leaving it to me to decide when to reveal his identity to the child. I remember him asking me if I thought I would tell the child right away, and I said no, probably not until he or she was grown. It never occurred to me that a small child would need to know. If it had, I might have started right then to figure out how to explain these complex ideas about sexual orientation, family and parenthood in terms that would make sense to a preschooler.
One day at the playground, Sarah and I are sitting together on the bouncy rabbits, her three-year-old legs pumping away.
‘Mom.” Sarah says suddenly, “let’s get a man.”
“Why do we need a man?” I ask.
“So he can be the Daddy.”
“Why do we need a Daddy?”
“Cuz you have to have a Mommy and a Daddy.”
“But we have a single mom. What would a Daddy do?”
“He could read a newspaper.”
Sarah’s friends ask questions, too. One day, four-year-old Max says, “Where is your Daddy?”
“I don’t have a Daddy. I have a Donor.” Sarah explains using the language I had given her in recent discussions about who had fathered her.
“Oh.” says Max, pondering this for a minute. “Does he bring you donuts?”
Little children are used to hearing information that they don’t fully understand. Most of the world is new to them so why would the concept of Donor Dads be any different from other new concepts like evaporation or checking accounts? But Max’s question stays with Sarah. At home later, she asks me. “Where’s our Daddy?” I tell her that every family has its own special people, and a wonderful man called a “Donor” helped me make a family. “We have what is called a ‘single-parent family’.” I explain, trying to help her make sense of the labels so she will have positive language to use when friends, teachers and strangers in the supermarket ask.
Even while I try to translate this both simple and complicated fact to her about our family, I am strongly aware of how we are scouting new territory together and how unprepared I am for all of her questions. I worry that my answers are inadequate. When she asks, point-blank, what the name of her donor is, I won’t be ready to give her an honest answer.
I realize I need to have another talk with Jacob and Tess. This is happening much sooner than I anticipated but it’s clear to me that I don’t want to withhold information or muddy the situation with a sense of taboo or shame. On the other hand, Jacob and Tess need time to prepare themselves and their own children before I share this information with my daughter. Other people are likely to end up knowing the identity of Sarah’s donor—after all, you can’t ask a three year old to keep a secret. My mother’s advice to me is that my own anxious desire to protect Sarah will be more likely to harm her than the fact that she has a single lesbian mom. She tells me not to worry and reminds me that the important thing is my absolute delight with this marvelous child.
Sarah drops the subject and moves on to other questions about the world. I am both relieved and worried. I want her to feel unencumbered by my own awkwardness and free to ask all the questions she wants to, but I’m aware of becoming hyper alert when she does bring it up. It is so important to me that the conversation go well. I want the words “lesbian” and “donor” to be a natural part of her world. When she hasn’t brought up the subject of donors in a while, I mention it in a casual context. When Jan and her five year old, Jason, are visiting us from out of town and we’re at the table, I say, “Hey, kids, guess what? The Moms were talking and we discovered something that you both have in common. You both have Donor Dads.” Sarah doesn’t say much but I know the information is being stored away.
One day, Sarah calls from the bathroom, “I want to visit our Daddy.” At first I answer defensively, “Who was talking about Daddies? Did someone talk about Daddies today?” What a stupid response, I berate myself internally. Deep breath. Try again. “Our Daddy isn’t really a part of our lives, ya know. He’s a Donor Dad. But if you did visit his house, what would you do there?”
“Does he have toys?” she wants to know.
“Yes, he probably does, but he’s not a part of our family. The donor gave me sperm to help me make you for this family.”
“Well, is HE real?”
“Yes, he’s real, even though you can’t see your Donor right now. It’s sort of unusual. Some people aren’t used to Donor Dads so we have to explain it.” She nods and goes to find her gas station game.
The next week, my friend David drops by. Sarah greets him at the door and asks, “Are you my Donor?” The next day, she answers the phone by saying, “Hello, are you my Donor?”
Maybe it would have been simpler using an anonymous donor because I could say, “I don’t know,” when she asks who her donor is. But I do know and I don’t want to lie. Jacob and I meet for lunch and discuss the matter. “We did a good thing and I feel good about it,” he says. “There’s no reason not to tell Sarah the truth.” But he worries about what Sarah might expect from him. “I think we all have to stay very clear about the fact that a Donor is different from a Daddy,” I say.
“I can’t be a Papa,” he says, “when I see you and her a warm glow comes. I love you. I love her. I just don’t want to raise expectations.”
I reassure him. “If her expectations change once she has this information, it’s something she’ll have to deal with,” I tell him. “My expectations will stay the same; that you continue to be a family friend in a low-key way. You’re her Donor. I’m raising Sarah.”
One afternoon soon after Tess and Jacob have given me the go-ahead, I gather my precious daughter into my arms and we sit in the rocking chair.
“I want to talk to you about your Donor,” I say somewhat out of the blue.
“Oh,” she says with interest.
“When I was ready to make a baby, I wanted a wonderful man to help are do it. So I asked a good family friend to be the Donor. It’s somebody who is a nice man who wanted to help me make a family. He lives right around the comer from us.” I keep filling in details until she guesses his name.
“Jacob! I didn’t know that,” she says with a pleased look.
“That’s why we call Jacob and Tess’s family our God- Family. Because you share a birth father and we love each other. That’s special.”
I hope the information will organically mesh with what she already knows about our world and her place in it, rather than come as a shock. After telling her, there is a feeling of relaxed openness around our house. It’s a relief to take the lid off this secret. I watch with pride as Sarah competently translates her unique family situation to the world. Driving in the neighborhood one day with her school friend in the back seat of the car, we pass the building where Sarah’s Donor lives. The little friend, who has a divorced mom and dad sharing custody, says, “I know someone who lives in that building.”
“So do I.” says Sarah. “My Donor lives there.”
“What’s your Donor?” asks the friend.
“It’s sort of like a Dad. Not everyone has one,” she explains.
“Oh,” says the friend enviously. “You’re lucky.”
I’m sure Sarah will have strong feelings about our family in her life, some positive and some negative. I am sure she’ll know I tried to do right by her. I want to be open to the full range of feelings she might have and make sure she isn’t going out of her way to protect me by keeping some of those feelings underground. I remember standing at the kitchen counter and asking, “Do you ever wish we had a Daddy in this family?”
“Yeah,” she answered
It felt strong and healthy that we could put it out there. A kid should have space to wish for a Daddy. And that was okay.
Rabbi Julie Greenberg is the mother of three young children. She directs the Jewish Renewal Life Center in Philadelphia, a training program for Jewish spirituality. This article first appeared in The Family: A Magazine for Lesbians, Gays, Bi-sexuals, and Their Relations.