Jennifer Berney | The Other Mothers: Two Women’s Journey to Find the Family That Was Always Theirs | Sourcebooks | February 2021 | 18 minutes (4,976 words)
“Becoming Family,” Jennifer’s 2019 essay exploring traditional notions of heredity and paternity, is a nice companion to this piece.
A manila envelope from the country’s largest sperm bank arrived in my mailbox only three days after I had called to request it. I tucked it under my arm and looked around me before returning to my front porch, as if one of my neighbors might catch me—as if there were something forbidden inside. I sat on the step and ran my finger through the envelope seam to unstick the glue. California Cryobank, the catalog said at the top, in white letters on a royal blue background. My wife Kellie and I had already spent months trying to line up a community donor, but no one had come through with a yes. In contrast, this thing in my hands had come to me so easily. I had asked for it and, with the snap of a finger, there it was. Below the company’s name, there was a photograph. I’m not sure what I had expected—maybe a classic image of a baby growing in utero, maybe a mother looking into the eyes of her newborn child. But this photo featured two teenage boys wearing backpacks and smiling at the camera. They stood beneath a tree. It looked like an image I’d expect to see on a college brochure.
Kellie pulled into the driveway with her window rolled down. “Hey, lady,” she said and stepped out of her truck.
“Hey,” I said. My heart sped. I wanted to show her the catalog, but I didn’t want to overwhelm her. I tried to hide my grin.
Kellie sat down next to me. “What’s that?”
I handed it to her. “It’s from that sperm bank in California,” I said. “I called them.”
Kellie didn’t open it. She just held it in her lap.
I reached over and laid a finger on one of the faces on the cover. “Who is this supposed to be?” I asked her. “Are these the babies, all grown up?”
Kellie cocked her head and looked at me to make sure I was serious. “They’re the donors,” she said.
Shit. She was right. My excitement for the packet fizzled. These boys weren’t what I had in mind. Whoever designed the cover must have hoped to convey that these were young men at the peak of their health, but all it highlighted for me was that many of these donors were too young to be making decisions of permanent consequence. They looked like boys, not men. Staring at the picture made me think of factory farming, of dairy cows hooked to milking machines, of chickens dropping eggs in chutes. Were these boys ready to commit to a lifetime of knowing there were children out there that they had helped create? I suspected that most of them just wanted the money for textbooks or beer.
Kellie lifted herself from the step to go inside. I propped the catalog on my knees. Moisture from my skin condensed on the back cover. I flipped through the pages aimlessly, my hope dim.
* * *
My position on sperm—my insistence that a sperm bank was our best and easiest option—was in part based on an assumption I had held since childhood when I first learned of the existence of assisted reproduction. I assumed that the fertility industry wanted to help me, that sperm banks had been designed with lesbians in mind.
I understood that straight couples and single women used sperm banks too, but I had always figured that lesbian couples would make a large share of their clientele, that sperm banks would welcome us, and that our needs would be built into the design of their operation.
I was wrong about this. Sperm banks were not designed for lesbians.
California Cryobank, one of the first commercial sperm banks, opened in 1977 with a very specific purpose: to offer men a way to store their own sperm for future use. This meant that, for instance, a man undergoing treatment for cancer could store vials of semen before starting chemo and radiation, and in doing so could hang on to the option of fathering children someday. Sperm storage was originally envisioned as a niche market for men, available mainly as a safeguard against future infertility. Male sterility, the founders believed, had the potential to be psychologically “shattering”—devastating to a man’s ego.
Few were talking about male infertility as a widespread phenomenon. “Barren” was—and still is—a term applied only to women. Male infertility was seen as so profoundly emasculating that doctors barely mentioned it, even to each other. In the era predating the commercial sperm bank, if a couple had no luck conceiving a child, and if the microscope revealed that the husband’s lack of sperm was at fault, doctors simply recruited one of their male students or staff to donate fresh semen. Sometimes the doctor himself was the secret donor. The arrangement was casual. In many cases, there was no documentation or paperwork. No STD testing. No legal safeguards. No washing, freezing, or quarantining. Just sperm from a source that would always be anonymous to the couple that received it. The prevailing attitude was: Just fix the problem. The less said the better. This approach allowed the husband and wife to carry on as if they’d conceived the child unassisted. Many couples never spoke of the procedure again and never told their children.
It’s worth noting that both this hushed approach to donor insemination and the vision of preemptive sperm banking centered the male experience and ego. It took some time for established sperm banks to identify and fill what now seems like an obvious role: to provide a menu of options to straight couples in need of donor sperm. It took even longer for physicians to cede control and retire the practice of recruiting their own donors.
Commercial sperm banks adapted to help propagate more traditional families—to replace one man’s nonviable semen with another man’s viable semen, and in doing so, fulfill the promise of the normal: a husband, a wife, and children—the American nuclear family.
I assumed that the fertility industry wanted to help me, that sperm banks had been designed with lesbians in mind.
As I was coming of age as a lesbian and considering my future, it had never once occurred to me that the medical industry could legally withhold services from me or anyone else, that they could say yes to straight couples and no to queers, but in fact they did just that. Most sperm banks and fertility clinics turned away any woman who wasn’t conventionally married. Sperm banks weren’t made for lesbians.
It turns out lesbians didn’t need them. Instead, while sperm banks were growing, lesbians were developing networks to support each other. The idea that lesbians could become parents on their own terms was, at the time, revolutionary and connected to the larger feminist goal of giving women full control over their reproductive health. Lesbians and allies organized groups for queer women who wanted to become parents, either as partners or single mothers. They passed out instructions on how to perform inseminations with turkey basters, diaphragms, and needleless syringes. They found clever ways to source sperm.
One way completely avoided any doctor’s office. Several mothers of now-grown children have explained to me how it worked in Seattle in the 1980s.
If you were a lesbian who wanted to get pregnant by an anonymous donor, you needed to find yourself a go-between, a friend who would make things happen for you. The go-between would ask around and find a donor—often a gay man in the larger community. The donor could be a close friend, or a friend of a friend, or a colleague from work. The go-between would know him, but he would be anonymous to the recipient.
In these networks, there was paperwork involved: a survey that asked for basic medical and personal history, not unlike the donor files available to sperm bank clients. The go-between collected this and shared it with the recipients. She kept a separate file with personal information—the donor’s name, his social security number, the recipients he’d been paired with. In theory, this could be shared with the recipient family when the child turned sixteen, and the family could decide if they wanted to track down the donor and contact him. In practice, this exchange didn’t always happen quite like that. Through the course of the interviews I conducted, I heard anecdotes about forms being lost due to illness, death, and human error. However, community and memory are living things, and in some cases those who wanted to find their donors could do so by simply asking around.
Hopeful recipients charted their cycles with the same tools I used to chart mine: a basal thermometer, a chart, and a pen. When it was time to inseminate, the go-between was the emissary. She picked up the ejaculate (two women mentioned artichoke jars as the container of choice) and kept it warm as she transported it to the home of the woman who was trying to conceive. At that point the go-between helped, or bore witness, or got out of the way, but her role wasn’t just functional—it was spiritual. Her presence conveyed the blessing of the larger community.
Someone who was a go-between once would likely be a go-between multiple times. She would have a list of men who were ready and willing and who already knew the drill.
As I learned about these networks one generation later, I was amazed by their efficiency and by how many problems they solved. The network system outsourced the difficult legwork of finding a donor to the go-between, a person who, because she lacked direct personal investment, could more comfortably manage those negotiations. If Kellie and I had employed this approach, it would have spared us some pain. We had just spent two months waiting for an acquaintance to decide whether or not he’d be our donor, and he had ultimately ghosted us. If, say, our friend Dee had been our go-between, then the acquaintance could have delivered his no to Dee without feeling the pressure of our hopes. We wouldn’t have been hurt by his no, because we wouldn’t have even known about it. Instead, we would have simply sent our friend on a mission, and we would have heard back from her once she was successful.
What’s more, the network system preserved anonymity while allowing the would-be parents to rest easy knowing the sperm wasn’t coming from an unknown stranger but a community member who had ties to mutual friends. This system was free and spared recipients from having to medicalize the practice of babymaking.
They passed out instructions on how to perform inseminations with turkey basters, diaphragms, and needleless syringes.
Others have told me stories that capture another mode of conception that was common to lesbians in the ’80s: insemination via feminist health center. These centers—connected to the larger women’s health movement—were established and run by women who sought to empower their peers. This was the generation of feminists who got together in groups and learned how to view their cervixes using a speculum, a flashlight, and a mirror.
Olympia, where Kellie and I lived, had one of these centers, founded by a woman whose name is still legendary among locals: Pat Shively. Pat was a lesbian herself and a mother of three children from an early marriage. (It’s worth noting that heterosexual sex—often the byproduct of a youth spent in the closet—is the oldest form of conception available to lesbians.) When Pat opened the Women’s Health Clinic in 1981, she didn’t do so with the vision of helping fellow queers conceive but with the broader mission of serving diverse populations of women. Her clinic offered abortions, and she made herself available at any hour of the day or night to administer rape kits to women who had been sexually assaulted. I imagine that it must have been a small comfort to those women, in a moment where small comforts mattered, to be seen by someone who was capable of hearing and believing them, by someone who knew how to be tender and also how to fight.
Pat’s role as the local abortion provider made her vulnerable to death threats, and she took to carrying a Glock and wearing a bulletproof vest. In the photos I’ve seen of Pat, she has a small frame, short unkempt curls, and she is always actively holding something: a phone, a pen, a small child’s hand.
So, while Pat Shively may not have set out to make a clinic for the explicit purpose of helping lesbians conceive—while it may not have even been part of her original vision—it’s not hard to see how she wound up filling this niche.
Pat’s inseminations were in some ways similar to the informal inseminations that took place in doctors’ offices behind closed doors before the era of sperm banks. But Pat Shively didn’t have a range of male residents to recruit from. Instead, she looked for college-age men who didn’t smoke pot (studies showed that marijuana use interfered with sperm motility) and paid her donors $30 per specimen. By some accounts, she charged her clients $50 for the inseminations. By other accounts, she did it for free. Either way, it’s clear that she wasn’t getting rich on the practice.
In this arrangement, Pat acted as both medical professional and community member, a variation on the go-between. She taught her clients how to chart their ovulation and timed the inseminations accordingly. Since hers was a small-scale operation, her donor sperm was fresh, not frozen, and she often performed the insemination on the recipient’s sofa.
In both of these systems—network-facilitated insemination and women’s clinic insemination—family-making became a community act not limited to a bedroom or a clinic. Instead, they combined, to varying degrees, personal and clinical elements: the living room couch as the site of insemination, the needleless syringe as the conduit, the friend or partner as the inseminator, the documents that may someday be lost. Both methods centered the humanity of the recipient and allowed her to feel she was the agent rather than the patient.
And, in both of these scenarios, sperm was mainly a means to an end. Between the go-betweens and the recipients, between the clinician and her clients, there was sometimes discussion about what health issues they wanted to avoid or what aspects of someone’s ethnic or religious background they might prefer their donor mirror. Parents-to-be often sought donors who shared their religious or ethnic heritage. But in general no one had the leeway to insist on blue eyes, or a certain height, or an engineering degree, and it seems that no one obsessed over these details. The attitude that drove these systems was that DNA mattered a little, but not a lot. For the most part, women wanted to make a baby, and they wanted sperm from a donor who was reasonably healthy. That was all.
And, in both of these scenarios, sperm was mainly a means to an end.
Contrast this approach with that of the typical sperm bank customer in our current climate. Today’s commercial sperm banks exclude potential donors not just for issues like low sperm count or heritable diseases, but also for height (donors that are five foot eleven and over are strongly preferred, and many banks won’t accept donors who are under five-nine) and weight. Gay men, who were so essential to the lesbian insemination networks of the 1980s, are to this day effectively banned from donating at all commercial sperm banks—a policy that is ostensibly to protect recipients from an increased risk of HIV, but makes little sense when one considers that all donors are tested and retested over a six month period while their sperm is quarantined and that there are no bans on other high-risk sexual behaviors. Straight men can engage in unprotected anal and vaginal sex with multiple female partners and still qualify as donors, while gay men—even those in long-term monogamous relationships—need not even apply.
Most banks actively recruit on college campuses and require their donors to prove that they have earned, or are in the process of earning, a degree from a four-year college, and some banks charge an extra premium for sperm from donors with an advanced or Ivy League degree.
Sociologist Amy Agigian points out that clients are the ones demanding this approach, citing a study where women “placed the highest value on the sperm donor’s education, ethnicity and height.” Agigian goes on to point out that any belief that a donor’s college education is somehow “transmissible through a man’s semen is further evidence of magical thinking about semen that abounds in our culture.”
To put it another way, sperm banks aren’t simply optimizing their samples for the potential child’s future health. They are optimizing to meet demands for children who will conform to societal norms around race and attractiveness. What’s more, they are selling a myth that an advanced degree confers heritable traits, that the Ivy League can be encoded into a child’s DNA.
Lesbians are now among the consumers driving these demands, and yet I can’t help but think back to the early days of lesbian low-tech inseminations and how, for the most part, they were driven not by eugenic ideologies but by personal connections. When it came to alternative insemination, lesbian recipients weren’t focused on making genius babies or maximizing genetics. They simply wanted families, reached out for community support, and received it.
I didn’t know any of this as I sat on my front porch, holding the Cryobank brochure. I didn’t know it, but for the first time, I sensed that Kellie wasn’t wrong—that buying sperm was complicated, that it was fraught with ethical dilemmas, and that the story behind the sperm we were getting was actually a story that mattered.
* * *
That night, as Kellie slept, I went online. When I Googled “sperm bank,” California Cryobank topped the list, and the rest of the first page was filled with companies that looked nearly identical to the brochure I’d already viewed. Their web pages featured chubby, smiling babies, welcomed by straight couples who looked more like J. Crew models than actual families.
I tried variations. “Sperm bank small” and “sperm bank gay friendly.” I didn’t get anywhere. With each search, the same corporations showed up. It was just before midnight when I finally added the word lesbian to my search and, bingo, the top result linked to a website that featured a woman, alone, holding a baby. She wore a hooded sweatshirt and a loose ponytail; she looked less like a J. Crew model and more like a person I might actually know in real life. Just above the picture was the tagline: “A trusted resource for women planning alternative families.”
Pacific Reproductive Services, it turned out, was a lesbian-centered cryobank founded by Sherron Mills in 1984. Mills, like Pat Shively in Olympia, had been helping lesbians get pregnant out of a community-run clinic. But as demand for inseminations grew, and as the AIDS crisis swelled, Mills wanted an actual donor insemination program that would meet FDA standards—no more fresh ejaculate on demand from a couple of handy donors.
The issue with mainstream sperm banks, as Sherron Mills saw it, wasn’t just that they refused to serve lesbians. Mills also believed that lesbians deserved medical care tailored to their specific needs. In a world where the medical model so often assumed heterosexuality, lesbians deserved a place where they could be at the center of the practice, not floating on the periphery.
Over twenty years later, I hadn’t known I would need this. I had expected, always, that so long as I lived in a progressive community, I’d be effortlessly folded into the larger system. But here I was, already longing for inclusion, seeking a place that had been designed with me in mind.
In a world where the medical model so often assumed heterosexuality, lesbians deserved a place where they could be at the center of the practice, not floating on the periphery.
As I clicked through the site, I learned that PRS was a comparably small operation and that, besides their alternative demographic, they distinguished themselves from larger commercial sperm banks by offering a catalog of what they called “willing to be known” donors.
“Willing to be known” didn’t mean what Kellie would have wanted it to mean. We couldn’t take these guys out for coffee and interview them about their life histories and their politics. We couldn’t even learn their names. But they did come with a promise—an unenforceable promise—that when our future child turned eighteen, they could access their donor’s name and contact information. It struck me as uncomfortable—a little scary even—that my child upon turning eighteen could make a call and add a stranger to our family. But in other ways it seemed preferable to a closed-door policy, our baby’s DNA a mystery that could never be unlocked. My personal stance on secrets was this: I only liked the ones that included me.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the “willing to be known” program was a variation on the Identity Release Program, which was developed and trademarked by the Sperm Bank of California in 1983. Today, in the era of DNA testing, all major sperm banks offer a similar open identity option, and many argue that it’s unethical to offer donors the anonymous option, since it is likely that any donor can now be tracked down, with or without their consent.
PRS was based in San Francisco where, coincidentally, I would be traveling soon. In just a few weeks, my mother would be attending a work conference there, and I planned to join her to visit a city I’d never seen before and eat good food, walk through neighborhoods, and shop for books.
Oh, and visit a sperm bank. Is that something people actually do? I wondered. I recognized the feeling of getting swept up in my own excitement and leaving my level head behind. I tried to talk myself down. There was no reason to make sperm the focus of the trip. Before this moment, I had been looking forward to San Francisco as a distraction from all of this. As I climbed into bed and spooned against Kellie, I could hear my own pulse where my ear pressed against the pillow. People typically ordered sperm online, I told myself, trying to settle my brain towards sleep. There was no real reason for an in-person visit. Certainly I shouldn’t let it become the focus of my trip. Maybe I wouldn’t even visit it while I was in town.
* * *
“I’m thinking of visiting a sperm bank while we’re here.” I said this within ten minutes of greeting my mother in the hotel lobby. Within an hour, we were searching for the address on a map. She wanted to come too. Her eagerness fed my own.
My mother, when traveling, resembled Big Bird; already tall, she seemed to gain another two inches and hover above any crowd we moved through, taking in the sights with a kind of transparent awe. Like Big Bird, my mother was trusting and curious, and would start conversations with anyone we came into contact with. By this, I don’t just mean that she made small talk with the hotel clerk or the cab driver, although she did. But I mean that she also sought chances to chat with the family standing outside the native plant exhibit and the couple seated at the neighboring table.
The sperm bank was less than two miles from the hotel where my mother and I stayed. Together, we walked through a neighborhood of restaurants and bookstores, and then took a left down a hill and descended into a district that was gray and industrial. I kept my eyes fixed on the numbers, and stopped when I spotted the address, 444 De Haro Street, outside a monstrous building built of concrete, glass, and steel. It was a Friday afternoon, and there was no one in sight, though the corridor was vast, with high ceilings and potted palm trees. I felt like an interloper in the corporate world, snooping around with my mother, looking for sperm. I was afraid that a roaming security guard might stop us and ask what we were doing.
But eventually I found it, up one flight of stairs and tucked around the corner. Inside Suite 222, the decor changed dramatically, from bank lobby to massage therapist’s office. The hall smelled of essential oils, of lavender and eucalyptus. A long-haired receptionist sat just beyond the entrance and greeted us. In an effort to keep my mom from talking first, I introduced us right away. “I called last week about visiting,” I explained. “I’ve been trying to settle on a sperm bank, and I just figured since I’m in town—”
“Of course,” she said, nodding. “You might want to spend some time in there,” she suggested, indicating a private room that featured houseplants, a round table, and two wicker chairs with floral-print cushions. “That’s where we keep the donor profiles.” She explained that there were two special binders that held childhood photographs of every willing-to-be-known donor. Each photograph had a number that corresponded to a profile in a separate binder. “Settle in, take as long as you want, and let me know if you have any questions.”
I reached for one of the photo binders first, and my mother took the other. They were wide three-ring binders stuffed with crisp sheets of plastic that shined beneath the light. Each page held two photos, one above the other. On blank sticker labels, someone had handwritten each donor’s number. Some of the photos featured newborn babies, red-faced and swaddled in blankets. Those weren’t so helpful. Others were school-issued photos from first or second grade. They had big smiles with missing teeth, or corduroy jackets, or Afros.
My mother and I sat side by side, studious. Each time one of us turned a page, there was the soft sound of plastic unsticking. Occasionally my mother would chuckle and tap my arm. I’d crane my neck to view her binder. Her choices were different than mine: boys with tidy hair, bow ties, and sparkling teeth. I liked the boys with the shaggy hair and awkward smiles.
What struck me about the binders was this: throughout my twenties I’d been paying attention to my feelings about individual children. Though I liked children in general, and though I was sure that I wanted to have my own, there were plenty of kids whom I could take or leave. They were the boys with buzz cuts and truck T-shirts who begged for toy guns at Target or the girls in faux-fur coats belting out pop songs I barely recognized. Certainly these children were adorable to someone, but they sparked nothing for me. There were plenty of adults I had no interest in or didn’t connect with. Why should kids be any different?
Then there were the kids I wanted to take home with me, the girl with long brown hair and freckles who leaned off the side of her father’s shopping cart. Or the boy with the wide eyes and gap between his teeth who drew pictures while waiting for his food to arrive in the restaurant. After recognizing one of these kids, I always told myself: my kid will be one of the loveable ones. As I looked through the binder of photographs, I had an instantaneous reaction to each one. Some of the photos didn’t interest me at all, but others tugged at my heart. It may have all been an illusion—a crooked bow tie or a Snoopy shirt may have signaled to me, erroneously, that this child felt like kin. The photographs in all likelihood could not predict how I would have felt about the donor as a grown man. But even if my intuitions were illusions, I appreciated them. The photos gave me a sense of control, a sense that I was choosing a person rather than a number.
I felt like an interloper in the corporate world, snooping around with my mother, looking for sperm.
My mother lost interest in the photographs eventually and let herself out of the room. As I pored over donor questionnaires that matched some of my favorite photos, I could hear her chatting with the receptionist, explaining that I had a partner, Kellie, who lived with me in Olympia. “You must get quite a few lesbian couples here,” she said. When she began offering the details of our lives, I hurried to join my mother at the desk.
As I approached, my mother put her arm around my waist. “I was telling her about your situation,” she said. I felt my cheeks grow hot.
The receptionist laid her hands on her desk, as if she had no other tasks to attend to. “Do you have any questions I can answer?” she asked me.
I had just one. I wondered where their donors came from. “Are they all in college?” I asked.
“We get some college students,” she said. “But, actually, we advertise on Craigslist. That’s how most of our donors come to us.”
I let out a laugh. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this information, that the sperm at this clinic came from the place I associated with free couches and unwanted cats. It seemed that I could have chosen to be troubled by this. But, more than anything, I liked it. I liked the idea the donors were invited rather than recruited, that the call for them went out to the community at large.
“We get a better range of donors that way,” she explained. She was right—from the profiles I’d looked at, most of them listed actual professions rather than majors; I’d seen a doctor, a fireman, an electrical engineer.
That night, in the hotel room, my mother and I each sat on our own bed, each with a bedside lamp on, reading. As she read the book she brought, I spread open the folder that the receptionist had sent me home with. The files didn’t contain much information that was new to me. There was a FAQ page, a handout on how to chart your cycles, and some specifics on shipping and ordering, but I read every word carefully as if I were studying blueprints for a home I would soon build.
This chapter has been adapted for publication on Longreads.
* * *
Jennifer Berney writes to explore the human state of longing. Her essays have appeared in Tin House, The Offing, Brevity, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. You can find her on Twitter at @JennBerney.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands