Nanette Elster, JD, MPH
With Mother’s Day rapidly approaching, I can’t help but reflect upon my own journey to motherhood, which began as a solo endeavor with an anonymous sperm donor due to an infertility diagnosis at 30. This time of year always makes me a bit reflective about what titles like mom and dad, mother and father actually mean. I often hear about “biological dads,” “real father,” etc., and this makes my head spin. Even the trailer for the 2010 movie The Kids are All Right highlighted the terms “biological dad” and “donor dad”. While it did acknowledge “He’s not their father, he’s our sperm donor,” much of the press that followed ignored that significant nugget. The typically casual lingo associating a sperm donor with a father has reignited a linguistic battleground for me. The Kids are All Right was a movie I was eagerly anticipating to sensitively and appropriately handle the issue of donor conceived kids. While ultimately the film showed the strength of the family that was built sans father, unfortunately, the film’s reviewers and/or viewers perpetuated the concept of donor as father which persists today, some 3 years later. Once the donor took on this role of long lost father, were the kids really all right–if they knew the important and wonderful role this man played in allowing their mothers to create a loving and nurturing family without expecting him to be a dad in the ball tossing, hair tussling way? Why can’t there be a place for donor not as a dad but as generous benefactor, or as I refer to my child’s donor, Gene?
I grew up with a mother and father, conceived from their loins and reared by them both, but that was not the path I could take to become a parent. I have learned by experience that it is possible to have anonymity and still disclose a child’s origins. My child knows her origins–I gave her the donor’s identification number before the OB even cut the cord. I have told her all that I know about him; I have explained to her why I needed the help of a donor and how much it means to me that he was willing to do what he did. To my daughter, her donor is a donor and not “dad.” He is the reason for the red highlights in her hair and her very outgoing personality, not to mention her athleticism, but he doesn’t tuck her in at night or go to her school play or shoot hoops with her; she has mom, grandma and stepdad for that.
The power of language cannot and should not be overlooked in this modern way of building families. The choice of words is very intentional and can be used to advance particular values as well as to subtly or not so subtly judge. If we truly want and expect the kids to be all right, shouldn’t we, the adults, be sure that we do not confuse them nor put them in positions of potential rejection? What happened to “honesty is the best policy?” A donor is a donor . . . nothing more. The man who gets a woman pregnant in a bar is not a donor; the law does not protect him. The man and woman in that context engaged in an intimate act, a realistic consequence of which is a pregnancy, intended or not. There is nothing intimate about being inseminated, and pregnancy resulting from insemination is anything but an unintended consequence. For those of us who have struggled to become parents, and struggled with decisions about when, how and what to tell our children, the confusion and judging wrought by insensitive terms such as “birth father” or “biological dad” add insult to injury not just for us, the parents, but for the child who then may have expectations and romanticized notions that somewhere in the world is mystery dad who someday will greet them with open arms. The term “donor” may not even be the best choice, but wouldn’t something less emblematic than “dad” be more accurate?
To me, a father is the man who may or may not be involved in creating the embryo that will be gestated in a womb, but the man who takes on that legal status of parent (willingly or otherwise) and more importantly that emotional status of nurturer. Being a parent is a status in the law, with which comes rights and obligations – health care decisions, support obligations, the right to choose the religion of the child or the school that a child will attend. The law typically operates and functions based along clearly defined lines. Long before we could separate the act of procreation from the act of intercourse, before the decision to be a parent could be so clearly intentional, genetic connectedness was how the law defined a parent, eventually developing a legally devised exception in the form of adoption. In recent years, however, the law has also defined exceptions in the other direction–in the form of sperm donation, egg donation and embryo donation statutes explicitly declaring donors are not parents. Beyond this legal construct, however, we most easily relate to parent or father in the psychosocial sense, what famed psychoanalyst John Bowlby defined as attachment – “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Terms such as biological father, bio dad, real dad, etc., create false expectations and might realistically interfere with the importance of attachment. This sense of connectedness between father and child is something we’ve seen depicted in countless films, such as Field of Dreams, The Pursuit of Happyness and even Finding Nemo. Being a father is more than just providing a gamete; it’s providing this emotional support and love for a child throughout his or her life. Because, in the end, don’t we all just want the kids to be all right?