Private life September 2005

The XY Files

Forgoing a trip down the aisle, our correspondent heads straight to the sperm bank. But does she want the Truffaut aficionado or the mentor to underprivileged kids?

The modernist, ultra-chic waiting room at California Fertility Partners (or CFP, as it's more discreetly known), in West Los Angeles, resembles the foyer of a Hollywood talent agency. In fact, if you're sitting in one of the Eames-inspired chairs in the beautifully designed open space, the only clue that you're here to discuss progeny rather than "projects" is the neutral-colored eggshells subtly embedded, "Where's Waldo?"—style, in the veneer of the sleek reception desk.

For $400 I spent half an hour with a doctor at CFP. Affable and straightforward, he looked at my records and gave me the rundown.

With "fresh" sperm (delivered in a cup by a known donor, or the old-fashioned way by a partner) a fertile woman has approximately a 30 percent chance of getting pregnant within a few days of ovulation. But with frozen sperm the percentage goes down to a mere 10. The freezing process, the doctor explained, "wipes the blazes" out of a sperm sample (ejaculate is split into a dozen samples, each of which is mixed with antifreeze-like chemical solutions before being stored at —196° Celsius). And whereas fresh sperm can last up to three days in a woman's body, defrosted sperm lasts only several hours. Each insemination must be exquisitely timed, and it's possible to miss an egg's release within that narrow window—even when tracking with ultrasound.

The doctor suggested trying a few cycles, and said if those didn't work we'd add some hormones to give me an extra egg or two. As he put it, "You'd get more bang for your buck."

Actually, he had it wrong: without getting the bang I'd be putting out the bucks. CFP's billing office told me they "don't deal with" insurance, and Blue Cross told me they "don't deal with" a single woman trying to get pregnant—a medical predicament their representative described as "lack of proximity to sperm." For a garden-variety insemination cycle with ultrasounds I'd be paying somewhere around $1,000 per try, and if I moved into fancy medicated methods the bill could climb to nearly $20,000 a pop. Then there's the tab for the "donor" sperm—at $750 for two thimble-size sperm specimens, it's not exactly a "donation."

The irony wasn't lost on me: I was considering spending all that money when I had my boyfriend's good sperm at the ready. One friend suggested that I let him get me pregnant "accidentally" and then break up and ask for custody in exchange for releasing him from all financial obligations. Another friend suggested that I get pregnant, break up, and not tell him at all. But what kind of mother would I be, duping an innocent boyfriend into having a baby? Hard as it might be to tell my child about a sperm donor, I figured it would be far easier than trying to explain that Mommy was a conniving liar.

The day after I broke up with my boyfriend, I registered with two online dating sites and three online sperm sites. I didn't think they were mutually exclusive. By then I'd heard stories of women who not only had gotten married after having a baby alone but had met their husbands during their pregnancies.

I came across these women the way one might encounter fellow chess enthusiasts or wine lovers. Deciding to have a baby on your own is like being handed a passport to a thriving subculture of like-minded people. In addition to Single Mothers by Choice, there is the informal network of women who know somebody—their co-worker, attorney, real-estate agent—who just did the same thing and is happy to offer support.

With one exception: you're on your own when it comes to your donor. I soon learned that mentioning your donor's identification number is considered bad form. And for good reason: the demographics of women with both the financial means and the temperament to go the sperm-bank route alone are so uncannily similar that just as we all competed for the same kinds of men in the dating world, now we were all competing for the same kinds of genes.

When I began my search, Amy asked, "Back in college did you ever imagine that we'd be fighting over a sperm donor?" She joked that this was the first time she'd gotten the guy we both wanted. A few months earlier she had bought a dozen vials—which meant I had to go on the waiting list, because according to the sperm bank, this donor was "out of stock." (Amy had bought him "on layaway.") In other cases two women discover that their babies are half-siblings because they unwittingly chose the same donor. This happened recently at an SMC meeting when a pregnant woman asked the group, "So, when my child asks who his daddy is, what do I say? 'Your daddy is donor No. 3165'?" A mother with a two-year-old replied, "Did you just use a random number, or is that the actual number of your donor?" Apparently they'd both used No. 3165.

Some sperm banks claim to restrict donors to ten or even twenty-five births each, with an exemption for siblings (which, I suppose, could theoretically mean as many as forty or fifty kids per donor, especially given the high rates of twins and triplets with artificial-insemination treatments). But since there's no formal system for reporting births to the banks, and since a high percentage of women who postpone marriage live in big cities such as New York and Los Angeles, a high percentage of our children will live in the same communities. What if my future child falls in love with a classmate in high school and, unbeknownst to them, they're half-siblings?

For this reason I considered choosing a less popular donor, but then I had second thoughts: Why didn't this donor have a waiting list too? What was wrong with him? (My therapist pointed out that I make the same irrational judgments in the dating world. "If he's so great," I'll say about a man, "why is he still available?")

To get a more visceral impression I had to rely on the "lab girls," as they call themselves—the women at the sperm banks who meet the donors when they come in to "release." The lab girls provide written "staff impressions," which vary from "He can be a bit scatter-brained but does eventually get his stuff done" to "He has amazing biceps too!" Often they'll compare a donor to a celebrity, as in "He looks like a young George Clooney," or "He bears a striking resemblance to Lance Armstrong."

Ordering the father of my child on a Web site was especially difficult for me, because I'm not a good online shopper. I can barely choose a blouse from BananaRepublic.com without calling customer service to get more information on the product description ("When it says blue, does that mean aqua or robin's egg?"). Likewise, I often called Maureen, a customer-service rep at New England Cryogenic, with questions such as "When it says his hair is curly, does that mean wavy or ringlets?"

Maureen would describe donors to me like this: "You wouldn't look twice at him in the subway," or "He reminds me of that guy on The Young and the Restless, the one who plays Victor's daughter Vicky's husband, Cole? He's also been on Days of Our Lives. Oh, and he was one of the Martin brothers on All My Children. He's very handsome." But our frames of reference never meshed. I had no idea who her beefcake soap star was; she had no idea who Jon Stewart was.

Some guys were easy to rule out on my own: The Mensan who didn't know the correct use of an apostrophe. The Harvard senior who was about to move to L.A. to work in film. (I worried I'd run into him at an Ivy League mixer.) The guy whose father had committed suicide and whose favorite color was black. The donors with what I called "genetic schmutz" in their families (schizophrenia, Parkinson's, breast cancer before age sixty). The Bible-study-group leader whose hero was Ronald Reagan. (I avoided both religious and Republican sperm in case those traits were stealthily genetic.)

"My wife and I are currently working on renovating old homes," one donor, an architecture grad student, wrote. His wife? The idea of having a baby with a married man felt creepy.

Sometimes I'd take profiles to my therapist, who would analyze a potential donor instead of analyzing me. "Sounds like he has quite a dark side," my therapist said of the donor whose favorite movie was American Psycho and whose favorite books were Lolita and A Clockwork Orange. Another he diagnosed as having "narcissistic tendencies."

And yet there was a silver lining: by bypassing the uncontrollable world of romance, I was able to choose a man to father my child who might be completely out of my league in the real world. Instead of marrying a schlubby but lovable man and thinking, I hope our kid doesn't get his crooked nose or bad eyesight or thin hair, I could pick from cold, hard DNA.

Even my mother, who often complained that I was too picky about men, encouraged my selectivity about a donor. Suddenly it seemed acceptable to rule out guys arbitrarily, based on some perceived flaw. The second you separate mating from dating, it's okay to indulge hubristic fantasies of genetic engineering (must be over six feet tall, with a combined SAT score higher than 1500) in a group of social liberals who ordinarily freak out if anyone says "retarded" instead of "mentally challenged" or calls somebody "Asian" instead of specifying "Japanese" or "Korean." These same friends even logged on to the Donor Sibling Registry with me to view the offspring of various donors solely to judge who had the most physically attractive progeny.

Finally the sperm bank called. I'd been moved up on the waiting list and could buy enough vials of my first-choice sperm for two tries. Did I wish to remain on the waiting list for more? Sometimes a woman will stockpile a particular donor's semen, because even if she gets pregnant relatively quickly, she may miscarry and have to try again, or she may want extra sperm for siblings.

I wasn't sure I cared about using the same sperm for subsequent children, but just to be safe I stayed on the list. Of the many issues my artificially inseminated kids may have, the last thing I would want one of them to say is "But he got a better sperm donor than I did."

Presented by

Lori Gottlieb is the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

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