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?

Unlike the customary fluorescent-lit doctor's office, the insemination room at CFP was completely dark except for the lamp that the doctor had positioned above my pelvis. I wondered if the intention was to create a little mood lighting for this most unromantic act of conception. As he checked the status of my dominant follicle, I stared at the artwork on the walls: photographs of sea anemones and other creatures resembling vaginas, like underwater Georgia O'Keeffes.

"Your endometrium looks beautiful!" he said after he had squeezed K-Y jelly onto a phallus-shaped wand. He was looking at an ultrasound of my uterus. "Just beautiful!" he repeated, adding a little whistle of admiration.

Although my feet were in stirrups and I was still fully dressed from the waist up, with a paper sheet covering my privates, I blushed, flattered by the comment. It reminded me of the things men say when making love: You have the most beautiful body. You have the most beautiful breasts. I wanted to feel beautiful—or at least human—during this sacred act of creating a child. Your endometrium looks beautiful. I'd even gotten a bikini wax for the occasion, and instead of neatly folding my panties and trousers on the chair, I left them strewn across the corner of the room, as if to mimic the scene of some wildly impulsive sex.

"We're all done," the doctor announced less than a minute later, and I felt disappointed that I hadn't even known it was happening. My married professor friend later said I shouldn't bemoan the lack of romance. She reminded me that most women aren't having torrid sex when they conceive—and half the time they're left uttering the same two words to their husbands that I blurted out to the doctor: "That's it?"

I got pregnant on the second try, and lately I've found myself talking to the baby growing inside me. I wonder what I'll say when my child talks back, when he or she starts asking, "Do I have a daddy?" I wonder if I'll feel a twinge of grief at various milestones, such as when I buy one of those "Where do I come from?" books for donor-conceived kids (titles include I'm a Little Frostie and Our Story). Even more challenging, though, will be figuring out what to say if I have a daughter who at age thirty asks me tough questions about love and marriage and whether to wait for the right man.

Perhaps by then I'll be married to a man who was worth waiting for. But it's equally possible that I'll have revised my "somebody isn't always better than nobody" theory and will tell her that some partner might be better than no partner, and that being lonely in a marriage wouldn't have been half as bad as being lonely outside one.

I'm not alone in this ambivalence. The women I know who are having babies on their own aren't independent superwomen. In fact, most of us would like nothing more than to have a man around to help pay the bills, fix the dishwasher, take out the trash, give soothing back rubs, and change diapers. We want a man to hold the door open for us at a restaurant, and society to hold the door open for us to have a child while we search for the door-opening man.

I was on a date the other night—no sushi, no wine, no talk of cervical mucus—when the guy asked me about my sperm donor. It struck me then how odd it is never to have met the man whose child is growing in my body—to literally be carrying a stranger's baby. My date pointed out, however, that women aren't the only ones grappling with this brave new world—not just because recent scientific studies have shed light on the male biological clock but because, men say, women will become even pickier as a result of having more options.

He's right. Whereas women of a certain age used to marry their boyfriends in order to have children, nowadays it no longer sounds counterintuitive to hear a single woman say that she, like me, broke up with her boyfriend in order to have a baby.

But maybe that's a good thing, for both men and women. In fact, since becoming pregnant I've gotten a surprising amount of male attention. It's not due to some bizarre pregnant-lady fetish; until recently I wasn't even showing. Rather, it seems that a man in his mid-thirties appreciates getting to know a woman without ulterior motives—one who likes him for his inherent qualities instead of for the children he might help produce. The men I'm dating realize that I already have everything else I want, so now I'm in this purely for a chance at love. Meanwhile, in just a few months I'll meet my new baby. It may not be the traditional fairy tale, but in a very modern sense my life these days feels incredibly romantic.

Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is the author of Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self. She also writes for television.
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Lori Gottlieb is the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

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