Part 1: In which Baltimore Fishbowl Senior Editor Betsy Boyd and her husband select their sperm donor.
In the last year, over the course of four IUIs (intrauterine inseminations) and one IVF (in-vitro fertilization) procedure, I have purchased millions of sperm “donated” by men whose names, ages, and places of birth remain unknown to me.
My journalist husband and I sat down together on Saturday evenings to shop the overwhelmingly diverse, abundantly stocked sperm bank’s website. Michael, my spouse, is a rectal cancer survivor treated with radical radiation, whose sperm growth, as a result, progresses only to its third of four maturation levels, stopping at what the doctor calls its adolescent stage. We talk about his sperm like it’s legions of selfish frat boys drunk and distracted.
I should explain: We’d made a serious commitment to each other three years earlier when I was thirty-six (biological clock ticking like a bomb) with the understanding that we’d attempt to have a child naturally or, for me, the relationship would be over. Michael had never wanted children, but he wanted our connection—so much so that he was willing to open his eyes to the possibility of fatherhood, and willing to try with me on a very regular basis. By the time we wed, however, we knew what we were in for in terms of fertility obstacles. Michael vowed he’d stand by me no matter the financial and emotional cost—that is, until we possibly ran out of savings.
“Or maybe you’ll get pregnant naturally,” he said, “and save a lot of hassle.”
“Maybe—that would be lovely,” I said, knowing I wouldn’t, couldn’t, not with his sperm, knowing he knew that, too.
“We can always adopt,” he added for the millionth time.
“I like that idea, but I want to have my own biological baby first,” I said yet again, as he nodded.
As we surfed the sperm site, Michael said little—that’s his style—but took shorthand notes as we narrowed our search to men with similar physical traits to his (reddish brunette hair, slim build, brown eyes) and perused together their data-detailed yet mostly colorless and vague profiles, agreeing we’d spend half an hour, max, then reward ourselves with a nightcap or Netflix.
What is accessible to a sperm shopper free of charge via a typical “cryobank” website is the self-stimulating fellow’s astrological sign, his belief in God or lack thereof, his general interest in sports and hobbies, his pet preference (sperm-donating men typically favor dogs), his college major or lack thereof, his blood type, his family health history, the number of drinks he thinks he drinks per week, whether or not he has created a pregnancy up to this point, whether he will allow his future IVF-conceived children to know his identity when they turn eighteen, and, by way of brief interviews, both audio and written, what matters to him most in life. For my donors of real interest, I ordered a baby picture for $10. For sixty bucks, I could order “Lifetime Photos,” consisting of a childhood and adult portrait pair.
Two single friends, both forty-ish like me, who’d recently done IUI, told me what to look for, or rather, what they tended to obsess over, because “everyone who buys sperm obsesses over something,” my college friend said. The other, who had success on her second insemination round, considered only those donors who could boast one knocked-up sperm customer; she also looked for someone whose separate ethnicity she could pile on top of her own worldly assortment. The college friend insisted on the open-identity clause or she wasn’t interested—she had vivid fantasies of the child meeting his/her bio daddy someday. Meanwhile, as a longtime creative writing instructor, I was most concerned with the guy’s voice, his diction, his ability to express a complex idea clearly, his education, and finally his face.
As Michael and I began to search donor candidates, I realized I was also concerned about him. Worried again that he might feel uncomfortable or intimidated or even jealous reading biographical facts from the younger men’s files—one candidate we liked, 4610, stood six-feet-seven-inches tall and, when his photo showed him to be soap-opera-actor beautiful, balancing a barbell on sculpted shoulders, we gasped in unison, no doubt for different reasons—but I told myself I was being silly. My husband may not be the most emotionally expressive man on the planet, but he was on board with our plan. And he was devoted. He wouldn’t hide important opinions or fears from me, because he couldn’t—could he?
“Even I would sleep with him,” Michael said of 4610, easing my concern.
Michael is older than I by more than a few years; his sense of humor’s alive and well and even advanced, in my opinion, if not his sperm. So when he later pointed out Dumbbell’s audio clip showed his speech to be maybe half the speed of other donors and “likable but unoriginal, and maybe a tad insincere” in its “I just want to make the whole room smile” message, I didn’t question his motivation. Instead, I rethought my original approval of the smile-with-me slogan. Michael urged, “This is your decision, babe,” but I craved consensus. Therefore, ixnay on the tudsay. But, of course, I still wanted to buy some sperm and be done with it, so we could watch Netflix, so I could have peace of mind I’d done my Assisted Reproductive Technology homework—the most important homework of my life—before the last minute. And so did Michael.
Donor 4011 had an easy, honest, semi-sexy voice—a voice I could imagine sleeping beside, talking to, even having an affair with (I did say imagine).
“He’s like someone I might have gone to bed with,” I said aloud in an unthinking moment, “in another life.”
“Is that the test?” Michael asked.
“Maybe a little,” I admitted, then tried to change the subject: “I also love that his identity will be available to the kid. Some of our other top picks aren’t.”
When 4011 said, in his audio, that having his twins had been a “game-changer, in a really good way,” I cringed at the cliché but also believed that he meant it, by his voice. So did Michael—score. Plus, 4011 could play six instruments; he didn’t believe in God but he believed in love; he was raising frogs to have fun and help the environment. Good, good, good. I bought the Lifetime Photos.
As a baby, 4011 appeared sluggish, mouth open, plastic work tools clutched in his hands—early on, he had the aura of a stoned mechanic. As a thirty-something, however, he was pleasant, a bit Russell Crowe-like, as the chipper cryobank staff promised. I could overlook the weak chin and iron-on T-shirt. His eyes were so pretty. Michael rated him only “okay” in the looks department but A+ on recorded interview, and we were sold.
Unfortunately, after repeat tries, 4011 didn’t get me pregnant.
As I prepared for the first IVF procedure, I had fantasies of returning to 4610, making love to him in a brightly lit clinic, birthing a future basketball star, boy or girl, who might not possess the oratory power to run for President or launch an impressive internet company, but would light up a room nonetheless, maybe even make an entire stadium break wide smiles. When I looked again at 4610’s pricy photo I myself smiled. Let’s face it: His child would land endorsement deals.
And yet his slick voice stopped me when I revisited the audio chat. Damn. I had to be honest: 4610 didn’t light up my mind. I wanted someone smarter. If I couldn’t have my husband, I wanted someone more like my husband. A funny person. A truly wise person. A person who understood the world in vastly different terms than I. And, I realized, I wanted to choose a donor about whom even extra-nonchalant Michael would not be able to contain his enthusiasm.
“Based on the sucky information available,” I told myself.
Add to the whole intricate nuisance the fact that my new IVF nurse had encouraged me to find a CMV-negative donor, because I’d never been exposed to the cytomegalovirus, which I discovered is harder than finding someone CMV-positive. The search seemed suddenly even more oppressive. How much overtime would be required? That’s when I started making secret sperm bank searches on my own, not that Michael would have minded—frankly, it seemed too uneventful to report. Mostly I came up empty. Until a few days later. After reading up on more than a dozen donating guys who’d never been exposed to CMV but who didn’t appeal to me word-wise either, I came across this dude from Georgia—the country, not the state. 4282 was CMV-negative and his voice sounded almost put out by the simplistic interview process. And yet friendly at the same time, if you can imagine the combo. He sounded world-weary…cute. And he was an engineer pursuing a PhD—very nice. I imagining genius Steve Jobs donating sperm way back when (even though Jobs dropped out).
In his written interview, 4282 said of his biggest life lesson, “Don’t assume the people around you won’t be affected by what you say; think before you talk and sometimes just shut up,” which I liked; he continued, “My friend and I were on a city bus in the States talking in Russian about this guy sitting nearby, laughing, never realizing he spoke Russian, too, and he’d heard every single thing we said about his fat stomach. This conversion was stupid to start.”
Sold! I thought, chuckling along with him. I didn’t even care what the pictures looked like. Sold.
But of course I wanted pictures because I wanted to present Michael with the whole package. Unsurprisingly, though, super-cool 4282 had neglected to provide photographs. It’s not mandatory, after all. The only visual aid available was a shadowy silhouette, which I picked up for $24. Michael and I, having agreed we found 4282’s quirky interview materials beyond great, sat down to take a close look, as close a look as we could from the side. 4282’s profile didn’t look like Matt Damon, as the staff had hinted, but he looked somehow kind—to me. His face pieces were all in the right places, his chin nearly as solid as my husband’s. But what would my man say?
“He’s the one,” were his words, which made me happier than I had felt in weeks.
Some days after I ordered two vials of 4282’s supply—which is no longer available several months later, indicating he has better prospects now, and good for him—Michael and I strolled around our neighborhood reservoir. We were anticipating the IVF procedure and I ventured to mention our latest donor, who’d not come up in conversation since I entered my Visa number in the sperm bank’s PayPal page.
“He seems so cool,” I said, trying to drum up fresh enthusiasm for our sperm—for some neurotic-feeling reason. “We’d probably like him in real life. We’d like to have dinner with him and learn more about Georgia.”
“He’s definitely smart, you can hear it,” my husband said.
“And I so love his face,” I added, fishing for another compliment for my donor.
“Okay,” my husband said, failing to play along.
“He doesn’t look like Matt Damon—” I said.
“Who does he look like? Come on.”
“More like Richard Simmons!” he blurted.
“How could you say that?”
I fought the urge to cry.
“What did I say?”
“He doesn’t look anything like Richard Simmons. You’re just mean. You’re just jealous!”
“Of?” he said.
“Of?” he repeated.
Sometimes just shut up, I heard my donor whisper. Our conversation had turned from stupid to stupider.
“My point is we don’t know what he looks like,” Michael said. “We have a silhouette drawing.”
We walked one long reservoir circuit in silence until Michael took my hand.
“Sorry,” he said. “Sometimes I mess up.”
“No. That’s okay—I’m sorry it’s a gross, hard process.”
Three ducks in the reservoir were gathering on grassy land, as though for a family cocktail hour.
“I like the Georgian—I just wish we could use my sperm,” my husband admitted, something he’d said only once before. Repeating is not his style.
“Me, too,” I told him, momentarily not giving a shit whom our donor resembled or didn’t resemble. “You have the best face ever.”
We walked home and Michael sat at his computer screen, presumably checking email while I dished ice cream into two bowls.
“Very good head shape—normal, attractive in outline,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I called from the kitchen.
“Ah, I’m glad you think so,” I shouted back.
And that’s the last we said of this funny, cranky, and altogether anonymous Georgian scientist whose second vial of sperm will next week fertilize our IVF cycle number two—for now, it’s the last we need to.
This essay originally appeared at Medium.
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