When it comes to blogging about complex emotions, I try to only share my own. I don’t have a claim to anyone else’s. But we had an experience on the weekend that is extremely relevant to the whole purpose behind this blog, and I’m going to try to write about it in a way that respects everyone involved even though I can’t know the complexities of anyone else’s emotions in the matter.
Our donor and his wife (very close friends of ours) are expecting their second child next month. My wife and I were invited to a surprise baby shower hosted by some mutual colleagues. I assumed that only work people would be there, but apparently my wife was preparing herself emotionally for the possibility that our donor’s parents might be there. This time my wife’s usually paranoid suspicions were completely founded. His parents were there. Overall it went very smoothly, but there was some degree of awkwardness that I think is important to write about as part of our experience as a family made in this way.
When we created our donor contract with the help of a family-friend lawyer, we included some lines on our mutual expectations regarding the donor’s family – from his wife and his own children, to his parents and siblings. We had met his parents and siblings before (like I said, we are close friends), and we decided to leave it completely up to our donor to decide if/how he wanted to tell his parents that he was a sperm donor. We never talked about if/how he had told them. We kind of assumed he didn’t tell them since he didn’t talk to us about it. Not that we needed him to tell us all about his personal conversations with his family, but we kind of expected he would tell us one way or the other, I guess.
We were one of the first families to arrive at the shower, and stood around waiting for the guests of honor to arrive so we could jump out and yell “surprise!” After us, one of the next families to arrive was our donor’s parents. I was highly distracted by trying to balance caring for Avery with having an adult conversation with one of the hosts (an old research partner). Eventually our donor’s father came over and said hello and asked “and who’s this?” to our baby. I said “this is Avery,” and he said “oh this is Avery! How wonderful! She’s so beautiful.” He seemed quite enamoured (of course, who wouldn’t be). It was lovely, but there was that unspoken knowledge that he shared a little genetic linkage to our baby. I don’t know what would have been more awkward for us: acknowledging it or ignoring it. Either way, it was ignored.
So of course, as soon as the guests of honor arrived, our donor came over to us and asked to hold Avery. He is great with her and we love watching them hang out when we get together. But then he did something that surprised us. He took her over to meet his parents on the other side of the room. He was with them for a while. We watched out of the corner of our eyes, so curious what was being said, how his parents felt about her, what they were thinking but was left unsaid…
Later in the party, our donor seemed to have realized that there was a little awkwardness with what had transpired. He decided he should probably tell us why he took Avery over to his parents.
I guess when he told them he was a sperm donor for us, his dad was really cool with it but his mom was a little slower to come around. He didn’t say how well or how badly she took the news, but it was clear that she went through a range of emotions. He said he thought it would help his mom to meet the baby. Also, I suspect, he was a little proud of her in a way that a genetically-unrelated friend wouldn’t be.
Our donor’s mother eventually came over to us as well and “met” Avery, this time in a way that we felt completely comfortable – while with us. His mother was perfectly friendly and also said that she was beautiful. She didn’t ask to hold Avery, she didn’t reach out to touch her. It was very casual – like she shared no genetic link with our daughter. This interaction felt a lot less awkward than the one with our donor’s dad, even though I’m sure she felt more awkward. A little awkwardness keeps people at a comfortable distance.
Overall, we had a great time at the shower and we were able to brush off the awkward feelings when we left. I was, at least. I don’t know how deeply it really bothered my wife, but these issues always bother her more because without a genetic link she feels as though her parental rights are more easily threatened. And legally, she’s right. For now (come on, adoption).
Not 5 minutes after we got home, I started getting text messages from our donor. He apologized perfusely for his actions and said he was just so excited about his baby on-the-way and about our baby and how cute she is, that he didn’t think before he acted. He was really upset with himself. For me, at least, having him acknowledge the situation made me feel completely at ease again. Not 100% sure about my wife’s feelings on the matter, but I know she was relieved by his text messages too.
No matter what we think of these interactions or how we would want them to go (or not go) in an ideal world, the fact is that our daughter has a genetic link to a whole other family out there. Not so far out there, actually. All we can do as her parents is to keep her fully in-the-loop and confident in where she comes from and where she belongs, and to make sure that everyone who has contact with her in these weird legal/familial grey areas are respectful of her and of us as her parents. I like to think that she’s lucky to have so many people “invested” in her in some way. However, I also feel a little worried sometimes that things will be a bit complicated for her as she learns to navigate genetic half-siblings who are not half-sisters (it’s all in the semantics for us), genetically related old people who are not grandparents, etc. When I have these worries, I kind of want to give her a sibling so she can be less alone in navigating her ties with other families. But that’s a conversation for another time…