The turkey baster has no clothes

After stumbling across Steven Colbert’s reference, a week ago Tuesday, to covens of lesbian feminists inseminating themselves with turkey basters, I felt it necessary, as a self-appointed agent of public enlightenment on matters pertaining to lesbian parenthood, to clarify the real relationship between lesbian gals trying to conceive (or TTC, as we call it) and this most storied of kitchen utensils.

You see I, too, dear reader, was once uninitiated. And not merely to the mysterious ways of alternative insemination (or AI, as we call it). I needn’t belabor the details, but let us just say, it was News To Me that the turkey baster isn’t at all an appropriate means to deliver the wherewithal of one’s future children into one’s sweetie’s womb. In fact, the notion is, to put it mildly, balderdash. One could also say it is bunk, drivel, piffle, poppycock, rubbish, and twaddle (all radiant Wiktionary synonyms for balderdash). Or one could also cut to the chase, and aknowledge that the turkey baster reference is yet one more tawdry, fatigued example of masculinist hyperbole. It’s not so much the dimensions of the object that are inappropriate. It’s the volume of liquid it is designed to transport.

Allow me to share a wee anecdote, by way of illustration. With both our donor chums, the whole insemination process was refreshingly low-tech, employing objects that any self-respecting Let’s Make A Deal contestant might have stashed in her purse. The very first insemination we did was a good six years after we had completed our “Maybe Baby” class at the local lesbian-run midwifery, but a full two years before our daughter was born. On the big night, I drove to our chum’s place at an aforementioned hour, and flashed the car headlights. Not because I had to; it was just more fun that way. He had cooked a fine meal with the contents of a jar of marinated artichokes, then cleaned it out, boiled it, and dried it, per our specifications. Filling it was per his own specifications, and that is a story for him to tell, should he like to (he has mused about doing an Esquire piece from time to time).

After I blinked my car’s headlights, he blinked his porch light on and off, (not because he had to; it was just more fun that way), then darted out to the car with the jar nestled inside his gym sock, also per our instructions. The sperm needed to remain warm — but not too warm! — on their ride home with me, en route to their date with destiny, a.k.a. my beloved’s waiting, egg-filled fallopian tubes. Our chum and I gave each other a big bear hug, and I palmed the goods, accepted his cheery well-wishing, and sped my way home, with nary a peek at the jar.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I unveiled the jar and found — a scant few milliliters of hoo ha! The turkey baster was the symbol for alternative insemination for years, I thought for good reason, and so now I was fully prepared to don hip boots for the job. Just earlier that same day, in fact, I was fingering the little dimestore syringe we had, asking the beloved whether it really would do the trick, etc. While more hep to these sorts of matters, let us say, she still couldn’t quite recall on a milliliter basis what we could be looking forward to. We consulted and re-consulted our lesbian conception and pregnancy guidebooks, and confirmed that the wee 10 mil syringe would be all we’d need.

That inaugural insemination night, candles all aglow, we peered at the artichoke jar and its humble contents. We stared at the little syringe. We stared back at the artichoke jar. Mmm, yep. Won’t be needing the turkey baster, that’s for sure.

My beloved was sanguine about it all, but I was apalled. “What the hell?!” I held the jar up to the light to be sure I wasn’t missing out on volumes and volumes of our future kid.

“What?” she said, feigning innocence. This was all going to go well, dadgum it, as god was her witness.

“What is this? I mean, did he miss? Where is it all?”

“Sweetie, I think that is it all.”

“But all that stuff about a turkey baster! What the hell is that about?! An entire rugby team on Viagra couldn’t supply enough hoo-ha to fill a turkey baster! It would slither right out of a turkey baster and the turkey baster wouldn’t even know the difference!” All my life I hadn’t cared a jot about the reproductive capacities of my bretheren, and now I was taking it all personally. And not a little ungratefully.

“I’m sure it’ll be alright,” says the beloved. “I can’t really remember now how much fluid comes out. But we’ll make good use of whatever’s there.” Which of course we did. Also, like our alt. inseminating sistren from coast to coast, we breathed not a word about our initial surprise at the quantity. Quality is what counts, after all, and it’s not like ragging on your donor chum (“Dude! Is really that all you can muster?!”) is going to actually have a positive impact on the quantity anyway. In fact, looking the gift horse in the mouth, as it were, is very likely to have quite the opposite effect.

I became adept at extracting whatever was extractable from the de-socked artichoke jar over the course of dozens of inseminations — counting the multiple times we inseminated during each ovulation, and then the number of months we tried, what with two different donor chums, one miscarriage, and two kids. Even at its most copious, the volume we were working with was four milliliters (indicated by the amount I have pulled back in the photo above).

I should note, for the record and for our sistren yet to tread this path, that two milliliters, or half a teaspoon, is considered normal output. Total capacity on a turkey baster? That would be thirty milliliters.

Mmmm yup. Elephant inseminations, sure. Human, not so much.

I’m sure the turkey baster will remain the symbol of low-tech alternative insemination into perpetuity, though. And why not? Maybe likening the human male’s reproductive output to that of an elephant increases the appeal of donating, and therefore the number of donor chums in the world. And if so, great. Because when I look at our kids, I think: it will take me a lifetime to express the gratitude I feel, and even then, it won’t be enough.

[Later note: highly recommended comment thread. Lotsa great stories. (Add yours!)]

32 thoughts on “The turkey baster has no clothes”

  1. We did all of our inseminations in the clinic because we used an unknown donor.

    I remember the first time we went in and the nurse pulled the vial out to thaw it. We both stood there, completely by how much we were paying for so little product.

  2. I had the same reaction as Vikki. How was it possible that this teeny vial, smaller than the first knuckle on my pinky finger, contained enough little swimmers to make a baby? And what on earth WERE the charging me for???

  3. Okay, I will now reveal my embarassing ignorance on the matter (egregious, considering my self-appointed agent of enlightenment status), but: aren’t the goods you get at a clinic all buffed and streamlined? Like, the Issue goes through a cetrifuge and all the swimmers who can’t take the heat, as it were, are ushered out of the kitchen? So’s all you have there are the bionic sperm, rippling with motility, ready to Get Things Done? No slackers to have to leapfrog over, en route to their date w/ destiny?

    Just a question.

    It’s quite something when you see also what donors are offered, per donation. Lots o’ overhead in that business. Though I’m sure if someone from a sperm bank were to read this, they’d be able to enlighten us as to the rising costs of refrigeration and centrifugation or what have you.

  4. We brought our swimmers home in a big, heavy metal cylinder from a cryobank. Opened the lid, and it made a Star-Trekky whooshing sound as clouds of dry ice steam rose from the hatch. Melissa reached in, grasped the black plastic handle, and boldly pulled the core out of the icy depths.

    I said, “where the hell is it?”

    She picked a teeeeeny, tiny little vial off the cane.

    “Oh,” I said. “#82316?”


    Thusly was begat our little Rocky.

  5. Just imagine… if you have it delivered to your home, as we do. It comes in a box the size of a folded up Pack-n-Play and weighs MORE! Then you open the thing up, tear off all the layers and get down to the final product only to find that a 1ml syringe is plenty big. It’s like a life-size Matrioshka doll with the tiniest grain of rice baby doll inside! No wonder they used to imagine that each sperm was a tiny child swimming for a nest.

  6. Our experience was very similar only he brought “the goods” to us. The porch light is a very nice touch. If we do it again (highly unlikely) I will include that dramatic touch!

  7. Hey, look at Natalie Angier’s timely portrait of, well, sperm. On their dramatic journey. In yesterday’s NY Times:

    The average ejaculation consists mostly of a teaspoon’s worth of nonspermic seminal fluid, a viscous mix of sugars, citric acid and other ingredients designed to pamper and power the sperm cells and prepare them for difficult times ahead; the sperm proper account for only about 1 percent of the semen mass. Yet in that 1 percent may be found 150 million sperm, 150 million human aspirants yearning to meet their mammoth other halves.

    I stand (sit, loll) corrected on the volume of ejaculate. Okay, okay, one whole teaspoon. But it’s a great piece of science writing.

  8. Yes, the frozen stuff is washed and spun. When inseminations are done in clinics, they usually go through the cervix and (so we were told) the unwashed stuff increases the risk of infection.

    We were buying the pre-washed stuff and only learned later that our clinic was washing it again anyway because that is their policy. We had the cleanest sperm in town.

  9. Not sure I have much to add here–we went the my-egg-her-womb route and it was all done in the clinic without us getting to see much. I’m just ROFL at the thread. Loved the Mr. Clean image!

    I will add, though, that for those of us who use anonymous sperm, the whole process of choosing sperm through an online search engine (from a sperm bank; I’m not talking Google here) is worthy of a post in itself. When I have some time….

  10. through the cervix . . . the unwashed stuff increases the risk of infection

    Intrauterine use of unwashed sperm can be fatal, or so I’ve read. When they started doing this stuff and discovered that women were writhing in pain, they figured out that they needed to wash out the seminal fluid. It has lots of prostaglandin in it and what that does to a uterus is tell it to contract. Result: cramps like you wouldn’t believe.

    I dunno about fatal, but about five minutes after one of my tries (IUI, hence washed sperm), terrible cramps hit. Not the little “oops, someone’s been poking at my cervix” cramps but real, OH MAN HOW DO I THINK I’M GOING TO SURVIVE LABOR?! agony. I was told that while it happens very rarely, and isn’t dangerous to either the woman or the chances of conception, sometimes a little wee bit of prostaglandin remains. Guess I should’ve gone with the double-washing. 😉

    Happy ending: they gave me a lot of Advil and the cramps faded (though not fast enough for me), and though I didn’t get pregnant that time, a couple of tries later I did. And labor was bearable even for a pain-intolerant wuss like me. And seriously, the NP at the clinic, who does hundreds and hundreds of these a year, said only one or two IUIs a year resulted in cramps. So don’t be scared, future inseminatees reading this, IUI doesn’t hurt.

  11. Great discussion! Being the economist that I am, I have been interested for some time on the pricing of the, as you say, Issue: what the bank pays the donors, what we pay the bank, etc.

    You all probably noticed this, but if you didn’t go back and check it out. They charge a premium for sperm that is, what they call “professional” which, translated, means that the donor either has in hand, or is working toward a graduate degree.

    Two asides about this:
    1. for all of you out there with graduate degrees (you know who you are) you have to admit that the piece of paper is way more about determination than anything else and I doubt that is a genetic quality to be passed on and
    2. most of the donors probably just aren’t old enough to have acquired their graduate degrees yet, so that price differential is just a load of crap.

    My second thought is about the payment issue. Recently you all may have noticed the Washington Post articles about Adults who are the product of donor insemination pushing for banks to require that donors sign agreements that they will be willing to be contacted by potential offspring in the future. I wonder if donors will demand a higher payment (thus increasing the cost of sperm) due to the potential cost to them in the future.

    Any thoughts?

  12. giddings – they already charge more for “ID release” sperm, but I do not think they give the donors a higher payment.

    Personal tidbits:
    We realized, when we were having local known donor angst, that flying a willing human male 900 miles, housing him, feeding him, and entertaining him for a long weekend was actually cheaper than buying frozen sperm and so that is what we did. This is especially true if you consider we would inseminate at least 3 times per visit.

    Also – eventually our journey turned to IVF, and due to idiotic FDA regulations regarding known donors it became clear that our best choice was to have him donate at our IVF clinic and freeze his sperm. This was also more cost effective than buying sperm from a bank because his two donations were washed and split into EIGHT vials. We have 6 left and I am 10 weeks pg. Hopefully, we can make this baby a sibling later with the frozen stuff, and his job is done here.

  13. When we started TTC the first time around, there was one price for all sperm. The second time around, the professional/non-professional dichotomy had begun. We were set on using the same donor who turned out to be a non-professional. It’s ridiculous but it is also fascinating because it says so much about our culture, don’t you think? Now that I know that we used non-professional sperm, I tell my son to give up his lofty goal of becoming a marine biologist…”Sorry son, we used the cheap sperm”.

    And I do believe that sperm banks will start charging more for those donors who are willing to be contacted. It’s just a matter of time…

  14. You all probably noticed this, but if you didn’t go back and check it out. They charge a premium for sperm that is, what they call “professional” which, translated, means that the donor either has in hand, or is working toward a graduate degree.

    The sperm bank we used is nonprofit (the only such in the country, according to their website) and the charges to recipients are exactly the same regardless of donor qualifications. Donors don’t get any bonuses for extra degrees, either. No one is getting rich donating to them: they get $75 per acceptable ejaculate for the first 25, $90 per after that, $200 when they’re done. I don’t know what the average number is, but they can’t give indefinitely because of the strict limits on the number of offspring each donor can have. So, a few thousand bucks over the course of months or years. That plus our unutterable gratitude will get that young man more than a cup of coffee, but it won’t pay for his rent, much less an exalted standard of living. It seems like a fair payment for a lot of time and effort (no sniggering, now, I mean all the family history and medical tests and whatnot, not the donation bit!).

    A friend of ours, when we were marveling that a half-teaspoon of a substance that is, shall we say, not exactly in scarce supply, reminded us that what we were paying for was the pedigree. But in fact we were very turned-off by the bank we investigated that seemed to have a real “get yerself a genius kid” orientation. Like you, I doubt heredity goes quite that far. What we paid for was all the testing, interviewing, freezing and storage, and overhead. Plus plenty extra for shipping, ’cause even living under an hour from the bank, I got good and tired of shlepping up there the every month the same week that I had to make multiple trips to the clinic in the opposite direction, and we decided FedEx was worth the reduction in hassle.

    I wonder if donors will demand a higher payment (thus increasing the cost of sperm) due to the potential cost to them in the future.

    What would the potential cost be? At least in our state, donors have no financial obligations to offspring (and no claim on them either, for visitation rights or any of that). We chose an open-identity donor because that biological heritage is very important to some people and if it were important to our daughter we wanted her to be able to meet the donor. By the agreement he signed, she will have the right to meet him once when she is 18. Any further contact has to be mutually agreed-upon. Money doesn’t enter into it at all. Is it different in other states?

  15. Our first experience with the Goo of Life was a bit different than others’. We went in prepared for a miniscule amount from our known donor. Our friends had told us that we’d get about 1 or 2cc. We had a 5cc syringe but since we’d been warned about how little fluid one actually gets, we were despairing of our too-large syringe (we had wanted a 3cc one) and were sure that we were going to lose precious sperm in our gigantic syringe.

    I have no idea how it happened, and I really don’t want to know, but when our donor came up from the basement, baby food jar in hand (for the symbolism, you know?), and we set to loading our syringe up, we found that he had given us about 8cc! Holy schmoly! We had hit the MOTHER LOAD! Our donor was a GUSHING TEXAS OIL WELL of life! We were sure to get pregnant with quintuplets simply because of the plentitude of fertilizing power.

    Kristin didn’t get pregnant that month. And the next month we got barely 1cc. In fact, he averages a 2cc output. But sometimes I dream of that overflowing syringe of life…

  16. The bank we used here in Minnesota does not allow children or families to contact the donor. Just not an option. We would have had to go with a bank in another state to have that option.

  17. I hate when I forget to finish a sentence. Please read

    A friend of ours, when we were marveling that a half-teaspoon of a substance that is, shall we say, not exactly in scarce supply, reminded us that what we were paying for was the pedigree.


    A friend of ours, when we were marveling that a half-teaspoon of a substance that is, shall we say, not exactly in scarce supply, could cost hundreds of dollars, reminded us that what we were paying for was the pedigree.

  18. We were living in metro DC when we started our TTC journey, so we went with the Big Suburban Bank with which I imagine most of you are familiar.

    The online shopping experience was nothing short of surreal. Especially when we discovered the price differential for a donor with an advanced degree. On the one hand — ridiculous. Any educational influences that the child might need, we were 100% confident we could and would provide.

    On the other hand, this is not an area of life in which bargain shopping seems desirable.

    Having earlier established that sperm are a qualified medical expense that can be paid for using the Health Care Flexible Spending Account available through my office (heh — how’s that for a customer service call?), we decided that we simply would not use the advanced degree information as a decisionmaking criterion. If “Mr Right” had one, we’d pay for it; if not, lucky us.

    We got down to 2 potential donors, and then bought all available info on both. One had a PhD and one had no advanced degree. During the audio interviews, my partner had one of Those Moments where she Just Knew. Lucky for our finances, the feeling was in favor of the guy with no advanced degree.

  19. I forgot — an incidental observation on the subject of freezers and other overhead costs.

    We recently moved our last 4 vials of Freezer Pop from Big Famous Bank to our local feminist health center. BFB has been charging us $35/month to leave the freezer on; the not-for-profit feminists will be charging us $10/month.

    Yes, lots of overhead. But also lots of profit. Anyone want to go in with me on a really big freezer? 😉

  20. This is so edifying. Looks like a synopsis, or something, ought to go over onto

    Also: Freezer Pop! Freezer Pop! The whole beeswax is rife with monikers.

    Okay, I know: a post on AI VOCABULARY WORDS any novice should know. Both for edification and for entertainment value. Okay, here I go.

    [Later note: Oops! MA State legislator votes against same-sex marriage ban! Can’t scoop that news for a while. But the AI Vocab is so my next LesFam post!]

  21. Hmmm. . . . We’ve got a nice big freezer in our garage. Maybe we should go into business.

    We didn’t have any cute names for the goo of life or the guys who provided it (we called them, unoriginally, by their donor numbers). I really like Freezer Pop.

    For me, The Tank was the defining metaphor for the ridiculousness of the whole process. It also made it difficult to be discreet. Once I was coming back from an IUI and swung through a drive-up coffee joint across the way, where the cashier was about three times the age of your average barista and twice as nosy, in a friendly, “how’re ya doin’ hon” waitressy way. She spied The Tank in the backseat and said “what’s that for?”

    I said, “Kidney transplant.”

    If I’d stuck to that story, she would have believed me, I swear. She said, “Really?” and looked geared up to commiserate. She was almost nice enough to tell my whole TTC story to, but not out my car window in a suburban supermarket parking lot. I just said, “Nah, I’m just kidding,” and drove off with my mocha.

  22. Back when we still got the juice delivered to our doorstep (FedEx in the boonies is definitely an experience), we couldn’t afford the LN tank so we had to use dry ice. I’d get a call at work and then stop by on my way home to pick some up. Massively huge gloves and a red shopping basket later, I had to remind the checkout clerk not to touch it. And they always had to look it up in their little book. By the time I got home, half of it would be gone. Then we’d shove it all in the freezer (the minuscule vial inside of a huge Styrofoam box packed with dry ice) and wait for the big O.

    The checkout kids never asked what the dry ice was for, but you could tell they wanted to. I’m not sure if they thought I was an obsessive theater nerd or baking drugs in my basement.

    I’ll never forget the conversation we had to have with the preschool teacher when our oldest told her the mailman had left a baby on our front porch. She ended up learning more about AI than she ever wanted to.

  23. Okay, I was laughing my !ss off reading the beloveds and your reactiong xD I think we have a Gold Star in that scene or maybe two 😀
    So even when insulting the lack of penis in the process, men still get their way making people believe that a turkey baster is needed…once againg thinking too highly of themselves…
    also I think the donor chum could have used a little make-up-lie a little- in the story to protect some self-esteem .. but hey it worked..twice

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