Part three of a six-part series of excerpts from “Confessions of a Lesbian Dad,” originally published in Confessions of the Other Mother: Non-biological Lesbian Moms Tell All (Ed. Harlyn Aizley. Boston: Beacon, 2006).
[Series intro and backstory here.]
I confess: coming up with the name “Baba” for my kind of parent — a kind of Mama-Papa hybrid — didn’t dampen my worries about being expendable, unnecessary, adjunct, optional, and otherwise of lesser significance to the whole baby-hatching scheme. Conceiving of isn’t believing, in other words. Being situated in the fluid space between the massive and massively charted continents Mother and Father, while right for me, gender-wise and parental role-wise, still left me bobbing around in an unmapped sea. I could have used an anchor, which I imagined our child would be. But until the little nipper materialized, I felt easily threatened. And it wasn’t just by my partner’s easy identification as the biomom. I was just as tempest-toss’d by the breezy nonchalance with which fatherly authority could be conferred, by friends and strangers alike, upon our donor chums.
Our first donor chum was an old friend of Jennifer’s. We had agreed that we wanted, ideally at least, a friend who’d be glad to be accessible to us and to the kid(s) in the future. For ourselves, we wanted to be able to consult on genetically-rooted health issues, should they arise; for the kid(s), we wanted to permit them the option of knowing the generous man who helped us make them possible. We were picturing an avuncular thing, at most. Richard had met our Number One criterion for donor chum: he offered. We had a lot of other criteria — a time-tested connection to one or both of us, so we could all feel confident we’d be able to work through the inevitable sticky wickets; respect for Jennifer’s and my intention to be not just the primary but the only parents; willingness to disclose, even actively research all sorts of intimate details regarding his sexual history and health; a modicum of motility; and a willingness to get back up on the horse, as it were, for a sibling down the line. But the most natural initial criterion was the active desire to do this for us, and Richard, god love him, had it in spades.
After some two- and then three-way phone conversations, Jennifer and I made a pre-insemination diplomatic mission to L.A., where Richard then lived. We went out to a restaurant and all felt mildly nervous and first date-ey. Sure, we had already “popped the question,” Â and Richard had already answered in the affirmative, but this was our chance to eyeball each other over a table and see whether we had any last reservations. Since Jennifer and Richard had met as actors over ten years before, they did just fine with all the feelings (something to work with! a condition!). Me, not so much. Also, the more we talked, the more I realized — or felt, I should say, since I had logically recognized long since — how clearly the existing paradigms make space for her, biomom, and him, biodad. Bio, bio. And then me: nonbio. I was off the radar, legally, socially, viscerally. I got skittish, too, when Richard used the term “we.” Even though we three were a “we.” Â I just began to realize that, if all three of us were walking down the street with Baby M, let’s call her, there’d be no way that I’d look like anything other than somebody’s sister. Sidekick. Appendage. Unless somehow I elbowed Richard aside, grabbed Jennifer and dipped her and smooched her big, all the while expertly administering a bottle to the burbling babe.
When it got to my part to spill my worries, I realized I had a lot. And they all had to do with the inverse relationship Richard and I had in this deal. The more “father” he was, the less parent I was. And the world, unless cued otherwise, would naturally defer to him as father. Donor chum is just not in most people’s vocabulary. Biological father: nein! Kindly donor: ja! Who’s the daddy? I’m the daddy! Through all this Richard was a prince. He gently watched me fulminate, nodded soberly, leaned over to occasionally dab the foam from the edges of my mouth, and subtlety motioned the waiter over to bring me some more water. And then he repeated back what he heard, and assured me that he could see my position, and respected my concerns.
Wheew! With the worst of my fears on a leash, it seemed now all we had to do was sign our Donor PreInsemination Agreement form, corroborate our projected ovulation schedule, and get knocked up! In the ensuing months we made multiple pilgrimages south for seed, and Richard was all grace and accommodation, even when one night the only private place he could go to have communion with the artichoke jar was in the back yard of a mutual friend’s house, near a swing set. Fortunately he has not only fertile sperm but a fertile sense of humor. Unfortunately for us, however, before we got knocked up he moved way far away to Seattle to be with his newfound lady love. We had tried to connect with him for a few more ovulation cycles, but the miles were too many to make the proposition manageable anymore. I was bemoaning this to Sybil, one of my oldest friends back home in Berkeley, when she got a twinkle in her eye: “Why don’t you use my sweetie’s? It works great!”
I’d known Sybil for as long as I’d known anyone other than family. We met our first year in college, and have stayed in touch, across grad schools and continents, for over twenty years. I had met her then-sweetie, now-husband in a Harvard Square Chinese restaurant one fall night about ten years before, just two months after my mother had died. And now, Sybil and I were in my car, out in front of her Berkeley home, at the end of a long fall night in which Sybil had recounted her own mother’s unexpected death the week before. Our joint membership in the sorority of motherless daughters was just fixing an old, strong friendship even stronger. Sybil’s suggesting that perhaps her family could enable my own just made sense: a rare moment of grace, in which life might be kindled out of the ashes of death. It was just what we all needed.
Her husband was more than agreeable. In fact, according to Sybil, their conversation went something like this:
- She: “Polly and Jennifer are having donor problems, and I was wondering…”
We were all blessed by a special symbiosis in the most fabulously crisscrossed ways. Jennifer and I had dined at their house for years, playing with their two girls at the table. Sybil had canoodled with gals and retained a solidarity with the sisters; her husband had just served as witness to their lesbian neighbor’s adoption of her partner’s child, and was moved to want to support loving lesbo parents should the right pair appear on his doorstep. Sybil and I were freshly bonded by the loss of her mother: up until her, I had no other local friends who knew, from experience, how tectonic this shock was. So simply providing a ready, steady ear for her was a balm to me.
We had our face-to-face dinner to corroborate our expectations and air our worries, but this time it felt a little less illicit, since we were two old, committed couples at the table. How could I feel like a third wheel when there were four of us? Sybil and I, in fact, stood to feel equally “out of it,” and yet it was by virtue of our connection that this extension of our families was happening. Furthermore, to Jennifer’s and my relief, they had as many concerns as we did that we draw clear boundaries around our extant and would be parenthoods. The two of them have their own little munchkins, then two-and-a-half and six-and-a-half years old, with whom they wanted to share this important act of generosity. While they would feel a special kinship with ours, the avuncular thing sounded just right to them. And could we put that in print? Could we put that in print! Music to our ears!
The “It works great!” Â testimonial, by the way, was due to the fact that they had conceived in one pop, both times they set out to get pregnant. And, so, it turns out, did we.
On Wednesday, Part four: “Gestation: Baba goes to Pride”