This essay will, I think, be in print in tomorrow’s NYT but it’s been on the web for a bit. It’s from Modern Love–a Sunday column that often deals with complexities of modern family life. In the essay Lisa Schlesinger writes about her experience as the wife of a man who provided sperm to a lesbian couple who were friends of theirs. The husband, Ben, was to be a known sperm donor, of course. The essay shows us some of the complexity of that role and the web of relationships that are affected.
There are three different aspects of the story that I find striking. First is the chain of consultation. When Maggie (one of the lesbians) asked Ben (the husband) his response was to ask Lisa, his wife. Lisa and Ben have three children–a daughter genetically related to both of them and two sons who are from a relationship Lisa had before Ben and thus are genetically unrelated to them. The sons are in the 20s, the daughter 14. Lisa suggested that the children, too, should be consulted and so they were.
I think it’s a good thing to have all these people offer their input. The decision Ben makes might matter to them in a variety of distinct and different ways. I’m not sure you’d see this when a man decides to be a sperm provider for a clinic–the kind where he gets paid–but that may just be because a lot of those men don’t have wives/husbands and kids. Who, after all, would a single man feel he needed to consult? (I imagine some of you are thinking “his parents” but for reasons that might be interesting to discuss, I don’t have the same feeling about them as I to about the spouse/children.)
I’ve read that the demographic of sperm providers generally–not just the ones who do this for friends–has been shifting to older men who are more likely to have children of their own. (I’m afraid that link isn’t to the perfect post, but it’s hard to find what I’m looking for. Sorry.) That would suggest to me that this sort of consultation is increasing–or at least more men have to think about whether to consult like this. And it seems to me that consultation is probably the prudent course.
Clearly the different people consulted have different interests. What is the wife’s interest in her husband’s decision to serve as sperm donor? Clearly something other than the daughter’s–for the child conceived here will be a genetic half-sibling. And also different from the sons–who will be genetically unrelated but perhaps siblings? Much to think about, though not because there are particularly clear answers.
The second interesting aspect of the story is the wife’s reaction, which is largely the focus of the essay. (That’s unsurprising as she is the author). Actually, I should probably say the wife’s reactions, as she has several. Once you embark on that process of consultation, I imagine this is what you will find–that each of the people involved has a complicated set of reactions that have to be taken into account. Trying to gauge those complicated reactions in advance–in order to decide whether to go forward or not–isn’t easy. And it brings me to the third interesting feature.
The issues that Lisa is reacting to keep changing. Perhaps it is impossible to think of everything at the outset. Consider the issue of secrecy. The lesbian couple doesn’t want it to be widely known that Ben is the donor–at least not at the beginning. Ben and Lisa agreed to this. But of course, the fact of the pregnancy isn’t a secret–and as it becomes more widely known (via Facebook, etc.) new issues are raised for Lisa.
I can readily imagine that some time in the future the lesbian couple might decide they’d like their child to know that Ben is the sperm provider. I can guess that this will raise a whole new set of issues, for Ben, for Lisa and for the other kids. It seems to me that all you can be confident of is that there will be new things to think about, over and over again. And so perhaps as much as anything, what you need to do at the outset is to confront these issues as they arise and to keep lines of communication open.
Because this was purely a private arrangement between friends, there weren’t any trained counselors involved. I’m inclined to think that’s risky, though it seems to have worked out just fine here. Given the myriad of issues you can see, thoughtful counsel from someone distance, training and experience can be critical. Surely it is advisable. I don’t think everyone can do what Ben and Lisa are doing (and this blog is littered with instances that show that, too.)
I wish them all the luck in the world. I’d love to know how it goes.