This week I read Van Reyk Baby Love: Gay donor father narratives of intimacy (This links to the whole journal in pdf; scroll down to p44).

Van Reyk suggests five categories of gay father involvement in their offspring:

Step-parenting (co-parenting a child that your partner brought to your relationship); co-fathers (planning and creating a child with a partner); known donors (biological fathers through donor insemination who have little involvement with their offspring); donor dads (biological fathers who have regular contact with their offspring, but limited responsibility and obligations); and co-parenting (biological fathers who are very involved with their children and share responsibility for childraising).

As you can imagine, problems arise when one party assumes they are in one category, and other the party is expecting a different category of involvement. The mothers think they’ve contracted a ‘known donor’, but he thinks he’s a ‘donor dad’. Before the reality of a child, people can also misjudge what category of parenting would suit them. I assumed I’d love a co-parent, imagining someone who’d swan in every second weekend and take the child off for a night. Elisabeth wanted an anonymous donor, but we compromised with a known donor with no parental responsibilities. Now, I can’t even let grandma babysit them! So I’m very glad Elisabeth talked me out of my postmodern idyll.

We saw our donor Harry and his boyfriend Morgan this week. Elisabeth and I have been discussing how we are going to represent Harry to Pearl and Louis. We don’t see him as a ‘dad’, as that has so many social meanings that aren’t appropriate to our situation, but we don’t want the kids calling him ‘sperm donor’ – it seems too clinical (and how much do we want our kids tossing about the word ‘sperm’ in the playground?). ‘Dad’ as a concept is popping up in their story books, and of course they have many friends who have dads, as well as having many friends who don’t. So we’ve settled on ‘donor dad’, although in our minds, Harry’s (and Morgan’s) role is more that of an uncle. Harry chuckled a little uncomfortably when we talked to him about it – I don’t think he’d thought about wearing the label ‘dad’ in any form. From the perspective of Pearl and Louis, I think it’s going to be important to have a person to put in the ‘dad’ category, and then they can decide how to conceptualise that relationship for themselves.

Morgan’s young brother (early teens) has been asking Harry questions about the children. ‘What do you call your relationship with your kids?’ he wanted to know, so we talked about that one as well. I suggested ‘donor kids’, as in, Pearl and Louis are my donor kids. It sounds sort of friendly and not too clinical and there is a strong sense of relationship there.

On Essential Baby (you can only get in if you’re a member) there’s a thread on lesbian parents and donor sperm at the moment. Mostly, people are wondering about how to represent donor half-siblings. Some people are surprised and hurt to discover there are donor siblings, and feel they need to maintain the integrity of their own nuclear family. Others are seeing it as a chance to establish and embrace an extended family. (See Meet Deanna, Sue & Noah for an amazing story of responding to discoveries of donor siblings). Our donor has another child to Agnes, who lives in England. Liam is two years older than Louis and Pearl. Possibly because they live overseas, we haven’t found this at all confusing or threatening – we just tell our kids that Harry has been a donor for two families. We mothers all feel that it’s important for the children to know each other and to work out for themselves what their relationship will be. I conceptualise it as a kind of cousin relationship – we send him Christmas and birthday presents, and we video chat about once a month. It also helps that we really like Agnes and would want to be friends with her anyway.

It’s interesting and challenging to be making our way through linguistically uncharted territory. I think the most important things for our kids is to come up with some describing words so they have a way of storying their experience; and to be truthful right from the start. The more they hear their own story, and similar stories, from the womb, the more easily they’ll represent themselves to others and move confidently through a world that doesn’t often reflect their reality.