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.

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Who’s in your family?

At present, my immediate family comprises my boyfriend, Morgan, and me.

We are then surrounded by a few extended families around us, including Morgan’s and my birth families, my two donor families, and our gang of close gay friends.

My concept of family extends beyond blood line.

Where do you live?

In a gay friendly (well, as friendly as you could get) inner city suburb 5 minutes away from the Brisbane CBD.

How did you create your family?

I put my name down on an online donor registry and was contacted by my donor families.  The rest was history!

Do you have a relationship with the families you have helped create?

I was quite flexible in terms of my future involvement when I started negotiating with my donor families and I was fortunate enough that both families asked me to act as an uncle of sorts in the kids’ lives.

With Agnes and Liam (3 year old), we stay in touch via email because they live in Northern England due to Andrea’s work.

It is much easier to stay in touch with Molly, Elisabeth, and the twins (Pearl and Louis) as they only live a few suburbs away.  Even so, we probably do not get together as frequently as we like due to other commitments in our lives but when we do get together, we share a cordial relationship.  The twins seem to like us as well – probably because we are big kids ourselves and they could sense that.

Give us three words to describe each member of the family

From my vantage point:

Harry: stable, meticulous, responsible

Morgan: warm, endearing, sensitive

Agnes: calm, zen, academic

Liam: outgoing, energetic, independent

Elisabeth: composed, measured, tenacious

Molly: intellectual, passionate, visionary

Pearl: happy, cheerful, attention seeking

Louis: introverted, self-sufficient, sensitive

Why did you decide to become a donor?

I think it is generally not as easy for gay people to start a family and I want to help those who do. Also, it would have been good to leave a little of myself behind.

How did you meet the people you donated to?

Through an online donor registry.

Why did you decide on the people you ultimately donated to?

I tend to rely on my intuition in making important decisions.  Apart from the practical ‘selection criteria’, Agnes, Janice (Agnes’ partner at the time), Molly, and Elisabeth simply ‘felt right’.  They all came across very nurturing and ready to start a family.

Were there any times you felt it was too hard, or you felt like giving up, or it was inconvenient?

It was relatively easy with Agnes because she fell pregnant after our first trial.  She had to fly all the way from Japan to Brisbane, so if anything, it was a tremendous inconvenience for Agnes.

When Elisabeth fell pregnant and later suffered a miscarriage, it got a bit demoralising for everyone but I can honestly say I never felt like I wanted to give up.  If anything, I was more determined to keep trying.  Yes, there were inconvenient moments but they paled in comparison with the bigger purpose we were all collectively trying to achieve.

What impact has this journey had on your relationship with your partner?

It was actually quite a bonding experience.  Morgan absolutely adores the kids and absolutely feels like he is one of their uncles, so it is nice to share the journey with him.

Anything about being a ‘donor dad’ you didn’t expect?

I did not have too many expectations, which means that there have not been too many surprises to date.  I guess the only thing I did not really expect was the friendship formed between Agnes, Molly, and Elisabeth.  For some reason, I never expected the mummies to become friends with each other but they all seem keen on maintaining the relationship, for the kids and in their own right, which is a bonus for me.  It has been fantastic to see our rainbow family develop and grow.  After all, in many ways, we are charting new territory and it is great to see our model working out so well.

If you started all over again, is there anything you would do differently?

No.  I think all the decisions I made and the approach I ultimately adopted were products of necessity. Also, given that there has not been any unforeseeable and unpleasant surprises to date, there is nothing to make me think I should have done things differently.

How do you feel about having children of your own?

In some ways, contributing to the birth of the three children has satisfied my paternal urge, so much so that I don’t currently feel I need to have children of our own, unless Morgan really wants children in future.  At this particular point of my life, I do not feel as though I would miss out on anything if I do not ever have children of my own.

How have your extended families responded to the creation of your family?

My own family do not know about the children because they are still having trouble understanding and accepting me being gay.

Morgan’s family is very accepting.  His mum in particular even said that she felt like a grandma of sorts.

My close group of gay friends whom I would consider as a part of my extended family are also very supportive and proud of what I have done.  Many have expressed a fair degree of curiosity and may even follow my lead to create their own rainbow families in future.

How do friends (gay or straight) respond when they find out you are a donor?

I have been fortunate in that all the reactions have been positive to date.  The only comment that has featured a few times, which may be interpreted as less positive, is that some people expressed the view that they would never be able to help create children but are not actively involved in bringing them up.   But I guess people are different.

How do you explain your family if outsiders ask?

The truth – I helped in creating a family for two lesbian couples and I more or less assume the role of an uncle in the kids’ lives.

Have you experienced any difficulties or inconveniences because of being a donor dad?

Not to date. The only ‘difficulty’ has been, in a few odd occasions, when people tried to refer to the kids but couldn’t find the right term to describe them in the context of their relationship to me.  We struggled over terms such as  ‘surrogate’, ‘donor’, ‘donee, etc, but I am sure we would bed this issue down in time.

How do you maintain good relationships with the mothers?

Be sensitive and mindful that they are the kids’ mothers and try not to cross the boundaries and intrude into their nuclear family.  Other than that, I don’t think maintaining a good relationship with the mothers is any different from maintaining a good relationship with other people.

Do you have any legal or written agreements?

We all signed a written parenting agreement before we started our arrangements. While the agreement does not currently carry the force of law, in our view, it is a good idea to formalise it because, legally or otherwise, the agreement articulates and evidences everyone’s intentions.

What supports (rainbow or straight) do you recommend?

A close group of friends and extended families around everyone in the rainbow family.

How do you model pride in rainbow families to your child/ren?

Not sure how to answer this one since our contact with the children is currently limited and they are too young to understand.  In future, I think we can reinforce what the mothers have instilled in the children – a consistent message is probably the best approach.

What advice would you give someone planning to donate?

Make sure everyone’s intentions are clearly articulated from the start, so that there wouldn’t be surprises later on.  Even if there are uncertainties that are dependent on future developments (eg, the donor not being sure about how he would feel about the children once they are born), these should be discussed and vetted, so that all the parties are aware of those possibilities and therefore decide if they could live with the possibilities if and when they materialise.

Further, I think as a donor, we need to respect the fact that the mothers and the children constitute the nuclear family.  Therefore, boundaries must be respected and the primary obligation of parenting should be left to the mothers, unless it has been agreed otherwise from the start.

What advice would you give to mothers looking for a donor?

Be very clear on what they look for in the donor.  Make a list of ‘selection criteria’ and evaluate the prospective donors against the list. There may need to be compromises, depending on the availability of donors at the time but ensure that the key requirements are not compromised (eg, the desired level of involvement of the donor).

Take time to get to know the donor and in a comfortable and sociable environment – observe the donor for qualities such as emotional stability, reliability, etc.  Reciprocally, look out for qualities that may ring alarm bells (eg, indecisiveness, unreliability), which could put the arrangement in jeopardy in future.

What has being a donor added to your life?

Being a donor has added a new and rich dimension to my life.  As a gay man, chances are I may never have a conventional hetero-normative family of my own. Being a part of a rainbow family has filled that gap and I look forward to all of our future together.