Back in college, I told my best friend if I hadn’t found a man by the age of 30, I’d be artificially inseminated. She laughed and told her brother, who asked if I was serious and then told their mother, who not-so-secretly hoped I would ask her son to be the donor. Maybe I should’ve.
Mario had been my hero and crush since we’d traveled together in South America. I was injured when my finger got locked in the cross-pins of a beach chair while we were Island hopping. He held me on the boat and in the car as we made our way to the local hospital. He never left my side when we were asked to wait on the dirty gurney or the nurse checked the wound without changing the gloves bloodied from the previous patient. He exposed himself to radiation in the x-ray room and kindly allowed me to bury my face in his crotch while the doctor stitched the cut. It was a very good distraction.
We would’ve made beautiful babies. We would’ve had great sex. Alas, that was all in my mind, not in his.
Still, I believed I’d find “the one.” I’ve had my chops busted over the years for admitting to such Disney-esque, naïve and damaging notions. As if a healthy, successful, independent woman who would like to have a partner, a travel mate and a lover somehow negates feminism. Clearly the lines of feminism have become blurred, airbrushed with the covers on magazines.
Thirty came and went. I continued to rebel against both the antiquated notions of previous generations and the alienating beliefs of the younger generation. I believed I’d find that special someone who would finally “get me,” who would choose me. After all, between my travels, business network, and social agendas, my pool of eligible bachelors was expanding exponentially. There was certainly no need to make any life-altering decisions; my life wasn’t so bad. Besides the annoying ticking clock and an unrealized maternal instinct, what was there to complain about?
It only took a few course changes and shocking dips in the road before I realized I was pushing things a little too far, hovering on the precipice between fertility and rotten eggs, a foul place to sit brooding. It seemed ironic when an ad popped up on my computer screen about artificial insemination. No algorithm could logically push that ad my way. This was a sign; this was synchronicity.
I called my mother that day and told her I was going to have a baby. After she recovered, I explained my plan. I was going for it. No more living the life I didn’t really care about so my soulmate could show up when I’m not looking. No more waiting for the right guy to magically appear to prove the if-it’s-meant-to-be-it-will-happen philosophy, or searching for him in all the traditional and nontraditional ways because “you have to look for him to find him.” No more self-evaluation, speed dating, love marketing, or asking friend to set me up. Forget it. This was my time, decision and womb. It would be my child.
My mother was thrilled: very supportive. In fact, most of my family and friends were supportive. Most. There were those that frowned at my perceived lack of faith (as if the years leading up to and the decision itself weren’t an act of faith). And there were those who dismissed my decision and insisted I should adopt: the obvious assumption being I hadn’t done my research and was making a hasty decision. The cost and continued challenges for single women—who are not celebrities or within the one percent financial status range—made insemination the more reasonable route. That, and the fact I simply wanted the experience of carrying and bearing a child. It wasn’t the way I would’ve planned it. It wasn’t my first option, but sex for the sake of sperm alone just wasn’t right for me. Neither was giving up the dream of motherhood. It was time to jump into the sperm pool.
Ironically, it was the men in my life who frowned at my decision. Even though they’d chosen to keep me in the friend zone, or at an emotional distance, they were suddenly appalled and offended. There should be a study on the psychological blow on the male ego when a woman chooses to have a baby without having sex. Call me idealistic, but I firmly believed having unprotected sex with a man with the intent to get pregnant was devious and morally corrupt at best, even if there was never any expectation of financial support or parental involvement. What a surprise to learn there are men out there who would rather be deceived than accept the idea that a woman would be satisfied with accepting sperm without the pleasure of a penis.
The first step was testing my fertility and plumbing. This was done with a dildo masquerading as an ultrasound, liquid dye for x-ray contrast, and enough manual exploration for me to understand fisting at a whole other level. As I lay opened wide with my feet in stirrups staring into the bright light above, I wondered if I had been mistaken for an alien abductee in a government experiment.
The baby-making process in the world of infertility and medical assistance leaves a lot to be desired. You go into it already deflated by life. Where once you’d been convinced you’d wake up puking and pregnant as a result of the fabulous sex you’d been having, now you’ve gladly settled for a catheter tipped syringe. You don’t feel like a natural woman. You’ve been betrayed by time and body, only to be reduced to a lab rat. The occasional encouraging word and pat on the back from a sympathetic nurse doesn’t ease the pain. It’s the dream of a bundle of warmth and wonder that gives you the strength to endure such a harsh and sterile environment.
When I got my stamp of approval—fresh eggs—I was overjoyed.
I started with frozen sperm. They were delivered in 50 lb. metal containers called Dewars. They could be mistaken for propane tanks if you added a nozzle to the lid. When you opened these containers it was like being in space. There was the pop and hiss as you open the hatch, followed by a cloud of frozen fog released into the atmosphere. You almost had to wear a Hazmat suit to remove the vials or risk a chemical frostbite. Gloves were the minimum recommendation. The tiny vials containing close to 40,000 swimmers would fit in the palm of my hand (and I have a small hand). Life quickly became nothing but a series of cycles: count the days to the LH surge, calculate the “peak hours,” endure the two-week wait then start it all over again. The only thing more dizzying than the temperature charting was the hormone injections.
After several unsuccessful cycles, including changes in medicine, doctors and timing, it appeared I should move on to the next level: in vitro fertilization. It was “only” $15,000 more per cycle, but had a smaller increase in the success rate than you might think, at least for my age group. It was an overwhelming prospect. Before I took on that kind of debt, I needed to consider all of my options. There had been some research on “fresh” versus “frozen” sperm that suggested the more natural the process, the greater the success rate. Not only did it help when the woman was in a more relaxed and intimate environment, but frozen sperm has a shorter cervical shelf life than fresh from the spout. Naturally, I chose to give it a try.
There were four men in my life I trusted enough to ask for donations. One of them admitted to having a vasectomy years ago; he felt a moment of regret for the first time. The other three were gay and wanted to have children. In theory, it could be a win-win situation if I could work through the long-range expectations and requirements with one of them. We negotiated the details of the contract regarding the “transfer,” financial expectations and relationship/visitations, but in the end there were things that weren’t so easily worked through for a mutually beneficial arrangement. One wouldn’t settle for less than being a full-time father, one couldn’t get past the perceived conflicts in his religious beliefs, and the other had to choose between this child and his partner. It turns out the win-win wasn’t so winning after all.
So where do you go to find fresh sperm? Target? The local seed and feed? The Internet, of course. There didn’t seem to be a database of known fresh sperm donors, but buried in the lines of a fertility forum was a link to a personal page of a man who was willing to help. He’d donated to a sperm bank twice, but had decided to offer fresh donations to those who were seeking to go that route. This concept is more underground than mainstream. Doctors don’t tell you about it and certainly wouldn’t encourage it, yet there was clearly success to be found based on what I was reading.
As I began to correspond with him, I discovered he was a walking business plan. His sister had issues conceiving, so he was well acquainted with the emotions and the process. He hadn’t been able to help her, but he’d made a decision to help others. He’d developed processes and procedures, and followed logistical guides to ensure his seed wouldn’t overrun the field. He also had a program set-up to help siblings find each other once they got older. He was quite impressive. And yet, as I traveled north to meet him, I imagined all kinds of horrors.
I called one of my oldest friends, told her what I was doing and endured the natural inquisition. Yes, there was a background check. I have the results of the physical. No, we won’t be having sex; he provides the sample and I use the kit I’ve been provided. And, of course, we’re meeting in a public place. Well, at least at first. It’s not really advisable to inject sperm at the corner coffee shop. “I know this is insane, so if you don’t hear from me by nine a.m. tomorrow morning,” I said, “call my mother and tell her I may have been murdered by a sperm dealer.”
“Please tell me you brought a cup,” she responded dryly. “If he’s pumping it into a nickel bag, I think there’s a real problem.”
It was a snowy winter day when I met the man who’d become my donor. It was all very professional: the meeting, the contract, and the provision. It was also quite surreal. There were very clear procedures and yet it was still much less cold and impersonal than the exam table. He didn’t grill me on motives or suitability; he didn’t question desires or my future plans. He said: “It’s been my experience a woman who chooses to go it alone and takes this route has thought through the pros and cons, and mapped out a future more than most married women who get pregnant naturally.”
A staggering thought in the midst of this would-be comedy skit.
He didn’t look like a man I would have chosen for a spouse, much less a father for my child. He was tall and lanky, with long hair, a Duck Dynasty beard, and one too many tattoos, but there was a kindness and compassion about him that was simply breathtaking. His eyes were gentle and understanding; his patience seemed endless.
When the time came, we met in Boston. To increase the probability of success, we decided to do two injections that cycle, spaced 14 hours apart. The first had been at the Motel 6 on the edge of town. The second conflicted with a business conference he was attending that weekend, so we had to punt.
At a five-star Intercontinental Hotel, I stretched out on my winter coat in the floor of a handicap stall (which was cleaner and twice the square footage of the hotel room from the previous night), propped my feet against the wall and angled my pelvis so the sperm could swim downstream through the cervix. At the moment, my life felt more mythical than real, like Odysseus and his journey home. My path had been wrought with frustration, loneliness and pain, but the story was of courage, faith and perseverance. It was a great love story.
I wasn’t able to carry the baby to term. The mystery of the female body is that it can be a formidable and quiet adversary, stronger than medicine and modern technology, yet weaker than our dreams. Still, it is only an antagonist for the true spirit of a woman. “It was for the best,” I heard the whisper deep in my soul. “What kid wants to hear he was conceived in the bathroom?” I was somehow empowered to take the next step.
—Follow G. Anne Bassett on Twitter: @TheSouthernNut