Jason Schwartzman just turned 4, but he already knows that a sperm donor helped Daddy and Mommy become parents.
Of course, Jason doesn't yet understand how that worked. But, figures dad Eric Schwartzman, "you start telling them young, and it just becomes a normal part of their dialogue."
Schwartzman hopes that someday, donor insemination will become as matter-of-fact, as normal a topic of discussion for society as adoption. "My wife's and my view about it is, we'd rather be public if it helps dispel the stigma. If I become the poster child for this part of it, that's fine."
FROM 'DONOR 48QAH': A sperm donor that's been fruitful, to say the least
You can hardly pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without seeing a story about single women or lesbian couples and their sperm donors. In these families, Mom clearly had outside help conceiving. But until now, fathers of children born through donor sperm insemination have drawn little attention.
Until recent years, heterosexual couples made up the bulk of parents whose babies — an estimated 30,000 or more in the USA annually — were conceived with donor sperm. You would never know, because no one spoke of it. Male infertility was something to be ashamed of. And donor insemination, or DI, smacked of adultery, with one man's sperm placed in the womb of another's wife. If children conceived with donor sperm ever learned the family secret, it was often after their dad's death.
To tell or not to tell?
Robert Moss, 46, recalls what a urologist advised after telling him that the only way his wife could get pregnant was with donor sperm. "He said, 'Now, don't tell anyone. You don't want anyone to know. You'll never want the child to know," says Moss, a Spartanburg, S.C., biology professor who has 14-year-old and 16-year-old children conceived with donor sperm.
Joanna Scheib, head of research at the Sperm Bank of California, speculates Moss' doctor might have meant well. "Maybe people believed if the child didn't know, there wouldn't be a threat to the relationship between the father and the child," says Scheib, who's on the psychology faculty at the University of California-Davis.
Moss not only told his children early on, but he and his wife, frustrated with a lack of information, also co-wrote Helping the Stork: The Choices and Challenges of Donor Insemination. "The idea of keeping family secrets that were that big wasn't attractive to me," he says.
Not that Moss didn't worry about how his children would react to learning that they weren't genetically related to him. "The biggest fear for me was the fear that this would change my relationship with my kids," he says. "All those worries are there while you're going through DI. Once the baby is born, they just disappear."
Moss makes it sound almost easy, but most men are about as comfortable discussing donor insemination as they would be having a prostate exam. "Men don't talk about their sperm counts in the locker room," says Robert Nachtigall, director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at San Francisco General Hospital.
Figuring out why men tend to be close-mouthed about donor insemination isn't hard: "It strikes so close to home, because this is all about children and sex and family and really the most powerful stuff of human nature."
For similar reasons, adoption used to be so stigmatized that children were never told they were adopted. "Nowadays that seems quaint, if not bizarre," Nachtigall says. "Donor insemination has not reached that threshold yet."
Some find DI 'emasculating'
Shari Lusskin, head of reproductive psychiatry at NYU Medical Center in New York, recalls one couple in which the man was infertile — the case in about a third of couples who can't conceive. His wife wanted to try donor sperm, she says, but "he was so completely unable to handle this that it really contributed to their eventual divorce. It was emasculating to the nth degree with him."
Then there's David Hano. After a year of trying in vain to conceive, his wife's fertility workup found no problems. So, although Hano never imagined he could be infertile — a conviction he attributes to "the kind of male-ego type of thing" — he agreed to go for testing. Hano, 37, a mental health counselor in Baltimore, was shocked to learn his sperm count was non-existent.
So that his wife could experience pregnancy, the couple opted for donor insemination. She's due in August, and just about everyone in their lives knows she conceived with donor sperm.
Choosing donor insemination "takes a guy with a certain amount of ego strength, and it takes a woman who's sympathetic and supportive, and maybe those aren't your average people," Nachtigall says.
Schwartzman, 42, learned that his chances of having children were slim before he even tried. He had been born with undescended testicles, which raised his risk of testicular cancer, so he dutifully did self-exams. Six months before his wedding, he found a lump and saw a urologist. He didn't have cancer, but the doctor thought one testicle looked shrunken and ordered a sperm analysis.
That's how Schwartzman, at age 30, learned that his sperm count was "basically zero." The doctor was blunt: "Don't plan on having kids naturally. You can just adopt."
Schwartzman was stunned. "My whole life, all I wanted to be was a father." He asked his fiancée if she wanted to break off their engagement. "She said, 'Are you nuts?' "
Still, he says, the first few years of marriage "were not the typical honeymoon period."
Despite counseling, his infertility "greatly, greatly affected our marriage. My guilt, for lack of a better word, as to what I could or could not do, had me withdrawing from my wife in the bedroom and emotionally overall."
About four years after their wedding, though, the Schwartzmans began thinking about starting a family. They first tried in vitro fertilization with the few sperm that could be extracted from one of his testicles, but two attempts failed.
Because the Schwartzmans wanted to experience pregnancy, they opted for donor sperm. The third donor was the charm. Schwartzman's wife conceived Jason after the first insemination with that man's sperm. About two years after Jason was born, she delivered Zoe, conceived with sperm from the same donor.
If the child wants to know
Schwartzman started blogging about donor insemination and his family in August. He also moderates "DI Dads," a Yahoo discussion group for infertile men who are considering or already have become fathers via donor sperm.
While some plan never to tell their children they were conceived with donor sperm, others, such as Schwartzman, feel it is their paternal duty to collect as much information about the donor as possible, should their children ever ask about their genetic heritage.
"We have the full profile of all the medical information that was disclosed," says Bob Battel, 33, a farm management educator in Reed City, Mich., whose infant daughter was conceived with donor sperm. "As far as finding out the identity of the actual person, when we started this, we never thought about that."
But Battel says he has come to realize that "she might want to know someday. I guess I would feel obligated to provide her with all the information she's entitled to know further on down the line."
Wanted: Long-distance donor
Jared Teter and his wife live in New York state, but they used sperm from an Atlanta bank. "I just didn't want to walk around wondering whether this guy or that guy or this guy was the donor to our daughter," says Teter, 30, an audiologist. They chose an "open identity" donor — one who agreed to be contacted by any offspring when they reach age 18 — in case their daughter ever asks about him.
Even before Morgan was born in January, Teter connected with a network of women who had conceived with sperm from the same donor. They met through the Donor Sibling Registry, a website that helps people conceived with donor sperm or their parents find each other. Teter now knows of eight children conceived with sperm from the same man as Morgan was. He's putting their photos in a scrapbook for her.
Schwartzman's children were conceived with sperm from a bank that does not offer open-identity donors, but he would help them find the man if they ever express an interest. "I'm all for it if down the road, they want to have a relationship," he says. "The truth of the matter is this person is half of who their past is."
Schwartzman has placed a bio, childhood photo and voice recording of the donor in his family's safe deposit box.
He and his wife are willing to pay the donor $500 for photographs taken throughout his life. The donor told the sperm bank that he's considering their request.
And, thanks to the Donor Sibling Registry, Schwartzman has been in touch with the single mother of a 3-year-old daughter conceived with sperm from the same donor as his kids. Soon, he hopes, his children will meet the little girl.