When my partner, Natasha, and I decided to have children, the natural choice for a donor was our college friend Michael. The three of us were in the same women’s- and gender-studies senior seminar; he and I were queer activists together in college; the two of them had been coworkers at a local cafe, where he helped convince Natasha that it would be a good idea to date his housemate (me). He was exactly the type of man who would understand that we were asking for his sperm and not his fatherhood. The night we asked him was warm, late-summer Brooklyn muggy. Michael was visiting us from San Francisco. I said something about how we didn’t want to put pressure on him to answer in the moment, but we loved him very much and hoped he would consider giving us his sperm. As I spoke, Michael’s smile seemed to extend through his entire body. He told us he had goose bumps (I think I saw them on his arms), and he said, “Sure, I’ll think about it, but yes.”
We discussed a lot of details that night, and more in the subsequent months—he would have no financial responsibility for our future offspring; he could be as involved or uninvolved as he wanted to be, perhaps as an “uncle” or something similar. We never had to explain to Michael that he wouldn’t be our child’s “father,” that this wasn’t a role we wanted or needed from him. Besides, we joked, he had recently adopted a kitten and she would demand all the paternal and maternal energy he could muster. The trouble has been explaining this all to our friends, family, and acquaintances as we search for the words to describe who exactly he will be in our family.
Natasha and I would be the sole parents. We all agreed that the term “donor” sounded too clinical. Michael was already a part of our queer family and would be important to our baby whether or not he gave us his genetic material. Queer family can refer to the chosen family one has after a childhood, adolescence, or longer spent ill at ease in one’s body, in the world, being an outsider because of how one looks or acts or what one cares about. It’s feeling at home in other people; it’s becoming yourself through community. Maggie Nelson, in her fresh and poetic take on queer family in The Argonauts, argues that “queer family making” is an “umbrella category under which baby making might be a subset, rather than the other way around.” It’s why Michael isn’t just the “donor” and why the current words and norms wouldn’t suffice. So Natasha coined “benefactor.” Benefactor made us laugh; it playfully equated providing sperm with financial provision, but, more importantly, unlike the one-time donation implied by “donor,” a benefactor could be a continual source of support. It wasn’t perfect, but it seemed to encompass a bit more of the queer family making we were embarking on.
Kara and Kristina, two queer friends of mine with a ten-month-old child, agree that we are lacking in terminology to describe our families. Even though they used the word “donor,” they felt frustrated with the term from the beginning because, they said, “he is so much more than a donor.” In regards to the F word, which would seem to displace Kristina as the non-birth parent and set up a heteronormative paradigm in a family that neither warrants nor wants it, they liked to “get out in front of it” by explaining how they got pregnant and how their family would work. Not only are they eager to avoid hurtful remarks, but also they are both invested in being upfront about their family as a way to “normalize alternative family structures.” However, after they established their parent-ness in the months following the birth, they both felt they could “ease up on the clinging to boundaries” around language and now don’t care as much about how others refer to their donor or, eventually, how their child will refer to him. “Daddy,” Kara tells me, “wouldn’t mean that he is an actual parent,” but rather would be a “term of endearment.” When I ask how they would feel about “father” being used, Kristina is quick to clarify, albeit while laughing, that “that would be going too far.” The F word, in all its officialness, still has the power to cut in a way that “daddy” doesn’t. It signals that while there may be a version of a family at play (in this case, two mothers and a child) a real family is out there, and that of course includes a father.
Hearing people refer to Michael as the “father” is a punch to the gut. It feels like the heterosexual world infringing on my family. Why must my child have a father simply because our donor is known? What’s wrong with just having two mothers, even though I might feel more like a dad on some days? Calling someone else the “father” or the “dad” would seem to supplant me, not only as the non-birth mother but also in terms of my masculinity. Why would Michael, with his short shorts and lingerie tops (his style is one of the many things I love about him), automatically trump me for the patriarchal title of the family? And why would we want to involve patriarchal terms, and thereby norms, in our family, anyway?
It’s crucial that nonnormative families are destigmatized (while retaining our beautiful queerness) precisely because of our potential to alter the meaning of family for queers and nonqueers alike. There are families comprised of single mothers, single fathers, two fathers, grandparents, stepparents, families that are communally led, and all kinds of other compositions. The conjoined labels of father and mother can offer solace in the normal (even if it’s just an illusion), and a single-parent father, mother, or other aggregation of terms appears to be less legitimate. In terms of my gender and nonbiological parent status, my being a “mother” also resists the traditional idea of what “mother” means. As a masculine woman with a child—something I never saw on TV or read about growing up—I am a different type of parent to my child, one who expands a cookie-cutter definition of what a “mother” is. And to be a parent without a biological connection to her child pushes up against and enlarges the very idea of what family is, challenging the erroneous, age-old notion that biology breeds the strongest form of kin. Everyone stands to gain from questioning and transforming the rigidness of what it means to be real family.
Perhaps, someday—when it’s come to represent something else, other than the rightful place at the head of the table or the missing puzzle piece that might supply normalcy to my family—the word “father” won’t feel like an erasure to the nongestational partner. But for now, it does. It’s not that I don’t understand that “father” is the default term for the male person who contributes sperm to the project of a child, because, of course, I do. Most people have fathers, whether or not they are in their lives. It’s a term that varies in its cultural, political, and personal meaning, but it’s also a touchstone, a common reference point to which many people can relate. And what’s wrong with being or having a father? Absolutely nothing. I love my father. I consider myself a daddy’s girl. Yet I resent how ubiquitously instilled it is, and the resulting limitations for the family Natasha and I are creating.
A few weeks before Natasha gave birth, Michael visited us in Brooklyn and the three of us carved out an hour in the middle of a Wednesday to talk to a therapist about our project of family making. As a lifelong lover of and believer in therapy, the visit had been my idea, but Michael and Natasha were happy participants. With Natasha very pregnant and me urging her to put her feet up, we discussed, among other things related to the three-person relationship we were founding, how it might feel for our child to want to refer to Michael as her father or dad. I was the person hardest hit by this hypothetical. Michael said something about his willingness to talk to our child about the limitations of language. Natasha seemed surprisingly unperturbed by the scenario although I suppose she’s always been stoic and tends to be more flexible than me in myriad ways. Our therapist advised us to consider how unpredictable children and child rearing can be and to be open to our child’s needs. He wasn’t arguing that we do something that makes us uncomfortable, but simply acknowledging that it’s impossible to plan out everything ahead of time when children are involved.
Of course this made sense. I guess I’d assumed our child would follow our lead in the language we use for our family, but I’m only starting to realize the reality of parenting, which is to say that I can’t control much in the world, including how our child will react to the norms foisted upon her (or him, or whatever gender identification our child decides is most fitting). However, I can try to raise her to be comfortable existing in difference—something I’ve had to work hard for myself. I can tell her that “uncle,” “donor,” and “benefactor” are the words we have for Michael for now, even if they aren’t enough. But then I can also listen to what she says, open to the idea that she might come up with a name for him herself, even if I’ll hope it isn’t the F word.