Artificial. I Don’t Think So.
By: Shannon Ralph
Parenthood is many things. It is wonderful. It is stressful. It is joyous. It is time-consuming. It is all-encompassing. It is also an exercise in concession-making. From the moment Ruanita and I first conceived the thought in our unsuspecting little brains that we wanted to have children, I feel like I have done nothing but grant concession after concession. I have an idea in my head about what I want my children to do—how I want my children to behave—then I concede defeat and modify my expectations. I want my children to eat oatmeal and fruit for breakfast every morning. I make a concession and allow Froot Loops. I want my children to watch nothing but educational television. I make a concession and allow America’s Funniest Videos. (My sons think it is hilarious when some idiot skateboards off a roof, which does not bode well for what I am going to deal with in their teenage years.) I want my children to wear clothes that somewhat match. I make a concession and allow plaid tights with floral skirts and polka-dotted sandals in the dead of winter. Believe it or not, all of this concession-making began even before my children were born. I was already making compromises when they were nothing more than a “what if” discussed over Chinese take-out. My children were conceived and born amidst a flurry of concessions.
All three of my children were conceived via artificial insemination using an unknown sperm donor. It’s really an altogether weird process, this “artificial” means of baby-making. Being a bit of a romantic, I’ve always had this rather antiquated notion that children should be conceived in love and passion. They should enter this world as tangible evidence of their parents’ affection and devotion. Of course, realistically speaking, this is often not the case. Children come into this world every day the product of anything but love. Regardless, I wanted to remember the moment of my own children’s conception as beautiful and meaningful and momentous. I wanted it to feel natural. This was a bit of a monumental undertaking considering that Ruanita and I, for obvious reasons, had no means of having a baby the “natural” way.
The first task at hand when we decided to have children was to choose a sperm donor. This was also the activity that began my long litany of concessions. Ruanita and I needed to agree on a sperm donor. Not a simple task. I was concerned with the donor’s physical characteristics. I wanted someone who resembled us in a way. I had certain ideas in mind. I wanted good teeth because teeth are a personal obsession of mine. I wanted a donor who was tall because Ruanita and I are both pretty tall. I wanted a donor free of allergies because Ruanita and I both possess enough allergies individually to inflict our children with a lifetime of suffering. I have green eyes and Ruanita has hazel eyes, so I wanted a green- or hazel-eyed donor. (Strangely, we ended up with one brown-eyed and two blue-eyed kids. Crazy genetics.) I wanted our children to appear, both in physicality and temperament, like they could have possibly been the product of Ruanita and me. Oddly enough, none of the profiles said “awkward-looking pasty white guy with big feet, good dentition, no rhythm, a menial office job, and kick-ass Scrabble skills.” So it was not as easy a task as one would imagine.
I also wanted a donor who was highly intelligent. I wanted to give my kids any leg up I could in this world. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that was going to be difficult to gauge. Sure, I could choose the doctor or neuroscientist. But in my experience, they aren’t necessarily any more intelligent than the struggling poet brewing my latte each morning. Career success does not always equate to high intelligence. So that was a tough one. I also wanted someone with musical ability, though neither Ruanita nor I are incredibly musical. She played the flute in middle school and I played the piano (okay, it was actually the organ, but piano sounds much less dweeby) at my church during my entire twelve years of Catholic school. Neither one of us have touched a flute or piano (okay, organ) since becoming adults. But a musical child sounded nice. I had visions of violin concertos floating on the wind, providing the soundtrack to our blissfully domestic existence. Yea, naive doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Ruanita was less concerned with looks or intelligence or musical skills. She was interested in personality. As you can imagine, personality doesn’t come through so easily on a written profile. Ruanita was dismissing donors for traits that struck me as just plain ludicrous. I would spend an entire afternoon poring over hundreds of donor profiles. Ruanita lacked the patience—or perhaps the obsessive-compulsive gene—to sit there with me. Eventually, I would proudly hand her a carefully vetted stack of a dozen or so donor profiles. Within a matter of seconds, and without reading the entire profile, she would toss them into the trash one by one. Nope, don’t like him…Nope, not him…Nope, he’s weird. When I asked her what was wrong with those donors, she couldn’t tell me. She was going purely on instinct. There was one she didn’t like simply because he had said in his profile that his uncle was his favorite relative. Why isn’t it his mom or dad? Does he hate his parents? Another she disliked because he wrote too flowery—using “fancy words” to answer the questions. Apparently, literacy is an undesirable trait. Who knew? Though the donor would remain completely unknown to us, I think Ruanita was searching for a guy she would have liked to befriend if the situation were different. A guy who sounded like someone she would want to hang out with. A guy with whom she could sit around and play cards. Drink beer and exchange dirty jokes. Shoot the shit, as it were. She didn’t care for the doctors and neuroscientists. She wanted an average Joe. An everyman. In the end, the very first donor we chose was of Native American descent and was a mere 5’6” tall. Our children would look nothing at all like their tall, pasty white parents!
We ended up going through three of four more donors who didn’t work out and/or became unavailable before settling on Lucas’s donor. In the end, all of these preconceived notions we had about what we wanted in a donor went right out the window. We changed our minds and our priorities quickly as each donor we absolutely HAD to have subsequently became unavailable. In the end, we wanted a donor—any donor—who simply possessed the ability to get Ruanita pregnant.
The whole process was just weird beyond words. It is such an odd proposition to actually choose half of your child’s genetic make-up. People just don’t do that normally. A straight couple doesn’t enter into child-bearing looking for the perfect physical specimen. At least, most do not. They fall in love with someone in all their flawed glory and then decide to have children together, with the knowledge that their child will inherit traits—the good, the bad, and the ugly—from both of them. They do not have to decide if blonde hair or brown hair is more desirable. They do not have to debate about green eyes versus brown eyes versus blue eyes. They do not have to ponder complexion and height and occupation and talent and educational level. These are things no one should have to be burdened with choosing for their child. It seemed like such an immense undertaking and one I was certain we were screwing up from Day One.
Once we finally decided on a donor (or rather, a long string of donors), I made a second concession. I gave up my romantic idea of conception. Being that Ruanita was thirty-seven years old when we first began this trying-to-conceive venture, we opted to forgo the romantic attempts at home. Flowers petals strewn across the bed. Turkey baster at the ready. No, that simply would not do. Rather, we opted to go the medical route. Time was not on our side, so we wanted to increase our odds of this thing working as much as we could. We made an appointment with a reproductive endocrinologist and went about the highly scientific process of conceiving a baby.
Each and every day, we would religiously take Ruanita’s temperature first thing in the morning. My alarm clock would go off, I would fumble for the thermometer in the dark, roll over and shove it into Ruanita’s still drooling mouth, wait for it to beep, and then log the temperature on the graph that was attached to a clipboard on my nightstand. As she neared the middle of her cycle, Ruanita would begin peeing on sticks every morning. Ovulation predictor sticks. We would then stand in the bathroom in our pajamas, bleary-eyed, staring at the tiny pee-stained stick trying to figure out if the blue lines were the exact same shade of blue. Let me tell you, blue is blue. Our thirty-something-year-old eyes were not adept at seeing minute differences in shades of blue. So each morning, we would have the same debate. They look the same to me. What about you? I don’t know. I am not sure. This one is a tad darker…maybe? I don’t know. Maybe not. After spending entirely too long—precious moments of our lives we will never get back—deliberating over shades of blue, we would eventually decide it was time to head into the clinic to do our monthly insemination. Ruanita would be placed in the stirrups and I would sit beside her, holding her hand. The doctor would undoubtedly say, “Looks like we’ve got a good specimen this time.” The insemination would take all of about twenty seconds and then we would head home to endure the dreaded two-week-wait.
Ultimately, despite the cold, clinical nature of it all—despite the just plain weirdness of the whole process—we did get pregnant. We both, miraculously, managed to get pregnant and we have three beautiful children. In the end, our road to parenthood was not what I expected. However, despite my many concessions, I realize now that our children are the product of Ruanita and me. They were conceived in love and devotion. There is nothing “artificial” about the way my children were brought into this world. The process may have been different, but the intention was the same. The intention was real and genuine. Ruanita and I love one another. And like so many other loving couples in the world, we wanted a living, breathing, salient manifestation of our love walking around in this world. Our love was big enough to share, and we had a strong desire for children with whom to share it. Lucas may not have my eyes, but he has my heart. Nicholas and Sophie may not have Ruanita’s thick head of hair, but they have her spirit and conviction. Despite genetics, I have no doubt in my mind that they are our children. The wonderfully weird, and anything but artificial, children we were meant to have.