Two years ago, I bought a subscription to a sperm bank. I relish togetherness, and single parenthood was not what I had hoped for. But I was 37, and it seemed to be where I was headed.
Until my mid-20s, having children was a quiet longing for a more adult but remote future. On a 2006 cross-country road trip, a friend and I stopped to visit a couple who were close to her family. They didn’t have children, but three giant poodles roamed their house. The four of us non-poodles sat down to dinner as the dogs circled, accustomed to being included.
We tried for conversation, but the pooches’ every glance and movement stole our hosts’ attention. The wife regularly interrupted us to praise the dogs for barking or some other sign of good health. At one point, I felt something wet on my leg and looked down to see my pants soaked with drool. When I looked up, eyes pleading, the couple just cooed over the slobberer.
Aghast, I realized that my capacity for unconditional love might eventually be unleashed onto whatever was available. In the absence of a child, things could get weird. I resolved not to become a poodle person.
Still, I was in my 20s, and nothing sent me running faster than a man looking for a wife to join him for plans he had already made. I gravitated toward less intentional men who were still figuring things out. By my early 30s, I was dating more realistically, but that speeding decade had so far included a few opportunities to marry where I did not love and a few disappointments where I did.
As age 40 crept closer, I had a personal reckoning. I remembered the poodle people, and more and more, waiting to have a baby felt like a game of chicken. Perhaps I was impatient; any day could bring a great love. Conversations with my friends who are parents helped crystallize my options.
“Parenthood is not a rational choice,” my friend Kathleen said. “You will be poorer, sleepier and more stressed. And yet?” She laughed as her little girl climbed on her like a jungle gym. Some things could not be sorted by thinking. I kept dating but began planning.
I logged on to a sperm bank website to find that, oddly, it felt like a dating site. Rather than get distracted by donors touting their celebrity look-alikes, I looked for the fundamentals: health history, signs of emotional stability and intelligence (mostly math skills to cancel out my inability to calculate a waiter’s tip). Many were in their early 20s. I studied the profile of a 22-year-old, his sweet towheaded toddler pictures alongside his accomplishments (strong LSAT score); interests (water polo); and aspirations (a determination to do well).
My 22-year-old self might have been impressed. But my current self wondered how his unbridled optimism would evolve. I looked at other young profiles, scanning for signs of resilience, depth, concern for the world. They seemed half-baked, or was it just that they were nearly half my age?
My next thought was that, because I would do all the nurturing, I should seek out a person who might complement my rough edges. More patience, less angst, sunnier. A half-sunny disposition was the least I could do for my kid. Plus, my child might be determined to meet this person one day. I didn’t want my grown offspring to look at me and think: Really? This guy?
Despite its Match.com vibe, the site went deeper than the endless chatter about travel and fitness that fill dating websites. The content was not profound, but it seemed to describe genuine human beings. As I clicked through, I happened upon a math whiz in his 30s whose answers hinted at an entrepreneurial venture that had gone bust.
His life was not unfolding to plan, and I could relate. I recognized myself in our similar ancestries, shared passions and even an abiding affection for the sitcom “Friends.” His profile revealed that he was an optimist and that he was driven to make a contribution to the world. He spoke of what he loved, of what he had tried and failed to do and of what he would try again. His writing was warm and expansive, philosophical and grounded. And sunny!
Near the end of his profile, I noticed his answer about what he might like to pass on to his children. Others had filled in something quick and straightforward, such as “my love for family” or “my athletic talent.” His answer was sprawling yet meticulous. Point by point, he championed taking risks, always learning and making art part of everyday life. He extolled the virtues of exercise as passionately as he did the joy of caring about people. He cared as much about healthy eating as he did about finding love after heartbreak. His fervency rose off the screen.
I sat for a moment, stunned. This was a letter to a child he wouldn’t raise. This was a letter to my child. Amid the cold, sterile landscape of fertility clinics, biological odds and anonymous sperm donors, I felt the warm glow of human partnership. There was a person on the planet who already cared about the life of my daughter or son, as I already did.
This was a man whose vision of the world focused not just on himself, but other people. I imagined an older version of myself sitting with a 10-year-old, reading this letter and telling the story of how someone had reached across space and time to change my life and make theirs possible.
I called the sperm bank as soon as it opened the next morning and secured enough specimen for several pregnancy attempts.
About six months after I made the decision, a friend set me up with a kind Sri Lankan man who worked in global health, as I had, too. I walked into the elegant bar he’d chosen for drinks to find a subtly dashing guy waiting with two glasses of champagne. We fell easily into conversation about our common experiences, different childhoods, and hopes and dreams. We walked all over downtown Washington, laughing and swapping stories about the shock of his first American winter in Boston and the appalling fashion choices we both made in college.
When we finally parted early the next morning, I looked at my phone to see that our mutual friend had been texting for hours, insatiably curious about how it had gone. My reply was giddy, high from the combined effects of attraction and compatibility. Maybe single parenthood wasn’t my future after all. Waves of newly valuable platitudes washed over me: It’s always darkest before the dawn. Love comes when you least expect it.
I saw him twice more before he left for a long work trip to Africa, and as we said goodbye that night, he suggested that we take a trip when he got back. But when he returned, he called to say that, while away, he had met another woman. He offered to meet me for coffee, but I declined and rushed him off the phone. A familiar sinking feeling took hold in my chest.
But I felt something unfamiliar, too. I sensed a new invisible presence, a new support. It was the sunny, big-hearted math mind I had been so lucky to find among the profiles six months earlier. He was still there, and soon after, I decided to try for a baby.
But getting pregnant would not be easy for me. I first tried a year ago and am now in the middle of treatment for a fifth pregnancy attempt. Last month, I walked into the fertility clinic for what seemed like the 100th time and had my blood drawn for what felt like the 1,000th. Having been asked for it so often, I recited my sperm donor’s ID as effortlessly as I would my Social Security Number.
Over this past year of trying to get pregnant, I’ve often revisited the letter that first inspired me to choose this donor and ultimately helped me build the courage to plunge into a new universe, alone. Each time I read it, I am surprised anew by the boost of excitement I get about watching a kid’s life unfold. I breezily daydream about what pieces of this guy might show up in a little boy or a little girl along the way. And then I go back to the clinic with a little less heaviness in my step, a little more sunniness in my disposition.