Families

Published on August 13th, 2014 | by Jennifer Berney

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Jennifer Berney on how A VILLAGE MADE OUR FAMILY

When my partner and I talked about making a baby, we agreed on most things.  We agreed that I would carry it, and that we’d give it her last name. We agreed that the baby would sleep next to our bed and that both of us would answer to ‘Mom’. But we disagreed about sperm.

Kellie argued for a known donor, a friend or an acquaintance who would share his DNA and sign away his paternity rights. She worried about the young men who sold their sperm every month to cryobanks—who were they, and who could vouch that they were decent human beings? She wanted to meet these men, to look them in the eye and shake their hands. Ideally, she wanted a connection, someone who might drop in on a Sunday morning and drink a cup of coffee, tussle the kid’s hair.

To me that sounded terrifying. Where she pictured easy Sundays, I feared confrontations and blurred boundaries, lawsuits and ongoing feuds. I felt nearly certain that connection was a risk that wasn’t worth taking. An anonymous donor was the cleaner option, the sensible thing to do. We didn’t need an actual man, with traits and needs, and foibles. We just needed sperm.

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But Kellie was adamant and I agreed to humor her. We met with an acquaintance one summer afternoon. He was Kellie’s ideal candidate: tall and striking, a skilled tradesman. We shared a beer together in our yard and he explained that his guiding philosophy was “Why not?” We thought this sounded promising, and we waved goodbye that evening as he drove away in his truck. We didn’t hear from him again.

There was one man who joked he’d do it if he could sleep with me, and another who said he’d do it because he wanted extra siblings for his kids. They helped me prove my point.

So, when we placed our first order for ten vials of anonymous sperm, I thought that we were finally on track. I typed our credit card number into the computer and hit send. The sperm would ship on dry ice to our local fertility clinic and be stored in what I imagined was a giant walk-in freezer. It was a strange transaction to be sure, but I was certain that I would be holding my new baby within a year.

That year came and went. Kellie hated the fertility clinic with its gray walls and its vinyl chairs—not a sign of life around. Every month she stood beside me while I changed into a hospital gown and placed my feet in stirrups. The doctor was an older man who physically resembled Mr. Rogers, but who lacked his warm demeanor. Every month I winced as he attached a metal clamp to my cervix so that he could insert a catheter into its tiny os. Every month he instructed me to lie on my right side for ten minutes, then my left, and then he left the room. He never wished us luck, and no matter how many times we came back, he never expressed concern or curiosity about our lack of success.

Ten months later, after we had used our last specimen, I worked up the nerve to ask him a question. It had been nearly a year and we still weren’t pregnant. Did he have any suggestions for us? I was hoping he might recommend a pill or a test, something that might cure me or, at the very least, shed some light on the trouble we were having. He looked down at his manila folder and replied, “After six failed inseminations, we typically recommend in vitro fertilization. You’ve failed ten times, so there you are.”

I wanted to hurl his folder at him. I wasn’t ready to write him a check for ten thousand dollars, to inject hormones into my thigh every morning. Even the thought of searching through the donor catalogue again was daunting. I felt like the world was against us. There had to be another way.

Kellie reminded me that there was. If we could find the right man, we could move this operation into our home. We wouldn’t pay doctors. I wouldn’t have to lie on the cold exam table every month; there would be no clamp, no stirrups. Somehow, my desperation gave way to optimism. Maybe he was out there.

A month passed quietly. We mentioned to a few friends that we were exploring our options. And then one day, as we shared a bottle of wine in our kitchen, one of them had an idea. “Why don’t you ask Zac?”

Kellie and I looked at each other. “Yes,” we said, in unison.

We had only met Zac twice, but he was a better candidate than anyone we’d ever come up with. He was tall with auburn hair and a trimmed beard. He designed furniture, raised chickens, and read books. Besides that, his girlfriend, Erin, was both friendly and bold. She stood nearly six feet tall and wore Birkenstocks year round.  She seemed like the type of girlfriend who might actually go along with the whole thing.

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But as soon as I thought that, I guarded myself, preparing for another dead end. Our mutual friend agreed to run it by them, and within a week, they were on their way over for dinner. By now we were pros at this strange form of courtship. We served burgers and salad, the kind of meal that says: we like you, but no pressure, and we ate spread around the living room, Zac and Erin on the couch, Kellie on the chair, me on the floor, chatting as if we were just regular friends who did this every so often. In fact, we were all so very casual, that I wondered how we’d ever broach the subject. I brooded on this with every bite and found it difficult to chew my burger. I told myself that once the plates were in the sink, I’d ask. But I was still eating when Erin spoke up.

“So, we hear you guys want to have a baby.”

I looked up from my plate. There is a part of me that would like to pretend that it’s a simple thing to ask for sperm. It’s not like asking for a kidney. There is no incision, no scalpel, no recovery. But then again, a kidney is straightforward: you give it away so that someone else can live. Doing so makes you noble. You don’t have to worry about what that kidney may become someday.

When we asked for sperm, first of all, we were asking for a bodily fluid, which is a little awkward. And, beyond this fleeting awkwardness, how could anyone anticipate what it would feel like to meet (or never meet) a child who carries your family’s imprint? What if the child looks just like you? What if you love him? What if you don’t?

When I look at these questions head-on, I feel frightened the way you might when remembering any close call in your life, like when your car skids on black ice and you regain control just before slamming into the guardrail. How easily someone could have been in the neighboring lane. How easily they could have said no—because saying yes, I realize now, requires more than an off-handed “sure” or a why-not philosophy. It requires a radical act of faith and love.

So when I looked up from my plate that evening, I was checking to see if Zac was preparing to make a run for it.  But, amazingly, he remained on the couch.

“Well we think that’s cool,” Erin continued. “We’d like to help you with that.”

Zac nodded, like they’d already worked it all out.

“You can think about it,” I offered.

“It’s a lot to consider,” Kellie pointed out.

But they were ready to hash out the details. How does it work, they wanted to know. Was there paperwork to sign? Would they get to meet the baby? When would we start?

I wasn’t having it. It couldn’t be this easy.  “Take a week,” I told them. “Make sure you mean it.”

Erin shrugged.

“All right,” Zac said.

I called them a week later while pacing my backyard. It was a beautiful day, turning into evening and the sun had gone blindingly bright. I was nervous, so I prayed for voice mail, but Zac answered.

“It’s Jenn,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “We haven’t changed our minds.”

It was a quick conversation and when it ended I wanted to fly across the yard and over the fence.

A week later, we tried our first at-home insemination. Kellie drove across town to pick up semen in a little round jar. It traveled in a small wool bag that Erin had sewn. Kellie kept it warm beneath her shirt. I waited in the bed for her to come home. There were no stirrups, no hospital gowns, no gloved hands or long tubes designed to fit inside my cervix.  Once we’d emptied the jar, I turned on my side and watched the trees in our front yard. If it worked this time, I thought, I’d remember this view, the branches in the wind.

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Erin and Zac have two sons now, ages five and one. So do we. Their sons and our sons are biological half brothers, but they don’t care about that—not yet. When we get together they climb trees and build robots out of Legos and run around in the sun. All four of us parents share coffee and chat with the same ease we did that first night they came for dinner, only now our rapport has deepened with time and trust. And I look on in awe and gratitude, amazed that we built our family on something so simple as kindness, which arrived in a little round jar.

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About the Author

Jennifer Berney

Jennifer Berney lives in Olympia, Washington with her partner and two sons. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child,  Hip MamaThe Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She blogs at goodnightalready.com . @JennBerney



8 Responses to Jennifer Berney on how A VILLAGE MADE OUR FAMILY

  1. Carole Berney says:

    So lovely…And wonderful to have a document of the journey. It made me cry.

  2. Erin says:

    I’m speechless. ❤️

  3. susan christian says:

    Made me cry, too. Lucky and good, all of you.

  4. Bec says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. What a lovely story.

  5. Grandma Jerry Sanders says:

    The boys well they are wild n crazy guys, full of it!! Can’t remember life before them ! and to have Kellie be a mom , brings tears to my eyes, in Jenn there is no better word for mother,she is kind loving patient ,could not ask for more!!!! we are a family we need more people like Zac and Erin .Grandma Jerry

  6. Lisha Fink says:

    I have be words. Only damp eyes and a happy heart.

  7. Annie says:

    You write beautifully. I could picture everything as if I had experienced it myself. Congratulations on your success – in writing and parenting.

  8. Dre says:

    I love this piece so much. Thank you for sharing. It really helped.

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