‘The nurse handed me a plastic jar and led me to a small room. There was a TV showing a porn film...’
Hospital workers hustle past, oblivious. They’ve seen it a thousand times. I’m standing outside the delivery room, a newborn swathed in a blanket in my arms. If there’s an amazed look on my face, it’s because the child is my first. The hitherto hypothetical being is now embodied in precise measurements: she weighs 8lb 1oz; she is 20in long; her head, which fits into my hand, has a circumference of 14in; she was born at 8.39pm; she is a girl. When she screws up her face against the hospital’s fluorescent lights, I instinctively shield her eyes.
Wind back three years to April 2007. I was a single guy living in a flat by the beach. I had just bought a motorcycle. During the day I worked at a magazine, while after hours I was writing a novel. One Sunday night, I came home, switched on the computer and received an e-mail from an old friend:
“Hi gorgeous family & friends, “For the first time in my life I can’t call, e-mail or text you individually thus the group e-mail. You may or may not have heard that I’m heading to Sydney to get treatment for breast cancer on Monday. It’s stage 1 and they have caught it early but apparently quite aggressive so seems I’m in for a bit of chemo.”
I was 11 years old when we met, on a family holiday at a ski lodge in the Snowy Mountains. Tina was 13, the second of four kids. She had thick black curls above a ready smile and sharp blue eyes. Her father was a sheep farmer who, when I was 14, slaughtered a lamb in the shed, cut out its beating heart and handed it to me. By then we were close family friends.
Tina grew up to become a trader in Hong Kong, from where she sent the e-mail.
My reply felt unequal to the situation: “What a shock. Thinking of you. Will help in any way I can.”
Two days later, Tina replied: “I have no idea how to phrase or approach this so am going to come straight out with it. Would you consider sperm donation?
“I don’t want you to feel pressure to do this just because I am sick. It would have to be something in principle you felt happy to do.”
OK, there it is – right there on the table.
“It felt like a frozen pea,” she said of the first lump she’d felt on her breast early one morning, dressing for work. We were sitting on a cliff overlooking the sea. The swell was rolling in, in long, tidy lines. The sun was out. Tina smiled a lot, though her smile seemed unnaturally fixed. She’d had a lumpectomy ten days previously, and her doctors had said that she had “clear margins”, meaning they’d found no cancer in the tissue surrounding the tumours they had removed. But it was a high-grade cancer, and they were putting her on an aggressive course of chemotherapy.
I was frightened. If my oldest friends were getting cancer, why not me? And death had been on my mind anyway: my father had died suddenly of a heart attack the previous year. But I knew my fear was irrational. Tina’s wasn’t.
“I’m worried the chemo will fry my eggs,” she said. “I want an insurance policy.” The fertility specialist had told her that freezing eggs was a waste of time. Embryos are a lot hardier. But she didn’t have time to find an anonymous donor. There was (and still is) a severe donor-sperm shortage in Australia. You can spend years waiting. Her oncologist had agreed to delay the chemo only long enough for her to have one period: as soon as she started menstruating, she needed to extract the eggs, fertilise them and freeze the embryos. Then she had to start chemo.
If I agreed, she said, the possibility of it resulting in a baby was remote. First, there was the cancer: she wasn’t in the clear yet, and she wouldn’t know more until after the chemo and radiation therapy. Then, there was the fallibility of IVF: plenty of things could go wrong, especially since we only had one shot at it.
But even with the long odds, I knew it could lead to a baby. I thought about my beachside pad, the draft of my novel, my motorcycle. I valued my bachelor life. Tina said that in the unlikely event that the baby was born, she’d ask nothing of me. I could remain anonymous if I wanted to.
I meant it when I offered to help. I tried to imagine how I would be with cancer. What would be my priorities? What would I hope for?
My decision boiled down to this: baby or no baby, I knew I could live with myself if I helped her. I didn’t want to face the feeling that would follow turning down a friend in serious trouble. Plus, I was flattered.
Not that I had reason to be. She was asking me because I was single, straight and healthy – a rare hat trick in Sydney. She planned to recover, then meet a man and have babies the old-fashioned way. But just in case, knowing the embryos would be there, frozen in nitrogen, while the cancer-killing drugs polluted her body, would give her something to hope for.
Ten days later, I was in the IVF clinic. A nurse handed me a plastic sample jar and led me to a small, windowless room in the centre of the building. There was a TV showing a porn film, a side table with porn magazines and a box of tissues on it, and, aptly, a La-Z-boy recliner. A button on the wall had a sign next to it that read, “Press here when you have produced a sample and a scientist will collect it.” I felt like the king bee in the royal cell of a gender-flipped hive.
The IVF was successful. I wondered at the scientists in their lab, orchestrating on behalf of total strangers a phenomenon that usually happens in intimacy, then going to lunch. They froze three of our embryos and five of Tina’s eggs in nitrogen.
First Tina’s hair went. Then her eyebrows. Then her eyelashes. After four months of chemo, Tina did seven weeks of radiation therapy. Then she went skiing.
Meanwhile, I had started dating a woman and was discovering consequences to what I’d done that I hadn’t anticipated. My mother had warned me that the embryos would be an issue for other women in my life, but I hadn’t believed her. I was sure they’d see the bigger picture.
In January 2008 – eight months after I’d donated – I got an e-mail from Colorado. Tina had had her first period since the clinic. She’d beaten the cancer and she was ovulating. Her hair grew back, black and curly. She came back to Sydney and met someone. In October, she found out she was pregnant. I was off the hook.
Three months later, I received another e-mail: the baby had a chromosomal disorder. Tina had been through too much; she decided to terminate. But it cost her dearly. She went into a meltdown. The boyfriend was out of the picture. She asked if she could use her insurance policy – the embryos made with the pre-chemo eggs.
My relationship with my girlfriend had deteriorated by then, and the embryos had become a bone of contention (we split not long after). And quite apart from that, I was terrified of having a baby.
I didn’t have to do it. If I said no, Tina could try thawing her pre-chemo eggs and looking for an anonymous donor. But I remembered what the fertility specialist had said. You need embryos.
My generation is smarter, freer and probably happier than my parents’. But there is one torment unique to us, or at least half of us: all those single women approaching 40 and terrified by the prospect of never having children. Think about that for a moment. By virtue of being a man, I’ve had the time to travel the world, try one profession and then another, go back to university, and remain a bachelor as long as I like, knowing that whenever I’m ready to settle down, I can. I understood why so many women in Sydney were becoming choice mothers.
I considered Tina’s situation. She had courage and determination. She had a successful career and owned a nice house where she could raise a child. She was close to her sister, who had agreed to adopt the child if the cancer returned and the worst happened. Most of all, I knew that the baby would be born into welcoming arms and excellent, if unusual, circumstances. I thought about the amity between us and went with my gut feeling. Now I had nine months to put some order into my thoughts and decide what role I wanted to play in the child’s life.
The easiest line to take was to call it her baby. I could tell myself I’d done a favour for a friend in need, get a pat on the back and step out of the picture.
Then, there was the godfather line. Tina would parent the child, but I’d be there at the periphery. That seemed the fairest deal – she got the child she wanted and I got a bit part. Friends of mine, fathers, said, only half-jokingly, that I’d have the best of both worlds: all the pride of being a father without ever having to change a nappy.
But how far out was this periphery? The “godfather” analogy falls down under scrutiny. What was I planning to do, buy the kid a subscription to National Geographic and phone on his birthday for the next 18 years? I realised that I had nothing to pattern after.
I had to work it out for myself. Three months passed. I flipped the whole thing around and tried to imagine it from the child’s perspective. On a piece of paper, I made a list of things I would want from my father, were I a child. I wrote down “loved”, “valued”, “protected”. I wrote down the word “conversation” and stared at it a while. When I was 28, I had called my father some names in anger. We didn’t speak for years. Then he died suddenly. Conversation seemed important. Tina was now in her second trimester. Friends were intensely curious. Men especially asked, “What’s the legal situation?” The legal situation was that when the child was born, Tina would leave the father’s name off the birth certificate. If I wanted to, I could put it in later. As far as the government was concerned, she was a single parent. Still, my name was all over the IVF documentation. People suggested I get something in writing from her. I told them we had done everything in the spirit of friendship. “Friendships sour,” they said.
On the web, I found cases where the relationship between a donor and a recipient had soured. And I knew from experience that we have it in us to spit poison at one another – my parents’ divorce had been one of the most toxic events of my life.
Despite that, I didn’t want a contract. We weren’t dealing with a commodity here. The media always report it when donors and recipients turn against each other, but never when things work out. Tina and I understood one another perfectly. She had assumed financial responsibility from the start, that day on the cliff. There had never been any question on that front. She was happy for me to have as much or as little engagement with the kid as I wanted. The only thing she asked was that whatever I decided to do, I do it consistently, for the child’s sake. That made sense to me. There’s an old gag: how do you make God laugh? Tell Him your plans. The baby was due in early February. In January, I fell in love.
I made sure my new partner met the woman carrying my child. If it was a deal-breaker, it was better to find out now. My partner wasn’t thrilled, but to her eternal credit, she could see the bigger picture. Her first question was, of course, what role are you going to play?
The answer came on February 9, when I arrived at the hospital half an hour after Tina had given birth. Donors are less prepared than most men for what happens to you when you meet your child. I know now that what you feel when you become a father is beyond the understanding of non-fathers. It’s difficult to put into words. It feels like your being billows out from you like a womb. You become larger. All the questions that had plagued me for nine months seemed irrelevant. All the intellectual disciplines – ethics, sociology, psychology – that frame those questions seemed profane. They deal in abstractions, whereas my child was in the world. She weighed 8lb 1oz and measured 20in. She had a name: Sabine. I held her in my arms and knew that I was meeting a witness to my life and to its worth. I felt I had to examine more fully what I believe. I knew I loved her. I thought of my father and the troubles we’d had. I shielded her eyes from the light.
From The Times March 27, 2010
Read more about donating sperm or finding a known sperm donor.