You do not need a man to make a baby.
This piece of news comes from Three Wishes, a chronicle of three women on a quest to become mothers through purchased sperm. It offers a chatty, girlfriendish account of romantic ups-and-downs and obstetric efforts and disappointments, with a few weddings and birthdays thrown in. The book deserves to be taken more seriously than its airy tone suggests: it is valuable as a primary source, documenting our strange culture of human reproduction and the coping mechanisms that have arisen in response.
Many factors have reshaped this culture, but assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) are among the most significant. Initially promoted to help infertile married couples, ARTs offer babies to individuals in varied situations that may or may not be ideal for childrearing. ARTs also blur the causal links between love and marriage, sexual differentiation and childbearing—a problem forecast decades ago by early critics of in vitro fertilization and related methods. New ways of making babies do not just add fresh options; they change the status of the old way of making babies. As formerly understood, man and woman who joined sexually might create a child who bore a part of each; mother and father would prize both the other and their child, whose raising would require their joint efforts. Now technology and social institutions offer substitutes for nearly every element of the old package. But the old package was not just about getting a baby. The manner by which the baby was conceived and raised also matter much.
Sex minus marriage, women’s desire for babies even in tension with work, plentiful methods at our disposal to initiate or terminate a pregnancy: these are now standard parts of our romantic and reproductive experience, any shock value largely expired. The most surprising thing in Three Wishes is not the strange, strained efforts at baby making but the writers’ relish of the old-fashioned life situations they at last attain.
A story of three single women who end up linked by bearing half-siblings, independent women becoming mothers with no men involved, might be interesting. This is not the story this book tells. None of the women actually births a child from the frozen sperm. Instead they are led into romantic relationships, even marriage. Carey, Beth, and Pam are writers with good careers but inadequate relationships. Carey’s work at The New York Times has left her too busy for romance. Beth is rudely divorced by her child-unfriendly husband. Pam is disappointed by a charmer who gets cold feet. Carey decides she wants a baby and can no longer wait, so orders sperm by mail from California Cryobank’s donor number 8282. The day it arrives, she meets a great guy who, after wrestling with some commitment worries, makes her pregnant, loves her child, and later marries her. She gives the sperm to Beth who finds a good partner and eventually has his baby. Beth transfers it to Pam, who keeps both sperm and a willing-donor friend in the wings for a while, but finds a soul mate who buys her a diamond ring and eventually fathers her beautiful Emma Lulu. A few among the women’s family and friends express initial concern, but most bless the three as wonderful mothers however they attain that office.
The friends’ bond is the sharing of the sperm, not the bearing of its children. So what is the sperm doing in the book? The dust-jacket text suggests it is like a magic potion, a “talisman” that brings on happy coupling. To leave the book at its fairy-tale level would be to underestimate its message. Having the sperm in waiting, having decided that a baby was what they wanted most, the women were freed up to make relational and career decisions that pleased them. Having the sperm stockpiled is exactly the point, the takeaway. It is what invites all female readers into the same boat. Sperm banks stand ready, waiting, if we should choose to have a child. The sperm is not magic, the women concede, but add “we do believe there is magic in the moment when a woman becomes convinced that she can reach her single-minded goal, to bear her child, by herself.”
Women can bear children when they wish, and neither child nor culture objects. Biological clocks need nag no more: do it when you are ready. Worry about finding the right partner is gone, too. Since your date doesn’t have to be the father of your child, you can lighten up, enjoy playing the field, and not have to settle.
It is unclear exactly why the women want babies so much. When the children are born, the mothers are astonished by them and how much they love them, as parents generally are. The women make comparisons between romantic love and love for children that not only (again, rather predictably) tilt in favor of the latter but also sideline the father’s love for the child. The women are glad, of course, when the men they choose choose to love their children. Though recent study after study reaffirms the importance of fathers for children’s flourishing, here men are optional to the process. In Three Wishes the father’s love is a pleasant bonus, not foundational to the child’s conception or flourishing, as seems reasonable since otherwise daddy might have been an anonymous donor.
Becoming single-mothers-by-choice with donor sperm desexualizes reproduction, not only the male contribution to the child but the mother’s genetic link as well. When Carey, Beth, and Pam consider using the jar of 8282, the fluid is sought as an impersonal ingredient necessary to the making of her child, but the emphasis is always on the child as hers. What makes the child hers? One motivation for using donor sperm might be the experience of pregnancy, but none of these women wax glorious about being pregnant. It is fine as a rite of passage, but what they really want is the baby. Whose baby? The father’s generative linkage to the child is downplayed. The three women are glad donor 8282 is a decent guy, handsome enough to pass on cute traits to kids, but they have no stake in playing up the resemblance or connection. In cognitively minimizing the father’s part, they also minimize their own genetic contribution, for if his does not matter that much to who the child really is, then by the same logic the mother’s genetic tie to the child does not afford identity either. What makes the baby hers is her wanting and intending of it. The willing of the child, rather than the child’s resemblance to Mom or gestation or even their shared DNA, makes the child the mother’s.
The book ends before any of the children grows into a difficult stage, and good caregivers take the edge off the rigors of baby care. Still, babies are delicious, but parenthood is hard. Now a social pathology even without its stigma, single parenthood comes with burdens that many who find themselves in the situation wish they could have avoided. What can be a pack of trouble for young, poor, or disadvantaged women, these women choose.
They do know their limits. Confronting fetal genetic abnormalities is not easy and the choices offered by a discouraging diagnosis are painful. These women do not treat lightly the miscarriages and abortions that occur along the way. (Though, the fact that genetic abnormalities occur more often in older mothers does complicate the “magic” of choosing motherhood on one’s own timing.) The obstetric and social environment these women inhabit predetermines plausible choices when, sadly, two discover problems after genetic testing. For Beth, it’s a child with trisomy 21, Down’s syndrome, a diagnosis that brings termination in about 90 percent of cases as in this one, as she “didn’t feel equipped to take on the challenge… and didn’t want to live my life fearing my own death and for my child’s basic survival.” Pam’s female fetus, sorrowfully, had trisomy 22, and plagued by images of children with that disability, Pam chooses: “I can plainly say, I don’t want that. I know there are no guarantees, but I want a healthy child.”
She gets—they all get—healthy children by the end. We all want healthy children, for their sake as well as ours. Yet some ways of wanting health are incompatible with the nature of human parenthood. The old Planned Parenthood slogan, “every child a wanted child,” suggests that adults should only have them when they want them, and should only have the ones they want—an arrangement, as far as I can see, which still does not and probably never should describe the full functioning of human sexuality and development. Receiving a gift is a more apt metaphor than choosing a child.
In some ways, the book is achingly traditional, despite the nontraditional paths to motherhood. All three have good jobs but ultimately want a baby more. They are willing to get a baby alone but conclude that a loving husband, happy home, and child are nicer to have together. They work out their lives pretty well, ending up with complete families and satisfying work. (Nannies make possible that last bit.) Under the circumstances, and armed with their friendship and the golden ticket of the donor sperm, they figure out how to make things work.
Readers might be tempted to criticize the use of strange or self-serving means to such conventional ends. But it is a blighted landscape—pocked, disfigured by broad social trends as well as the actions of particular men—that they have to negotiate to arrive at their safe, cozy family homes. The women say, look, there’s nothing wrong with old feminine goals of marriage and motherhood, especially with “feminine mystique” resolved by all these cool jobs women now can hold. But men have made it very difficult to get those goals in the old way. Rather than take the loss, we’ll make both means and ends adapt a little in the process. “Life did not need to be conventional to be wonderful,” thinks Carey after the delivery of her first child. Given the warm approval from family and friends and the empowerment they see in sperm banks, the book suggests that their path to motherhood is among the new “conventional.”
This new convention: does it preserve old ends by affording other means to them, or does it represent an utterly new way of things, with a decorous patina of tradition laid over to make the weird more palatable? In some respects probably the latter. Still, the traditional model of marriage and family is so routinely maligned by films, television, even the news organizations these women represent that we should not assume the book’s likely audience would judge the traditional model attractive. Perhaps the fairy-tale conceit of Three Wishes inadvertently delivers here. The authors, like some readers, are frankly surprised to discover that achieving the old package feels like a bigger prize than having merely gotten the thing—the baby—they sought. It amounts to an admission that the traditional arrangement had much to recommend it. Perhaps this arrangement is sufficiently worth attaining that we might be willing to follow its own interior logic to secure it.