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Yes Donors and Choice Mothers

I was interviewed recently, and one of the questions I answered was asked—and I’m paraphrasing here—was “How would marriage and the workplace be different if the radical feminists of 30 or 35 years ago had been more successful?” It was hard for me to answer the question, because it was hard for me to imagine a world in which radical feminism achieved its goals. This is basically what I said in my non-responsive response, and I mentioned, as an example, Shulamith Firestone’s program for releasing women from the biological responsibilities and complications of reproduction. While it is possible to argue that women are hobbled by pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering, the willingness of many women to undergo expensive, intrusive, and dicey fertility treatments suggest that a lot of women have no desire to be liberated from the corporeal aspects of motherhood.

I thought about this again while I was reading the cover story from yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, “Wanted: A Few Good Sperm.” I was thinking about how, while women may not be willing to outsource gestation—quite the contrary—a growing number of them are creating a kind of reproduction and parenthood in which men are almost unnecessary. I was also intrigued by the way many of the women who choose to become single mothers are forging new types of community and family, communities made of other single mothers and families made of children who are the product of the same sperm donor—communities and families of which the sperm donor himself is generally not a part. This may be about as close to achieving the goals of old-school radical feminism as we are likely to get.

This is all, of course, a big social experiment, but early signs are positive. In the article, Jennifer Egan writes that “a 1992 survey of teenagers raised by single mothers found that they experienced markedly fewer adolescent problems than children of divorce.” And she mentions that “a continuing study of a group of children in England, now 2, who were conceived by single women using donor sperm concludes that so far they are healthy and well adjusted.”

On the other hand, I find some of the genetic engineering that’s going on alarming. Here’s one woman profiled in the article assessing a sperm donor: “‘Thick hair, which is also nice,’ she said, ‘because if I happen to get a son, I don’t like bald guys’”. Some of it is alarming and also naïve. Here’s the same woman on another donor: “‘…he’s six feet but he only weighs 150. Which is good. If I have a girl, she wants to be skinny, and if she can eat what she wants, that’s perfect’”. (I have a tall, skinny dad. I am neither tall nor skinny.) Of course, I can’t say that I wouldn’t be making similar analyses if I were shopping for DNA.

And here’s the big reason I found this article so interesting: I can easily imagine myself shopping for DNA.

My husband has told me many times that, if we had broken up, he would have given up on the idea of marriage. He would have bought himself a condo with a hot tub, he would have updated his personals profile to make it clear that he wasn’t looking for a serious relationship, and he would have settled into a life mild hedonism. (Sometimes—particularly when, say, our roof is leaking or when he’s contemplating the complexities of our joint tax return—Ted gets a faraway look in his eyes, and I suspect that he’s paying a little visit to perennial bachelor fantasyland.)

But I’ve never really thought much about what I would have done if we hadn’t gotten married (probably because I was always confident that Ted would be smart enough to marry me). Had we not gotten married, though, I believe I would have given up, too—on marriage, but not on motherhood.

I was never particularly marriage-minded, in any case; that is, I didn’t grow up dreaming about marriage in the abstract. There are a couple of guys I have thought about marrying, but I have also dated guys that I really couldn’t imagine being married to—including one guy that I totally, totally loved but couldn’t quite see as a husband, and certainly not as a father.

Of course, I didn’t grow up dreaming about babies, either. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a mother until I got pregnant, by accident, and discovered, by accident, that motherhood was tremendously important to me—a lesson that was, if anything, reinforced when I had a miscarriage. It’s easy to imagine that I would have given up on romance if I hadn’t married Ted, but I can’t imagine that I would have given up on motherhood. It seems that an increasing number of women feel the same way I believe I would have.

March 20, 2006 | Permalink

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