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Nerve Classics: Father Issues

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Confessions of a second-generation sperm donor.

Maybe it's the bourbon, but lately, we've been feeling nostalgic. With writing this good, can you blame us? "Father Issues" originally ran in 2005.

My vital statistics seemed to satisfy the bored receptionist who took my call.

"You meet the requirements," she said. Then she gave me an address near my university and told me to enter through a keypad entry door around the back. Under no circumstances was I to enter from the front, the entrance reserved for clients. That was Rule One. Rule Two was that I refrain from ejaculation for seventy-two hours prior to my appointment. I would earn $75 per donation.

At the appointed time, I arrived at the cramped office that overlooked a parking lot. The receptionist pointed to a cardboard box filled with plastic-wrapped specimen cups. She gave me an identification label to stick to the cup. Then she led me down a hallway into a small room. It was a narrow space, and we both had to step aside as another donor exited from the next donation room, trying nonchalantly to hide the clear specimen cup in his hand.

"Don't forget to lock the door," she said, as if that were something I might overlook.

To sum up the next few minutes: I was cool under fire. The receptionist put on a plastic glove to accept my donation without looking impressed. I made a joke about tax deductions. She didn't laugh.

Now came the tricky part. If my sperm count were high enough, I'd be summoned back in a few days to discuss my genetic history and my reasons for becoming a donor. I could say I was entering the program for money, to get paid for doing something I already did for free, or I could claim more altruistic intentions. My motives didn't fall easily into either category, though.

If only I'd talked to a good Freudian, we might have discussed what I'd always told myself was an irrelevant fact, a mere footnote to my existence: I myself am the product of a sperm bank.

My parents told me when I was thirteen, around the time I'd begun to grow into a body completely unlike my father's. When I found out, my feelings were complex: I felt bewildered, I wept for hours, I admitted a certain relief. The news was less of a total revelation than an inevitable coming out, an admission of what strangers had seen for years.

The sperm bank my parents chose had given them few details about my biological father.

My dad was a short, stocky, silent welder who came home from the aircraft plant with shards of metal in his hands. I was a lanky, hypersensitive computer geek obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. For my small but persistent betrayals — my inability to properly hit a baseball, my body's refusal to obey the even the most basic laws of genetics — I'd always felt guilty. Now I'd been let off the hook, but a new guilt replaced the old. The father I'd never met had usurped the place of the one I had — the loving and proud man who'd never questioned or resented his role, even now that I knew the truth.

Over the next few years, when my parents asked if I wanted to make contact with my biological father, I quickly told them no. I worried that showing any interest would hurt my father. Finding my biological father wasn't really an option anyway. Today, sperm donors and their children can choose to meet. (In fact, the U.K. recently gave those children the right to learn their biological fathers' identities even without permission, sparking a serious decline in donor applicants.)

But in the late 1970s, when I was conceived, clinics didn't ask for such agreements. The sperm bank my parents chose had given them few details about my biological father, revealing only that he was a tall and blue-eyed law student. Because they didn't know his name, they instead chose to name me after the clinic's founder. We left it at that.

I'd always accepted that nagging curiosity as the price of my existence. To admit frustration — wasn't that ingratitude? — I'd always told people that I didn't consider my biological father to be anything but biological. At twenty-two, I found a way of proving this to myself: by following in his footsteps.

I didn't share this plan with my family, or even the middle-aged geneticist who met me on my second visit to the clinic. To enter the program, she explained, I had to submit to rigorous genetic testing, a physical, and regular blood work. I also had to account for my entire family tree: what my relatives had done for a living, if any had gone bald or needed glasses.That was a problem. I couldn't admit that half my family tree was blank.

So I used my non-biological father's family history instead. He was, I'd always told people, my real dad.

I've often wondered how ethical it was to deceive the clinic and its clients, who use these family histories to choose their donor. But as someone who was put into a similar position — not deceived, but denied the truth — I believe that the real problem is society's insistence that we are defined by our paternity, even when it is described in terms as vague as those offered by fertility clinics.

I now wonder why I answered the clinic's ad in the first place.

That insistence is a burden to those of us who will never have the chance to know their biological fathers. For those of us conceived through sperm banks, the fault lies less with the donor than the clinic itself, which accommodates its clients and increases its profits by promoting donors as unique products. To become a donor I had to provide baby photos, record an audio tape describing my aspirations and life history, and give my income level. By identifying donors through these "qualifications," while allowing them the choice of not meeting their offspring, fertility clinics have it both ways. They make paternity both relevant and inaccessible, opening an important question for the donor's offspring that may never be answered. In a sense, by lying, I hoped to let go of the question at last.

The question wouldn't let go of me, however. After making more than a hundred donations — nearly enough to pay a year's rent and help with my student loans — I left the program. One day, I decided to browse the clinic's website to see if my donor ID had been removed. That would indicate that all my donations had been used, and thus all my possible biological offspring had been conceived. While visiting the site, I happened to read the history of the bank and learned it had gone under another name back in the '70s. I was shocked to read that its original founder, now dead, shared my middle name. I'd unwittingly applied to the same sperm bank where I'd been conceived.

I now wonder why I answered the clinic's ad in the first place. Did I want to prove my biological father was unimportant, or by retracing his steps, finally learn what little I could about him? Ultimately, neither of my plans succeeded.

"Good news," the clinic geneticist told me on my third visit. "We're accepting you into the program." Among the forms she gave me to complete was a waiver that would allow my child to contact me after turning eighteen, if I agreed. I hesitated, then signed. I told myself I could always decide later.