The first time I saw my baby daughter, my initial reaction was surprise. It was as if someone had taken a knitted version of me and shrunk it in the dryer. Despite the family resemblance, I didn’t feel a paternal connection; instead, I was happy I had been able to help my close friends start a family.
On the day my friends, a lesbian couple, asked if I would donate sperm, I was delighted. I didn’t think about the reality of what that would entail; I just impulsively said yes. In fact, I was grateful to be asked. Incredibly, my friend became pregnant on that first attempt. I was overjoyed. As a gay man, I had been programmed to believe that this wasn’t part of my narrative. Now, though, this pregnancy was exploding the myth that I could never be a father, and it was wonderful.
But five months later, my friend miscarried and I felt responsible, as if it was my fault. We sat down and had a lovely talk where they reassured me and we decided to wait before trying again. It took me three or four months to allow myself to say I had lost a baby. As the donor, I didn’t know if I had permission to grieve: they had been watching their baby grow, while I was peripheral. It was a growing-up moment: life had been all fun and games up till then, and now I realised there were consequences to my actions.
A few months later, we all felt ready to try again. It took longer for my friend to become pregnant this time, and I worried that it wouldn’t happen; that I’d lost my powers. We settled into a monthly routine and I became less embarrassed about the process. I’d go round to my friends’ house, we’d have some tea and a chat, which we called our pillow talk, and then they’d go for a walk and leave me to it.
But I did grow tired of having to dash round as soon as I received a text saying my friend was fertile, so after a while she’d come to my home instead to pick up the donation, wrapped in a brown paper bag. It felt like a drug deal. To keep the sperm at the right temperature, she’d store it in her bra for the journey home.
I used to try to hide what I was doing from my partner, Matt: the text would arrive and I’d slope off to the bathroom, saying I was just brushing my teeth. He’d always guess, though. I’d met Matt just when we began the process, and meeting someone when you’re starting a family with someone else is complicated. It took a while before we could talk about what was going on.
Finally, my friend conceived and the pregnancy progressed well. Just before the birth, my friends held a baby shower, which I found unexpectedly painful. Despite the efforts of the mums to include me, and despite being thanked by the grandparents, I found myself sobbing on the floor afterwards. I was still an outsider; it wasn’t about me. I was physically having a baby, but I wasn’t part of it.
On the day of the birth, last October, I was like a father from the 1950s, but instead of pacing the corridor, I was walking on the treadmill at the gym. After the baby was born, I couldn’t tell people without welling up. I never thought I would be announcing to everyone, “I have a child.” It was also time to tell my parents, because they hadn’t known they were going to be grandparents. They had written off having grandchildren, so they were over the moon.
I think they also felt relieved. As parents of a gay child, they had worried I would struggle, but now that I am a father, I must be OK. We also have a new topic of conversation, one I never thought I’d be party to. It has been a rollercoaster two years, but writing a comedy show about it has been good therapy. I’d be willing to do it again if my friends wanted another child.
The baby is now 10 months old, and although I see her regularly, I’m certainly not “Dad”. I’m Shawn. But we will always be open about my connection to her. I don’t want a “Darth Vader moment” when she’s older. It’s important for her to know that she was born in a special way, and that her arrival helped to change ideas of what a family can be.
Article: 19th August 2013 www.guardian.co.uk