First Person / Our modern family

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Today at the gym, I was walking the track with a friend, sharing family updates. I told her my son, in graduate school, is leaving soon for a summer internship in West Africa. It is his first time traveling so far overseas, and his trip is exciting and a little nerve-racking.

Instead of asking about the specifics of his internship, she asked, "But will he see his son before he leaves?"

A simple question to me, a grandmother of a delightful 19-month-old boy, and yet, it's complicated.

Had she asked questions about his graduate program or internship, the answers would be fairly straightforward. The question of "his son" is not, as he does not consider our grandchild to be his son.

You see, my son is a sperm donor for a child who is being raised by two loving mothers, one of whom has been a close family friend for more than a decade. Deciding to be a donor, to give the gift of genetic material with which to make a new life, is not a decision to make easily or lightly. Becoming a donor meant pioneering a new understanding of family -- for my son, the women and everyone related to the three of them.

We have known the birth mother since she was 5 years old: she and my daughter met at swim class. Years later, they became best friends.

When she came out of the closet while in high school, our family was supportive and nonjudgmental. She knew she had a safe harbor with us, free to be herself. We affectionately referred to her as our Other Daughter, and her relationship with our family grew stronger as the girls matured into women.

The idea for our son to be Other Daughter's donor was sown at his 21st birthday party: a rare wise idea. Other Daughter was in an established, long-term relationship by then, and they were talking about wanting children some day. Our daughter suggested the idea and, drunk on margaritas, our son and Other Daughter agreed it was a good one.

Years passed and our Other Daughter's' relationship with her girlfriend deepened and matured. They held a beautiful commitment ceremony, even though gay marriage is not yet legal in their state. Two years later, with a home and two stable careers, they approached our son and said they were ready to begin their family, that the drunkenly hatched idea was still in play.

Discussion flowed from the two women and my son, to my son and my husband and me, all of us, some of us. It was all we talked about for months. What would our roles be? Would we be involved? How involved? Does our son have responsibilities towards the baby? Anything? Nothing? Would he be welcome in their lives? Would they have expectations or barriers? The women said they wanted us in their baby's life, but in what way?

We read a book on known donors and realized there was no template for us. Some donors choose not to be involved with the new baby and others choose minimal involvement. We couldn't find any examples of families who want the donor's family to be involved.

The baby was born in November 2011. We went to the new family's home a few days after he was born, taking our son with us. We were all enthralled by the miracle of the newborn and were transfixed by every movement and expression he made.

Family has taken on new meaning to my husband and me. We had a traditional family life: mother, father, two children. We did not break out of society's prescribed gender-based roles: He was the breadwinner and I managed the house and children while working part-time. We mirrored, with some variations, our parents' models.

We now see our new grandson at least once every three or four weeks. Our role as grandparents is firmly established with him -- he called my husband Papa over Skype recently -- and with our friends and extended family. I dote on him to my friends and photos of the moms and baby clutter my walls, virtual and real. We are family with the moms and the baby, just as we are family with our own parents.

Some of my friends, though, like the one at the gym, struggle with this novel arrangement. How can we be Papa and Grandma, yet our son is not Daddy?

Our son loves the child, but he recognizes the moms as parents, not him. He is proud he was able to help in the most biological of ways to create a family, but he claims no fatherly role. The line is distinct for him, as it is for the rest of our family. He is special, but not a father. There's no title that fits his role.

When my friend asked me if my son was seeing his child before departing for his internship, I said no, but I told her I was seeing my grandchild the next weekend.


Ellen V. Garbuny is a social worker living in Butler.


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