Impulsively I say, “Well you can have some of Warren’s sperm if you want.”
I’m in Zinnie’s for the first time since getting pregnant, having a drink with some good friends who have come to see the baby and take me out on the town. It is dark and smoky despite it barely being past 8:00pm. We’ve all been here many times, though not lately, and never this early.
Vanessa has a small diamond ring on her finger. She and Liz have decided to become life partners. They want to start a family. Liz’s brother was going to be their donor, a fairly common arrangement among modern day lesbians, but he got cold feet. Now that I’m a mum, I want everyone to be a mum, but especially Vanessa. Everyone thinks I’m kidding but I’m not.
I knew Vanessa in college. We got to be good friends a few years later after I returned from the Peace Corps and she returned from doing a Fullbright in Honduras. We hung out in bars – once with Jane Evershed, read Starhawk books, had important discussions, went to Lilith Fair, and forged a friendship that easily survived the drama of everyday life. The outing of my secret college fling with her future husband, her moving to San Francisco to become a midwife, her coming out of the closet, and her eventual divorce only brought us closer together.
Vanessa is of the old soul variety—the instant you meet her, you know she is special. She is wise beyond her years, a good listener, and easy to talk to. (She was born with six toes on one foot, which according to some indigenous cultures, is a sure giveaway.) Vanessa introduced me to homebirth in America. She didn’t laugh when I said I was going use cloth nappies. (Or even when I decided to stop using cloth nappies.) She was instrumental in my decision not to circumcise my Jewish son. She showed me how to make a belly cast and showered me with a Mother Blessing ceremony when I was pregnant.
When Satchel was three months old, we went to California to visit Warren’s family. We also went to visit Vanessa and Liz. It was the first time Warren had met Liz, and the second time for me. They had a cute little house in the hills of Petaluma surrounded by vegetable and flower gardens. Vanessa made us a yummy vegetarian dinner while Warren and Liz played basketball. We went to the ocean, the ice creamery, and the second hand shop. We stayed up late talking and enjoyed each other’s company. It was clear to Warren and I that they shared a deep love for each other and that we shared similar parenting philosophies.
A few months later, Liz’s brother changed his mind. I offered up Warren’s sperm again, all kidding aside. Of all my friends, Vanessa was the one person I was sure that my husband would gladly donate his sperm to. I saw donating sperm to Vanessa as a way to expand our nuclear family. I knew that Vanessa was someone that we would always be close to and that this would only make us closer. They say that you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. In this case, we did both. I had visions of all of us holidaying together, or her child(ren) spending summers with us and Satchel going off to visit his cool aunties in San Francisco when he was older.
I wasn’t completely naïve about it though. I could certainly see how the situation could get sticky. Like what if Vanessa’s child was somehow bigger, brighter, or better than our own? Would I constantly compare myself to her? Would Warren? And really, it wasn’t just about me. How would the child feel about his/her auspicious beginnings? What if s/he was less than thrilled with the situation? What if Liz and Vanessa moved to Alaska? Or broke up? Or worse…then what?
When we talked about the future, all four of us hoped for the best. We wanted everything to be out in the open. While Warren wasn’t going to be the traditional “dad” and I wasn’t going to be the traditional “stepmum,” we certainly planned on being something. We would just have to wait and see what that looked like exactly. We agreed to take things as they came and to always keep the lines of communication open. What other choice did we have?
Over a year passed between our offer and our actual discussion of the particulars. Warren and I agreed to give up all parental rights and Vanessa and Liz agreed to assume full financial responsibility for the baby. We also agreed that an eventual sibling was part of the deal. Although I felt a bit like Glenn Close’s character in The Big Chill, Warren and Vanessa didn’t plan on actually having sex. Since Liz and Vanessa live in California and we live in Memphis, our plan was to use “Overnight Male,” a packaging system that preserves sperm in a special buffer for up to 48 hours, when the time was right.
After a brief cervical cancer scare and a few months of charting her cycle, Vanessa and Liz were ready to start trying. In January 2004, I was six months pregnant with my second child. I left work a bit early and in the window of time before we would have to pick up Satchel, Warren and I made a wish for Vanessa and Liz to have a baby. We carefully mixed it with the special buffer and rushed it to the local Mailboxes. Warren sent me in to pay and I felt absolutely giddy. I secretly hoped the guy behind the counter would inquire as to the contents of my FedEx package, but he didn’t.
The package arrived safely, and the insemination went smoothly. After separating the buffer with a centrifuge, Vanessa got out her microscope and could see the little guys swimming. Vanessa told us that she and Liz had had a little ceremony and that it was very special. I was so excited; I just knew it had worked. I didn’t know how I was going to keep myself from calling everyday and asking, “Are you pregnant yet? Are you pregnant yet?”
Warren, Satchel, and I went to visit friends in DC for Valentine’s Day weekend. On Saturday, I had an excited message from Vanessa on my mobile phone. She and Liz had just gotten married! I didn’t get a chance to actually talk to her until a few days later. Although ecstatic about being legally married, Vanessa was a bit depressed. As a midwife with unlimited access to pregnancy tests, she was sad to report that they all had registered only one pink line. She said her boobs hurt and she was sure she’d get her period any day. Skeptical, I asked if she was sure, but she was.
Four days later, and still no period, Vanessa tested one more time. This time it was positive. It did work after all! I think we were all in shock -but in a good way. Twelve weeks passed, and ripe with my own child, I started telling friends about Vanessa.
It was really fun having Vanessa pregnant. She had delivered over 200 babies, but had never experienced morning sickness, first trimester exhaustion, or that feeling of having a secret when your growing belly is still invisible to the world at large. As she entered her second trimester, I gave birth to my second baby—another boy. I was stunned as I had completely convinced myself, despite having no real evidence, that it was a girl. It only took a minute or two for me to fall completely in love with this new little guy, but for the next few weeks I struggled with how I might feel if Vanessa had a girl. Would I feel cheated? Would I secretly resent Warren for giving her girl sperm? I decided to just assume that she would have a girl so I could start working through my feelings. I even offered to let Vanessa use my girl name.
Vanessa came to visit twice during my maternity leave. As she held baby Jiro, I could see her trying to imagine what her baby might look like. Meanwhile I tried to picture her big and round, since she was barely showing. My best friend, Marlinee, and I performed the “ring test” on her and consulted the Chinese calendar—both predicted it would be a girl. I held my breath.
The summer and the beginning of Autumn passed in a blur as Warren left for a twelve week dig and I was home alone with both boys. I’d occasionally get an email like, “Do I really need a nappy bag?” or “How many cloth nappies should I buy?” We played a lot of phone tag, chatting on occasion. I continued to offer name suggestions and she continued to rebuke them. With each care package I sent, I’d write a little note, “What about Lyric? Flax? Are you sure you don’t like Piper?”
Things were moving rapidly yet slowly. It was September before I knew it and Liz sent us an amazing picture of Vanessa in a tank top at a peace rally. Her tiny, perfectly round belly was painted with the words, “Baby sez no war.” I immediately burst into tears. She looked absolutely radiant. Warren and I laughed at how different she looked from me—she was the fit, yoga mama while I was more of the voluptuous earth mama. She was at 35 weeks. It literally could be any day.
On a Friday a couple of weeks later as I was getting ready to go to lunch, my office phone rang. “Hey, it’s Vanessa. [Long pause.] I think I’m in labour.” She was planning to have the baby at home, like I had done, and was having some strong back labour, like I had. It was absolutely surreal to be on my end of the conversation, as she had always been one of the first people I called both times that I was in labour. I asked if she had any last minute predictions on the sex (she was still leaning towards totally not knowing) and I told her that I loved her and to have fun. I also promised to try not to call too much.
I immediately called Warren and, as usual, could only answer about five of his twenty questions. We were both really excited, but knew from experience that it would likely be the next day when the baby was born. I went home and stood in my power spot (the place in my bedroom where I had given birth to both Satchel and Jiro) and said a little prayer for Vanessa and the baby.
I talked to Liz a few hours later and got a progress report. All systems were go and Vanessa was doing great. She called back around midnight to report that things were still going well and that Vanessa was trying to rest. Somehow I went to sleep that night, but my mind was in California. I woke up at 8am and desperately wanted to call, but refrained. At noon I couldn’t take it anymore. This time Jenna, Vanessa’s friend who was also a midwife, answered the phone. A sure sign that things were getting close. Warren and I tried to stay calm. By 5pm I decided to check in again. Jenna answered. “So,” I asked, “How’s everything going?” She told me to hang on and Vanessa got on the phone, “It’s a boy!” she said.
A boy! How wonderful. I was relieved in a very profound way. A boy felt familiar, right. I genuinely felt happy for them.
By naptime the next day, I had an email titled, “Look who’s here.” When I saw the pictures, I was overcome. He looked a lot like Satchel did when he was born. He was beautiful. I wanted to hold him and sniff his head. I called Warren in and he was similarly smitten. “He looks like Satchel,” he said. We both stared in silence at the screen until Satchel came prancing in. “It’s Jiro!” he exclaimed as usual whenever he saw a picture of a baby. I called Vanessa and Liz and told them that I was in love.
Seeing the baby’s picture was a lot more emotional than I expected. I had intense baby lust. Jiro suddenly seemed huge. I wanted Vanessa’s baby to be snuggled up next to me. He looked so familiar; I wanted him to be mine. I had a huge lump in my chest. I felt a little lost. There were no sign posts. There wasn’t anyone to tell me, “Your feelings are totally normal.”
I wanted to tell everyone that the baby was here, but there didn’t seem to be a vocabulary for describing our relationships adequately. I found myself doing an elaborate set up, “You know my friend Vanessa? Well she just had a baby and Warren was the donor…” Then people inevitably asked, “He was the donor? What do you think of that?” I proudly responded that it was my idea, but I wanted a word that encapsulated that. I wanted credit for my role in bringing this beautiful boy to life.
Even the relationships that had names seemed strange. We alternated between telling Satchel and Jiro that they had a new baby half brother/a new baby cousin. It sounded kind of weird when Warren explained further, “I’m the daddy, and you are the son. Vanessa’s baby is also my son.” Technically this was all true, but would these terms constantly need to be qualified? Satchel seemed to be taking it all in stride. “I’m not the sun,” he said. “I’m a cloud!”
As I try to make sense of everything, I have been having some great conversations with Liz. Each day I am learning more and more about her—easily seeing why Vanessa has chosen to spend her life with her. I am amazed by her thoughtfulness and her compass
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