Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Few Good Sperm – Thumbs Up from Me

From Po:

This post regards Jennifer Egan’s cover story for last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine on single women who are having babies with donor sperm.

Ashley and I both knew this story was coming out, and we had our fears about it. When we finally got to read it, Ashley’s take was, “Worse than I feared.” My take was the opposite, “Better than I hoped.”

Egan tells the stories of two women, and along the way invokes some anecdotes from another half dozen women. Egan doesn’t judge these women, but she tells their stories fairly, showing us just who they are – for good and bad – and lets us do the judging. I think that’s good journalism.

I came to this article with a checklist of probable/possible falsehoods, having done some research into it myself.

1. Does Egan pretend it’s easy to get pregnant by sperm donor?

2. Does Egan pretend more women are doing it than actually are?

3. Does Egan perpetuate the false stereotype that single women are all alone (many single women have steady boyfriends, or are cohabitating with a man)?

4. Does Egan hide the fact that the women who do this are somewhat-wealthy – that it’s an option, but only for women with a good income?

5. Does Egan ignore the possibility that some of these women are single because they’re too picky, too prone to idealization, or drawn to losers?

6. In setting up the “thrilling logic” of avoiding the ex-husband problem, does Egan fail to indicate that having an ex-husband to share raising the child with – difficult as that is – might be easier than having nobody to help at all?

Quickly, let’s go down my checklist:

1. Easy pregnancy: Both main subjects are still not pregnant by the end of the article, and don’t seem any closer to getting pregnant. The journey looks hard, and it looks costly.

2. Overhyped Trend: Just by nature of it being a cover story in the Times mag, we’re going to falsely conclude that this is a big trend. But you can’t fault Egan for her story getting the cover. In the text of the article, she says its “thousands” of women who do this each year – which it is. (Trendwise, that’s miniscule). Egan dangerously hints that it might be tens of thousands, but she gives us clues to do the math. I wish she had done the math outright, but I feared worse on this point.

3. Single doesn’t mean alone: Both main subjects are actively looking for boyfriends and still willing to marry. Other women mentioned have boyfriends.

4. Province of the Yuppie: It’s clear throughout the article (with one exception late in the piece) that this is the province of the well-paid few – the kind of women who buy Manolo Blahniks and can throw down ten grand cash for sperm.

5. Do they make poor choices in men: During the months the article chronicles, we are exposed to just enough details about one woman’s dating life to draw whatever conclusions we want to draw about the way she picks men. Egan hints at the possibilities quite delicately.

6. Thrilling logic: Egan does come back later in the article to state the usefulness of having help in raising a child – even the kind of help an ex-husband can offer.

Throughout the article, these women make some darn annoying statements. They shop for sperm with the kind of dismissiveness they shop for shoes, they compare babies to dogs based on sheer pseudo-science, and they seem utterly ignorant of the challenges resident to the years ahead. The line that made me wince was when one subject disses a sperm donor because his parents were “pretty boring professionally.” Yikes! To me, this was the article’s greatest strength – it revealed who these women are, and what they’re like. It let us judge. I know Ashley smirked in disgust at those quotes, and she was supposed to: these women were just caught talking out of the sides of their mouth at one point, and Egan nailed them. People say smart things, and they say noble things, and they say stupid things. Egan chose to include some of the stupid things that were said. In so doing, she was bringing some balance and fairness to the portraits.

So these women don’t sound so wise, and they don’t sound beautifully noble. So what? They’re willing to try raising a child, as a single mother – I think that’s a hero’s journey no matter who you are. And I have complete confidence that the wisdom and nobility will come later; it’ll be taught to them, by the grace of raising the child. If they sound selfish today, they won’t be selfish five years from now. Their child will have taught them selflessness.

One line sounds truly damning, at first glance. It’s so juicy it was selected as a big pull-quote by the editors. “My feelings about what I want from men right now are really changed. I don’t actually want a big relationship. Now I want occasional companionship and sex.” I suppose, if you haven’t been around single women raising children, that line sounds atrocious. But hold your judgment. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s realistic. Divorced women with children commonly adopt this philosophy. They feel they can’t afford to bring a man into the lives of their children – its too risky if it doesn’t work out. But they don’t want to be celibate for 18 years either.


Blogger Andreia said...

This article made me mad too, Ashley!

The reason it made me angry was simple.

Men matter.
Husbands matter.
Dads matter.

It is frightening to me that there is a segment of the population that would willingly deny a child a relationship with a father. It's one thing to have fatherless families by the sheer chaos of life, and a completely different thing to knowingly make that choice!

Fathers teach children ways to be in the world that women do not. I can teach my kids about tools and car repair and whatever else goes on in our garage, but how can I model how a man should treat my daughter if I have eliminated the primary model for appropriate relationships: the marriage?

I realize this might be an unpopular argument; but I think it has merit. Boyfriends, uncles, and surrogates usually do not provide the same emotional support of a father who is biologically predestined to protect and defend his own.

Some of my favorite research on babies and fathers discusses the differences in how men and women relate to their children. Women caretake. Men play. It takes one short visit to my home to witness a tickle-fest between my husband and my 3 youngest to see this in action.

Am I condeming all single mothers by asserting a father is a critical element? I don't intend to as I spent a span of my life alone with three kids. Not my first choice.

It was my choice to return to a marriage scarred by infidelity. I made the choice after months of deliberation and with much trepidation. I made it primarily to protect the relationship that my children have with their father. (I realize this is a whole 'nother ball of wax, so I wont elaborate except to say, that I feel blessed that it has worked out for all. Bumpy ride but a good ride)

I wonder how many of these children will spend their lives wondering about their father, creating a persona for him, wishing they knew him in much the same way that these women crave for the same special man.

It also concerns me that the ethical questions of one man "fathering" so many children are not examined. Should the guy with 21 off-spring not be restrained?

It is popular these days with the HBO show Big Love, to condemn polygamist marriage but this man producing so many offspring seems to raise the same ethical issues regardless of the legal arrangement. Are we really prepared for consequences of men propagating willy-nilly?

Ultimately, I hope I'm wrong. I hope these women find peace. I hope the children live happy lives. I hope Po is right.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

Thanks, Andreia.

I certainly think men matter too, but does that mean a woman should never wilingly choose to have children if she can't find a mate?

I agree it will be hard for her, and her kids will have things they wonder about, and I sure hope she finds a male role model for those kids and that she gets help from someone in raising them ...

But I have friends with kids who came this way, and yes, it's hard, but I love those kids and I think they're going to turn out great.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Andreia said...


They are lucky kids to have an interested man in their lives! I hope the same is true for many of the children in the story even if it can not be a father.

I would suggest that we live in a culture that does not promote putting aside personal wishes for any greater good. If we want it, we must have it regardless of the implications.

I know, I know! Throw the tomato! Consider it a thought for the arena of ideas and be kind when you hit me with the tomato!


11:16 AM  

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