Sperm and the city

Donor insemination counsellors help women deal with big issues, like boyfriends

Sperm and the City

Getty Images; iStock; Photo Illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

Most straight single women who find themselves at a fertility clinic are not thrilled to be there. Many arrive feeling they wasted prime reproductive years in long relationships and are “pretty upset,” says Sherry Dale, a counsellor at LifeQuest Centre for Reproductive Medicine in Toronto. “What woman has ever said, ‘I can’t wait until I’m 40 so I can get some donor sperm?’ ”

Nevertheless, Dale and other counsellors who give advice on donor insemination (DI) say business is booming among single women aged 35 to 42. Most fertility clinics mandate at least one visit with a DI counsellor, but, Dale explains, they’re not gatekeepers. “They are not meeting me to get the go-ahead, or so I can see if they’re sane or nice people. I’m meeting them so they can know what’s ahead, not medically but emotionally.”

On average, about 20 single women attend Jan Silverman’s monthly meetings at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto; others see her one-on-one. “The sentence I hear most is, ‘I just didn’t think this would be my life.’ Some have said to themselves, ‘I’ll do this if I haven’t met a man by 35.’ Then they turn 38, and then 42. That’s a pattern I see over and over.”

Psychologist Donna Jacobs says she can now “absolutely tell in 10 minutes whether someone is ready to do this, or is panicking. We want to know that these women have a sound motivation and are well-informed. We don’t want them to be impulsive.”

Even those whose convictions are solid may need help deciding which sperm to choose. Silverman points out that singledom has its privileges: women don’t have to choose donors who “match” a male partner. “They can be open to race, ethnicity, religion, height, education. So we help narrow it down.”

And virtually all moms-to-be have questions about how, later on, to explain DI to their kids. “Whether it’s a neighbour or someone in a playground, kids are going to find out they don’t have a daddy,” says Jacobs. Most five-year-olds, she says, are satisfied with an explanation along the lines of “ ‘There was this wonderful man who wanted me to use his sperm, and with his sperm and my egg, Mommy carried you.’ Even if they’re asking questions, a young child will probably be like, ‘Okay, Mommy. Can we go to the park now?’ But as they get older, they will ask, ‘Who is my donor? Can I meet him? Do I have 16 half-siblings somewhere?’ ”

DI counsellors are also familiar with much earlier potential complications. Sometimes women announce, “I was about to get inseminated, but I’ve just met someone.” Jacobs says her patients want to know how long to wait before introducing the subject. “You can’t just say, ‘I want to see Moneyball, and by the way, I’m getting inseminated.’ But there has to be a point where what a woman is doing doesn’t preclude her from dating.”

Most single women who choose insemination do, after all, hope to meet a man. Jacobs always asks patients, “Would you try to pass off your child as his? My point is that you have to be truthful from the beginning. The child needs to know his or her story. The ‘ings’ like bathing, feeding, playing—well, if you have a man in your life doing those things with your child, those are parenting things. The child has to be aware of who their parent is versus who their donor is.”

Carolyn Weaver, who had her son Thorne, 5, through donor insemination, remembers heading into her first DI counselling session thinking, “ ‘I don’t have to discuss this with a stranger!’ But what you gain from it is not what you expect to gain.” She left sessions feeling more confident and validated. “Your counsellor is really the first person you’re discussing it with in a totally open way. If you stop and consider what got you here, or why did you stay with that guy for so long, it really prepares you to be a strong, healthy and emotionally clear mother.”

And DI counselling provides practical help, too. In Sherry Dale’s one- to two-hour sessions, she covers how to tell your neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances—and also talks about DI success rates, because at the end of the day, no matter how well-prepared the single woman, there are no guarantees.

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