99 Problems

Published on April 18th, 2016 | by Carla Rachel Sameth


“Donor X”: CARLA RACHEL SAMETH on the Search for Sperm

The first time I set out to have a baby solo, before I decided to try it with the person who would become my son’s dad and my husband, (and later my ex-husband), I attended two different groups for perspective moms. “Single Mothers by Choice” was primarily professional, educated single women usually in the 40s range. “Maybe Baby” was for lesbians, but couples showed up. I didn’t really fit entirely into either group. I was 33, single and considered myself most likely a lesbian but open to the right person of either gender.

Now 42 and a single mom with a five-year-old son, I returned to a “Single Mothers By Choice” (SMBC) meeting; I also participated in a Lesbian Moms group but hadn’t yet met that special someone. At the SMBC meeting, I met a woman who was having an imaginary love fest with her anonymous donor; his audiotape made her want to have him for a boyfriend. She loved his charming French accent. I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend, but hoped to find a donor that would be a good match for my son and me.

I knew there would be “kinks” to be worked out—explaining to two siblings where they came from, why one had a known father, and the other didn’t. But, I didn’t feel this was insurmountable. I strongly believed that the world was changing and that different types of families and methods of conception would be more commonplace. I kept a postcard on my refrigerator showing two people alone in a large auditorium, captioned “Adult Children of Normal Parents.”

I embarked on my mission by starting to search through anonymous sperm donor profiles.

I hadn’t yet scoped out Internet dating, but I would discover later that perusing donor descriptions at sperm banks bore some resemblance. Except that sperm donor profiles didn’t include photos. In order to get more details, you had to pay extra.

I looked at a lot of two-liner descriptions that basically gave age, profession, and ethnicity. One prospect, “Donor X,” looked promising based on his ethnic breakdown so I ordered the detailed profile via audiotape. When I listened to the donor I picked out, I began to have some doubts. I wasn’t crazy about his borderline whiny voice and the only word he could think of to describe himself was ambitious. His two favorite movies were The Graduate and Pulp Fiction.


Grace Hebert / Flickr Creative Commons License

Many years later my son’s favorite movie would be Pulp Fiction and with his urging it would become one of mine, but at this time, he was five- years- old. The choice of The Graduate just made me wonder if there was a Mrs. Robinson in my donor’s life. And ambitious? Why didn’t I find that appealing? (I might now.)

While my potential donor’s voice and self-description weren’t really doing it for me, his family history was a compelling fit for my family: Jewish, Russian, African American, Native American and Spanish speaking. He had been raised by a combination of urban planners, judges, teachers and social workers. On the maternal side, the New York connection seemed close enough to someone who could be from my mother’s family tree that I actually worried, “uh oh, could he be a relative?” (I called my mom to make sure we didn’t have any anyone back east who matched his parents’ description, without disclosing my motive.)

I had hoped to find a donor who was also willing to be “known”—some donors were part of the “willing to be contacted” category after the “offspring” turns 18. “Donor X” was unwilling. However there seemed to be a shortage of bi-racial and African American donors; “Donor X” was the best choice. I wondered if a child with him would resemble my son?


Months later, a big silver metal cylinder that resembled the monolith from the movie 2001 – A Space Odyssey sat in the corner of my room. A special holding tank for my sperm, purchased from the California Cryobank, which would be thawed and injected into me. I wanted to point the cylinder out to my son, Gabe, “see that—that could contain the beginning of your future little brother or sister.”

This time I didn’t go to see our previous private and expensive reproductive immunologist, Dr. Beer, who had been instrumental in the arrival of my son after many miscarriages. Back then, no one had questioned my ability to get pregnant the “conventional” way; it was the staying pregnant, the recurrent miscarriages, that landed me in the infertility category. Now, at 42 years-old, my HMO doctor said, “let’s really crank you up” with fertility drugs, like he was launching me into [space, the new frontier, projecting how many ovarian follicles I could produce

“I have a good record on multiples,” he told me. “It’s unlikely you’ll have triplets and above.” And who said I could handle twins? I knew what twins meant; I’d seen that. At least one parent I knew went crazy in those early years with twins, and I was a single mom. But I went to the Injection Clinic where I was taught how to inject myself and mix various infertility drugs. It seemed daunting; I was never successful at chemistry experiments. Afterwards, I drove to Gabe’s school to bring him a chocolate croissant. I needed to check in and remind myself that I had one live child—I was the lucky of the unlucky. I knew people who tried and tried to have a baby and ended up with multiple medical problems, bankrupt, divorced and…no baby.

When I got my negative pregnancy test after the first insemination, I was crushed. Those weren’t the words I expected to hear at all. That wasn’t the first time I had been handed a negative, but this time I really believed I should be pregnant. I was “ramped up” full of follicles just waiting for my eggs to be united with Donor X’s sperm. I was overflowing with hormones, my breasts were heavy. And I was tired.

sculpture brazil

Photo by Carla Sameth, of sculpture by Flory Menezes from Brazil

Added to this steaming cauldron to help get me pregnant and keep me pregnant was prednisone, a drug (steroid) that would later put me into a very early diagnosis of osteoporosis, but at the time that was the last worry on my mind. Prednisone tended to make me feel and act like a cranky toddler, overtired but unable to sleep.

This combination could have turned me into “psycho-mom.” But during this period, I was astonishingly calm. I knew the explosive potential I walked around with and so I greeted every wave of mood dynamite composedly, as just the work of digesting raving hormones and steroids.

I started daydreaming of switching to a particular East Indian donor–with a better pregnancy record. He combined high brain power—physics professor—and a sort of Zen personality, even some creativity, and a much more satisfactory self-description. The African-American, Native American Jewish donor seemed to have much more stress potential. Maybe too many bad things had happened in our collective ethnic histories. Who could expect that this sperm would combine with my egg and produce a relaxed, easy-going child? And we needed someone like that in our household.

Perhaps I should look for a Danish donor, I mused; I’d heard the Danes tended to be a very relaxed people. But the goal was to have some color and ethnic similarity to Gabriel (and the rest of our family). And I knew so little about East Indian culture, how could I explain that heritage to my child? It felt fraught with complications, not to mention the problems with relying on ethnic stereotypes. My search for a donor was beginning to sound like a bad Borscht Belt routine

And think of this, I wondered: there may be a whole generation of children with Native American blood who are cheated out of their right to tribal registration due to donor anonymity.


Photo by Carla Sameth, Brazil

One day after Gabe had spent another afternoon at Kaiser in an exam room filed with vaginas and pictures of growing babies, he asked me, “Mommy, are you too old to have another baby?”

I told him I wasn’t entirely sure. “Ask the doctor,” he insisted

Then he asked the question “How do you get the baby in the stomach; does the doctor do it?”

“Sometimes” I had explained this…kind of…before.

And then he asked again, “How do you make a baby?”

Also kind of touched upon before.

I answered “An egg from a mommy and a seed from a daddy.”

I had tried to explain that there are different ways of making or getting a baby. Sometimes the doctor mixes the seed with the egg and then “voila” puts it in the mommy’s tummy.

A couple years later he would ask me “Where are they getting all those cute Chinese babies, I want one!” when we were at a family camp. A lot of white families had come with adopted Chinese girls.

And so, I’d told him, “perhaps we can adopt someday.”

“You would have to work hard to earn money for that?” he asked

Yes, but then I won’t have much time to play with you and the baby if I worked all the time. It’s a tough situation I told him – having money to care for children, time to be with your babies, working to earn money to care for them. “But having you is wonderful!” I told him, giving him a hug.

“Having me is enough? You don’t need another one?” he’d asked.

“Yes,” I told him, “it’s more than enough.” But, I wanted to have another baby.

gabe airplane

After two months and no pregnancy, I began to want to convince myself to stop. That I could lead a good life with the two of us, Gabriel and I, particularly after that latest study just came out, suggesting it’s bad, moms working even over 15 hours a week and others bemoaning the negative affect of long hours in daycare on kids. Of course there were all those studies that indicated the value of siblings, and later there would be studies that disputed these other studies about working moms, and that heralded the value of quality early childhood education. And then of course those pesky studies that talked about the debilitating effect of stress in the womb and early childhood. Sometimes I’d wake up and question everything I was doing from trying to have another baby to not always reading to my son before he went to bed.

I was advised to do two inseminations the third month I tried, around the time “we” (which meant me and the medical folks) thought I’d ovulated. And there seemed to be a lot of follicles. I was bursting.

So I did two doses of “Donor X.”

I’d been crying all morning before I called to get the pregnancy test results, “Well you know, it is positive,” the nurse told me. Just like that, casual. I was ecstatic for those 30 seconds before she told me the hormone numbers seemed low. I took another test the next day and was told that the number had gone up but “not as fast as we would like” and to take another test in two days.

I was scheduled to fly to San Francisco the next day to see my friend Debbie Wong who was dying of colon cancer and had fooled us into complacency for years when she got better periodically. At 1:00 am, I was still awake. “Everyone” said rest was most important. I knew that and I couldn’t sleep. I also didn’t want to disappoint Gabriel by not getting on the plane – he was going too – but I wasn’t sure I could do it. Just too tired. And a bit terrified.

In San Francisco, Debbie told me “I’m happy for you. You’re a good mother; you really want this.” She had said if she got better she wanted to adopt a Chinese baby girl. But at this point we knew that wasn’t happening.

I didn’t know if it would be the last time I saw Debbie, and now I felt I had her blessings – her love had seen me through so much before. I wished my love could do that for her.

Before we left, a friend gave Gabe a big toy water gun. We arrived at the airport rushed. When we got to security we were informed he couldn’t go through with it. “It’s just a toy. I don’t even usually let him play with guns, but it was a present!” my voice rose precariously. My calm of: “Carla you know you are on hormones and be cool,” failed to kick in this time; instead, I got that pounding feeling that made me appear not quite “Unabomber” but enough agitated for Gabe to realize things were escalating dangerously in a way little kids can occasionally sense better than we do, and tell me, “it’s ok mom, we can leave it.” Bereft, I walked back and left the big squirt gun on top of a garbage bin hoping someone who wanted it would take it home. The symbolism was ridiculous. Gabe told me “mom I can get another.” He held my hand. I walked dejectedly through security.

I just wanted to get home and find out if I still was pregnant.

I wasn’t.

girl with glass

Photo by Carla Sameth of mural by Tick, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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About the Author

Carla Sameths memoir, One Day on the Gold Line, was published July 2019 and her chapbook, What Is Left is forthcoming (Oct./Nov. 2021) with dancing girl press. Her writing on blended/unblended, queer, biracial and single parent families appears in a variety of literary journals and anthologies including: The Rumpus, MUTHA Magazine, Brain/Child, Narratively, Longreads, Brevity Blog, Entropy, Angels Flight Literary West, Anti-Heroin Chic, Global Poemic, Full Grown People, and The Nervous Breakdown. Carla’s work has been twice named as Notable Essays of the Year in Best American Essays. A Pasadena Rose Poet, a West Hollywood Pride Poet, and a former PEN Teaching Artist, Carla teaches creative writing to high school and university students, and has taught incarcerated youth. She lives in Pasadena with her wife. https://carlasameth.com/

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