What Will You Tell Her?
In November 1996, I donated fourteen ova at Mt. Sinai Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. On New York University’s campus, between graduate-level American literature classes, I read one of the fertility clinic’s ads in a magazine. The Reproductive Endocrinology Program paid donors who were between the ages of eighteen and thirty-two $3000 for their eggs. With that money, and the $2500 I earned while teaching Introduction to Creative Writing to NYU undergraduates during the Spring 1997 semester, I could pay almost five months’ rent for my studio apartment at 208 West 23rd Street in Manhattan.
My grandfather’s sister and her husband struggled with infertility before in-vitro fertilization was an option, and, on my interest form, I wrote that I wanted to help people like them become parents. An ovum that I would shed with uterine lining could become someone’s child. I signed the clinic’s forms; my donation is anonymous. The clinic’s nurse demonstrated, on a practice model, where and how to give hormone injections. Into the foam leg, I injected saline. During the first two weeks of my cycle, I injected follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) into my thigh muscle and increased the number of viable eggs before the harvest procedure.
Every four days, I visited the clinic for a trans-vaginal ultrasound. The nurse placed a condom on the probe, I inserted it, and she measured and photographed sixteen ova. I looked forward to seeing those milky novae on the gray ultrasound screen, and I hoped that, in a Petri dish, one ovum might let sperm in. To the uterus of another woman, the blastocyst might attach.
Following the clinic’s instructions for the eve of the harvest, I injected human chorion gonadotrophin (HCG) at nine thirty. From 8-10 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, the poetry workshop with Philip Levine met at 19 University Place. Before our discussion of that night’s last poem, I excused myself from the conference table and walked to the bathroom. Standing inside the stall, I found my hip bone with my thumb. With my middle finger, I found the right place on my ass, swabbed the skin with antiseptic, and injected HCG. Instead of joining my classmates at the Cedar Tavern after the workshop, I walked to the West 4th Street subway stop and took the B train home.
To get to Mt. Sinai by six a.m. for the harvest, I splurged on a taxi. The nurses rolled my gurney into the O.R., lifted the sheet beneath me, and placed me on the operating table. The anesthesiologist tightened the oxygen mask on my face, and Dr. Alan Cooperman began the surgery. In the recovery room, under heated blankets, I sipped hot Pekoe tea. The hospital would not let me leave on my own, so Sanjana Nair, my classmate, met me at the nurse’s station and signed the discharge papers. At my follow-up appointment, Dr. Cooperman said, “We harvested fourteen ova. The nurse will give you options for birth control pills. If you become pregnant soon, you’ll have a much higher chance of multiples.”
When the nurse asked if I was sexually active, I said, “I don’t need birth control. I’ve been an out lesbian since I turned nineteen.” In November or December of 1996, those who selected me as a donor began in-vitro fertilization. Did the parents keep my donor essays? Did they keep a copy of my family medical history, the results of the clinic’s genetic tests, the MMPI report, or the picture of me in Central Park?
In my apartment, I didn’t have an Internet connection, so I spent a lot of time on computers in the NYU Library or in the Muhlenberg Branch of the New York Public Library. After the egg harvest, I searched for sperm donors and located the California Cryobank’s website. For free, I browsed and read donors’ short profiles, printed out ten of my favorites, and narrowed my list of ten down to three tall, young men who had dark hair, brown or hazel eyes, straight teeth, and good vision. For twelve dollars, I ordered three donors’ long profiles and their essays. Each described himself as open-minded, artistic, and athletic, and each was in college. I rejected donors who answered the questions on the cryobank’s forms with one or two-sentence responses, donors whose essays did not contain vivid description or specific examples, and one donor who described himself as “Pan-like.”
At age 23, I thought the egg donation would be the closest I would get to becoming pregnant, but I placed the donors’ profiles in the box where I kept my elementary and high-school report cards, college transcripts, A papers from undergraduate English courses, Alpha Omicron Pi scrapbooks, letters from college boyfriends, and the Ellen DeGeneres “Yep I’m Gay” issue of TIME.
I watched “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen alone. Though I’d lived in Manhattan for nine months, I had not found the “lesbian community” I longed for when I loaded up the U-Haul and moved from my first apartment in downtown Little Rock. While looking for lesbians sipping coffee at A Different Light’s lectures and The Big Cup’s poetry readings in Chelsea, I found mostly older gay men. The lesbian community I found in New York City, like the lesbian community I was part of in Little Rock, gathered mostly, or was visible mostly, in bars. At Henrietta Hudson and the Ruby Fruit Bar and Grill, the women were usually Caucasian.
At Crazy Nanny’s and the Meow Mix, the crowd was racially diverse and working class. Even in New York City, women often partnered according to butch/femme roles.
In Crazy Nanny’s, a woman who dressed like James Dean asked, “Are you a lipstick lesbian?”
I explained that, obviously, I wore lipstick and, yes, I was a lesbian: “That does not mean I am in here looking for a butch girlfriend who has her Marlboros rolled up in her t-shirt sleeve!”
Another woman in Crazy Nanny’s asked, “Honey, do you know you’re in a gay bar?”
After taking a long drink of beer, I said, “Sorry, I left my lesbian membership card back in Arkansas.”
Among the women who wore dog collar necklaces and wallets on chains, my long hair, khaki shorts, Gap cardigan, and Birkenstocks made me feel like a tourist. In the creative writing program at NYU, there were other lesbians, and each was partnered. I envied those women who were exploring New York City together.
When the Defense of Marriage Act passed on September 21, 1996, I did not expect that, in my lifetime, I would use marriage as a word to describe my relationship with another woman. I hoped that, if any of the offspring of my egg donation were LGBT, they might be able to marry. The word family is what I expected to continue using, during my lifetime, to describe my future life partner, and I assumed that New York City is where I would find her.
In the summer of 1997, Katharine and I met at the Meow Mix in the East Village. She asked the bartender what I was drinking and sent me another Wild Turkey and Coke. After I thanked Katharine for the drink, she sat on the bar stool beside me. The lead singer of that night’s cover band was a black woman who shook her wide wooden bracelets like tambourines.
Katharine said, “I hope I come back reincarnated as a black woman. I’d have Tina Turner’s voice.”
Growing up in a wealthy Jewish family in Alabama, she was raised, primarily, by an African-American nanny. Men in her family were some of the first Jewish members of the country club in Birmingham. She, too, had been asked if she was straight when she visited lesbian bars, and she’d been teased about her Southern accent. Katharine spent a lot of time in the darkroom, developing film and making prints. Like the bars’ clientele who formed cliques of people who were very much like themselves, Katharine and I were drawn to sameness and what reminded us of home.
Under her bed, she kept the nude self-portrait that her mother despised. Those three fragments did not include her face. At the beginning of our relationship, I spent hours lying on her bed, above those photographs, until her roommates left the apartment. I could sneak out without anyone discovering I was there. She had her uptown (wealthy and conservative) friends and her downtown (queer and avant-garde) friends, and she kept those worlds separate.
Sometimes, she and I prepared meals for dinner parties. Her guests were the uptown friends who didn’t know about our relationship, and I left her apartment before their arrival. When I imagined our future together out loud and asked her to describe what our lives would be like as old women, she said she didn’t let herself think that far ahead.
I never told Katharine about my egg donation. The money I received after the harvest procedure would probably cover one month of what her parents paid her personal driver. Though she met my mother and grandmother when they visited from Arkansas, I never met her family.
She explained, “My mom would figure us out. It’s the way you look at me.” My mentors and community of writers in New York provided the affirmation that I needed. In my first semester at NYU, I was assigned to Philip Levine’s poetry workshop. I dreaded working with a white male who was the age of my grandparents and assumed that, like my grandparents, he would think I was going straight to Hell for writing lesbian poetry. When I read my four page poem aloud in his workshop for the first time, I was terrified and could not breathe in the right places.
Before class one night, he pulled me aside and said, “Some of the finest minds and the finest poets of my generation are gay or lesbian. If you continue to work hard, you can make your mark on our poetry too.”
In an individual conference, he signed and gave me a copy of The Bread of Time. Feeling invisible and lonely, despite (or because of) my relationship with Katharine, I clung to his words.
In the margins of one of my workshop poems, a classmate wrote that my speaker seemed claustrophobic. In my early twenties, I confined myself to first-person narrative poems about childhood in rural Arkansas and being rejected by my family when I came out. I re-arranged and re-numbered the poems into a sequence, trying to find the right order.
Levine recommended that I read Roethke’s greenhouse poems. Sharon Olds recommended Hart Crane. I read everything I could get my hands on. The more I read, the more I realized that I had not really lived life yet. Even in Manhattan, I would never find a LGBT Mecca where no one is stereotyped or judged. Lesbian life partners raising children were rare in New York City and in Arkansas, but I committed to building the life I imagined. Living only on the page was not what I wanted.
At Goldwater Memorial Hospital, I spent several hours per week teaching creative writing to residents who lived with Lou Gehrig’s, Multiple Sclerosis, quadriplegia, and AIDS. Sharon Olds founded the Goldwater Writing Program. Part of my service-learning experience involved transcribing the work of residents who used assistive technology to communicate.
Tamika was my age. Goldwater had been her home since age two; she became quadriplegic after a car accident. She held and moved a paintbrush with her mouth. Her life outside of the hospital existed in the stories she dictated to us.
Deborah, in the late stages of Lou Gehrig’s, pointed with her foot to a homemade, plastic letter board, and we recorded each word of her poetry. Marianna finished her degree in Russian Studies at Hunter College while in her seventies. In her purse, she still kept her receipt for the $200 she borrowed to sail from Poland to the United States. When she knew I was coming, she saved her orange juice from breakfast. At the end of the semester, she gave me a stars-and-stripes do-rag that was identical to hers.
The community of writers that I found at Goldwater helped me commit to writing, and teaching writing, as a career. First, I would complete my Ph.D. Then, with or without a partner, I would become a parent. From the University of Mississippi, Oklahoma State University, and Georgia State University, I received invitations to join their Ph.D. programs in 1999. The rural South was not where I wanted to look for a life partner and start a family. Into the same size U-Haul I drove from Little Rock to Manhattan in 1996, I packed my belongings and drove to my new apartment in Midtown Atlanta that was three times the size of my Chelsea studio.
In January 2002, I opened the Seagram’s box of mementos that contained my favorite sperm donor profiles. I would complete my coursework for the doctorate by December 2003, and I wanted to become a mother before age thirty.
During the five years that I stored the donor profiles, California Cryobank began offering options to purchase a baby photo, an audio-taped interview, and a list of staff impressions about the donor’s appearance. For one of the three I’d selected in 1996, the updated catalog indicated that a pregnancy had occurred for at least one recipient.
Olivia’s donor knows that his donation has been a gift for others, but I have no idea if my egg donation ever resulted in a birth. Society assumes that women are more attached to their reproductive tissue and the offspring that result from it. I don’t think of the children who could have been conceived with my eggs as mine, but I would love to know if someone made a life out of one of my ova. Whether an anonymous donor’s motivation is money or helping others know the joy of parenthood, we give because we have a strong faith in the goodness of humanity. We want these children in the world, even if we never see their faces or hear their voices. Anonymous donors live the rest of our lives feeling more deeply connected to humanity. Everyone’s eyes are the eyes of those we helped make.
The donor’s baby photo was a close up, and he’d been dressed up for his first Christmas. When I look at Olivia, and photos of her six donor siblings, I see his large forehead, small nose, thin lips, and almond-shaped eyes.
While listening to the taped interview for the first time, I could hear him smile when he described his long and short-term goals: “My short-term girls, I mean goals, are to finish college. My long term girls, I mean goals, are to have a family of my own someday.” He described his open-mindedness and tolerance, and he shared his appreciation for his parents who immigrated to the United States before his birth. His favorite movie was “There’s Something about Mary.” The staff at the Cryobank gave him an eight out of ten for appearance.
When I decided to order vials and try the “turkey-baster method,” I realized at the online checkout that the vials contained a very small amount of semen. An eye-dropper or infant medicine dropper would be more appropriate for an in-home insemination. On the Internet, I also learned that, if I inseminated myself, I would be committing a felony in the State of Georgia.
According to O.C.G.A. 43-34-37, “Physicians and surgeons licensed to practice medicine in accordance with and under this article shall be the only persons authorized to administer or perform artificial insemination upon any female human being. Any other person or persons who shall attempt to administer or perform or who shall actually administer or perform artificial insemination upon any female human being shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary for not less than one year nor more than five years.”
Two vials of frozen sperm arrived via FedEx. I kept them in the freezer by the Illy coffee and Dove bars until my ovulation predictor kit showed two lines and I left for my appointment at the clinic. Before the intra-cervical insemination (ICI), the nurse showed me the sperm on a slide in the microscope.
She said, “That is definitely a high volume of sperm, and they’re strong! There are millions of chances in there.”
At home, I counted the days until it was time to take a pregnancy test. None of my lesbian friends had children or were considering becoming mothers, but both of my cousins’ wives in Arkansas had become pregnant in recent months. With two straight friends I made on babycenter.com’s Trying to Conceive (TTC) discussion forum, I shared the details of my ICI. I listened to the timing and sexual positions they were trying with their husbands, and we gave each other tips on detecting ovulation. I learned acronyms like EWCM (egg-white cervical mucus) and MC (miscarriage.) After a few months, each of us graduated to the Pregnancy forum.
Like one of my online friends, I eventually required fertility drugs to conceive. After two unsuccessful ICI procedures at the first clinic, I made an appointment with Dr. Carolyn Kaplan at Georgia Reproductive Specialists in Atlanta. She prescribed Clomid and HCG injections at the time of ovulation, and she recommended an intra-uterine insemination (IUI). From the California Cryobank, I ordered seven vials that GRS would store in its lab. The FedEx delivery woman who brought the tank to my door let me take her picture.
I asked, “Did you know you were delivering sperm? Can I take your picture and label it ‘The Stork’ in the scrapbook I am making? I’ll put it by the picture I take of the positive pregnancy test!”
The stork photo is bordered by some of the four-leaf clovers that my mom sent weekly from Arkansas after I told her I was trying to conceive. She and my step-father were the only family members who were excited.
When I told my biological father, he said, “I think you’re selfish. What will you tell the baby? What if he asks who his dad is?”
My dad’s mother, who told me I was going to Hell for being a lesbian, did not ask about my attempts to conceive. She called to update me on the children my male cousins’ wives were expecting. I remember sitting at her kitchen bar when I was no older than seven.
She said, “Dave, when are you going to have more children? All you have is her, and she won’t carry on the Wurz name.”
My dad said, “Mother, I had a vasectomy!”
When I called to tell my mom’s mother about selecting a sperm donor and taking fertility drugs, she said, “I wish you wouldn’t do this. What will you tell this child? How will she explain that she does not have a dad?”
In September 2002, I was studying in the Little Five Points Starbucks. The clinic’s nurse called to say that the blood test I took that morning confirmed I was pregnant. After taking a picture of the positive home test, I kept the news to myself until I was 100% sure. I called my mom first and told her the news was her birthday present. She called her mom, and my grandma called my dad’s mom.
When my dad called me after hearing the news, he said, “I hope everything works out for the best. When is your due-date?”
On May 16, 2003, fifteen days before my due-date, I went for a weekly checkup at the OBGYN. My blood pressure was still elevated, so she admitted me to Emory’s Crawford Long Hospital and made plans for an induction. Since starting contractions at twenty-two weeks and staying on bed rest, I’d had my suitcase in the trunk. My mom didn’t have hers packed yet, but she threw some clothes in a bag and drove from Maumelle, Arkansas to Atlanta.
My father and grandmother drove to Atlanta a few days after Olivia was born, and, after holding her, they joined me in my selfishness. My father had a stroke and developed locked-in syndrome when Olivia was nine months old. I brought her into his room in the ICU and held her cheek to his before they removed the life-support.
My pregnancy was classified as “high-risk” because I needed fertility drugs, so I saw Olivia on the ultrasound every week until I delivered. The nurse gave me a picture at every appointment. Olivia likes to find those pictures and the four-leaf clovers in the scrapbook. She looks for the “Here She Is” wrapper from one of the chocolate bar birth announcements and holds it to her nose to see if it still smells like chocolate.
When Olivia was two, I met Krista and her son Thomas, who was born in 1996. Krista and I married in New Hampshire on October 12, 2010. Through the Department of Children and Family Services, we have adopted three sisters, and we are waiting to finalize the adoption on our two-year-old twins.
Olivia has seen pictures of her donor siblings, and she hopes to meet them someday. Three of the four families have two moms. She knows that she can contact the Cryobank and request contact with the donor when she turns eighteen. For adult offspring conceived through egg donation at Mt. Sinai, there is not a method for contacting anonymous donors.
Since Pre-K, when kids have asked Olivia about her father, she has corrected them.
She has told me about several occasions when she has explained, “I have a donor. In my family, there are two moms. I do not have a dad. There was a donor who was nice enough to give one of my moms some sperm so she could have me. I can meet him one day if I want to.”
When thinking of what those children told their parents and how the parents may have reacted, Olivia and I laugh. I doubt that Olivia, or any of our other children, will have to move to New York City to develop assertiveness and self-confidence. Krista and I only know what it is like to raise children in Georgia. Would our lives be much different in a city that has a LGBT Community Center or an active COLAGE chapter? Would our lives be better in a place where there are more inter-racial families?
Last fall, at the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick where I teach English, our new Gay-Straight Alliance brought Zach Wahls to campus. Our family watched the You Tube video of his speech to lawmakers in Iowa before we attended the event. It was the second time our children had met someone who has two moms and was conceived with sperm from an anonymous donor. After that event, Olivia became even more outspoken.
Right before the 2012 election, Olivia came home from school and said, “Some of my friends were saying they would not vote to re-elect President Obama in the school’s mock election. I asked them why, and they said, ‘Duh, because he is black.’ So, I told them they better not say another racist thing to me because my little brother is black. Mom, I wasn’t having it!”
For a class project, Olivia had to write a bill, and she wrote about why lawmakers should make gay marriage legal. If we lived in Northampton, MA or Chelsea, would our children become complacent?
At the end of this summer, after Olivia and Maria returned from a month’s stay in Arkansas, my grandma called to tell me about some Monster High doll clothes that the girls left at her house. She said, “I told you before Olivia was born that I didn’t think you should get pregnant, but I sure am glad you didn’t listen to me.”
Elizabeth Wurz is an Assistant Professor of English at the College of Coastal Georgia. Her poems have appeared in Rattle, The Report (0-dark-thirty), The GLR Worldwide, Crazyhorse, The Southeast Review, and the GSU Review.From Georgia State University, Wurz received her Ph.D. in English (Creative Writing) in 2007. In 1998, she completed her M.F.A. in English (Creative Writing) at New York University. Her BA in English (1995) is from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.For Five Points and Crazyhorse, she worked as an Assistant Poetry Editor. In 1995, Poetry and the Modern Poetry Association selected Wurz to participate in the Ruth Lily Poetry Convocation at Indiana University. Currently, the Wurz family resides in Brunswick, GA.