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March 12, 2012
For two moms from different religious backgrounds, does the sperm donor's religion make a difference? Should it?
My partner, Rachel, met, Rob, the man who would eventually become our sperm donor, during her first year in grad school. Within weeks, she'd accomplished a major feat of advanced family planning: she managed to get him to commit his genetic material to us, well in advance of any concrete plans we actually had to have kids.
Finding Rob was a major coup. He's pretty much perfect: kind, smart, good-looking, no unmanageable issues, interested in being involved with the kids but absolutely uninterested in parenting full time or having any say in parenting decisions. We'd struck gold with him — but it's also true that he was the only man out of several we asked who was even willing to consider the possibility. The whole idea of "choosing" a donor is, actually, kind of misleading, implying that would-be same-sex moms can simply pick one of the dozens of tempting options dangling in front of them like ripe fruit.
So the fact that Rob wasn't Jewish seemed like a minor blip to me. I'm Jewish. And although Rachel was raised Catholic, she had agreed that we would raise our kids as Jews, in a generally Jewish household. Besides, our plans called for me to be the one to get pregnant and give birth, and I'd been raised with the so-called "matrilineal principle": the religious law that children born to Jewish mothers are Jewish.
In recent years, though, I've come to rethink my reliance on that principle (more on that here). In light of my queer, non-traditional family, it just doesn't seem to make much sense to say that biology is destiny, at least when it comes to something as arbitrary as a child's religion. In our household, parents are parents not because of biology but because of what we do and the relationships we've built and earned with our kids; shouldn't religious identity follow a similar pattern?
With those questions in mind, I turned to a random sampling of mothers of my acquaintance, all of whom are (or were) in same-sex, interfaith relationships and raising their children at least partially in a Jewish tradition. I wanted to know whether the donor's religion played any role in the decision-making process, and if so, why. How did the ideas of biology and matrilineality come into play, if at all?
For many of the women I spoke with, the donor's religion was less important than their overall feeling of connection to him, particularly to the non-biological parent. So, for example, Jennifer Garber, who is Jewish, and her spouse, Fiona MacCool, ultimately went with an anonymous donor who shared MacCool's personality and Irish Catholic background. Garber gave birth to both their children. "I think the first donor we tried with happened to be Jewish," recalls MacCool, "but we based our choice more on his baby picture and interests which resembled mine, rather than on his ethnicity or religion. In the end we went with a donor who was English/Irish and seemed like the kind of guy we would want our best friend to end up with. We valued musical ability, a sense of humour, academics and no obvious traces of anxiety. Religion was never a deciding factor."
Deborah Goldstein's Italian-American partner, Gabriella, ended up converting to Judaism before their two sons were born. The kids were conceived with an anonymous — Jewish — sperm donor: "We preferred that the donor be either Jewish or Italian or both in order that the children might have some physical resemblance and/or ethnic connection to one of us," says Goldstein. "Believe it or not, our three finalists were Jewish, Italian, and Jewish Italian. Ultimately, we chose the Jewish donor, but not solely because he was Jewish."
Similarly, Diane Flacks and her spouse, Janis Purdy, chose the couple's friend, David, who is Jewish, as the donor for their first child. Originally, the couple thought that Janis, who is not Jewish, would get pregnant first, and having a Jewish donor felt important to Flacks. "I did have some concerns about what it might mean to have a child that wasn't biologically related to me, or who didn't have biologically Jewish parents," she says. David's Judaism, she says, helped her feel more "included" in the process.
By the time the couple was ready to have a second child, the question of the donor's religious background wasn't so important. In the end, Flacks and Purdy have each given birth to one child, with the help of two donors, one Jewish and one not. They are raising the kids in a "mostly Jewish" household, what Flacks and Purdy called "Jewish-plus" for a while. They make no distinction between their sons' religions.
The pre-children concerns she had around biology and Jewish identity, says Flacks, have "been pretty much annihilated by the presence of real children. As I'm getting older and in determining what's important to me, I'm realizing that our kids' identity is going to have to be formed by the family they live in, and that their family is strong enough and good enough and not dependent on others' categories."
When Paula and her partner, MaryLou, decided to have kids together, MaryLou's brother donated sperm to conceive their son, carried by Paula, who is Jewish. That way, both mothers shared a biological connection to the baby. But when MaryLou's brother declined to donate a second time, the couple turned to a sperm bank — and picked one of the few Jewish donors on offer.
"Given a choice, I wanted a Jewish donor," says Paula. "Something about history, culture, continuity, identity. I think that when I saw the profiles of the Jewish donors, they felt more familiar. Our donor was an Ashkenazi Jew. He went to summer camp. He grew up Jewish in Toronto. His father was a doctor, he had four siblings. This could've been somebody that I could've grown up with. It felt familiar, as though we had a shared history. I didn't think that the biology mattered all that much, but obviously it has played a role."
That was a common thread with many of the women I talked to (myself included): this hovering sense that biology shouldn't be important but sometimes is.
"I personally do not understand why only one parent counts regardless of which parent it is," says Goldstein. "In our minds, we have a Jewish home, so, therefore, our children are Jewish. I have to admit, however, that with all the questions our kids will have to answer about their family, I do take a bit of comfort knowing that no one will question whether or not they are Jewish."
Garber has a complicated relationship to Jewish identity: as she was preparing for her bat mitzvah, it came to the attention of her family, and her rabbi, that her maternal grandmother — who kept a very observant Jewish home — hadn't in fact been Jewish. Her rabbi insisted that she and her mother convert.
"I thought it was abhorrent," she recalls. "And I think that my mother was angry. But when I asked her why we had to do this, she said, 'Because we have to stop this problem now'— which I later understood to mean that if I had kids, they needed to be Jewish."
As turned off as she was by it then, Garber still found herself clinging to some vestige of the matrilineal principle when she finally did have kids. "My attitude was that it's very important to me that my kids are raised Jewish and that we honor and understand those traditions, but the whole donor thing wasn't that important to me. Because I guess I thought, [as a Jewish woman] 'Well, I've got that covered.' It's hypocritical of me."
Mostly, though, the woman I spoke to were less concerned about the donor's biological relationship to their children than they were about their own.
"The Jewish thing wasn't a concern because he's not the father, he's the donor," says Les Tager, whose non-Jewish partner, Sandy, gave birth to their daughter four years ago. "But in the back of my mind, there's always this fluttering thing that our daughter isn't biologically Jewish. But, of course, I'm her mom and she's not biologically connected to me. There are some ways in which that's difficult or painful for me, but only because of other people in this world."
If anything, says Tager, the fact that she doesn't share a biological bond with her daughter makes it even more important to share aspects of Jewish life: "Now that I am a parent, and not the biological parent, I am finding that it is important for me to make sure that she has a Jewish stuff her life. Secular and egalitarian, but Jewish."
In the end, perhaps it's fair to say that for many of us, the questions of — and anxieties around — our children's biological and/or religious identities have faded as we embrace the joys and challenges of parenting in real time. We're discovering that "family," like "religion," is a flexible, creative concept, one that benefits not only from tradition but from creating new ways of doing things. As Flacks puts it, "Someone said to me, 'Your family will become something. But it will become it.' The family will create itself."