How I Chose My Sperm Donor…and What Happened Next

When you want something as badly as I wanted to be a mother, it’s hard to imagine describing the decision to seek a sperm donor as “brave,” although I greatly appreciated every time I heard that word. It was a welcome contrast to other reactions, such as that I was “selfish” or “lacking faith” (that I would find someone), or people asking me what was wrong with me. In my mind, the “braver” thing to do would have been to accept my circumstances and move on from this preoccupation with motherhood.  But it was one of those things that I could not turn off and so essentially since high school, it had cramped my ability to make the best choices with men and have a normally paced relationship.

I married at the right time vs. with the right guy when I was 27 and then by the time I divorced at 31, I was in an even greater rush biological-clock-wise to find someone, causing every relationship to crash at around the three-month mark.

I called it “circumstantial infertility.”

Frankly, I was embarrassed by it. My brother told me that he thought I would probably not find the right man until I became a mother.  In any case, call it bravery or selfishness, when I turned 36, I decided that I needed to try having a baby on my own. However, if I wasn’t so good at choosing men to date, would I be better at choosing a sperm donor?

My first decision was one motivated by financial constraints. Being single, living in New York City, and working at a non-profit, I had to be as frugal as possible while still reserving money to use for parenting should I actually give birth. My gynecologist had recommended a large cryobank that had thousands of donor options. I would have had sperm choices from all over the country. They also offered bonus personality-revealing options like a drawing the donor made as a child (for additional fees, of course). However, using this cryobank would also have meant that I’d be paying for the timely delivery of sperm vials in liquid nitrogen dry shippers, risking everything that comes with having to get something to arrive on a specific date.  One way to save would be to bulk order six months worth of sperm but if I got pregnant immediately then I would have wasted funds. The internet as usual was pretty ripe with worst-case scenarios.

The whole process was pretty daunting so I figured I should enlist a friend to help me.

Jacky and I had met in the strange world of reality TV. She was a person I probably never would have been friends with in real life; we disagreed on pretty much everything. It made sense that I had to choose her.

The fertility clinic my doctor recommended to complete the insemination also had some donor sperm choices, albeit a much smaller pool to choose from, perhaps 30 to 40 men. In my mind, thousands of options were not necessarily better. They all have to go through really stringent background and medical checks anyway so I figured several dozen options would be enough. Plus, Jacky, my “reality check,” was going to help me make the donor decision, and she would have never had the patience to look through thousands of profiles. Having her review files on 30 to 40 guys was probably the right amount of imposition. Deciding to go local would save me hundreds of dollars per month.

But going with the smaller pool of donors also meant less diversity. When I am asked now why I didn’t go with an Asian guy as I am Asian, I sometimes answer, “I wasn’t going to choose the token Asian guy!” There was literally only one.

Choosing a donor from written profiles is strange though. You can’t “see” him but you gravitate towards all the things that seem shallow or superficial. It is the way the system is built. I wanted the guy to be at least 6 feet tall, balancing out my 5’1” stature, so that my child would be at least the 5’4” my parents had always wanted me to be. Well educated was a given because shortly after sperm donation programs started, it became a baseline requirement; all of the donor men seemed to have great SAT scores and Ivy League educations.

When you marry someone, you are asked to love him in sickness and in health but when you choose a donor, you look for the squeakiest family history. Every family member the donor can remember is listed and neat spreadsheet checkboxes make it easy to see histories of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, whether they wore glasses, and almost anything you might think of that could be a hereditary concern.

I held onto that photo of the toddler in the superman costume like the parents I work with hold onto the first photos of their prospective adoptive child. I studied the features so I could imagine what my baby might look like.

The first two pages of donor information were free. These pages mainly listed month and year of birth, height, weight, profession, eye color, hair color and if there had been a successful pregnancy with his sperm. If I wanted up to 20 pages of info with more family history and some narrative questions, I could pay an extra $20 each. Jacky and I disagreed naturally about our number one choices, but I was surprised that we agreed easily on the second choice. I bought three of the more extensive profiles.

I immediately regretted spending the $20 on the profile for my first choice. It was a guy I would never have chosen in real life. I don’t remember it well except that he’d be the kind of guy you meet in a bar and know within five seconds that there is no chance.

The second guy I ruled out for writing about “baseball” on every single page. Not that I don’t enjoy an occasional baseball game, but he simply seemed obsessed and I was starting to veer into the dating comparison, hoping the guy would be more well-rounded.

I reviewed last the longer profile of the donor that Jacky and I both thought would be most promising and seemed to tick all the desirable-trait boxes. The only thing that triggered a little concern was his strange answer to the question about his motivation to become a donor. He had donated to three other sperm banks before and said his reason for doing this was that he wanted to spread his seed. I had to turn off my social work side and ignore his narcissism by telling myself it wasn’t like I was going to be in a relationship with this guy; his attitude was not going to be a daily influence on my child. He was tall and intelligent and in good health. Good enough.

Obviously I expected and wanted to be pregnant as soon as possible. Every ultrasound, every blood test, every procedure was costing me money. While I sat in the waiting room the first month my cycle was ready, a man sauntered into the office. He smiled at me and went over the closet and hung up his coat. By the way he carried himself, and how the nurses interacted with him, I knew he must be one of the donors. It was not hard to recognize him by his specs on the two-pager as Jacky’s number one pick. In that moment I texted her and asked her if I should change my mind. “At least I’d be able to tell my baby I met the guy, I knew what he looked like, and he smiled at me!”

In the minutes left, though, I decided to stick by the choice we had ultimately gone with. Besides, wouldn’t it be weird to tell the nurses I changed my mind because I saw a different guy in the lobby?

I felt confident that I was going to get pregnant the first month. I did not. When I didn’t get pregnant the second month, I was already thinking through how many times I could make this high stakes gamble and still be able to afford to be a decent parent. After all, having not yet gained prior approval from my traditional Asian parents, I was contemplating what it might be like to be disowned and have to live as a single parent in New York City.

When I didn’t get pregnant the third month, I made a big decision: I decided that I would give it one more shot and if it didn’t work, I would move back to Los Angeles and try to adopt an elementary school age child from foster care. After all, this was my professional expertise and I could accept it as my destiny.

On my fourth and last try, I was undressed and in my clinic gown when the nurse walked in without the sperm vial. She leaned against the table behind her and sucked in a deep breath through her teeth. “I’m sorry I forgot to tell you this last month, but your donor is no longer available.”

My eyes went wide and before I could say anything she asked, “How about #353?”

I had spent weeks deciding who would be my donor and now she was just throwing out some number?!?

Without waiting for a response she said, “OK, I’ll bring you three to choose from. Be right back.”

I frantically texted Jacky asking her if she had a minute to help me choose another guy this second. She sent me an “lol” and told me she was in the middle of a meeting but she was sure that I’d make a fine decision.

Within what seemed like a few seconds, the nurse was back with three two-page profiles. I scanned through each of them while she left the room for a few minutes to give me some privacy. #353 was only 5’8.” I was cursing how quickly she challenged my superficial deal breaker. But then I thought back to my moment in the lobby seeing one of the donors. It reminded me that the nurses know these guys for about a year, the time they are asked to come in to donate. Maybe there was something special about #353 that they saw and thought was a good connection for me. Why not? What did I have to lose? Besides, by this point I had kind of given up hope that I was going to get pregnant. I was already projecting my move back to LA to adopt. I went ahead with letting her inseminate me with #353. When she asked if I wanted to buy his $20 profile I said, “Nah, I’ll just get it later if I’m actually pregnant.”

I was so convinced this wasn’t going to happen that I took a trip home to Toronto to see my family during the time I would be “late,” without packing a pregnancy test. But then halfway through the trip I began to feel unusually exhausted and felt hope starting to rise within me.  I wondered if I should just go out and buy a test because this was my chance to tell my family what I was attempting. If we were going to have this tough talk, perhaps it would be better to have the chance to hash it out in person. In the end though I felt like doing any of those things would be jinxing my chances, and could possibly start a painful discussion about their disowning me, so I kept quiet and did nothing. I’d know soon enough when I got back to NYC.

I will always remember the moment I was dragging my suitcase up the stairs of the 92nd street subway station exit, thinking, “I am going to know in about 5 minutes if I am pregnant.”

If I wasn’t so good at choosing men to date, would I be better at choosing a sperm donor?

I was barely finished peeing on the stick when it was already lighting up with the word, “Pregnant.”

I called the fertility clinic and immediately jumped right back on the subway to go to the office and take the official blood test: Yes, I was definitely pregnant! I was so excited that I almost left without asking for my $20 profile. When I went back in to ask for it, they apologized that they were “all out” but promised to get me a copy. Then she handed me a photo of the donor as a child. I didn’t expect it as it was not offered in the menu of services, but having the photo in my hand was so surreal.

Maybe the clinic screwed up by forgetting to tell me I couldn’t have my donor choice, but at this point, I really didn’t care. I was going to have a baby!

I held onto that photo of the toddler in the superman costume like the parents I work with hold onto the first photos of their prospective adoptive child. I studied the features so I could imagine what my baby might look like.

When I returned weeks later to hear the baby’s heartbeat, I was handed the 20-page profile. When asked what message #353 had for the future recipient of his sperm, he wrote, “Be compassionate, BRAVE, and loving always, and your family will be a wonderful, joyous experience.”  The words jumping out from the page seemed to confirm for me that maybe I don’t always make the best choices, but when I have someone help me, it often works out.

In the end, someone who did know better than me chose the guy; it was just the nurse, not Jacky. And it was clearly one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. My brother had also been right: Becoming a mother helped me be ready for the right man, too. (He is someone I had known in high school but wasn’t ready for back then.) Jacky once said that someday I was going to have it all. Just not in the order I expected it.


Selena Liu

Selena currently works as the Program Supervisor of Adoptions, Foster Care and Intensive Treatment Foster Care at Five Acres in Los Angeles. She is a writer, speaker and trainer on all types of adoption related topics (domestic, international and foster) but conceived her son Jonah with a donor and gave birth to him in 2012 in New York City.

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