I must have been in second grade when I first thought about how old I would be in the year 2000 — 32 — and what my life would be like by then. Basing my vision entirely on my mom’s life, I assumed I’d be married with four kids.
I didn’t spend the intervening years fretting about the gap between that vision and my reality — milestone birthdays came and went without a husband, and at some point I realized I didn’t really want four kids — but by the time the ball dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, 1999, I was engaged and on the way to a more realistic vision for myself. These days, when I’m helping Eli find dress-up clothes for his stuffed dog’s wedding or discussing the rate for a night in Ben’s space hotel, I sometimes pause to marvel that this has become my life, a life I could never have imagined when I was the age my oldest is now.
I’m lucky that my childhood dream adjusted easily to my adult reality. I’m lucky that I didn’t have to give up one dream for another, or struggle to get the family I wanted. That struggle, and that difficult adjustment to an unanticipated reality, is the undercurrent of Deirdre Fishel’s documentary, Sperm Donor X (2002), which follows four women, including the filmmaker herself, who want to become mothers and find themselves unexpectedly doing it on their own, with anonymous sperm donors.
“What kind of woman goes to a sperm bank?” is the question that opens the film. The women Deirdre Fishel introduces us to in her film are a range of women, like herself, who had a dream of straight marriage and motherhood (the history of lesbian women and sperm banks is for another film) and now, faced with the diminishing fertility of their thirties and forties, decide not to wait until marriage for motherhood. Janet thinks of herself as traditional, and really wants a biological child; Linda, a year and a half into her process of shots and inseminations, is worried about the financial implications of having a child on her own; Lolita would prefer to parent with a partner but was raised without a father herself and thinks she can do it, she just wishes for more support from her community. Their reasons for parenting, and their worries about it, aren’t so different from those of anyone embarking on the process — but these women tend to face more questions about and challenges to their choices.
While Linda, Lolita, Janet and the others interviewed show the range of women who use sperm donors, their stories fall away in the middle of the film as they begin to pursue other paths to motherhood. That leaves us focused on the filmmaker herself, Deirdre Fishel, who gives Sperm Donor X its emotional heart. This is personal filmmaking at its most powerful; she trains the camera on herself unflinchingly and lets us witness every step of the process, from reading donor profiles and listening to their recordings (she isn’t given pictures of the donors, but listens to taped messages; “they’re really reassuring to me,” she says, “just that there’s a human being.”) to administering her hormone shots in the kitchen and waiting for pregnancy test results in the bathroom. And she’s not afraid to look unsympathetic. Having finally, after several attempts, gotten pregnant, she is shocked to discover she is carrying twins. I was frustrated that she hadn’t considered that possibility (IVF is known to considerably increase the chances of a multiple pregnancy) and then agonized when she considers reducing the pregnancy. “I feel really stupid,” she confesses; “I wanted to get pregnant so badly, I didn’t let myself think about the chance of having twins. You know, I wrapped my brain around being the sole parent to one kid, but having two alone? I mean, it feels undoable.”
And this is where Deirdre’s mom, source of some of my favorite scenes in the movie, comes in. Early in the film she surprises her daughter by saying that she’s been telling her friends about Deirdre’s decision to use an anonymous sperm donor, and reports that “they all feel a great deal of admiration for you.” When Deirdre gets pregnant and the two go out for a walk, her mom teases her, “Now we wait for the light, we don’t jaywalk anymore.” But when Deirdre learns she’s carrying twins and feels so scared and isolated, her sweet mom reassures her, saying, “Sure I’d be scared, of course I’d be scared, but then I wouldn’t have me to call for help.” Every woman should have such a cheerleader in her life, and the way Deirdre’s mother supports her difficult journey to motherhood is lovely to witness.
Ultimately, an ultrasound shows that Deirdre is carrying two girls, and thoughts of her relationship with her own sister strike any thoughts of reduction from her mind. She carries the girls to term, and we see a montage of images of them in the film’s final moments, two girls with their mom’s wild strawberry blonde curls. “As for donor number 3478,” Deirdre says, “I feel like I have this ongoing mysterious relationship with him. When the kids are 18 they may want to contact him; I certainly don’t feel the need to. But I think about him. . . And I feel this deep gratitude, even love, for this unknown young man, who just needed some extra money, but altruistic or not, gave me my kids. I never look at a picture of an astronaut, or the moon, without thinking of him and wondering if he ever found his dream.”
Everyone writes a script for her life. Deirdre’s included “a soul mate, then a kid”; the sperm donor she uses wants to be an astronaut; I thought I’d have four kids. But life isn’t about following a script, it’s about writing it as you go. The women of Sperm Donor X first give up their dreams of partnered parenting, and then some of them give up the dream of biological children. Not all of their stories are resolved by the end of the film, but that’s what we learn from these stories: resolution rarely turns out to be what we expected.