Sperm Donors and the Not Quite Single Woman

What are the options for a woman who wants to be a mom but who is in a romantic relationship with someone who doesn’t want a child?

She can wait around and hope her partner changes his or her mind. That might work if she is 25 to 30 years old. If she is 35 or over, and she doesn’t think her partner will change his or her mind very soon, she can embrace a full life with her partner without children, or she can start to consider other options. One of the options she might consider is becoming a mother on her own through donor insemination.

The decision to let go of a real and present relationship with a partner in order to become a fully single mom can be a very difficult one to make. So the question for some women becomes: Can I become a mom on my own and still be in a relationship with my partner? And if her partner is a man, another question that might come up is: Should I ask him if he would be willing to be the donor if I take all the responsibility as a parent?

There are practical, emotional and legal issues to consider (which are equally important). I spoke to Holly Yager, a Registered Clinical Counsellor in Vancouver, BC who works with women and couples on this and other fertility related decision-making, to get her perspective on the practical and emotional issues, to go along with my thoughts on the legal issues.

Practically speaking, it is a good idea for a woman to go to a fertility clinic and have her ability to conceive tested right away, even if she is far from certain about her ultimate decision, especially if she is over 35. This seems counter-intuitive, but the process can take some time. It also makes the process more real, which can be clarifying.

Thinking about using an anonymous donor

On the practical and emotional side, some important issues to think about are:

  • What are mom’s hopes and wishes about her partner? How will she feel if her partner doesn’t live up to them?
  • What role will the partner play in the child’s life?
  • What expectations does mom have about help and support from the partner through pregnancy and the challenging early times of parenthood? Is the partner up for that?
  • What will be the impact on the child of mom having a relationship with someone who doesn’t want to be the child’s parent?
  • What if the relationship breaks up, and the partner or mom goes on to have other relationships and possibly children?
  • What if the partner’s feelings change down the road, either toward more or less involvement?
  • What about the possibility that a court could order access to the partner down the road, regardless of mom’s feelings about this?
  • What will mom and her partner tell the child about this situation?

The law in BC is evolving. BC’s Family Law Act, which came into effect in March 2013, has new rules about parentage. See my separate post on this here. If a child is conceived the old fashioned way, the parents are the birth mother and the child’s biological father. However, if a child is conceived using assisted reproduction – meaning any form of conception other than sexual intercourse, such as donor insemination or IVF – different rules apply. A donor is not a parent unless the birth mother, her spouse, and the donor make a written agreement before conception that the donor will also be a parent. Instead, where a donor is involved, the legal parents are the birth mother and the person who was married to or in a “marriage-like relationship” with the child’s birth mother when the child was conceived (the “spouse” for this post), unless there is proof that before the child was conceived that the spouse did not consent or withdrew consent to be the child’s parent.

With an anonymous donor, it’s clear that the donor is not a parent. But there might be uncertainty about whether the woman’s romantic partner is the other legal parent: were they in a “marriage-like relationship” at the time of conception? If so, did the spouse refuse consent to be a parent? Also, whether or not the partner is legally a parent, if the partner has an ongoing role in the child’s life, especially if the child lives with mom and her partner, there may be future battles down the road about guardianship and the involvement of the partner in the child’s life if the couple separate. Legal agreements before conception can help clarify expectations and intentions to decrease the chance of disputes, but in court the child’s best interests are always the primary consideration.

Asking the partner to be a donor

If her partner is a man, why not? Mom knows him, her family knows him, and it seems natural to ask. This idea can be a step along the road from wanting a traditional partnership and family to embracing the possibility of true single motherhood.

I’ll come right out and say my bias is that this is a bad idea – while it might avoid heartbreak in the short run, it has the potential for big problems in the long run. Often, a partner who doesn’t want children will refuse this request; this is painful, but actually a big favour if they are not to really be parents together.

In addition to the practical and emotional issues mentioned earlier, issues to consider with partner as donor are:

  • Is mom really hoping he will come around so that over time they will be a full family? What if he disappoints?
  • What will mom and her partner tell the child about his role in the family?
  • How will the child feel about their biological other half not wanting to be their parent?
  • If they live together, how will this look on a daily basis?
  • What if he leaves the relationship but wants to be involved in the child’s life down the road? Especially if the breakup was hurtful.
  • What if the relationship breaks up, and mom wants to have new relationships and possibly have that person be a parent to the child?
  • What if the partner’s extended family want to have a role in the child’s life, even if the relationship ends?
  • What if something happened to mom and the partner or her family wanted to be the child’s guardian?

Under BC’s Family Law Act, if they conceived the child through intercourse, both would be legal parents regardless of their intentions. If they have a sexual relationship, but mom tries to conceive using donor insemination at home or at a clinic using her partner’s sperm, there may be uncertainty about whether the child was conceived through intercourse or through insemination, and it still looks a lot like any other couple who have a child together. Also, he could still be considered a parent if they are in a “marriage-like relationship” and he did not refuse consent. While a legal agreement before conception could help clarify expectations, the waters are much more murky and ultimately the child’s best interests, at the time mom and her partner are no longer on the same page, would trump any other agreements or expectations.

If mom does not like the idea of an anonymous donor, the better option if partner really does not want a family is to find another man who is willing to be a known donor and do to a proper donor agreement to lay out the intentions and expectations with that donor.

Being the single mom of a donor child can be a very rewarding path to parenthood (I know), but it is challenging. The more you can do to minimize stress and uncertainty, the more manageable and happy it will be. And it’s important to remember that a mom who starts alone may well meet a partner in the future who truly wants to be a family with her and her child.