“The One Thing That Surprised Me When Choosing a Sperm Donor”

Starting a family always involves surprises and unknowns, but what if you’re using a sperm donor? Interested to hear what that experience is like, I talked to Caitlin, who lives in New York City with her wife, Clare, and their now three-year-old son. “It’s kind of like shopping for an apartment — you surprise yourself about what’s important to you,” she said. “We were thankful we were on the same page.” Here, she describes the biggest thing she’s learned as a mom…


Choosing a sperm donor for our child was a fascinating process for my wife and me.

We used California Cryobank, and you have a million factors through which you can sort these donors. They list the obvious stuff — height, age, ethnicity, eye color, hair color — but then they also have “staff impressions” of the person and “artistic contribution” (they can choose to draw a picture or write an essay). They share SAT scores and a full medical history. Most of them include childhood pictures.

It’s amazing but intimidating, frankly.

What was interesting for me was the shift in expectations. When we went in, I thought, ok, we’ll get a 6’2” Olympian with a Ph.D. Because why wouldn’t you? But then you start thinking, okay, what IS a barometer of success and potential, and what’s really just your interpretation? It turns out to be a real value test.

We were surprised by how much the subjective things made a difference, like the staff impressions saying, oh, he’s friendly or he was smiling. One guy seemed perfect on paper — he was on the Persian Olympic soccer team (my wife is Arab; I’m super athletic) — but the staff described him as moody. That was a deal breaker for us. The staff actually really got into their impressions and would say things like, “He has the soul of a poet,” and we were like geez Louise. And others weren’t as into it, and would say, “He’s efficient and seems upstanding,” and I was like, they’re doing these guys a disservice! They must be chosen a lot less.

Even the celebrity look-a-likes were on the forms. Our donor apparently looked like a combo between the Australian actor Liam Hemsworth and Jude Law. We were both like, oh, Jude Law!

We ended up with a college athlete but not an Olympian; a law student but not a Ph.D.; 5’11” but not 6’2”. There weren’t many Arab donors, so we ended up with someone who wasn’t. Honestly, we chose our donor mainly because he seemed nice. That translated across the page in an unexpected way. He seemed to have the capacity for love and happiness. Literally all being equal (because we can see all the stuff), it weighed out some of the more impressive credentials. You look at his baby photo from the 80s and you think, that’s a nice kid who’s happy. This person has some soul and light in their eyes.

We did understand that, in some ways, if we chose donor A versus donor B versus donor C, we’d have a different kid. That initially felt overwhelming. But in a way it felt like ordering from a menu. Do I feel like chicken tacos tonight? Is my life going to be changed in a subtle but real way if I get the veggie burrito instead? I don’t know? We’re rolling the dice with our lives anyway — can we keep it together as parents? as a couple? will our child be healthy? — that this didn’t feel like that big of a deal. Everything becomes such a crap shoot. Ultimately, how important is your choice? You have no idea and no way of checking. It’s a mystery.

After all, my brother, sister and I are all genetically of the same stock, but you could not pick three more different people.

I don’t think about the donor very much anymore, but there are tiny moments where I’m like, that’s my wife, and maybe that’s the guy, and maybe that’s me. Our son Peter is a lot like me, even though my wife carried him and I had no genetic stake in the endeavor. We have a very similar sense of humor.

If we have a second child, we’d use the same donor, 100%, no doubt. We’ve been paying the storage fees. Last month, I got the credit card bill and was like, what is this? And then I was like, oh, yeah, our sperm on ice. Some of these guys have a lot of stock. The bank can email you if it’s selling out, in case you want more.

Now that Peter is three, he’s completely his own person. It’s a good exercise in giving up control. For example, it was very important to me that we choose an athletic donor. When I was growing up, the minute I got onto any field for sports, I would be the best person there; it became a big part of my identity. But even though we chose an athlete as a donor, we’re starting to see that Peter might not be naturally sporty. He spends the first 10 minutes of every soccer class being shooed off my lap and wooed with yogurt-covered raisins. Yet I look at my son and he’s babbling about the moon and it’s awesome. We got a happy dreamer, and those are two wonderful things.


Thank you, Caitlin! Have any others had experiences with choosing sperm or egg donors? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

P.S. On being a surrogate, and 15 things I’d want to tell a new mother.

(Top photo by Cara Dolan from Stocksy.)