Adult Swim: What my sisters in sperm (and a global pandemic ) taught me about modern family values.

When I first moved to California, I bought a bright blue VW beetle and drove up Highway 1, taking in the freedom of the West (Ok, I admit, a bit cliche). I was escaping New York because, on the cusp of forty, I hadn’t yet married and had a baby. I wanted to find a new life and identity outside the social pressures of wifehood and motherhood. Pretty soon, I fell madly in love. Not with a man but with a community on the houseboat docks of Sausalito, California, a place famous for its collectivist values. This romance gave me the courage to conceive my son, on my own, as a single mother by choice because I lived around so many people who supported me. 

So much changed after his conception. A year before the pandemic, on a warm Sunday morning,  my son and I took on a different kind of road trip. We headed to Half Moon Bay to meet Michelle and Ali, two strangers with whom we had the most intimate connection. Seven years earlier, on opposite coasts, Michelle and I had each decided to buy a few vials of the same donor sperm from a California bank. Our kids were born two weeks apart. 

I always knew that I could contact the other mothers, my sisters in sperm, and had recently joined a Facebook group they had formed so my son could see pictures of his donor siblings, or “dosies.” They lived around the country, but some were local.

When we arrived at Michelle’s house overlooking the ocean, I immediately felt the familiarity of a shared story as much as shared genes. Michelle and her daughter, with darker hair than my son but recognizable eyes, greeted us at the door with hugs. Stepping into her dining room, I noticed a wall of photos. In the center of the collage sat a framed photo of our sperm donor as a child. For Michelle, he was a central figure in her modern family planning, deserving a prominent public display among photos of the other dosies and her immediate family.

I approached the photo and pointed at his smile. 

“He seemed very kind,” she said. “He was obviously very smart. His essays in his donor profile stood out, and you could tell how caring and creative he was. I think a lot of us were attracted to that.”

“Us,” I surmised, meant the other sisters in sperm. 

My son and Ali started playing outside on the deck with an archeological kit, hitting a big clay block with a hammer to excavate a plastic dinosaur skeleton. Michelle and I sat down at the kitchen table. She described how the moms and dosies had been meeting since the kids were babies.  As the depth of these connections washed over me, I wondered whether meeting and deepening my relationship with this group would become a new kind of extended family for us?   

For the next year. I slowly began to meet and talk with the other mothers and dosies in the group, I realized it was a new kind of support system in an age where so many of us parent under American cultural expectations that success is self-sufficiency. Many of us have become isolated, and many families are overburdened, even in traditional nuclear families. In many ways, this individualist drive, with a twist of go-girl feminism, taught me that I can take care of myself and have a baby on my own. And while I didn’t need a man,  the great irony of my choice is that I learned to lean on community in surprising and creative ways.

When the pandemic hit, so many of us quickly learned the perils of living in isolation. Even though I have always tried to put on a brave face and emphasize the strength I’ve gained from parenting on my own, single motherhood no longer felt empowering; it felt terrifying

 In those early shelter-in-place days, one of my sisters in sperm from the Facebook group sent out an email suggesting that all the dosies and moms start doing regular Sunday morning Zooms. She would send out an art project at the beginning of the week for the kids to complete, and at the Sunday meeting, the kids could share their completed projects or just chat, and it could be a way for the moms to feel less alone too. Dosie Challenge #1 involved creating a structure out of Lego.

The following Sunday, we logged on to the moms and dosies. One presented an elaborate house with a space landing pad.

“Nice work, dude,” the organizer said, and then she introduced everyone to my son as he and I watched the group in a gallery view.

“I was going to put this skeleton guy on a crocodile, but then I thought I would put him on this cool car driving over a bridge,” my son told the group about his project. “Except the bridge can’t take a load, or it will snap in half.”

“I think you need to put more support bricks in the middle of the bridge, so it doesn’t break,” said one of his dosies.  My son listened and fumbled through his box for more pieces.

    For the first time in weeks, I, too, felt like I had support. These women were like virtual aunties in the same boat, and for an hour, my son had some playmates who were his genetic relatives. Soon, I found myself walking away from the computer and lying on the couch to rest because I knew he was having fun.

“And here’s my final concept,” he told the group. “ I added more weight to the bridge, which made it stronger.”

“Because it has more support,” said one of his dosies.

  Like the kids’ Lego project, brick by brick, we were finding new ways to give and receive support in remote living. Even in isolation, these new bonds helped me gain a new level of courage, flexibility, and wisdom. I learned I could grow stronger through interdependence and connection. Although I started my family in a less conventional way and I didn’t live in a nuclear family, I was not alone. 


Rachel Lehmann-Haupt is the author of Reconceptions: Modern Relationships, Reproductive Science and the Unfolding Future of Family. 


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