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The Invisible Fathers

Here at the Pop Culture laboratories – a small space near the office supply cabinet and the fire extinguisher at Parenting headquarters – we work hard to bring fathers to the forefront, to shine the spotlight on them. But there are some fathers - thousands and thousands of them, actually - who do not want the spotlight. It’s actually illegal for us to shine it on them. There’s only one place you’ll find concrete, CSI-approved evidence of these fathers: in vials submerged in liquid nitrogen, packed away in a storage facility in Los Angeles. Welcome to California Cryobank.

The largest sperm bank in the United States, California Cryobank is a one-stop shop for donor sperm, private semen preservation, egg and embryo storage, and artificial insemination consultation. Future moms from Charleston to Austin to Boston use their services. Vials containing a future T-ball star or ballerina ship with the precise regularity of Amazon orders. But before any of that happens, the clients must find their Mr. Right. And there are thousands of them, with far more detailed information than eHarmony or could ever provide.

You start a donor search using the basics (ancestry, eye color, hair color). From there, you can add more advanced parameters (hair texture, height, blood type, education level). Each donor profile has a personal essay and staff impression essay (what did the sperm bank staffers think of the guy after meeting him?). No pictures are provided, but they do offer images of the celebrities he most resembles.

When I learned just how detailed California Cryobank's donor info was, it became obvious what needed to happen: I had to find my donor-ganger, aka the donor who was most like me. I filled in my criteria: 6’3”, Caucasian, hazel eyes, straight hair (when I had it), bachelor's degree, studied visual and performing arts. I clicked “search,” and up popped a long list of five-digit numbers. I went through them, one by one.

No. No. Err, no. Definitely not him. Close, but no. No. No.

Then I found me. 12666.

6’ 2”, Caucasian, hazel eyes, straight hair, getting his bachelor's degree in music. “I am very friendly and outgoing,” reads the opener to his personal essay. “Everyone agrees that I have a good sense of humor, but I have been tagged as overly goofy before.” Sounds familiar.

“The donor is the epitome of the All American boy,” reads the staff impression essay. “He is very tall and lean, and genuinely kind.” Oh this is so me!

There I was. 12666. A tall goofy college kid earning extra scratch by donating his sperm. Years ago, my college buddy and I thought about doing the same thing. It seemed hilarious; this will make a great story, bro. But the more we looked into it, and the more we considered the reality of the situation – provide the raw materials for starting a family in exchange for Jell-O shot money – it seemed too disrespectful. Too flippant. So we never did it.

In the most fundamental, biological sense, these five-digit numbers are fathers. There’s no debating it. It’s the DNA, stupid. These men are the invisible fathers, faceless guys who hand over the keys to parenthood from a website database. For some family (or families) out there, there are no wobbly first steps or scribbled drawings on the side of the refrigerator without 12666.  

But of course, the word “dad” doesn’t appear anywhere on the California Cryobank website. The word is “donor.” (“One who provides blood for transfusion, semen for insemination, or tissue or organs for transplantation,” reads the Oxford-American Dictionary.) There’s a wide chasm between donor and dad. The former is cold and clinical, the latter warm and familiar. It’s the difference between buddy and acquaintance. Mama’s Boy blogger Christine Coppa writes openly and honestly about her son JD’s father, who walked away from his nascent family when she was near the end of her first trimester. They had planned to go to the 12-week sonogram together. Before that appointment happened, he was gone. At one point, he was a dad. But as his place in their lives grew smaller and smaller, he became a donor. 

While biology tells us those five-digit numbers are fathers, our hearts do not. 12666 is not taking my boys for a bike ride later today. He doesn’t hang their drawings on the fridge. He doesn’t wipe their mouths when they get more ice cream on their cheeks than in their mouths. But the donors are men who, as California Cryobank's website puts it, “will change lives and make dreams of family a reality.” A lot of dads can’t be dads without them.

They are the invisible fathers – we can’t and won’t shine the spotlight on them. As for the rest of us, we’re out in the open, where friends, family, co-workers and society can watch, judge, praise, or reject us. We can't hide behind five-digit numbers. That’s kinda scary. It might also help keep us in check.