Once you have clarified that you want to be a donor, rather than a parent yourself, the next task is to work out what that might look like, and to begin discussions with the woman or couple who has asked you.
Working out whether to say yes
We have talked about making sure the role of known donor is what you want. But how do you decide if the woman or couple who has asked you is who you really want to donate to? Do you like them? Can you envisage working through difficult issues with them? Even the most smooth-sailing donor/family relationships involve some challenging conversations; indeed, good communication on difficult issues is an important foundation for a good relationship.
It might be very difficult to decide, even if you are close to the person asking you. Even if you are very supportive of their desire to parent, you might not feel this is something you can do for them. Helping someone to create a child by donating is a profound act, and there might be many reasons that you (and/or your partner, if you have one) do not feel that this is a role you want, many of which are likely to be separate from your relationship with the mother/s.
Is it important to you, in making your decision, that you share some key values around how children are raised? You might not have (or want) any input into these kinds of choices once a child is born; many donors do not. But you need to decide whether this matters to you, and what values you want to discuss in this context.
Some men might feel that they may not have another chance to help create a child. But remember that there are other options. You could explore being a parent yourself, if you are not already. You could find another woman or couple to be a known donor for. Or you could become a clinic donor. There is a shortage of clinic donors throughout Australia, and in Victoria, children have the right to contact their clinic donor, should they wish at age 18. In practice, it is not uncommon for parents to ask for contact with clinic donors before the child is 18 (they need to donor’s permission for this). Clinics are often happy to include in their records whether a particular donor is open to being contacted before children are 18. See below for more on storage, management and release of donor information.
If you are interested in donating to the woman or couple who has approached you, you will need to work out if the role they envisage for their known donor is something you can see working for you. You also need to be clear about what you want out of the role, and talk many times about this, over a significant period of time, with the prospective mother/s. Think of it as a negotiation, with both of you clearly articulating what you want, and then working out whether you can come to a solid agreement. Do your visions coincide? What points of difference do you have? Are they negotiable? We list some of the key issues to consider below, under ‘Talking and making agreements’. It might be worth getting assistance from a counsellor to work through some issues. Some fertility clinics, for example, offer the paid service of a counselling ‘information session’, prior to committing to any treatment.
When you are already friends
Some prospective mothers and donors who have an existing friendship might be less likely to really thrash through the more difficult issues, because they feel that ‘they can always work it out’. However, this is not always the case, and sometimes the most intimate, longstanding friendships can end, or even turn into bitter disputes in this context. You might all feel impatient to make a baby, but remember that this decision is critical and irreversible. If you conceive a child with someone, you are connected to them for life. Most importantly, the decision you make affects not only you, but also the child/ren whom you help to create.
So take your time – perhaps as long as a year – to get to know each other in this new context, reflect on your own needs and feelings, and talk about the issues many times before you begin. It might be useful, when you begin talking seriously, to think about ‘putting on a different hat’ during those discussions. It is very different to talk as prospective parents and donors than as friends. The issues for parents and donors are different, and it is important to acknowledge and talk through those differences without feeling that they reflect negatively on your friendship or care for one another.
Working out what your role is (and is not)
As we have said, men have been helping lesbian couples and single women make families for decades, through a constellation of types of arrangements and level of involvement. But on a personal level, it is likely that you will not have thought in very great depth about what being a donor might mean for you, before being approached by a friend or acquaintance about it. It is very important that you do so, however, before agreeing to donate, and certainly before attempting conception.
So how can you make sense of the role of donor, and what you might want out of it? As we have said, the role varies enormously, from very minimal contact to a high degree of involvement. You will not be a legal parent or father, even though some known donors call themselves fathers (with the agreement of the mother/s) and are perhaps called ‘Dad’ (or equivalent) by the children. Parents have particular roles and responsibilities, including legal responsibilities. If you want to be a parent/father, then explore ways to make this happen, and do not agree to be a donor unless you have resolved your feelings about this.
Sorting out the difference between being a donor and a parent can be confusing and difficult, especially if you plan to be quite involved and/or use language like or ‘Dad’. But it is important to be clear about this difference, and to revisit the issue as often as needed throughout your journey of being a known donor, with support from your partner (if you have one), friends or a counsellor. If you are not clear in your mind, this can lead to conflict, and cause real heartache for you, the mother/s, and most importantly the child or children.
Some men think of being a donor as a sort of in-between space, between being a father (but not a legal parent), a family friend, and part of the children’s extended family. You are not just a friend, because you helped create the child/ren; they are genetically connected to you, and probably look a bit like you, which many donors find to be an amazing experience. Whether you all think of yourselves as extended family depends on your relationship, and how you all think about family. There’s a big range of possibilities in that in-between space, and you need to be clear about where you see yourself, and where the prospective mother/s see you. One idea is to map out all the family relationships, and where you see yourself in relation to them. Try doing this separately from the prospective mother/s, then comparing your two diagrams to work out where you can find common ground.
The language question is a very personal one, and the answer might change for you and the mother/s over time. It is important to agree on what language you will all use, in what context, and exactly what you all mean by it. Language is extremely powerful, in terms of the feelings and expectations of everyone involved (not least the children), and also in the wider community.
Some known donors feel strongly that they want to call themselves a father, and would like the children to call them ‘Dad’ (or equivalent), even though they are not a parent. Some men feel strongly that they do not want this, prefer to call themselves a donor, or a compromise such as ‘donor dad’, and want the children to use their first name, or ‘Uncle John’ or equivalent. There is also the question of what your partner (if you have one) might be called.
Some men start out being open to being called ‘Dad’, but feel after a child is born that this term is really only for men who are actually in a day-to-day parenting role. Others don’t really want the name, but are happy for the children to call them ‘Dad’ if they choose to, as they grow older. Children will usually follow what the adults around them model when they are young, but will make up their own minds as they mature. It is worth revisiting this issue when you conceive, when a child is born, and in the year or two after. It might also be helpful to explore whether you are all comfortable to leave the question open or flexible until then.
There might also be other people in your life who might be affected by this question or have feelings about it.