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Sisterhood of the Traveling Sperm

Three single women, each hoping to become a mother, find happiness they didn’t dare hope for after a seemingly lucky sperm donor crosses their paths.

Carey Goldberg with daughter Liliana MAMA MIA Author Carey Goldberg, a former Boston Globe science reporter, had daughter Liliana 8 years ago as a single mom. (Photo by Kathleen Dooher)
By Carey Goldberg
March 21, 2010

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Excerpted from the book "Three Wishes: A True Story of Good Friends, Crushing Heartbreak, and Astonishing Luck on Our Way to Love and Motherhood," by Carey Goldberg, Beth Jones, and Pamela Ferdinand. Copyright © 2010 by Carey Goldberg, Beth Jones, and Pamela Ferdinand. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company

At 39, Carey Goldberg decided to have a baby as a single mother, choosing a clinic and an obstetrician and buying eight vials of sperm from an anonymous donor. This excerpt from the book Goldberg wrote with two other women who also wound up in possession of the same donor’s vials is the start of her story.

On our first date, Sprax and I sat next to each other in a downtown Boston auditorium listening to a mountain climber describe his feats in Greenland, and I happened to look down and notice the size of his knee next to mine. He was wearing bulky army pants, but it was still clear that the knee was such a robust ball of strapping muscle and bone and ligament that I would want him and he would not want me. That is, he was too handsome and athletic, with mile-wide shoulders, tawny hair, and an open face of clean straight Scandinavian lines. He was intellectual as well, and worldly. So we could have some good times together, but the high school Renaissance man never dates the bookish girl for long, does he?

But somehow the new power of having vials of sperm in a clinic freezer lessened the sting of impending rejection. I did not need him. As we walked out, I said what I really thought: “The whole thing would have been so much more compelling if there had been some children on the top of the 5,000-foot granite wall who needed saving, don’t you think?”

On our second date, we sat in an intimate Persian restaurant eating velvety roasted eggplant and told each other intimate things. Sprax was raised Mormon but had long since rebelled and been excommunicated. His spirit seemed free beyond free. He told stories from a wide variety of subcultures, from the geeks of MIT and his software jobs to the artists of Indonesia. I tried to match him with tales from Russia, where I had worked as a reporter. We eventually wandered around to my life plans.

“I’m hoping to have a baby soon,” I blurted, then added, “but you don’t need to worry, because I’m going to do it on my own. I’ve already got the vials of sperm.”

He took his head in his hands, as if saying, “Yes, this is a big, complex thing,” then changed the subject without changing it.

“I tried to be a sperm donor once,” he said, and moved into an amusing story about the rigors of the testing that he hadn’t quite passed.

Sprax was a write-off in my mind, a rejection waiting to happen. But for weeks we kept seeing each other -- just because -- just because it felt good. We went north on a wilderness trip -- a travel story for The New York Times, where I then worked as Boston bureau chief -- and hiked through the hyperbolically titled “Grand Canyon of Maine.” At one point, we got to a little rock seat overlooking the rushing water of Gulf Hagas, and he put his arm around me and said, “Thank you for bringing me here” and kissed me lightly. The next day, we kayaked out into Moosehead Lake to the towering peninsula of Mount Kineo, and as we faced the splendor of the massive rock face head-on, he leaned over from his kayak and kissed me again. It was a “when I die I won’t be able to complain that I have not lived” moment.

There were little fights and pouts now and then, mainly when he was coaching me up rock faces, but mostly it got better and better. My new plan became to take the summer to play and then start the baby making in September -- either with Sprax or without him. It made no sense to hope he would agree to help, of course, after we had known each other a mere few weeks and barely kissed. But he was a live, strapping, irresistible man right next to me, a man who had doffed his shirt and swung a sledgehammer to demolish an old wall outside my town house. No abstract sperm donor could possibly compete.

Perhaps foolishly, I told Sprax my new schedule. We were planning a two-week climbing trip out West in September, and I said I thought it might be too strenuous if I was pregnant. And, I said with trepidation, I was somewhat waiting to see what happened with him.

“It seems like we’ve known each other an awfully short period of time to face such a lifelong decision,” he said.

“Well, I just want to tell you that I’ve come to understand that the baby is something I have to do on my own, and you should feel no pressure about it.”

“Have you ever thought about how, no matter who you’re with, it will always feel like something is missing?” he asked. “At some point, it just takes a leap of faith.”

The big trip came: Utah, Seattle, Mount Rainier, and then the climax, a week of climbing in the Bugaboo Mountains, high in the Canadian Rockies near Banff. It was a climbers’ paradise, not far from touristy Lake Louise. The Bugaboos were like nothing I had ever seen -- mythical jutting spires of granite. We stood eye to eye with glaciers nestled in a tumble of boulders the size of houses and cars. Every now and then came the rumble of another cascade of white snow off rock above us, briefly drowning out the rush of the glacial stream running through alpine flowers and mosses nearby. Thin, yellowing pines provided reminders of what a 90-degree angle was; otherwise, there was nothing but slope.

It took from 6 in the morning until 2 the next morning to get up and down Bugaboo Spire. The slowness was mostly my fault. When we reached the summit at 5 p.m., a storm had started, and the rock buzzed with static electricity, making strands of my curly brown hair float upward in a Gorgon do. I was too ignorant to be scared, but Sprax yelled at me to get down quickly, and I did, annoyed at him for tugging me forward so roughly. The descent was hellish, short-roping downward and always pulling at each other, to the point that Sprax said days later that he still had phantom feelings that he was tied to me. “Don’t pull!” I kept protesting. “Don’t pull!”

I told Sprax later that even though we had reached the summit, the mountain had still won. Yet without knowing it, and with our relationship in limbo, we had laid down the first thin layer of what could become trust.

On September 27, two weeks after we got back, I went in for my insemination. The night before, Sprax stayed over for support, and he admitted that the thought of having an “accident” that might leave me pregnant by him rather than an anonymous donor had crossed his mind. But that was as far as he went, and the next morning I went. I was so nervous as I drove that I missed the clinic entrance and had to make an illegal U-turn to get back to it. Inside, everyone was pleasantly matter-of-fact, and the procedure was surreally quick and simple.

I lay down in pelvic-exam position, feet high in stirrups. The midwife, Ann, felt for my cervix with a gloved hand, inserted the speculum, and then shot the sperm into it from a clear plastic “straw.” And that was that. She shook my hand when she was done.

The night after my donor insemination, Sprax changed his mind and offered to help me get pregnant. He said he had decided not to be so “shy” about it. We talked about it a bit, and then he said he thought we had exhausted the topic. I had to agree. Talking did not seem to illuminate it much. There seemed to be bigger forces than ourselves at work, and we could just shut up.

That September try didn’t take. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was disappointing, but at least there would be no need for DNA tests to determine whether the baby was Sprax’s or the donor’s. The next month, as my ovulation time approached, I let Sprax know that his next “mission” would come in a few days, and he said, gallantly, “My mission will be with you.” But his work demands at a software start-up were weighing heavily, and he seemed distant. I worried that he might change his mind. If he did, would I go to the clinic again? Not this month, I decided; I’d need to nurse my disappointment first.

And we needed to talk. I leaned back against my pillow, turned toward him but without meeting his eyes, and said, “If you want to back out, you know, you can, but now is the time to say so.”

He misunderstood: “Back out? I thought we’d decided I’d be only as involved as I choose.”

“No, I mean back out of baby making altogether, if you’re troubled by it. You haven’t been saying much about it lately.”

He was silent for a moment, then turned to face me fully. Our eyes met. I tried to keep my face neutral, accepting of whatever he would say. “No,” he said finally, “I’m not backing out. I mostly see it as helping you.”

“And I’m so grateful for it. And I know there’s a giant inconsistency in this, because our emotions are otherwise nowhere near ready to do something this serious.”

“Uh-huh,” he said. “But as I understand it, it will be your baby and I’ll only be as involved as I feel comfortable. Though of course I could always contribute if it meant the child could go to a better school.”

I declined. I could do nothing about my own time pressure, but I could try to lift any other possible pressure on him. The ace-in-the-hole feeling of having the donor sperm was fading quickly. More and more these days, I was hoping that Sprax and I would stay together, and that he, not an anonymous donor, would be the father of my child.

It seemed exorbitant: nearly $200 for a mysterious little machine that purported to be able to tell you far more about your ovulation cycle than the typical drugstore sticks I had been using to determine my most fertile time of month. But I had a good salary, and there was nothing I cared about more than getting pregnant. So I bought a Clearblue Easy Fertility Monitor. In April, the first month I tried it, it told me that I ovulated not on Day 15 after my period began, as I had come to expect, but on Day 17. Sprax and I were each headed West on separate trips soon, but there was time to try before we left.

On my third day in Arizona, it was time to check whether I was pregnant, but I didn’t have a test kit, and I didn’t have a car at my motel. So I set out against roaring lanes of traffic, marching along a strip where walking was so unthinkable that it not only had no sidewalks, it also had no crosswalks, even at intersections with traffic lights. Through my head went my most recent mantra, a chunk of an Emily Dickinson poem:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all

I made it to a drugstore and then back to the motel-room bathroom. There was a bright blue “Yes!” line right where it was supposed to be.

Sprax was unreachable, up on a cliff somewhere. That night, I had a portentous dream. I was climbing among a complex of rickety staircases, almost like fire escapes, high up in the clouds. It was perilous, but my hand was being firmly held by the trunk of a baby elephant, which was climbing with me. The trunk fitted neatly inside my fist, reminding me of how, when my little sister Morgan was barely toddling, I would help her walk by letting her hold my index fingers inside her small fists as she moved along. The baby elephant gave me a comforting feeling of not being alone, even though she -- and it was definitely a she -- was just a baby and could not really do anything to help me.

Since Goldberg no longer needed a donor, she transferred ownership of the lucky vials of sperm to another single friend -- who wound up passing the vials along again. She and Sprax now have two children, are married, and live in Brookline. Three Wishes comes out next month. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

FIRST COMES BABY Goldberg now lives with Sprax, Liliana, and Tully Lines in Brookline. (Photo by Kathleen Dooher) FIRST COMES BABY Goldberg now lives with Sprax, Liliana, and Tully Lines in Brookline.