In Random Families: Genetic Strangers, Sperm Donor Siblings, and the Creation of New Kin, sociologists Rosanna Hertz and Margaret Nelson ask what it means for children to be related to each other via a sperm donor. In their rendering, this is not merely a theoretical question up for philosophical debate. What is so brilliant about this book is that Hertz and Nelson actually ask the children themselves, as well as their parents: what does it mean (and not mean) to you to connect with those who were conceived via sperm from the same donor? How do you define and experience that relationship? The result is a nuanced exploration of the meaning and potential of a new form of kinship.
Hertz and Nelson conducted more than 350 interviews with children and parents across the United States, focusing their analysis on five donor-sibling networks. These were groups of families who had sought each other out based on what they had been able to figure out about their sperm donors. They also had established connections, some just casual contact via email and Facebook, others extensively and in person. The trust Hertz and Nelson earned from their study participants is palpable. Families put Hertz and Nelson in contact with other families who shared the same donor, and ultimately allowed the sociologists to be observers in their Facebook groups, giving the reader an intimate look at group dynamics and relationships.
Random Families is a gentle, quiet book, full of sensitive interviews that honor the voices of these teens, young adults, and parents. More drama and angst might have been exciting, but a key implication of the book is that these new kinds of kinship are unlikely to signal a brave new world or an imminent utopia. Rather, these are a set of relationships that children will normalize and integrate into their existing friend and family networks. In this sense, it is much like sociologist of science Charis Thompson’s findings in Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies. Thompson shows how prospective parents have dealt with the awkward situations and existential questions that come up when they use donor sperm or donor eggs. For example, a mother who uses a donor egg is not genetically related to her child, and yet she has a biological connection via pregnancy and social and legal status as the child’s mother. Thompson found that parents strategically highlighted or downplayed the various aspects of biological and social kinship to validate the families they were building.
Based on research conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s, Thompson found that IVF patients and their families tended to create relatively conservative narratives of kinship to make sense of their novel and high-tech family-building situations, some of which included same-sex parents or donor gametes. Prospective parents focused on whichever biological and social definitions of kinship allowed them to see their families as more or less the same as “traditional” two-parent families. Hertz and Nelson show that this conservatism may be fading. Their research encompasses children conceived from the early 1980s through the mid-2010s, and fascinatingly, they identify a perceptible shift over time from a conservative interpretation of family-building via donor sperm, to a discernibly new interpretation of family roles.
Children conceived before the turn of the twenty-first century tended to see the donor as in some sense a “father,” and in cases where they were able to contact him, regarded him as relevant in a quasi-fatherly role. For example, Justin, who grew up in Berkeley, sought out his donor when he turned 18. They stayed in close contact, and Justin described him as “my guide. He’s my mentor. He’s very much of a father figure… I’ll go to him with questions seeking wisdom and advice” (91). One of Justin’s mothers explained that when Justin was born in the 1980s, “We were in uncharted waters… We didn’t know two lesbians that had had children together at that time.” She had been concerned that Justin would be teased or scorned. “When your little kid goes to school and they say, ‘who’s your mom and who’s your dad,’ you don’t want him to say, ‘I don’t have a dad.’ Of course, he’s got a dad’” (87). They taught him to explain that he had a dad who did not live with them, but who he would meet when he turned 18.
By the time donor-conceived children were born in the 2010s, many parents had carved out a distinct “donor” role, separate from “parent” or “father.” The parents Hertz and Nelson interviewed, many of them married lesbians, had chosen donors who were willing to have their identities released when the child was 18 because they thought it would be useful information, and they thought of donor-sibling networks as interesting and potentially useful networks of relations of some sort. But they created new terminology, such as “dibling” instead of “donor sibling,” claiming their right to define new kinds of relationships. Earlier-conceived children in the study often regarded their donor siblings as long-lost sisters and brothers when they located each other in the context of new social media and internet connectedness. Parents whose children were conceived more recently were aware of the possibility of donor siblings from before conception. They imagined a different and specific role for donor siblings, and their donor-conceived children took these donor siblings for granted.
This imagined role of networks of donor siblings is highly class-specific: the recently formed donor-sibling networks Hertz and Nelson interviewed imagined donor siblings as people who would offer a place to crash during international travel, or a personal connection to a desirable college. “Maybe [our daughter] Audrey someday decides she is going to travel across the country; she will have a place to stay when she is in Chicago. A [genetic relative] in California opens the door for [our daughter] Scout to have an internship somewhere, I don’t know” (182). They pictured the kinds of favors that affluent, secure people can ask and offer. Interviewees frequently specified that they were looking for a kind of loose emotional kinship, perhaps like cousins, and not any kind of substantial financial entanglement.
To fully understand the implications of Hertz’s and Nelson’s findings, it is important to put them in a larger context. About 40% of Americans have at least one step- or half-sibling or step-parent today. How do donor-created families compare with non-donor-created step-families? Many step-families have significantly lower income and education than the families in Hertz’s and Nelson’s study. How does economic pressure and financial insecurity affect the dynamic? Hertz’s and Nelson’s interviewees also tend to be politically liberal and have already embraced progressive family values–the majority are single mothers by choice or two-mother families. Are novel family forms imagined differently by people who begin with different values and assumptions about family formation?
Likewise, it would be fascinating to see Hertz and Nelson’s book paired with scholarship addressing a much longer historical perspective. For example, historians Anita Rutman and Darrett Rutman have described family instability in the colonial Chesapeake, with high death rates of children and adults alike from malaria. Blended families were common, even typical. Historian Lisa Wilson has suggested that nineteenth-century sentimental ideals about middle-class families and motherhood stigmatized step-families. Donor-created “random families” are not the first time Americans have grappled with the meaning and implication of families created through non-normative combinations of biological and social kinship.
In Hertz and Nelson’s story, almost all of the family-building is done by girls and women. 92% of their interviewees are female. Since the majority of the families they interview are led by single mothers or two-mother couples, it is not surprising that the adults in the story are almost all female. But they also found that in donor-sibling networks of teens and young adults, girls and young women did almost all of the logistical and emotional labor. A network without a woman to hold it together mostly fell apart. For me as a historian, this begs an important question: under historical patriarchal family forms, were women already doing all of the bureaucratic-logistical and emotional work? Is this why families are less likely to cohere once men do not have legal privileges that give them financial control? Just as contemporary sociological questions and observations can be sharpened with history as a tool, reading sociology can focus and inspire historical investigation.
Understanding family formation is central to comprehending contemporary social life and the continuity and change in the fabric of our society. I am glad to have Hertz and Nelson’s Random Families as a nuanced, evidence-based contribution to this important area of study.