After donating sperm in the 90s, this Los Angeles artist is now in contact with his children all over the country.
One of Michael Rubino’s first questions for the California Cryobank, where he regularly donated sperm for 2-3 years starting in 1994, was “Will I get to meet them?” He was referring to the children he’d help create as Donor 929 but the Cryobank informed him that it would be up to the kids, once they turned 18, to reach out to him.
Not long after that first meeting, Rubino, now a mellow visual artist of 53 from Los Angeles, went through a divorce and started visiting the bank more often, excited by the thought of meeting his future progeny. Little did he know his opportunity would come much sooner than expected.
In 2004, he registered on the Donor Sibling Registry, a website, with 39,000 registered users, which facilitates communication between children conceived by sperm, egg or embryo donation, and their assorted parents, biological or otherwise. And in 2005, he met Raechel McGhee, a Massachusetts psychotherapist who used his sperm to have a son and a daughter. Since then, through the DSR, Rubino has talked or emailed with 12 of his children (or in a few cases, only their parents). He has visited some of the families in far-flung places like Ohio and Massachusetts. He’s in regular contact with eight of the kids and their parents. And after he meets each child in person, he typically paints a portrait of them.
In his sparsely decorated apartment, Rubino has two bookshelves crowded with framed photos of many of his children, who range in age from 11 to 19. He’s fathered two sets of siblings but otherwise, there’s no visual through-line, no across-the-board inheritance of his blue eyes or strong jaw. But he feels a connection with all of them.
“I’m sure it has to do with my knowing that they are, in fact, related to me,” Rubino says. “But I have to admit, there’s this kind of strange bond or connection that seems to happen instantly when I meet them. I feel it and I think they kind of do, too.”
Listening to Rubino affectionately boast about one teen who plays in a local band, and another who sent him some of her drawings, he sounds as involved as any traditional parent. In some cases, he is. On a near-weekly basis, he chats with Raechel’s children, Leah, 11, and Aaron, 15, who both call him Dad. He teases Precious, a 14-year-old who lives in Hawaii, on Facebook, telling her to stay away from boys. He first met Keevyn (portrait above), a 15 year old son of lesbian partners, at the boy’s bar mitzvah when he presented him with a handmade tallit, a traditional prayer shawl typically given from father to son. Rubino is a staunch atheist but he described the ceremony as “wonderful.”
But it’s Jake, 15, whom Rubino sees most often, picking him up from school every weekday. They also watch movies and eat dinner together on most Saturday nights. Jake’s mother, who doesn’t give press interviews, comes along for movie night, too. Rubino first met Jake when he was seven and his mother drove up from San Diego to introduce her son to “a family friend.” Rubino, who wrote and illustrated a book on evolution, drove Jake to one of his favorite spots in Los Angeles, the La Brea Tar Pits, where skeletal remains of prehistoric animals are preserved in the black muck.
“It was just his favorite thing,” Rubino recalls. “This adorable knobby-kneed kid was just non-stop chattering about dinosaurs and aliens. He asked me if I thought aliens had ever visited Earth. I just fell in love with him at the time.” He smiles. “For better or worse, I think he inherited my temperament.”
According to psychologist Diane Ehrensaft, author of Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering Tough Questions and Building Strong Families, donor fathers are more involved with their children than we might think. Statistics are hard to come by because sperm banks are virtually unregulated in the U.S. but from her own Bay Area practice, established in the early ‘80s, Ehrensaft sees that “the trend has been towards donor identity and less anxiety about including the donor in family life. The numbers of involved donor dads are rising.”
To some, Rubino might appear a suspiciously lonely guy hunting for connection. What does he want from these kids? Why didn’t he remarry and have his own children in the “traditional” way after the divorce? But Rubino wasn’t interested in marriage or kids after his divorce. The couple tried for years to have a baby but eventually gave up. Though the marriage fell part, he says it had nothing to do with infertility or sperm donation. In fact, his wife encouraged his efforts to help infertile and same-sex couples, the kind they’d met in infertility support groups.
Rubino hasn’t dated anyone seriously in the last 20 years, nor has he ever been romantically involved with any of the mothers of the donor children. “I admit that having the kids in my life so much has put a dampener on me even trying to date. But I wasn’t a big dater to begin with. After my divorce, frankly, I’m not out there so much.”
As far as his relationship with the children goes, his strategy is to let the kids come to him. But still, complications have arisen.
About five years ago, after an Oprah episode featured the Donor Sibling Registry, two brothers in New York tracked him down and eventually they all spoke on the phone. The older one, though only 11 or so at the time, “was emotional about it and really wanted to meet me.” Rubino tried to coordinate a face-to-face meeting but the parents – a lesbian couple – declined. The biological mom later confided to Rubino that her partner was threatened by Rubino’s presence and scared the kids wouldn’t love her anymore. “There wasn’t much else to do but say ‘OK, I understand and if you ever want to be in touch, I’m here,’” he says.
For Amy L. Baden, one of Keevyn’s two moms, Rubino has never been an overbearing presence. In fact, just the opposite. “He’s had an open door at our house,” Baden says. “It’s the right amount of participation. The relationship is child-driven. He’ll call Keevyn and send cards on birthdays and holidays but he doesn’t intrude.”
Despite his parental-like dynamic with some of the kids, Rubino sees himself “more like the fun uncle” than anything else. But with his occasional phone calls and visits on the holidays, Rubino may be most like the father marooned from the rest of the family unit through divorce – though without all the baggage of prior romantic history with the mother or the children grappling with abandonment.
Ehrensaft says that sperm donors can function in families as either the extra piece or the missing piece. In other words, if the family already has two parents, they’re likely to consider the donor an extra piece but if it’s a single-parent household, then the donor might fill in as the missing piece. The parents of Rubino’s children are mostly same-sex partners, but there are also three hetero couples, as well as two single mothers by choice.
In the case of the McGhees, Rubino seems to fill a spot not only for the children but Raechel, too. “Single motherhood is for the lion-hearted,” McGhee says, “and the hardest parts are not the ones you’d think, like paying the bills or getting the kids out of the car at the same time. It’s the more tender moments when you wish you had a partner who cares about them as much as you do. Michael is that other person who loves them as much as I do. I get the sense I’m not alone.”
With most of Rubino’s known children clustered around the age of 15, it’ll be interesting to see what happens in a few years. Maybe a cluster of children will turn 18 and come knocking on his door. He used to worry, after the first few kids found him, that he wouldn’t have time to properly connect with them all but his tensions have eased. “If a handful more of them turn up, I’m actually less worried because at that age, they’re off living their own lives.”
But should they want to, he can fold them into the mix. Back when he first started donating, “I thought I’d meet a few of them for lunch when they turned 18 and that would be about the extent of it.” But Rubino is thankful for how it’s developed. “I’ve got this huge extended family now. I get to have all these wonderful kids in my life.”
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