October 20, 2012
Oliver Downs,* 8 days old, lay peacefully in his bassinet, his cries from his circumcision quelled by a thumb drop of kosher wine and cuddles from his father, Mitchell, and his grandmother. Both were taking a respite from the bagel-and-lox-eating crowd at Oliver’s bris. A friend who hadn’t known that Mitchell was having a baby asked the inevitable question: “So where’s the mother?”
Mitchell looked his friend squarely in the eye and said simply, “She’s gone.”
Mitchell Downs is not divorced. Nor is he a widower. He doesn’t even have a girlfriend or, for that matter, a boyfriend. Like a small but growing number of unmarried heterosexual men, the Philadelphia financial consultant paid handsomely to use a donor egg and a gestational carrier to become a single father.
Downs, 43, has always loved kids. A onetime Hebrew school teacher and coach, he relates to them well. But he also likes women (a lot), and partying, and traveling, and doing all kinds of things that are antithetical to settling down. Indeed, his draw to fatherhood has always been much stronger than his draw to a lifelong commitment to a woman. “I’ve always found something wrong with my girlfriends—traits that would really annoy me,” he says. “Maybe I was self-sabotaging, but whatever I was doing, I never met a woman I could spend my life with.” (Raise happy, healthy kids with the advice and support from our MH Dads newsletter.)
Yet a child was something he felt he couldn’t live without.
After the demise of a 5-year relationship with a woman 11 years younger—and with whom he stayed not because he saw a future with her but because he hoped they would have a baby—Downs took a trip to Southeast Asia to clear his head. After 10 days of adventure travel—hiking, kayaking, and rappelling—he set his bags down in a hotel room in Phuket, a popular beach resort area in southern Thailand. That was on December 25, 2004. The next morning he woke up to the tsunami that claimed nearly 230,000 lives in 14 countries.
Downs dodged the deluge on the back of a motor scooter, the deadly wave hounding him from just a few feet behind. When the water receded, the former EMT went into rescue mode, pulling both the living and the dead from upended cars and flooded buildings and working with medical teams in makeshift triage centers. “But the thing that killed me, that I took home with me and that haunted me, was the vision of locals and tourists standing on the beach screaming and crying at the ocean for taking their loved ones away,” he says.
Downs returned to Philadelphia a different man than when he left. At 36 he took stock of his life and had an epiphany. “I had nothing to show for my time on earth. I had no one to carry on my name,” he says. “I wanted a child, and I realized it was now or never. I figured if women can have children by themselves, then fuck it, men can too.”
Downs had no idea where to turn for guidance. So he typed “single men” and “reproduction” into a search engine and up popped the name of Melissa Brisman, a New Jersey attorney who specializes in third-party reproduction—the process by which “ intended parents” (or, as the case may be, one intended parent) hire an egg donor and a gestational carrier to help create, conceive, and deliver a baby for them. “I wondered if people would think I was gay, but I didn’t care,” says Downs, who drove an hour and a half to see Brisman and deliver her a $10,000 retainer.
A year and a half and “somewhere north of $100,000” later, Downs finally had his son. “I was living the bachelor life up until the day Oliver was born,” says Downs, who was preparing for a summer party when his gestational carrier called to say she was in labor, 2 weeks ahead of her due date. “You can’t be having the baby now,” Downs pleaded into the phone wedged between his ear and his shoulder as he poked potatoes onto kebab spears. “ I’m having a barbecue. Fifteen people are coming over to my house.”
Oliver wasn’t about to wait.
Downs picked up his bag (“packed the day after I found out I was pregnant,” he says), hopped into his new “family car,” a black BMW X5 he bought when he turned in his M3 coupe (“it didn’t have a backseat”), and raced a hundred miles to the hospital where his son was about to be born. “All I’m thinking is that if I’m stopped and given a ticket, I’m going to miss the birth.”
Oliver began pushing out into the world later that evening. Jay Leno was on the delivery room TV. The gestational carrier’s husband was holding her hand, and Downs was standing behind her. “Suddenly I realized there would be no more partying, no more spontaneous travel,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘I am so tired of that shit. My life is going to change completely, and I can’t wait.’ ”
The new phenomenon of single fathers by choice is an unanticipated side effect of a technology that was originally developed to empower infertile couples to become parents. In the early days of surrogacy, intended parents (or IPs, as they’re known in the fertility industry) typically hired a woman who, through artificial insemination, would become impregnated with the husband’s or a donor’s sperm using her own egg; she’d carry the baby to term and then relinquish all parental rights to the child. But this process, known as traditional surrogacy, is fraught with legal and emotional pitfalls—the most infamous example being the Baby M case, when the surrogate refused to turn over the baby to her contracted IPs. Third-party reproduction, in which the egg donor and the surrogate (or “gestational carrier”) are two different people, skirts these nightmarish possibilities. Because the gestational carrier has no genetic connection to the child inside her, there’s less chance of legal wrangling.
But the price can be astronomical for this entry into fatherhood. That’s why the men who choose third-party reproduction tend to be not only extremely rich and successful but also in control of their time—able to miss work when their child needs to go to the doctor, for example, or to stay home during school breaks.
In Minneapolis, 40-year-old Sean is currently on a waiting list for a surrogate to carry the child he hopes to make with a donor egg. He expects to pay somewhere between $90,000 and $110,000, the usual cost of third-party reproduction if all goes well—that is, if on the first attempt at in vitro fertilization his sperm and the donor egg end up creating healthy embryos, and at least one of those embryos implants in the gestational carrier’s uterus, and she then carries the baby to full term.
Sean grew his money in the stock market and pulled out in 2004 to travel the world, visiting more than 30 countries. He returned to Minneapolis virtually broke but quickly built back his fortune. His intention had been to save up enough to climb Mt. Everest, but his plans took a different direction; he decided instead to take advantage of an ailing real-estate market to buy a four-bedroom house near his parents and two of his sisters, both of whom are single mothers and whose children he has helped raise. He’d hoped to find a wife to share that home with him, but dating at his age “became a challenge,” he says. “Nothing has clicked yet.”
Still, the same fantasy would play over and over in his mind. “I kept imagining how awesome it would be when a nurse handed me my child after the delivery,” he says. Yet, Sean admits, “I’ve never imagined myself in a tuxedo walking down the aisle.
“I would love a soul mate,” he continues, “but I’m pragmatic about it. Ninety percent of my bucket list is crossed off. Having a child is my number one priority. Number two is finding a relationship. And that’s why I’m willing to go down this road and spend an exorbitant amount of money. All else is secondary.”
Statistics on unmarried men who opt for third-party reproduction are limited, but the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank that focuses on same-sex issues, found in 2010 that more than 1 million bachelors, both gay and straight, were raising children.
“The number of single straight men doing this is definitely growing,” says Brisman, Mitchell Downs’s attorney, who handles about 10 such cases a year. If she were to stereotype these clients, she says, she’d describe them as “reasonable men, but men who definitely want things their way.” They also have money—and along with that, a certain fear of losing it. “If your children get mad, they usually don’t abandon you,” she says. “But if you’re wealthy and get married a little later in life, usually you have the fear that you’ll lose your wealth and custody of the one thing you have put your whole heart and soul into—your child.”
Downs, for one, is glad to not have to face that threat. “Every guy I know who is going through a divorce says he wishes he were me,” he says. “They say, ‘You come home, you do things with your kid, you put him to bed, and you don’t have a wife to tell you to do all this shit and then find out that she went out and bought all this stuff that now you have to pay for.’”
Downs was on the young side when he decided to go the third-party reproduction route. Still, he felt his clock ticking. “I used to look around at fathers with their kids and get really depressed,” he says. Only 36 when he started the process (most men who do this are in their 40s and 50s), he says now, “I already felt old and didn’t want to put off parenthood until I met someone, because my history with relationships suggests that I might not ever find someone I could live with for the rest of my life.”
That is a common refrain of “single fathers by choice,” as members of this disparate group are independently starting to call themselves. William Zangwill, 64, is a Manhattan psychologist whose daughter, Marissa, is now 4 years old. As a couples therapist, he says, “I don’t see a lot of good relationships.” And then there are his own issues, which Zangwill doesn’t care to describe, only to say that his last six or seven girlfriends found their husbands soon after they broke off a relationship with him. “After being with me for a while, the next person they saw probably looked pretty amazing.” But one thing Zangwill was never ambivalent about was his desire to parent. “One friend told me he thought I wanted the child without the relationship, and I think he was right,” says Zangwill. In the midst of a miscarriage scare during his pregnancy (men who have babies through third-party reproduction refer to the process as “their” pregnancies), Zangwill says he experienced “a visceral jealousy toward women pushing carriages or who were obviously pregnant.”
Manhattan attorney Steven Harris, like Downs and Zangwill, tried to find a woman to help him fulfill his dreams of fatherhood. When he reached 50 and was still childless, he offered a ring to his girlfriend. “The whole reason I was getting married was to have a baby,” admits Harris, now 58. “But the closer it came to my wedding day, the more I thought, ‘T his is wrong, wrong, wrong.’ ” Within 24 hours of breaking his engagement, Harris hit the Internet looking for ways to have a baby by himself. “A lot of people had trepidation about my becoming a dad because I was always single and lived a very carefree life. I don’t think people understood just how much I wanted a baby.”
And no one had more misgivings than his mother, an orthodox Jew. “ When I told her I was having a baby by a gestational carrier and an egg donor, she said, ‘This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me,’ ” Harris recounts. “I said, ‘Mom, you were in Auschwitz when you were 16. Are you sure this is the worst thing?’”
While single fathering by choice is uncommon, it’s not new. Nor has it been free of controversy. In one notorious case, 26-year-old James Alan Austin of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, made headlines in 1995 when he murdered his 5-week-old son, Jonathan, who had been conceived with the help of a traditional surrogate—that is, a woman who became pregnant with his child through artificial insemination and with her own egg. One night when Austin could no longer stand his son’s crying, he beat him with hangers and repeatedly shook him. Jonathan died 9 days later when his biological mother—who’d reportedly been paid $30,000 through the Infertility Center of America, located in Indianapolis, to carry and then relinquish the child to Austin—requested that he be removed from life support. Austin pled guilty to third-degree murder and received a 12½- to 25-year sentence.
But Austin’s case is a rare exception. “Guys who become fathers by choice have done a lot of soul-searching and are more emotionally mature than many other men,” says Brian Tessier, a Boston attorney and the unmarried father of two children he adopted through foster care. Tessier, who is gay, recently started an informational hotline, 411-4-DAD (855-411- 4323), to provide assistance to hopeful single fathers. About half the calls come from straight men, most of whom find the cost of gestational surrogacy way out of reach and are looking to adopt, usually through foster care. (Birth mothers looking to place their children for adoption generally prefer their newborns to have mothers.) Tessier’s callers tend to be well educated and have stable careers as doctors, lawyers, professors, and the like. “ I spoke to one guy on Wall Street who told me, ‘I want to be a father but I don’t want a wife,’” Tessier says.
Third-party reproduction is largely unregulated, although most reputable fertility clinics at least require intended parents to undergo mental-health evaluation. Just this past April, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine set guidelines for psychological assessment of IPs (and carriers), including such criteria for rejection as untreated psychiatric disorders, addictions, and relationship instability.
Judith Kottick is a New Jersey fertility counselor who in the past 5 years has evaluated several single straight men embarking on thirdparty reproduction. “At first I wondered to myself, ‘Are they closeted? Is something wrong?’” Kottick admits. “But I’ve come to learn that a man can have just as strong a yearning for a child as a woman has.” One difference, however, is that single men don’t come to her, as many women do, after years of failed infertility treatments. “There is something less fraught with a man,” she says. “For a woman, using a gestational carrier can be a very sad thing, a loss because she wanted to be pregnant with her own biological child. The men are thrilled that they even have this opportunity. It’s like winning the lottery.”
Still, Downs concedes, “Many men who do this have some kind of issue as to why they haven’t gotten married, something that has stunted them, or a traumatic experience lurking in their past.” For Downs it was his parents’ messy divorce, which left him both scarred and determined to never inflict that kind of pain on a child of his own. “I would have gotten married, and then I would have gotten divorced and given my child a shitty life. As it is, I know my son is having a better childhood then I ever had.”
And now that three of the single men interviewed for this article have their children, they appear to have less desire to date than ever before. “I wanted a family and now I have one,” says Harris, whose first attempt at third-party reproduction failed. “I don’t have the need for a relationship. My son cost me $200,000. A wife would have cost me much more.”
Zangwill is a little more emotional about it. “I can’t imagine loving anyone more than I love Marissa,” he says. “It would take an amazingly special person who would be comfortable knowing that, and that doesn’t sound like a very good deal for her.”
If raising a child single-handedly has its challenges, men who choose third-party reproduction don’t always seem to notice. “I am so happy to have him to myself,” Downs says of his son. “I’m not used to sharing my life with someone, and I never felt remorseful that I didn’t have a partner when he was a baby.” (Want your kid to love reading? Here's How to Raise a Reader.)
Neither Downs nor any of the other single fathers in this article know of another man in their social circle who is in the same situation as they are. Indeed, single fatherhood is so socially unusual that strangers typically have one of two reactions: The first is to ask where the mother is; the second— and most common—is to ask nothing at all. “I’m surprised that no one asks about my situation,” says Zangwill, who figures people assume he’s gay. “I complimented one of the preschool moms on her haircut, and she said, ‘Oh, you must be a hairdresser!’”
Even in the building where Zangwill has lived for 20 years, and in his parenting group (where he is the only man), no one inquires. “It’s reached the point where I want to ask them what they think of me being the only guy there,” he says. But the group focuses on some issues that he really needs input on, such as eating and sleeping and social behaviors, “and I don’t want to make waves. I want to fit in.”
Now that Marissa is older, Zangwill finds himself running into some unique parenting issues because she’s a girl, one of which involves using public bathrooms. Last year, when she was 3, they were in the gym locker room together when, in a very loud voice, she decided to start asking questions about male body parts. “There were about 10 or 12 men in the room,” Zangwill recalls. “You could hear a pin drop.” Zangwill now makes other arrangements at the gym for Marissa.
Oliver Downs just turned 6, and he is starting to become aware that for everything he has—a loving and deeply involved father, doting grandparents, a luxurious place to live—something very important is missing. “S ometimes he tells me he wants a mommy,” says Downs, who notes that he is the only father who consistently appears at school drop-off and pickup. “And that’s the selfish part of all of this, because I very consciously chose not to give him a mother.
“But in the same sentence he will tell me that he also wants a dog.”
*The names of some fathers and their children have been altered to protect their identities
Pay to Play
What it costs for a man to have a child on his own
No government agency regulates or even monitors contracts between intended parents and gestational carriers, and no universal fee structure exists, says Judy sperling-newton, director of the american academy of assisted reproductive technology attorneys and a founder of the surrogacy center in madison, Wisconsin. that means medical and legal expenses can vary widely, depending on such factors as the carrier’s life and health insurance costs and the laws of the state where the child is born. and while the american society for reproductive medicine now has guidelines for thirdparty reproduction— including physical and/or psychological screening for egg donors, gestational carriers, and intended parents— those rules are not enforceable.
Surrogacy is an extremely expensive prospect, with total costs sometimes surpassing $150,000, says corey Whelan, program director for the american fertility association. the best advice for men looking to start a family through this method, Whelan says, is to comparison shop—not just for the best price, but to find a lawyer and surrogacy agency with the most experience and who feels like the best fit. says minnesota attorney steve snyder, “if there is a downside for men to go it alone, it is not the social stigma but the cost.” here are some of the costs intended parents should consider.
$12,400 One round of in vitro fertilization in the united states
$10,000–$15,000 Legal fees (including initial agreement, court order to establish parenthood, and birth certificate)
$15,000–$20,000 Use of donor eggs (may or may not include donor and agency fee)
$20,000 Gestational carrier agency fees
$15,000–$30,000 Gestational carrier compensation (depending on state regulations and experience of the carrier)
$1,500–$2,000 Psychological screening for intended parents and gestational carrier
$6,000–$30,000 Additional health insurance for gestational carrier