Claiming Space to Matter: Talking with Jennifer Berney
In her debut memoir, The Other Mothers: Two Women’s Journey to Find the Family That Was Always Theirs, Jennifer Berney tells an intimate story of queer family-building. The book weaves Berney’s personal experience of trying to conceive with an investigation into the history of sperm banking and queer reproduction. After being sidelined by the doctors she saw, Berney ultimately gave up on conceiving via medically assisted reproduction, and instead built a family with the help of a known donor from her circle of friends. Through her research, Berney is able to connect her own story to a larger story of how the fertility industry was built to serve straight white couples only, and how queer people have found ways to push back. The result is a book that’s simultaneously enraging and uplifting, a testament to the power of community.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Longreads, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, and many other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington with her wife and two children and teaches writing at South Puget Sound Community College. You can find her on Twitter at @JennBerney.
I recently had the chance to talk with Berney about the joy of community, the pervasiveness of patriarchy, and what it means to bring the body to the page.
The Rumpus: There’s impressive recall, specificity, and immediacy in The Other Mothers which suggests you recorded your long, fraught journey to parenthood in real time. I wonder if you kept a journal during that time?
Jennifer Berney: I worked hard on that immediacy, and I think there were several things that enabled it. I did keep a journal at the time, but my journals are mostly just stream-of-consciousness processing, so I didn’t go back to those while writing the book—though I believe writing them helped me encode the events into memory. Ultimately, I tried to construct the story out of the specific moments that I remembered vividly, and there were plenty of those. There’s a way in which I prepared to write the book while I was living the experience: each time I hit a new complication I thought, oh well, I guess this will go in the book someday. Telling myself I’d write a book became a way to distance myself from what I was going through. And so, in a way, I became this disembodied self-observer taking mental notes.
Rumpus: “This disembodied self-observer taking mental notes.” That’s fascinating, and very much resonates. I largely write fiction but also feel like I’m above the characters and world I’m creating, witnessing, and recording. My stories set out to answer a central, urgent question that the telling of the tale will answer. Is your approach to writing memoir similar—did you have a burning question to be answered when writing The Other Mothers? Or was it more a case of intention and goals?
Berney: There were two things that drove me to write the memoir, and the first was very practical. I felt that my story could be useful to anyone who might be thinking about embarking on getting pregnant without ready access to sperm, e.g. other queer couples, single moms or trans parents. Because we went down so many paths, I felt like I could illustrate or dramatize certain things—like asking an acquaintance to consider donating sperm—that I’d never seen represented before. But also, the part of the story where Daniel and Rebecca step in and offer to help us conceive, that was quite simply the most redemptive thing that has ever happened to me. I came into this story as a person who really tries at all costs to be self-contained, and a person from an insular family culture. So, the expansiveness of what family became for me felt revelatory, and I wanted to get that down and share it.
Rumpus: I was repeatedly struck by your complex and resonant relationship with your body—grief, fear, anger, bargaining, and wonder—and can imagine the challenge of such keen reporting on the physical self. Because our body itself holds memory, were you surprised by the events and emotions your body revealed during the telling? How did they differ, the recollections of your body vs. your mind?
Berney: I think that, because it felt like an out-of-body experience when I was actually going through it, there was something healing about returning to those experiences and reclaiming them on the page. I’m thinking about, for instance, a scene where I’m being examined by a fertility specialist. It’s painful, and the pain is compounded by the sense that I’m essentially invisible to him. At the time, it didn’t strike me as remarkable—I mean, I suspect anyone who’s had a pap smear has had the experience of feeling invaded like that—but in writing about it I claimed space for it to matter, for my body and safety to matter. In the lived moment I was overwhelmed and just trying to find my way to the other side of the system, and that involved me disconnecting from myself. In the written moment, I could offer myself compassion.
Rumpus: “But in writing about it I claimed space for it to matter.” Whoosh, that’s so powerful, thank you. There’s much The Other Mothers brings to light, not least the pain and many struggles for same-sex couples in a patriarchal society that continues to insist on the “traditional” family model. It’s such a damaging trope, and for all of us, isn’t it?
Berney: It is! I’m often struck by how stubbornly our culture sticks to assumptions about the traditional family structure in spite of the many families in plain sight who break the mold. I often think about the first time I brought my child to get a haircut and the stylist, whom I’d never met before said, “First haircut, huh? Is Dad going to freak out?” I know of course she was just being chatty, but I couldn’t stop thinking about all the scenarios where that question wouldn’t land well—not just my own. I’ve noticed from spending time in elementary school classrooms that it’s a bummer for lots of kids when teachers, peers, whoever, go with the default assumption that kids have one mom and one dad. Like, when a teacher says something that’s seemingly innocuous like “Bring your permission slip home to Mom and Dad,” I look around the classroom and I know there’s a kid being raised by his grandma, and at least three kids who move back and forth between divorced parents, a few kids with single parents, and my kid with two moms. It’s such a simple thing to make room for all kinds of families by shifting your language and assumptions, by saying, “Bring this home to your grown-ups.” But I’ve started to see it as a kind of enforcement mechanism, like, a way that people unconsciously maintain the status quo. I’m headed down a tangent now, but I think there’s a reason that gender reveal parties have become part of our culture at the exact moment that we’ve entered a mainstream discussion on the complexity of gender and its separateness from biological sex. It’s a kind of doubling-down on the old norms.
Rumpus: I was moved by your experiences of bias and homophobia throughout your life, and how sometimes you internalized that, particularly when you presented as a would-be same-sex parent in doctors’ offices and fertility clinics. Those scenes underscore how few safe, let alone inviting, spaces there are for those considered “other.” Can you talk about the tension between hiding the self and being the self, and where you are now on that spectrum?
Berney: I think that what’s tricky for me as a straight-passing, cis-passing person, is that there’s not always a clear boundary between being the self and hiding the self. I can show up somewhere and not be actively hiding anything about myself, but I also carry awareness of what people assume about me. If I don’t actively call attention to my identity—by mentioning my wife, for instance—it can start to feel like I’m hiding something. There is nowhere that this is more true for me than in parenting spaces. In terms of LGBTQ+ awareness, I live in a particularly progressive community, and yet I tend to be incredibly nervous when I interact with parents I meet through my kids’ schools. When my kids make new friends at school, I often worry that there will be tension, or that when parents learn that we’re a queer family that they will drop us. I can tell you that the worst-case scenario where someone outright rejects my kid because of who we are has never come to pass. But I do think that this ambient discomfort has affected my experience of parenting and it keeps me from fully integrating into certain communities.
Rumpus: I’m sorry; that saddens and angers me, as does the bias in medicine that you portray so well, medicine being another patriarchal system that often dismisses patients based on gender, race, class, size, and sexual orientation. Weaved throughout your memoir are fascinating and often disturbing details of the misogynistic history of infertility, artificial insemination, and sperm banks. Can you highlight some of those horrors here?
Berney: I can highlight how mind-blowingly consistent my findings were! I started my research with an inkling that the history of fertility treatment might somehow shed light on my own experience. I’d ask some question like, When was assisted insemination invented? Or What’s the history of sperm banking? and it was like pulling at a ball of yarn—it was all just right there and ready to unravel. I was surprised (and my surprise was total naiveté) at how intrinsically such things were connected not just to sexism and control over women’s bodies, but also to white supremacy. One example of that is the connection between sperm banks and eugenics.
One of the earliest sperm banks was actually a eugenics project run by Dr. Robert K. Graham, who wanted to advance national interests by banking sperm from geniuses. He only served married white couples, and he hoped that someday all white and upwardly mobile couples would inseminate with genius sperm—not just those who were struggling with male infertility. Sometimes he’s presented as anomalous, but we can have a long discussion about how sperm banking is still completely tied up in a eugenics mindset, much of which is consumer-driven. Most commercial banks have programs advertising Ivy League or graduate donors, and the FDC still prohibits gay men from donating sperm. One of my favorite quotes from my research comes from sociologist Amy Agigian. She points out that our collective belief that a college education is somehow “transmissible via a man’s semen is further evidence of magical thinking about semen that abounds in our culture.” That was a real head-slap moment for me.
Rumpus: I’m curious how much research you did overall? Did you know from the outset that you were writing journalism and cultural criticism in addition to memoir, or at what stage of the process did those added layers emerge?
Berney: The researched layers didn’t emerge until the very end, though various early readers had suggested I add some historical context. It sounded like a good idea, but I had no vision for it. I was married to the idea of telling my story in a way that felt really intimate, and I just couldn’t find a good way to depart from my own experience. I had actually completed what I thought was a final draft of the book, when an agent told me that he didn’t think the scope of my project was broad enough to sell. Something clicked for me then. All of a sudden, I could identify key moments of my story where a launch into researched vignettes would make sense. I spent about nine months researching—a full gestational period—and my curiosity drove me. It was relatively easy to find materials on the history of sperm banking, adoption, and the fertility industry from a straight perspective, but there was of course far less documentation on the thing that was most interesting to me, which was queer DIY conception. For that part of the book, I interviewed a lot of people in my community, and was able to talk to people like Sherron Mills, who founded a lesbian-owned sperm bank in California, and Alice Ruby, who is the executive director of the only non-profit sperm bank in the US, The Sperm Bank of California. In terms of page count, the research doesn’t make up a great percentage of the book, and yet I feel the book and my understanding of my own story were transformed by it.
Rumpus: It’s infuriating how far we have yet to progress as a society and culture. In 2020, we had forced sterilizations by our own government at the US border performed on women seeking asylum. Yet you appear hopeful for our future and pay wonderful homage to the queer activists who came before you and those who will follow you. Are we ever going to get it right, though, really?
Berney: I think the hope in this book is located outside the system, in community efforts to support each other. One of the big questions we’re asking now more broadly as a culture is what do we do with all of these systems designed to uphold patriarchy and white supremacy, when oppression is part of their very fabric? I don’t have the answer to that, and I’m not hopeful that there’s a fast or easy solution. But when learning about DIY conception in the 1980s, I was struck by how radical those queer communities were. I think sometimes we get sucked into the illusion that progress is linear. The last four years have really upended that illusion. When I look at the history, the story I see is this: the fertility industry progressed enough that they were finally willing to serve queer people—or rather, the queer people with the means to pay for their services. A more cynical way to see it is that the industry realized they could profit from us. Upper- and middle-class queer folks who wanted families benefited from the option, but we may have lost some of our connectedness. Integration comes at a cost. I don’t think that profit-driven institutions are ever going to do right by marginalized communities, but I do derive hope from what our various communities can achieve when we commit to helping each other get care and support.
Rumpus: As much as this is a memoir of birth, it’s also very much about rebirth. Your growth over the course of The Other Mothers is profound. We see you opening ever more fully to love and life, particularly with regard to friendship and community. Tell us about those powerful shifts.
Berney: I’m so glad that aspect of the story came through, because that’s essential to me. My partner is one of the most community-minded people I know. She’s just expansive that way, wired to seek and develop connection, so of course she wanted to take a community approach over a clinical approach to conceiving a child. And what I notice is that the community approach only worked once I was able to put down some of the baggage I was carrying. It worked once I had exhausted my own timeline and my expectations that the clinical route would be simple and straightforward, and I was tired enough to just let go. I allowed myself to soften a little, to let the world present options. That lesson’s not over for me, though. It’s something I have to keep re-learning—that I need my community, and that it’s okay to accept help.
Photograph of Jennifer Berney by Anna Larson.