My So-Called Family
We moved out of our old house on a Tuesday at the beginning of August. My stepfather, Simon, got a new job in New York City. He and Mom bought a house in Riverdale, an area just north of Manhattan, and Simon’s company hired movers for us. The moving company sent three men and a woman down to our house in Maryland to help us pack up and move out.
It’s funny because Mom always tells my brother Charlie and me that women can do anything. She was a single mother for a long time, so I think she wants to make sure her kids know that women are strong and independent. But the people from the moving company were totally stereotypical in terms of their jobs. The men were there to lift the heavy things, and the woman was there to talk to Mom and make sure everything stayed organized. It seemed like the main part of her job was to walk around with a clipboard and point to things.
There were only two rooms in our old house that the moving company wasn’t packing up for us. The first was Mom’s office. She’s a writer, mostly of self-help books. Her most successful books have been how-to books for teenagers: How to Make It Through High School and How to Find the Summer Job of Your Dreams. Anyway, Mom gets pretty territorial about her office because of her computer and her manuscripts. The woman from the moving company said she completely understood how Mom felt—I think she was probably happy to have one less room to worry about—and she gave Mom a bunch of boxes and bubble wrap.
The second room the movers weren’t packing was my room. I wanted to do it myself. It’s not that I like packing, and it’s not even that I was worried about my stuff the way Mom was. I just wanted to box everything up myself, kind of like for closure.
When Simon found out about his new job, he and Mom went on and on about how moving is a great adventure and how it will be wonderful for the whole family. Charlie got really into it, but he’s only five years old. Simon was excited because his new job is really prestigious and he’s going to make more money. And moving is easy for Mom because she’s a writer, so her job is portable. But for me, it was kind of different. The thing is, up until the day we moved, I’d lived in the same house for my whole life. Mom bought it the year before I was born. I always liked the way it looked—peachy pink, sandwiched between two white houses. Whenever Mom gave directions to our house, she would say, “It’s the pink one on the right.” I liked the way that sounded. I once told Mom that it looked like a house for girls.
In the beginning, when we lived in that house, it was a house of just girls. There were two of us: Mom and me. Mom’s name is Meredith and she named me Leah, after her mother, who I never met. We’re Jewish, and you’re supposed to name new babies after relatives who’ve died. My middle name is Isabel, after Mom’s dad, whose name was Isaac, even though Mom told me everyone always called him Izzy. There were no relatives on my father’s side to name me after. That’s because I never had a father. I know what you’re thinking: You’re thinking about how babies are made and how everyone has a father. But that’s not exactly true.
I wasn’t adopted, and I’m not talking about some miracle birth, either. My mom was thirty-three years old when she got pregnant with me. She wasn’t married, even though all her friends were, and most of them were having babies. She was worried about not getting married until she was older, and then not having a baby until she was even older than that. Her parents had been on the old side when she was born, and they’d both died before she’d even turned thirty. So when her best friend announced she was pregnant, Mom decided to have a kid on her own, and she started looking into sperm banks. You know, the place where men go to donate sperm. Then women who want to have babies can go buy some sperm and get pregnant. So Mom went to the sperm bank. Some of her friends tried to talk her out of it. Even her pregnant best friend tried to talk her out of it. They said it would be harder for her to meet a man and get married if she already had a kid. But Mom says sometimes you have to trust your instincts, and her instincts told her to have a baby, so she headed to the Lyon’s Reproductive Services, a sperm bank in Baltimore, Maryland.
First Mom had to choose the donor. Apparently this is not an easy thing to do. There are all sorts of things to think about, like hair color, and height, and the donor’s medical history. Even though she’s not religious, Mom wanted the donor to also be Jewish. She figured her parents would have been happy to know their grandchild was a purebred Jew. Frankly, I’m not sure what my grandparents would have thought about their only child going to a sperm bank to get pregnant. In the pictures I’ve seen, they look kind of old-fashioned. But Mom has never said anything about that. Maybe she didn’t think about it because she was too busy trusting her instincts.
Anyway, there were books and books to choose from when it came to picking out a donor. When I was six years old, we had a flood in the downstairs bathroom. Water poured out of the pipe beneath the sink and soaked through everything. We had to rip all the tiles and wallpaper out, otherwise the bathroom would have gotten all moldy, and I went with Mom to pick out new wallpaper. The saleswoman handed us a few hardbound books, and we sat on a couch in a corner of the showroom and leafed through pages and pages of samples. That’s how I imagine Mom picking out the donor. Except, of course, I’m not sitting there with her. But I picture her on a couch in the corner with a heavy book in her lap, and a stack of books next to her. I imagine her sitting there for hours, poring over each book very carefully, trying to find the perfect match, just like we tried to find wallpaper that would go just right with the tile and the beige rug in the hall. Mom told me that all the donors have to fill out forms about themselves. You can pay extra to see a baby picture or hear a voice sample of the donor. But no matter how much you pay, you don’t get to find out the donor’s name, or where he lives, or see a picture of what he looks like as a grown-up.
So Mom sifted through pages of donor forms with typed-up information—hair color, eye color, freckles, IQ score. Finally she settled on one: Donor 730. He was slender and about medium height. He was Jewish, and had green eyes and brown hair. He wasn’t balding. He had olive skin, tanned easily, and said the person he admired most was his mother, who had raised him by herself. He didn’t know his father. He liked skiing and reading and had gone to an Ivy League college on scholarship. His mother had been healthy her whole life, and he had never had any medical problems beyond the chicken pox. These are the things my mother picked out. I don’t really feel like going into the science of it, but basically that’s how she had me.
So I don’t have a father; I have a donor. But when I was little, it seemed like everyone had a mommy and a daddy. I asked Mom about it, and she said that sometimes mommies don’t match up with daddies, and those mommies have babies by themselves. That made sense for a while. Then my friend Abigail’s mother got pregnant. One day when we were in kindergarten, and it was Abigail’s mom’s turn to pick us up from school, I noticed she was getting kind of fat. She could barely buckle her seat belt across her middle. From the backseat I could see her stomach pressed up against the steering wheel. Even though I knew it wasn’t nice, I leaned over to ask Abigail about it. “How come your mom is so fat?” I said.
Abigail rolled her eyes. “She’s not fat, silly,” Abigail said. “She’s having a baby.”
“Oh,” I said, remembering that that was what happened when women had babies. They got fat first. “How does the baby get in there, anyway?”
“Sex,” Abigail said matter-of-factly.
It was a word I hadn’t heard before. “What’s that?” I asked.
Abigail leaned across the backseat toward me. There was something about her face that made me feel like I was about to learn something incredibly exciting. She lowered her voice. “Well,” she began, “it’s what moms and dads do to make babies.”
I nodded, waiting to hear more, but Abigail’s mother interrupted. “That’s enough, Abigail,” she said.
I got home and Mom met me at the front door. Mom writes every day, but she always stopped when I got home from school. I don’t know what book she was working on that day when Abigail’s mom dropped me off. She held the front door open for me and waved to Abigail and her mother. I shrugged off my backpack and took off my coat and scarf. “Abigail’s mom is going to have a baby,” I announced.
“I know,” Mom said. “It’s going to be a boy.” I wrinkled my nose. A girl would have been better. Mom laughed. “One day you won’t think boys are so bad.”
We walked toward the kitchen for a snack. I always liked a snack when I got home from school. “Mom?” I said. She turned around toward me.
I don’t remember exactly how Mom explained what sex is, but I do know that as soon as she told me, something didn’t quite make sense. “Then how come I don’t have a daddy?” I asked. That was when Mom told me about my donor. She explained that there had been a very nice man who’d known there was a mommy out there who needed his help to have her little girl. She said even though we didn’t know him, we should feel thankful to him because he had given her such an important present. We talked about the donor sometimes, when I felt sad about not having a father, like most everyone else I knew. Mom said the most important thing was that we had each other. “I know most of your friends have two parents, but not everyone does, and it’s okay. Besides, you shouldn’t think of it as not having a father,” Mom said. “Think about how the reason you’re here is because you had a donor.”
But when you’re a little kid, you can’t exactly say that when your friends ask you where your father is. Nobody wants to be too different; at least, I didn’t want to be. Over the next few years, I tried to be like everyone else. I had a best friend named Heidi, and we wore the same clothes, and I made sure I had a denim backpack because everyone had a denim backpack. My hair was long, sometimes braided, but never in pigtails. I learned to swim at camp, even though it seemed an awfully long way to the bottom of the pool and I was secretly scared of sinking in the deep end and not being able to make it back up to the surface. Whenever anyone asked me about my father, I said he lived in Europe. It seemed exotic and sophisticated, and not the bad kind of different. Europe was also far enough away that it made sense that I didn’t see him. And it wasn’t exactly a lie, since it was entirely possible. Who knew where my donor was? Europe seemed as likely a place as anywhere else.
That all changed in fourth grade, when Mom became friendly with my friend Heidi’s mom. By that time, Mom had met Simon. I guess he didn’t care that she already had a kid, because he married her and adopted me. Mom changed our last name from Hoffman to Hoffman-Ross. Then she and Simon had another kid—my brother, Charlie. One night Mom said she and Heidi’s mother were going to go out for a “girls’ night.” I thought Heidi and I should get to go too. We were girls, after all. But Simon rented us a movie and we had to stay home with him and Charlie.
A couple of days later it was Monday. It was Mom’s day to carpool, but we were running late. Mom pulled up in front of the school and Abigail and I dashed out toward our classrooms. We were in different classes. I pulled open the door to my class. Everyone was already sitting down, and our teacher, Mrs. Hould, was writing math problems on the blackboard. The kids all turned to look at me when they heard the door open. As I walked quickly toward my desk, I felt everyone staring at me. I looked across the room at Heidi. She was looking at me, but when she saw me look at her she turned her head and whispered something to the girl next to her. The girl smiled and covered her mouth with her hand as if to hold back laughter. Mrs. Hould had turned back to the blackboard, and I tried to concentrate on what she was writing. Her hand moved quickly across the board. Even though she was writing fast, her writing was straight and neat. My handwriting always looked worse when I tried to write on the blackboard, but I guess Mrs. Hould had had a lot of practice, since she was a teacher. I stared straight ahead at the numbers she was writing so I wouldn’t have to see everyone looking at me.
By lunchtime, everyone knew about my donor. Mom had told Heidi’s mom and Heidi’s mom had told Heidi, and Heidi had told everyone. A couple of the boys started calling me “Science Experiment,” as if there had been some bespectacled guy with crazy hair in a lab mixing colored liquids in glass canisters and shouting “Eureka!” when he made a baby. Even though we were supposed to eat lunch with kids from our own class, I walked my tray over to Abigail’s table so I wouldn’t have to talk about my donor.
“I thought you said your dad lived in Europe,” Abigail said as I sat down. So it wasn’t just my class that knew; it was the entire fourth grade. I swallowed hard so I wouldn’t cry. I knew it shouldn’t matter so much. There were two other kids in my class who didn’t have fathers. Heidi’s own father had just up and left one day, and they never saw him again. And a boy in my class had a father who’d died. That had to be worse than someone who may or may not live in Europe.
“I don’t know where my father is,” I admitted. “I don’t even really have one.” I stood up and left my lunch tray where it was. Suddenly I didn’t feel well. My head hurt and I was dizzy. Abigail called after me, but I kept going straight to the nurse’s office. I told her I felt like throwing up. They always let you go home if you are going to throw up. I lay down on the little cot in the nurse’s room and listened to her call Mom. I imagined Mom sitting at her computer, writing about how to have a baby without involving a man. I closed my eyes and waited for her to come and pick me up.
The name Science Experiment stuck with me through the rest of the school year, but things died down by the time fifth grade started. Still, having a donor was the thing about me that everyone knew. Just like we all knew that Heidi’s mom had gone out on a secret date with the principal. Nobody made fun of me anymore, but I always wished there were a way to go back and make sure no one knew the truth about me.
At first when Mom and Simon announced we were moving, I was really upset about having to leave. The pink house was the only place I’d ever lived. All the people I knew lived nearby. I thought about Abigail and Heidi, and everyone else I’d known for as long as I could remember. I knew the names of almost all the kids in my entire school—not just the kids in my grade. I knew all of the teachers, too. When we moved, I would have to start all over. I went into my room and lay down on my bed. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine walking into school and not knowing anybody. Everyone would be looking at me because I was the new girl, but they wouldn’t know a thing about me. They wouldn’t know there was anything about me that was different or strange. Lying there on my bed, I realized that moving would be a chance to be normal.
The woman from the moving company gave me boxes and bubble wrap, just like she gave to Mom. I took the posters down from the walls and packed my books up. I used the bubble wrap to wrap up the snow globes Simon brought back for me every time he returned from a business trip. It was like packing up memories. I taped up the last box and pressed it closed. Then I sat back on my bed. The room looked different, even with all my furniture still in it. You could almost tell the furniture was empty on the inside, like all the personality of the room was gone. There was a pit in my stomach, which wasn’t what I thought closure would feel like. It was strange how my room would be someone else’s room soon, and I’d be moving into someone else’s old room.
It would be an adventure, like Mom and Simon said, and it would be a fresh start. Nobody would have to know about my donor. I could just blend in like a normal person, in a normal family of four. I stood up from my bed and went to tell Mom that I was done packing, so she could tell the movers to come in and put my boxes and furniture into the truck.