We received an email from the mother of a donor-conceived child, reeling from an experience of public humiliation when she was trying to get a passport for her baby boy. She asked – and we agreed – that we share her experience. This is National Infertility Awareness Week and it’s apparent that we still have a lot of work to raise awareness about the many ways that families are built. Why should donor-conceived families be publicly embarrassed about how they have created their families?

Here is Jane’s story.

*Jane is a single mom of a toddler son conceived via donor sperm. Before his arrival, she was an avid traveler and has looked forward to sharing her wanderlust with her son. First, he needed a passport.

The “authorized passport application acceptance facility” where Jane lives is in her local post office. She made the appointment as directed by the website and showed up with her little guy, the completed passport application, and a copy of his birth certificate. She waited in line to submit her application and documentation with the other customers who were mailing letters and parcels.

Where’s His Dad?

When she finally got to the counter for her turn, the postal worker asked, “Where’s his dad?” He was correct in asking, as the passport application for a minor specifies that both parents must appear with the child for the application process. It also directs that if one parent cannot be present, they must submit a notarized “Statement of Consent” form. The extra form is a safety mechanism required in the passport process to prevent one parent from “kidnapping” a child to another country without the other parent’s permission.

However, in Jane’s case, there was no father – ever. There is no other parent to fill out the Statement of Consent.

Jane explained to the postal worker that she is a single mother by choice. She showed the birth certificate to the postman and pointed out that there is no father listed. He responded that there “has to be a father” and kept repeating his question, “But where is his dad?”

Jane summoned all her courage in this very-public exchange and said, “I used a sperm donor, so THERE. IS. NO. FATHER.”

She explained to the postal worker – and by now to all the customers who were also listening in! – that families can be created in many ways, including sperm donation. When Jane chose to pursue sperm donation to build her family, she prepared herself to explain this process to her son. She did not realize she would need to use that same language she practiced for a preschooler when speaking with an adult working for the US Postal Service!

Maybe You Need a Note from Your Doctor?

The post office employee kept telling Jane that if the “dad” was not present and she did not have a notarized Statement of Consent from “the dad,” she would need court papers to prove that her son was conceived via donor sperm. Jane explained that there was no court proceeding surrounding sperm donation; therefore, there were no “papers” to share. He replied, “then maybe you need a note from your doctor!”

Keep in mind this conversation took place in front of all the other people in line and at the counter.

May I Speak to Your Supervisor?

At this point, Jane was exasperated and embarrassed. She asked to speak to the employee’s supervisor. The supervisor joined the conversation. However, rather than come to the counter where she was, he stood two aisles away, forcing Jane to speak even more loudly. Now everyone in the post office that day was privy to the details of her son’s conception and birth!

Jane explained to the supervisor that the employee she’d been dealing with was rude and had publicly embarrassed her. The supervisor disagreed, said his employee had not been rude, and that she did indeed need a court paper to prove her claims. Jane repeated her “different types of families” and “no court is involved with donor conception” points to the supervisor. He did not believe her either. Finally, he told her that the presented birth certificate needed to be an original, not a copy and that she would need to make another appointment.

At this point, she was utterly embarrassed and now worried about her son witnessing this encounter. She left in tears and sobbed all the way home.

I’ve Never Felt so Vulnerable.

Jane shared with us that she had never felt so vulnerable about her family.

“For the first time since his birth, I felt that our family was wrong – that there was something less about my family.”

More devastating was the realization that had her beautiful little guy been older, he would have also taken in the message that he was “lesser than” and that he and his mom were the “wrong type” of family. That’s heartbreaking for a mom to process for herself, let alone for her child.

Several weeks later, hoping for a more receptive employee, Jane brought her son’s original birth certificate to a different post office in a neighboring town. Thankfully, this postal employee wasn’t rude. He informed Jane that it used to be enough for single parents to bring an original birth certificate. However, now single parents are required in the passport process to complete another official form documenting why there was no other parent.

Jane has always chosen to be open about how she became a mom. But now, she was feeling unsure about sharing information on an official government document about her son’s conception by sperm donation. However, Jane couldn’t see any other way to obtain a passport for her minor child. So she filled in those details, officially stating to the US government that her child was donor-conceived and turned in the form.

Recently, Jane received her son’s passport in the mail. The application saga was over for her and her son. But since this happened and she’s talked about it with others, she is learning that other single mothers who have conceived through sperm donation are experiencing similar roadblocks to the process.

Was This Situation Necessary?

We are not experts, but when we read the State Department’s website about applying for a minor’s passport, it seems clear to us that Jane’s public humiliation was unnecessary.

Minors under age 16 cannot apply for a passport by themselves. The website states:

Both parents/guardians must authorize the issuance of the child’s passport. The best way to do this is for both parents/guardians to go with the child in person to apply for the passport.

However, the page goes on to ask, (highlighting color ours) “What if both parents/guardians cannot appear in person?”

If you are the sole legal guardian, you will be required to “submit evidence of this with the application. Examples include:

  • Complete court order granting you sole legal custody of the child, such as a divorce decree or other custody order
  • Complete court order specifically permitting you to apply for your child’s passport (photocopy is acceptable)
  • Certified copy of the child’s birth certificate listing you as the only parent 
  • Certified copy of an adoption decree listing you as the only parent
  • Certified copy of the judicial declaration of incompetence of the parent that cannot appear in person
  • Certified copy of the death certificate of the parent that cannot appear in person

If the “other parent” is not able to be found or named as in Jane’s case and that of many other donor-conceived parents’ circumstances, the process includes the following requirements:

You must submit Form DS-5525 “Statement of Exigent/Special Family Circumstances.”

  • Please complete the form with as much detail as possible.
  • We will ask for additional evidence. Examples include: a custody order, an incarceration order, or a restraining order to protect against international parental child abduction.

It is clear to us that the State Department’s website lays out the path for donor-conception parents to pursue a minor child’s passport application. It’s a shame that the first postal worker was not more informed about how citizens form their families AND how families like Jane’s can move through the process.

Check out these recommended children’s books to help you talk about sperm donation with your kids.

What Jane Hopes We Will Do

Please help us raise awareness of this issue with other single parents of donor-conceived children in your circles. We want these parents to be prepared with the proper documentation. They should also consider bringing with them a copy of the State Department’s statement that an original birth certificate listing only one parent.

We can also spread the word to these parents that when their donor-conceived children are learning their family’s story, they also need to be prepared for having their family questioned. Parents can and should equip children for responses that match their family values and empower them to be proud of the family from which they come.

*Jane’s name has been changed to protect her and her son’s privacy.

Originally Published in 2014; Updated and republished in 2021
Image Credits:  Sarebear:) ; Damian Bariexca; S Smith