America Has a Sperm Shortage. One Man Is Reaping All the Benefits

·35 min read
Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington
Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington
Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington
Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington

Elaine Byrd wanted a second child. The longing began after a hectic period in 2015, when she’d cared for three children under the age of two: her daughter, Ember, and a relative’s infant twins. Fortunately, Elaine, a kindergarten teacher in the suburbs of Memphis, liked babies. Years earlier, she'd fostered several children. At least with infants, there were no midnight calls from the police, no fights in the street. Instead, there were court dates, doctor appointments, paperwork. Elaine needed more help than Ember's father was willing to give, and after they'd had the twins for a couple months, she left him. Caring for the children was easier on her own, which didn't mean it was easy. One day she drove by a church whose lawn was studded with crosses representing the souls of aborted fetuses. She called the pastor. "In my house there are a couple of babies that could've been aborted," she told him. "Now they're here, and I have to go to work." The next morning at 6:30 sharp, a lady from the church showed up to watch them, and she came back every day after that.

After the twins were returned to their mother's care, Elaine was eager to get pregnant again. By now she knew she didn't need a man to raise a child, but she did need one to help her start the process. She spent a year and a half trying to meet someone the old-fashioned way but didn't have much luck. She asked Ember's father if he'd drop off some sperm at a nearby fertility clinic, but he asked too many questions about custody and child support. There were sperm banks, of course, but to Elaine they seemed so impersonal, not to mention expensive. As her fortieth birthday approached, she worried that her time was running out. Then she remembered this cute girl she knew from the beauty-pageant scene, where Ember had become a top national competitor. Elaine was friendly enough with the girl's mothers, so one day she asked, "How did your baby get here?" She glanced from one woman to the other. "Because I think you had to have some kind of help."

"And she just took me under her wing and told me everything," Elaine said. "All the real, raw details."

Like mattresses and houseplants, sperm donation has been disrupted by the Internet. The market demanded it: Supply at sperm banks is at a historic low, in part because average sperm counts have steadily declined for more than four decades—probably due to environmental factors—and now many men no longer meet the banks' strict standards. And nonwhite donors have always been underrepresented.

As an alternative, many people are turning to social media for direct-to-consumer sperm via Facebook groups like USA Sperm Donation, Real Sperm Donors, and Miracle Baby. Their members include potential donors as well as people who want to get pregnant but don't have ready access to viable sperm: infertile couples, queer couples, trans men, single mothers by choice. In the groups, they seek donations from people like Kristian (six-foot-one, slender, hazel eyes, excellent sperm count, recent STD tests) and Alex (six-foot-three, perfect SAT scores, athletic). Compared with sperm banks, which keep donors anonymous, the men on Facebook are much more open: A donor might show a potential recipient pictures of other children he's conceived, chat with her via DM to see if they vibe, and invite her to join a private Facebook group for the parents of the children he's fathered. And unlike sperm banks, where a single specimen can run upward of $1,000, the Facebook donors generally provide their sperm for free, other than reimbursement for travel and other expenses.

Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington
Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington

The idea of a known donor appealed to Elaine. Ember knew her father, even though she didn't live with him; Elaine wanted her future children to have that opportunity, too. Ideally, she decided, she wanted a donor who would remain in friendly, loose contact with his offspring. By 2018, Elaine was spending hours each day in the Facebook groups, considering potential donors. She learned the subculture's argot and saw hints of the complications that the pageant mom had warned her about. AI meant artificial insemination, typically performed using a soft cup, a vessel that looked like a diaphragm, into which the donor ejaculated. NI stood for natural insemination—i.e., sex, which some donors insisted was the more effective method, since some sperm die when exposed to air. Other donors shipped sperm, but that got expensive: dry ice, overnight delivery. One guy in Atlanta was known as the Uber Donor: He'd jerk off into a cup and send the sample via car service.

Though the groups had tens of thousands of members between them, the donor pool wasn't as big as it initially seemed. Three quarters of Sperm Donation USA's members were people seeking donors, just like Elaine. She discovered that finding the right candidate among the limited options was tricky. There were donors who struck her as genuine: They talked about how they'd joined the groups after watching their friends or sisters struggle to conceive. But some had murkier motivations. From other women, Elaine heard stories of guys who'd ghosted, or turned creepy, or refused to take an STD test. Some would pretend to be okay with AI but, at the last minute, insist on NI.

And then there was this one white man whose name kept popping up. Ari Nagel, forty-six, was tall, with blue eyes, a wide smile, and soft, graying curls. Over the past decade, he'd had more than fifty donor children and was something of a celebrity in the world of sperm donation. He didn't offer his services in the groups because he didn't have to; women sought him out. Dozens of mothers vouched for him online. Elaine, who is Black, appreciated that he was a math teacher and didn't mind that he was white—so was Ember's dad. She looked Ari up on Instagram, where his handle was CuteProfessor, and on Facebook, where it was NicePerson. Almost all the photos featured his donor children—so many beaming, beautiful babies.

In December 2018, Elaine messaged Ari on Facebook. When he didn't reply, she reached out again. "Hey, I've been trying to get up with you for a minute," she wrote. She told him that she had some questions for him.

"Sure," he replied. "U can ask anything."

Ari Nagel grew up in Monsey, New York, home of one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States. He was the fifth of seven children, which wasn't unusual in Monsey. Everywhere around him he saw big, tight-knit families. At the yeshiva he attended as a boy, everyone in the class looked exactly like him: white Ashkenazi Orthodox boys. Everyone around him seemed confident that they knew how a family was supposed to look and behave.

When he was in college, at St. John's in Queens, New York, Ari received a hefty settlement from a motorcycle accident, which he used to travel to dozens of countries across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Seeing so much of the world made it hard to stay religious.

He returned to the city, where, by day, he taught math and computer skills at a City University of New York campus; by night, he went clubbing or rode his motorcycle around the city. His first child, born in 2003, was unplanned: a one-night stand that turned into a fling that led to a pregnancy. Ari married the mother, a woman from the Caribbean, as a kind of courtesy, he said. They kept separate apartments, and every week or so Ari would visit his son, but it was hardly a traditional marriage, and certainly not monogamous on his part.

When his son was a toddler, Ari saw an ad on Craigslist from a lesbian couple seeking a sperm donor. He thought, Why not? Maybe he could conceive a daughter, too. A few weeks later, a single woman he knew needed a donor, and he agreed to help out. He created a profile on the Known Donor Registry, an online list of donors that predates many of the Facebook groups, and over the next few years, he provided sperm to a couple women each year.

He donated in New Jersey, Connecticut, even once in Illinois. When his friends asked why, his answer was simple: He liked to "help women," and they "kept asking." He'd do NI, depending on the vibe, but most of his donations were via AI—simpler, quicker, safer. His wife was like, Why are you helping all these lesbians and not me? So they conceived two more children, both daughters. By 2016, he had fathered twenty-two children. To keep them straight, he created a spreadsheet listing everyone's name and birthday.

That year, the New York Post interviewed him for an article. He thought it was going to be a short piece, but they put him on the front page with an enormous headline—"GREAT BALLS OF SIRE!"—and gave him a nickname that's stuck: the Sperminator.

The article was voyeuristic, unflattering. It made a big point of the fact that some of Ari's donations had happened in public restrooms, and some of the moms came off as shallow and trashy. The Internet exploded with fascination and scorn. His parents were horrified. They had adopted a don't-ask-don't-tell policy toward his procreative activities; now their whole community knew. His wife was shocked. She'd known he had fathered children with other women but didn't know how many. Ari was largely unruffled. In the ensuing weeks, he received hundreds of messages via Facebook. There were women all over the world, it turned out, who wanted his help conceiving. The Sperminator was only just getting started.

In the Sperm Donation USA group, Elaine learned things about sperm that amazed her. For an abundant, renewable resource, it was surprisingly tricky to obtain. She learned that she was lucky to be seeking a donor in the U. S. In many countries—including Germany and France—clinics wouldn't inseminate single mothers or lesbians; in Japan, only married heterosexual couples could legally use donor sperm. The sperm crisis in the United Kingdom was so extreme that some experts advocated harvesting samples from the recently dead.

Elaine and Ari chatted sporadically throughout 2019. She learned that he'd been married three times, all of them "marriages of convenience," as he put it: first to the woman from the Caribbean; then to a religious woman who felt it was important for her child to be born in wedlock; then to a woman overseas, to comply with local laws regarding artificial insemination. By the end of the year, Elaine had decided she was ready to conceive a donor child. She arranged for Ari to visit her in Tennessee in February 2020. He said he'd give her the donation after visiting newborn twins he'd helped conceive in Louisville, then stay with another of his donor children's mothers in Nashville.

Elaine dropped Ember off with her mother and headed to the hotel where they planned to meet. As she waited for Ari to show up, she was queasy with nerves. She'd readied the insemination kit that her pageant friend had suggested she order: the soft cup, the syringe, all of it plastic-smelling and impersonal.

When Ari arrived, he was so casual, acting as if they'd known each other for years. They sat on the couch and chatted. Then he went into the bathroom and, a few minutes later, came out with the cup. Elaine went into the bedroom and used the syringe to insert the sample. She raised her legs because everyone in the groups said that would help speed the sperm along. Ari seemed much less weirded out than she was; he made the strange situation seem normal. She finally started to relax. After they talked for a while, with her legs sticking up in the air, Ari said he was too tired to visit the other mother. Maybe he'd just spend the night here, get some of that good hotel breakfast in the morning. He took off his shoes and lay down in the bed next to Elaine. "My whole mind was circling, like, What is he doing?" she told me. "He could have slept on the pull-out couch." In the morning, they had sex. She wanted to, less out of physical desire than because she thought it might improve her chances of getting pregnant.

She hoped to have good news by March, but instead she was admitted to the hospital with what the doctor said was pneumonia—though in retrospect she thinks it was Covid. In April and May, she tried to schedule more visits with Ari, but she said he was upset that her illness had altered her cycle. He told her, she said, that it had been "a waste of time."

Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington
Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington

As the rest of the world shut down, Ari seemed to speed up. Now that he was teaching remotely, he was free to help women most anytime; by the end of the year, he had twenty-one more children, with thirty more on the way in 2021. Though he was a prolific texter, Elaine struggled to make concrete plans with him. He was always jetting off to freeze embryos in Argentina or to visit an IVF clinic in Russia or to attend a birthday party in Orlando. It felt to her like having another flaky boyfriend. Still, she appreciated how well he understood the complexities of conception. He told her which apps to download, helped her keep track of her cycle. Sometimes it seemed as if he had a better sense of when she'd ovulate than she did.

Attempting to get pregnant as a single woman during a pandemic was isolating, but the Facebook communities helped. Elaine tried to verify the information she came across online by reading peer-reviewed studies on JSTOR. Other women began to DM her, seeking advice. Soon she became a moderator for Sperm Donation USA, the most popular donation group on Facebook (and not to be confused with the unaffiliated but near-identically named USA Sperm Donation). Coaching women through the process took up hours of her day. Most of the other moderators were donors, though none of them as prolific as Ari. In public postings, they talked about wanting to help women. In private messages, however, they often slipped into a macho posturing that made Elaine roll her eyes: trying to impress one another with the volume of their donations, telling stories about the "hot girls" they were "helping." "It's a lot of penis wars," Elaine told me. She could tell that some of the men were envious of Ari's fame—and his productivity. Although Ari co-moderated a couple Facebook groups, he was too busy donating to post very often. Once, another moderator sent her a dick pic with a message: "Hey Elaine, I'm bigger than Ari, right?"

The groups got hectic in the summer, when the pandemic exacerbated the sperm-bank shortage and more people turned to Facebook. Some of the moderators couldn't handle the growing attention. The USA Sperm Donation crew had once been friendly with the Sperm Donation USA crew; now they were engaged in a bitter feud, with donors from one group trying to take down the most popular posters from the other. A guy uploaded a video of another donor having sex. One donor called another man's wife and informed her that he'd been performing NI. The moderators of the warring factions attempted to recruit new men from all corners of the Internet, each striving to have the most members. One of the moderators, a veteran from New Jersey, started several new groups: Proven Sperm Donors, Natural Sperm Donors, LGBTQ Sperm Donation. The whole thing struck Elaine as absurd. Wasn't it better to have a small number of reliable donors than a huge number of unvetted strangers? Her primary role as a moderator was to keep the creeps out, a task that got trickier as hundreds of men clamored to join the groups every day. She looked at each one's profile, trying to suss him out. Had he fathered other children? Was there any evidence that he was into creepy sexual stuff? Was he in it for the right reasons?

The first time I talked to Ari, via Facebook, he offered to inseminate me—jokingly, I think. We met in person one night this past summer, when he texted me at midnight, from LaGuardia Airport in Queens. He'd been helping a woman in Dallas and now was heading straight from the airport to midtown, where a woman named Essence was ovulating. He was sure it wouldn't be a problem if I tagged along. She needed to hit her peak fertility window, so she wasn't about to be picky.

Ari emerged from his black Chevy SUV wearing a lilac polo shirt and white Crocs. I asked him whom we were visiting. "I may have met her before, or this may be the first time," he said. He had a strong New York accent and looked a little rumpled with fatigue. He pulled up the woman's Facebook profile and squinted at her picture: a round-faced Black woman with braids coiled on the top of her head.

On the third floor of her building, a woman with long spirals of mermaidy hair—Leandra, Essence's wife—let us into an apartment so tiny there wasn't room for a chair. The women had been about to go to bed when Ari replied to Essence's message. Now the air was charged with a purposeful feeling.

"I can't believe it. You're here. You came!" Leandra squealed.

"Well, not yet," Ari said. "This is the foreplay!" As soon as we entered the room, he seemed to become full of antic energy and unable to keep from rattling off dirty jokes.

Essence laughed. "You know who you remind me of? Don't take this offensive," she said. "Borat."

"Or Mr. Bean," Leandra said.

For a moment, Ari seemed wounded, but he quickly recovered and asked for the WiFi password. "I don't want my porn buffering," he said. "I'm gonna Google 'Black lesbians!' " He disappeared into the bathroom.

Essence told me that she'd found Ari by searching Facebook for free sperm donors. "Some female mentioned him, and I was like, Is this real? I did my research, I saw him on YouTube, and I saw him on Maury and I saw him on Dr. Oz." Ari had been her top choice, but he was so busy. In the meantime, she'd arranged to meet up with other donors, but they'd ghosted. Or they were furtive and silent. Or they asked for a tip. She was trying to make a baby, a joyous thing, but these men made her feel as if she were doing something sleazy. Ari, though, was so friendly, happy to stand around chatting. "He helps women of different races have kids, and I think that's wonderful," Leandra said. "He helps people bring life onto this earth."

Essence showed me the at-home insemination kit she'd ordered from Amazon. "They make it hard to find," she told me. "They prefer you to go to a doctor." This was her sixth attempt at getting pregnant with donor sperm: You hoped for the best, got disappointed, and then you rallied yourself to try again. "I'm not medically trained, so I'm getting all my information from the Internet," she said.

The bathroom door creaked open and Ari emerged. "I left the cup on the sink," he said as he hustled me out the door so the women could complete the insemination.

We drove around Manhattan trying to find a club where a friend of his supposedly had bottle service. I asked if he'd actually Googled "Black lesbians" in the bathroom. "Well, yeah," he said. "They were a cute couple. I thought it would've been nice if they'd shared pictures with me. Sometimes they offer, if they want to feel like they're participating in some way." A cluster of college-aged students in small outfits trotted across the street as Ari watched them dispassionately. "I just ejaculated, so the motivation is gone," he said.

It was nearly 2:00 a.m. His phone dinged. He looked at it and sighed. Somewhere in Brooklyn, a woman was ovulating.

In June 2020, Elaine again met Ari in New York, where she inserted a soft cup in the stifling back seat of her car, hidden behind a towel. It didn't take. By this point, she and Ari were talking every week. They discussed the logistics of getting her pregnant, but sometimes they just chatted. Elaine told him about Ember's pageants, and he shared stories about his many donor kids and their mothers. "I think he found me easy to talk to," Elaine said.

His life puzzled her. He didn't seem to have a fixed address; he was always bouncing around, crashing at a friend's, traveling for an IVF cycle. He spent two nights a week with the daughters he'd conceived with his first wife. Then there were the other two wives, though as far as Elaine could tell, they didn't have much involvement with Ari. A rabbi had divorced him from the religious woman, and although he was still technically married to the woman overseas, that didn't seem to trouble him. Through moderating the Facebook group, Elaine had heard about a number of nontraditional arrangements. Ari, though, was an outlier, not just because of the sheer number of children he'd fathered, but also because he kept in touch with many of them for years afterward; some he FaceTimed with nearly every day.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

The more she learned, the more she questioned some of his choices. "He lives a very carefree life, the ultimate bachelor life," Elaine said. "He gets to bounce from house to house, and he doesn't have to commit to anything or anybody. I know he wants to believe he's a father, but he doesn't have to be a father. He's more like—just a dad." In July, they met up again, this time in Louisville, where Ember was competing in a pageant. By this time she was working with a reproductive endocrinologist, taking fertility meds and getting her follicles checked, but she still didn't conceive.

She arranged to meet with two other donors who were well regarded in the Facebook groups to see what her other options were. She explained to them the arrangement she was looking for: The child knows you're the father, you visit once a year for their birthday, and every now and then I'll take us all on a trip. They were like, Sure! Whatever you want! But both men were NI donors, and she sensed that once the sex was over, they'd be out of the picture. Ari started to look better by comparison. She could count on him to stay involved. At the very least, he would never turn down a free vacation.

In November, Elaine traveled to New York for another attempt. Ari wanted to meet at the Museum of Natural History. He arrived two hours late with two of his biological daughters, who clung to his hands like they'd never let go. The girls watched him with an intensity that made Elaine nervous. The girls obsessed over their dad's attention so intently that they didn't even care about seeing the dinosaur bones. When he went into the bathroom with the soft cup, they fretted until he returned. She thought, Your mom's going to have to make you a little bit stronger, because otherwise you're in for a world of hurt. Any man who divided his affection into so many pieces was bound to leave some people feeling hungry.

He returned and handed the cup to Elaine. She took it into the women's restroom. She lay down on the blanket she'd brought and lifted her legs to insert the syringe. As she waited, a woman came in and asked her if she was okay. Elaine reassured her that she was just fine.

Two weeks later, when her period didn't come, she knew it had happened at last: She was pregnant.

The day after our visit to midtown, Ari and I met up at the apartment of a friend of his in Queens. It was the Jewish holiday Tisha B'Av and his friend was fasting, but Ari had lunch at Shake Shack. He told me that he's close to his parents, who are still devout, although they vocally disapprove of his lifestyle. His father frets that they didn't give him enough attention as a child; his mother tells him that he's bringing shame to the family. "Why can't you just be normal?" she says sometimes. Ari has tried to get them to bond with some of his dozens of donor children, but they aren't interested. "I hope I'm a better grandparent to my kids' children than they are to mine," he said.

The wider world didn't always get it, either. After the Post story ran, the New York State Department of Health sent him a letter informing him that running an unlicensed sperm bank was illegal. (Nothing ever came of it.) In 2018, Israel banned Ari from donating sperm there, citing a law requiring that donors accept the responsibilities and obligations of a father. As Ari saw it, he was doing just that, even if he was doing it for dozens of children at the same time. He appealed all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled against him; the minister of health ordered clinics to destroy all remaining vials of his frozen sperm. He found ways to keep donating there anyway. Last year, to help a woman who already had a kid by him and wanted another, he tried to donate under his brother's name. He borrowed his brother's passport, figuring it was better if he didn't ask permission first. "He doesn't want to know," Ari said. "If I tell him, he has to tell his wife, and that's going to get messy." The clinic got suspicious and notified Ari's brother, who then called Ari. By then the clinic had threatened to call the police and arrest the woman, but ultimately it backed off.

Ari admitted he was willing to bend rules that he saw as unfair or illogical. The system seemed set up to promote a certain kind of family—heterosexual, nuclear—and if you didn't fit that mold, everything was harder and more expensive. To help simplify the process for prospective mothers he donated to, he'd sign affidavits stating that they lived together, shared bank accounts, whatever. Sure, it was a lie, but it wasn't illegal. If you told a clinic you were a donor, not a partner, they might throw up all sorts of roadblocks: medical tests, psychological counseling, a meeting with a lawyer. Some clinics in the U. S. had gotten wise to him, which made the process trickier. He advised women to find a clinic that wasn't familiar with him.

As Ari drove us into Manhattan, he explained that his life wasn't as carefree as Elaine assumed. For one, he was financially strapped. Five mothers with nine of his biological children between them had sued him for child support; half his mediocre academic paycheck was garnished to pay those bills. "It wasn't the poorest mothers who sued me," he told me. Anonymous sperm-bank donors typically can't sue for custody or be sued for child support, but DIY donors have no such protections; in many states, courts won't honor agreements that attempt to absolve the donor of responsibility.

It saddened him sometimes that he couldn't provide financial support to all of the children he'd fathered and to their families. He'd cosigned a car loan for one struggling couple, but after a few months they stopped making payments, and he received an $8,000 bill that was due this week. There was no way he could pay it. He didn't hold it against the couple; they were planning an Orlando vacation together, in fact.

Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington
Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington

Some of the mothers begged him to be more judicious about whom he donated to: Maybe don't give sperm to, say, the eighteen-year-old living in a homeless shelter. Other men in the Facebook groups, concerned about being sued for support, would ask to see women's pay stubs and screenshots of bank account balances before they'd provide a donation. But Ari felt that it wasn't really his place to judge who should or shouldn't be a mother. Take that woman who'd been homeless—she was in a much better place now, married and expecting her second child.

Ari's cavalier attitude sometimes resulted in serious complications. In 2019, he donated sperm to an American woman who used a donor egg and a surrogate in Ghana. Everything went according to plan—until the pandemic hit. The baby was born in Ghana in May 2020 while the woman was stuck back in the U. S., unable to fly to collect her child. Months later, she'd finally made it to Ghana, but now officials were telling her she couldn't leave with the baby since she wasn't its biological parent. She and her sister called Ari every day, begging him to come to Ghana to help them sort it all out. They had an appointment at the embassy in a few weeks. Ari was pretty sure he would go, but he hadn't bought the plane ticket yet.

Ari thought the best quality he could give his donor children was not his height or his mathematical abilities but his disposition. He was a genuinely happy person. At times, he seemed bizarrely free of worry. Many anecdotes he told hinted at the drama that comes when you mess around with elemental forces: sex, babies, family, money. And at the center of it all, there was Ari, skimming along the surface, surrounded by intensity but never quite touched by it. His family loved him but didn't understand him. As a counterbalance, he'd surrounded himself with people who appreciated the risks he took and who showered him with affection for it. Outside the sperm world, Ari was suspect, strange—but inside it, he could be benevolent and admired and rewarded with as many hugs as he wanted. Sometimes he struck me as a person who could love broadly but not deeply. If so, he'd found a remarkable way to put that deficit to use.

In Harlem, we met up with Devin Biggs-Vanderhorst and Shawn Vanderhorst, a warm, teasing couple, and their daughter, Khari-Avia, an inquisitive four-year-old who was conceived with Ari's sperm. "Dad!" Khari-Avia squeaked when Ari stepped in the door, flinging herself at his knees. As we walked to Central Park, Ari texted with a throuple who were driving down from Connecticut to retrieve a donation. Ari volunteered Devin and Shawn's bathroom for the job. "Wouldn't be the first time," Devin said, laughing.

Before Covid, Devin and Shawn regularly socialized with other parents who'd used Ari's sperm. They referred to one another's children as their nieces and nephews. The women called themselves Ari's baby mamas, and around sixty of them were members of a private Facebook group where they planned playdates and got into fights and talked about what it was like when a teacher asked their kid to draw a picture of his family and he needed extra sheets of paper to fit everyone in. Some of the families had joint birthday parties and went on group vacations; women banded together to throw a new mother a baby shower. "We will always support each other, because so many people in the outside world are against us," Devin told me. "Nobody else knows what it's like to be an Ari baby mama."

Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington
Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington

I thought of these complex, shifting, supportive arrangements later, when I watched Ari's appearance on The Dr. Oz Show, where Dr. Oz furrowed his brow and told Ari he was "twisting" the family, "the building block of society." Who's to say what a family is? I wanted to ask Dr. Oz.

In the park, as Ari dashed around with Khari-Avia, Devin told me that she hadn't really known her own dad. Recently, Shawn, a Facebook wizard, had tracked down Devin's paternal grandmother. Not only was she still alive; she lived just a few streets away. Devin had gone to her ninety-second-birthday party, and although it was a happy occasion, she couldn't stop thinking about all the missed years. She didn't want Khari-Avia to grow up not knowing her father, having that question mark at the center of her identity. "Ari's an amazing guy. He loves his children, and he also gives us the choice to raise them in the structure we want. He's not invasive," she said. She glanced over at Ari, who was handing out water balloons to a group of children whose glee teetered on the edge of hysteria. "She understands he's not an in-home dad. She understands that he's got other kids. But she knows her dad is there if she needs him."

The throuple called to let Ari know they'd arrived. "I'm in the park!" he bellowed into the phone. "It's romantic! Bring your wife, bring your girlfriend. I'll bend you over a bench; we'll make a baby!" Devin glared at him, but he was oblivious. "He has these Ari-isms," she said apologetically. "But I cringe."

When we found the throuple outside Devin and Shawn's apartment, they were giddy with anticipation. LaKeisha Dukes, a bus driver for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, had brought her wife and girlfriend along for the insemination. LaKeisha was wearing Crocs, just like Ari. "This kid is gonna be a nerd," she said.

We crowded into the apartment and waited for Ari to produce his sample. LaKeisha looked at the poster-sized photo of newborn Khari-Avia on the wall, and her face softened. She explained that she'd been a co-parent before, but when the relationship ended, so did her connection with the children. It was devastating. She'd considered having a kid herself, but she presented in a masculine way and was self-conscious about how pregnancy would look on her body. And then, at age forty-one, she thought: That's not a good enough reason.

Ari presented LaKeisha with the cup, and afterward her wife ushered her outside and back into their SUV. They'd made a cozy nest for her in the back seat with pillows and a sex toy, because they'd heard having an orgasm helps the sperm find their way.

"The fact that you used our bathroom means we have a connection," Devin said as LaKeisha got settled. "Listen, what's meant to happen will happen."

"No!" Ari said, suddenly stern. "I wasn't meant to have ninety kids. You have to make it happen."

Elaine's C-section was scheduled for early August. "You've had such an easy pregnancy," Ari had told her during one of their weekly talks. She wanted to laugh, or cry. She'd been in a car accident and was on bed rest for weeks, but she hadn't bothered to tell Ari. "We're not in a relationship, and it's not as if he cares," she said.

He'd flown to Memphis for Memorial Day, and she'd booked a hotel room for the weekend. At one point she'd taken a call, and Ari said he'd mind Ember and her cousins. He distracted them with water balloons. When they burst against the popcorn ceiling, he laughed as loudly as the kids did. Ember put a balloon under her shirt—"Now I'm pregnant," she'd said. Elaine had tried to keep the stress from showing on her face, but it must've been visible anyway. Ari had told her to relax, but of course the room wasn't in his name. "Then he got in the shower and went to bed," Elaine said. "There was pizza and balloons everywhere. That's his life."

Ari kept saying he wanted to attend the birth, but she couldn't tell whether he was serious. She could designate only one person to join her in the room and was afraid that if she picked him, he'd be hampered by Covid restrictions and she'd be giving birth alone.

When I visited her in Memphis, Elaine, who's now forty-one, was eight months pregnant and still as busy as ever. I met her and her daughter at a sandwich shop, where Ember chattered about an upcoming pageant. She'd been working on her talent act, which involved sleight of hand, a cape that lit up, and some flips. Elaine's mother stopped by the restaurant to take Ember to vacation Bible school. As her mother walked in the door, Elaine shot me an uneasy look. "I haven't told her that I'm pregnant yet," she said. Startled, I kept mum. After her mother left, she said she didn't feel up to the drama of explaining the pregnancy. "Maybe she knows and isn't saying anything, either," she mused. "Or she just thinks I gained weight."

Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington
Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington

Elaine had heard that the fire department might install car seats, so after we picked up diapers at Walmart, we cruised by the local fire station. "Let's go flirt with some firemen," she said. We failed to get her car seat installed—apparently there were liability issues—but Elaine was unbothered. After it got dark, we picked up Ember, and on the car ride home she talked about Ari. "He's my brother's father," she informed me solemnly. Elaine was still deciding what to name her son. She knew that some other moms gave their kids names that nodded at Ari's participation—Ariella, Accari, Arianna—or else they used his middle name, Lee. She was concerned that if he did end up coming for the birth, the hospital would ask him to sign the birth certificate, as he had for a number of his other children. She worried that would pose logistical problems down the line, and plus it felt more intimate than the situation warranted. "I'm definitely not going for that," she said.

A couple weeks later, Ari flew to Memphis. His plane landed at 2:00 a.m. and he didn't want to disturb Elaine, so he parked his rental in front of her house and fell asleep. Half an hour later, he heard her car. She'd gone to pick up Ember's babysitter. At 5:00 a.m., Elaine and Ari went to the hospital.

Once there, things went better than she'd expected. Ari made sure her phone was charged, took note of the medications they gave her, inquired about side effects. He kept checking to see if she was comfortable. It calmed her down, having him there. When the nurse, mistaking them for a couple, asked if they already had any kids, they looked at each other. "I've got ninety," Ari said. The nurse chuckled, like she'd heard that one before.

Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington
Photo credit: Andrew Hetherington

Ari had been thinking that it might soon be time for him to retire from the sperm gig. He'd just turned forty-six, the age his father stopped having children. Sperm quality declines with age, which meant his children could be at a slightly elevated risk for birth defects. Retiring would mean there wouldn't be that many more births in his future. Instead of frantically generating life, perhaps it was time for him to sit back and take stock of the lives he'd created: a hundred kids charging through toddlerhood, elementary school, puberty, adolescence.

With Ari having so many children, Elaine assumed he would be an old pro in the delivery room. "I thought he would know everything," she told me. "I had no idea he would be so green, so excited." The baby boy was born at 5:17 p.m., weighing a healthy nine pounds. Ari babbled enthusiastically, talking about the baby's little nose, his abundant hair, how he'd grow up to be an athlete. Before Ari left the next day, he told Elaine he wanted to attend more births. "That was an experience," he said.

By the time she was discharged, Elaine still hadn't decided what she wanted to call the baby, but a few hours later she texted Ari. She'd settled on a name: Emerson Lee Nagel Byrd.

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