In those stories, everything usually works out in the end. But Sachs and Rowe know that real life can be more treacherous, which is why they're trying to establish firm ground rules.

"We want Aaron to be in Roque's life on an emotional level, not a legal level," Rowe says.

"Or any major decision-making level," Sachs adds. He is careful about how he chooses his words—referring to Roque as his biological daughter and to himself as her biological father. "That boundary is self-preservation for me, so my role feels defined."

•••

 

Nearly all donor dads who've chosen to be in their children's lives say it works only when everyone involved speaks frankly about what they do and do not want. Rodney Hill is a tall, rugged 47-year-old partner at Marc Foxx Gallery in Los Angeles who looks like a lumberjack with a taste for Junya Watanabe. A decade ago, the acclaimed photographer Catherine Opie asked him to father her child. Hill, who'd been living it up as a single urban gay man for nearly 20 years, was looking for a life change—but maybe not a complete one. He discussed the idea with Opie for months. "Finally," he recalls, "I told her I'd like to spend one weeknight and one weekend day with the child and keep it at that."

Opie gave birth to a boy, Oliver, now a rambunctious, freckle-faced 10-year-old who is obsessed with fencing, spicy Asian foods, and Project Runway. Rodney and his boyfriend of the past several years, a Japanese graphic designer named Taka, live in the West Adams section of L.A., just a few doors down from the big old Craftsman where Oliver lives with Opie and her partner, Julie. The parents honor the one-weeknight, one-weekend-day agreement, but Oliver toggles freely between homes, often staying overnight in his own room at Hill's house. "It gives Cathie and Julie a chance to go to the movies," says Hill, who often comes home from the gallery to find Taka and Oliver playing Wii in the sunroom or posting pictures using the iPhone app Instagram.

Just after Christmas, Hill spends the afternoon with Oliver poring over Oliver's favorite book, The Secret Life of Food, which shows how to make things like tarantula cookies, flower-pot cakes, and spaghetti and meatballs that look like a head with big googly eyes.

"I wanna make the Jell-O Aquarium sometime," Oliver says.

"We have to do that," Hill replies.

Later Hill drives Oliver to a mini-mall in Japantown for an hours-long shabu-shabu dinner. "When Oliver was little, I made him eat food that I liked, and now he likes it too," Hill explains. "I love holidays like this when we can stay up late together."

On the way home, Opie calls. Hill puts her on speaker.

"You do know Oliver has to be up for a fencing tournament tomorrow at 7 a.m.," she says, sounding mildly irritated.

"We can take him tomorrow," Hill offers.

Oliver jumps in. "Momma, can I stay over Rodney and Taka's tonight?"

"Sure," says Opie, "as long as you guys don't mind feeding him breakfast, picking up his fencing gear, and getting him there by nine."

"Yay!" Oliver explodes with joy.

Hill appears just as happy. He seems to have mastered the fatherhood-lite formula, finding a balance that's mostly fun time with few of the daily headaches of parenting. One reason is that he has ceded all decision-making about Oliver to Opie—Hill wouldn't even let Oliver use Instagram until Opie had cleared it. That was the deal from the get-go, and the arrangement works because Opie and Hill dutifully stick to what they agreed on before Oliver was born, never asking for more (nor less).

But other donor dads aren't as prepared for what comes after their child is born. Just before Christmas, Paul, a gay 43-year-old writer from Brooklyn, pays a visit to his 3-month-old biological daughter, Holland, in a suburb of Boston. He donated sperm to Marti, 37, the wife of his twin sister, Dorothy. (Paul and his family asked that their last names be withheld.) He'd only met Holland the day before and never once touches her during the visit—which seems indicative of his feelings about the situation.

"When Dorothy and Marti first asked me to do this, I said no," he says. "It felt incesty to me, even though Marti would be carrying the baby."

"It felt gross to me too, at first," Dorothy says. "But I ended up loving the idea, partly because of the genetic factor, but also because I really love and admire Paul."

Still, Paul had reservations. "I wanted Dorothy and Marti to be together longer than a year so I knew this wouldn't end unhappily for everyone," he says. But even after Dorothy and Marti passed that mark, Paul wavered. He finally relented after the women told him he could send them his sperm ("We called it the Sample," Paul says, to awkward laughter) by mail. They tried it that way five times but conceived only after using the pass-the-cup method at Paul's Brooklyn pad. When he was in the bathroom producing "the Sample," Paul says, "I tried to shut out any thought of a baby that might come of this."