Six years on from becoming a sperm donor, Tom Sainsbury relishes his uncle-style role to a six-year-old girl and five-year-old boy. But while the Kiwi comedian sees no resemblance when people say the kids look like him, there are some traits he can't deny are his DNA.
"The eldest is a real performer, so I wonder where that came from!" laughs Tom, 41, who donated to help a lesbian couple start a family. "She recently did her first dance performance, which was so beautiful to watch. And the boy loves chocolate and chips, so I wonder where that came from too! He's just had his fifth birthday and is starting school. These are huge life things I get to watch and enjoy."
The kids introduce Tom to new people as "my donor", which isn't a family dynamic the Snapchat sensation envisioned growing up in a traditional family in Matamata. It wasn't until a Friends storyline involved a sperm donor that Tom realised the possibility, but fatherhood seemed far-fetched as he came to terms with his sexuality.
Coming out to his parents via email in his twenties, they were "wonderfully supportive", says the Snack Masters NZ host and former Shortland Street actor. "They had grandchildren through my siblings, so the pressure was off!"
As he explored his sexuality, Tom dated a woman, but as struggling artists, they were so busy trying to pay for food and rent that parenthood never came up. It wasn't until his early thirties that he considered donating sperm, after hearing about a couple needing a donor.
"They pitched it like being an uncle figure because they think it's important I'm present in the children's lives, so there's no mystery," he explains. "I come to birthdays, hang out and go to school shows."
While Tom's boyfriend at the time was hesitant, they had "deep talks" before Tom proceeded. The squeamish star admits the medical tests were daunting, while making sperm deposits was a "crazy, bonkers experience".
He tells, "It's comedic. Everyone knows what's happening – that you're masturbating in a designated room. You do your deposit, seal it in this biohazard packet, then hand it to them fast, so they can freeze it. It's weird!"
Meeting the kids for the first time was also a strange experience. "Someone else who donated sperm told me about the emotional time he met them, so I thought I'd be crippled with emotions, but while I thought she was cute, there was no huge paternal feeling. The attachment with both children grew over time."
Tom sees the kids once a month and they're "filling my life with wonderfulness", he says. "I get to hang with them but still have the freedom of travelling and doing everything I do, without any guilt. The biggest challenge is defining the relationship. It's little things, like, do you discipline them?"
Although Tom was open to the idea of one day raising kids himself when he donated, he no longer sees that happening, chuckling that he and his boyfriend of five years, Jacob, love their Sunday mornings too much for parenthood.
It was "love at first sight" when the pair met and bonded over their love for fine things. "Our house is full of beautiful ceramics!" says Tom, adding that Jacob, who works for Auckland Council, also has a sharp sense of humour.
"He makes me laugh so much. He's constant joy and smiles."
Jacob, 32, accompanies Tom to the kids' birthday parties and has also been supportive of Tom's professional dreams, most recently his new film, the psychological thriller Loop Track, which follows his character Ian as he embarks on a multi-day hike with mysterious strangers. Now in cinemas, it's Tom's directorial debut and honours his love of the horror genre. "I liked the isolation, the lack of cellphone coverage and the spooky, vulnerable position that being with strangers puts you in."
Although the scariest part was Tom having to juggle directing and acting at the same time – a challenge he won't take on again. "I'd choose directing!"
Meanwhile, Tom's preparing to release the second season of his podcast Small Town Scandal, and he's teaming up with comedian pals Chris Parker, Brynley Stent and Kura Forrester for the Christmas show Christ! What A Night! at Auckland's Q Theatre.
He's also pursuing opportunities in the US, where Loop Track screened at film festival Screamfest and where he shared an awkward encounter with superstar Katy Perry.
"I pushed my face against hers for a selfie, sweated all over her and she went, 'Yuck!' She softened straightaway, then asked if I was Australian and I was so embarrassed from the sweating, I said yes. We talked about Australia, then she asked my friends if they were Australian too and they went, 'We're all from New Zealand!' Katy was like, 'Wait, you're from New Zealand?' Then she left!"
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