Photo illustration by Megann Galehouse.
I was a junior in high school when my parents told me the truth about my biological father. Truth is, they didn’t really know.
It was a fall afternoon after an extremely ordinary day at school. My mom and dad shuffled into my bedroom, perched themselves on the edge of my bed and told me we needed to talk. I dragged my attention away from Facebook and tried to make a joke about not needing the birds and the bees speech anymore, but neither of them laughed.
My mom cleared her throat and explained they had struggled to conceive children for years, attempting adoption and in-vitro fertilization that never panned out. This wasn’t news to me; I knew they’d had trouble conceiving, and I’d heard my entire life how blessed they were that I was born.
I silently waited for my mom to continue, completely unaware of where this was going. After a short and uncomfortable pause, she told me the biggest secret of my short 16 years of life: my parents had used anonymous sperm donors to conceive both me and my then-12-year-old brother.
My typically boisterous dad, who can carry hour-long conversations with complete strangers and whose loud, booming laughter can be identified from miles away, was, for once in my life, completely silent and stoic while he waited to see my reaction. My mom’s eyes kept flicking back and forth between us, like she was waiting for one of us to shatter into a zillion pieces.
I was stunned for a few awful seconds. The room felt uncomfortably hot for autumn, and for some unknown reason, I felt embarrassed. Cutouts from magazines and photos of my friends examined me from my tacky teenager bedroom as I stared behind my parents’ heads, thinking, “This is something from a soap opera. This must have been in an episode of ‘Dawson’s Creek.’ This kind of stuff doesn’t happen in real life.”
I felt like I should have had some sort of “Dawson’s Creek” reaction. My parents, the two people I trust more than anyone in the universe, just revealed that I’d been lied to for 16 years. My biology, the literal blood in my veins, was a mystery, and I had to accept that my entire existence was based on a secret science project.
Instead, I just brushed it off like they had just told me that the Reds had won or dinner was ready. My head was whirling, but I wasn’t angry or upset like I thought I should be.
“OK, that’s fine,” I said. “Dad’s still my dad as far as I am concerned; this really doesn’t change anything.” Somehow I managed not to throw an Emmy-worthy tantrum.
I rationalized it. My parents said they didn’t tell me earlier because they wanted to make sure I could handle it. OK, that makes sense. I cried when I was 10 and found out Santa wasn’t real. It follows that they would wait to tell me my biological father wasn’t real either.
My parents both released their breaths and hugged me, saying they loved me and were proud of me and not to tell my brother just yet. I was too embarrassed to ask any questions, and they seemed happy not to dwell on it. The after-school special was done. The credits were rolling. We moved on like it hadn’t happened.
After that, we didn’t talk about it much. I occasionally wondered about my bio-father; what he looked like, what shows he watched, if he liked to read. I wondered if I had any half-siblings, whether they knew about their conceptions, if I’d ever met any of them without realizing it. I’d read stories about people who found their bio-fathers through registries and DNA tests and wondered if I could do the same.
But I didn’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings, so I didn’t talk about my questions or follow through on my research. I just locked it up and kept it deep down inside, where it festered and gnawed at me for years. As time passed, it manifested as anger toward my bio-father, which in turn evolved into some deep-seated bitterness. I would self-deprecatingly refer to myself as a “catalog kid,” whose bio-father did you-know-what into a cup for money and promptly forgot about her. I didn’t realize then what a huge waste of time and energy it is being angry at someone who doesn’t know you exist.
Before I continue, let’s get the “which dad are you talking about” stuff out of the way. One phrase in the donor community I find really upsetting is “social dad.” I’m not kidding. The technical term for the man who taught me how to ride a bike, change a tire and enjoy a good sci-fi movie is “social father.” It’s like he’s just for show, as if I just keep him around so others think I had a “normal” conception. I don’t even like calling my biological father my “birth father.” He wasn’t there at my birth. My dad waited by my mom’s side through her entire labor, and as she was sleeping, he held me for 14 hours and wouldn’t let me go. So forgive me for not using the “technical” terms in this article, but from here on, the name for the man who donated sperm for my conception is bio-father, and the name for the man who raised me to be the person I am today is, and always will be, Dad.
Fast forward to three years later.
The New York Times had just released an article titled “One Sperm Donor, 150 Offspring.” You can imagine what the article was about, and needless to say, it stirred up a whole new host of issues for me. This may not have been my bio-father (trust me, I checked), but he might as well have been. How many men have gone to these clinics to make a quick buck again and again, I thought, without considering they are fathering real offspring? The article discussed facets of being donor-conceived that I hadn’t thought of: latent genetic diseases, hundreds of half-siblings and even rare cases of accidental incest. I decided then that I couldn’t just sit and wonder. I had to know.
My first step was joining the Donor Sibling Registry. The DSR is a website that was started in 2000 after its creators, Wendy Kramer and her donor-conceived son, discovered how hard it is to track down an anonymous sperm donor and how many people wanted that option. The DSR is now one of the foremost registries for sperm and egg donors to connect with their offspring and for offspring to connect with each other. According to its website, it now has more than 30,000 members.
I interviewed Kramer so that I could get an idea of the industry and community as a whole. She told me how the DSR was started — when her son found himself in a situation very similar to mine — and where it’s going in the future.
“It’s just one of those things. I had a donor-conceived child who was curious, and there was nobody to help us. Talk about a grassroots organization. We grew from one kid’s curiosity into what we do today,” Kramer says. “In the process, we’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned the issues and how unethical the industry is and how things need to change.”
I started reading and listening to Kramer’s interviews in newspapers and radio stations and learning as much as I could about the system. I always knew what happened at sperm banks in the general sense but not a lot about the specifics. For example, what kind of genetic testing was done? How many children are donors permitted to father? What kind of regulations exist?
Turns out sperm banks in the United States aren’t very well regulated at all. Many countries have national laws and limits on the number of offspring a donor can produce, where the United States doesn’t have any. There was a case in Denmark where a sperm donor passed on a genetic nerve disease, and the government intervened immediately by limiting the number of offspring a donor can produce.
“Denmark saw a problem, jumped in and is trying to fix it,” Kramer says. “And nothing like that happens here, nothing, no regulation whatsoever.”
Maybe it’s because I work in the media or because I felt wronged by the system, but sperm donation has become a bit of an advocacy project for me. It’s something I constantly keep up on, especially as it becomes a more relevant topic in TV shows and movies. A great example is “The Kids Are All Right,” a 2010 movie about two kids who find their anonymous sperm donor, written by Lisa Cholodenko, who also used a donor and who Kramer says is a member of the DSR. This overload of information gave me even more reasons to be angry about my conception, but it also gave me more reasons to keep looking.
I waited a few months to join the registry. The DSR costs $75 a year or $175 for a lifetime membership, and as a sophomore at Kent State, I couldn’t just throw money toward something I wasn’t even sure would pan out. I did browse for listings under my donor’s place of donation, but no one with my donor number had contributed. Eventually I had some extra student loan money, and seven months later, I forked over $75 and joined.
I finally had to start talking to my mom about my curiosity to get my bio-father’s information. I explained that I had a lot of pent-up emotions about my bio-father, and the idea that the man responsible for my life didn’t know I existed was too much for me to handle. I didn’t even like calling him a “donor” at the time. To me, a donation means you don’t receive money in return. Mom understood my feelings and was gracious enough to give me everything she had regarding my bio-father, although it wasn’t a lot.
Donor number 117. Caucasian. Brown hair. Hazel eyes. Of English and Swedish descent. A+ blood type. At the time of his donation, he said he was 6’1” and 158 pounds. He was a student at the time with 20 years of education. This is quite literally all I know about the man who gave me half of my genes. It fits onto two inches of text in the catalog my mom saved all these years.
I posted all of it to the DSR on March 1, 2011 and waited. And waited. And waited some more. I figured once I posted my information, my bio-father or half-siblings would see it and join as well, as desperate to meet me as I was to meet them. But nothing happened.
I went back to demonizing my bio-father. I imagined him sitting in front of his computer and watching my attempts to find him and grimacing in disgust. I imagined him playing with his brood of children, my half siblings with their complete medical histories in his ivory tower with his intact family tree. Most of all, I imagined I saw him out in public everywhere I went, recognizing me from my 130 x 121 pixel registry photo and deliberately ignoring me.
In an act of desperation, my search took me to Facebook. I joined a Facebook group for donors, donor-conceived offspring, mothers of donor offspring and, to my surprise and initial disgust, men considering donating their sperm.
I had conversations with a few of them. They wanted to know how I felt about not knowing half of my medical history, not knowing how many siblings I had or not having a relationship with the guy that gave me half my DNA. One was actually afraid of not having a relationship with his offspring. They didn’t even ask about being paid, they just wanted to give someone the chance to have children. They were not demons at all. They were very human and very excited to help others. It was a side of my bio-father I hadn’t considered. When a woman asked one donor what he intended his donation to be, he responded, “The gift of life to change a woman’s entire world forever.”
I brought this up to my mom, and she gave me some other points to consider. My bio-father was a college student, my age, when he made his donation. Did he tell his family? If he married, did he tell his spouse? Assuming I did find him, would I be harming his family by coming forward? I started to realize that sperm donation is not a one-way street. He may have a good reason for not wanting to meet me just yet. For all I know, he could even be dead.
He could have just been doing a good deed. After all, if he hadn’t donated, then I wouldn’t exist. My parents would have chosen another donor, and Rebecca Reis could have been a rocket scientist or a teacher or a fire fighter and maybe never would have gone to Kent State and become a writer. These words wouldn’t exist without him. I wouldn’t exist without him.
So I stopped being angry. I still wanted answers, but I was done holding a grudge against him.
I wasn’t any closer to finding him, though. I went as far as ordering a DNA test, which was another $289 spent on answers. On a hot day in May, I swabbed the inside of my cheeks and shipped the cells to a company called Family Tree DNA.
When the results came back in June, I was put on another registry, this time with people who shared my DNA. I didn’t have any close relations on the registry. It did get me in contact with some third and fourth cousins, but after lots of email exchanges, none of them seemed to know anyone who could be my bio-father.
Still, the DNA test did answer one valuable question. I ran my DNA results through a program called Promethease (this one was free!), and I obtained the majority of my medical history. Now at least I know I have an extremely low risk of restless legs syndrome (I’m not kidding, it is really that thorough), but I’ve started doing simple monthly eye tests to check for age-related macular degeneration. It was terrifying to see all my risks laid out in front of me at first, but at least I know what to look out for now.
But now that I have my medical history, it’s unclear to me why I still want to find my bio-father. I’m not looking for a dad. I already have a great one of those. I’m not looking for siblings, either, because the brother I have is pretty great, too.
I guess it’s just the feeling of not knowing, of having someone out there with a strong biological connection to me who may not know I exist, that keeps me looking. I just want to know.
“I think it’s an innate human desire to want to know where we come from,” Kramer told me. “Part of deciding who you are is knowing where you come from.”
When I decided to write this story, I knew I’d have to talk to my dad about it. We hadn’t spoken about my conception since that fall evening four years ago because I thought it would anger or upset him. I didn’t expect his actual reaction at all. He said he was proud of me.
“It’s an internal drive that we get to know as much as we can,” he said to me. “You are my daughter, and you’ll always be my daughter. You have my total support to find out as much as you can.”
My little brother is now a junior in high school, and my parents haven’t told him how he was conceived yet. I’m not sure how he’ll handle it, if he’ll lock it up like me or have a Dawson-esque ordeal. What I do know is I’ll be there to support him, answer his questions and maybe help him find his bio-father, if that’s what he wants to do. At the very least, I can share my experience with him, and hopefully spare him the bitterness it took me four years to overcome.blog comments powered by Disqus