What's it like to find the donor after years of searching?
When I first started writing about donor conceived people almost two decades ago, most of the stories were about searching. Now, so very many are about finding.
Back then, we talked a lot about shock, confusion, longing, determination, hope and fear. The goal was to find.
But what happens after the find? What is it like to search — for years and years — and then to find? What is found?
Below, three people share their stories and their thoughts.
14 minute read
She learned at age seven from her mother that she had been conceived using donor sperm. She started searching for the donor in her early twenties. All she knew when she started was the name of the clinic her parents had used, the date of her conception and the donor's probable eye colour: blue.
Her parents had been told the donor was a medical student, so she started with that, photocopying every photo in the relevant yearbooks, and creating an info page for each target. She contacted all 600-odd of them by mail or email. She did paternity tests with more than a dozen men who came forward as possibilities. She joined the Donor Sibling Registry. She did genetic testing on 23andme, FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry.
Eventually, a third cousin turned up through genetic testing. Then, with the help of a skilled genetic genealogist, a "search angel," who helped her interpret her genetic results and also use databases and public records, she found the donor.
Her search took 10 and a half years.
"It was a relief. I was happy to know his name, but it was also overwhelming. Because after all those years, you just kind of can't believe it's actually happened, and you now know who the person is.
"He was a doctor. I'd had a page on him, but he was never pictured in the yearbook.
"I didn't have any contact information for him, so I had to reach out to a relative — a first cousin of mine. I sent the cousin an email, but he didn't respond. I later found out that he thought I was trying to extort money. I reached out to that cousin twice. And he then mentioned it to his dad, who's my uncle. And my uncle then notified my donor.
"I had hopes that we would have a relationship, if that's what he wanted. I never wanted to force a relationship. Back then anonymous was the only option — it's not like he chose to be anonymous, there was no picking between being anonymous and being known — I wanted that choice to be his, not the clinic's. And my hope was that he would be open to having a relationship. But if not, I would have been okay with that.
"Even if I had nothing but medical history, heritage and his name, I would have been relieved. But I learned all that, plus I learned about his family. I learned a little bit about some of his kids. I learned about some of his siblings and got to meet them. And it's been nothing but a pleasant experience.
"I'm happy with the man I found. As soon as he found out about me, he was very welcoming.
"I'm happy with the relationship that I have with him and his relatives. There are some that don't want to reach out to me, never have, and that doesn't bother me. That's totally their choice. I just enjoy the relationships with the ones who have reached out.
"When my donor was here in my state for a conference, we got to meet. The donor's siblings were all there and one of the sons. I was really nervous, but as soon as I met them, within minutes, I just felt like I'd always known them. That one meeting was completely satisfying. That was several years ago now.
"We stay in touch through texting. Occasionally we talk by phone. We're on Facebook. I'm in touch with all his siblings too.
"He has four kids. The half-brother I met texted me once after we met but I haven't heard back since. I left it up to him. The other half-brother added me on Facebook and we messaged a bit but not much. One half-sister reached out right away and we talked a lot for several months, then she disappeared. The other half-sister never wanted contact.
"My donor talked about perhaps coming here to visit for a while. My kids are his only grandkids. But that would have been challenging. He'd have wanted to go to school performances and things like that. But my parents come in to visit, and I don't want to step on their toes, especially my dad.
"I wish I'd never had to search for him. I wish he had been more like, maybe not a family friend, but just someone that I knew growing up. Maybe not a really close relationship, but at least I knew who he was.
"It's not because I feel like I missed out on time. And I don't really feel like my search was a burden. I just think it would be a lot better to always know that piece of myself. Probably from the moment I was born.
"I don't miss the search at all. I'm glad that it's over."
He found out when his grandmother spilled the beans by accident in his twenties. At first, he did nothing. Then he let his dad know that he knew, and that he wanted to find the donor. His dad said he understood, that he'd probably do the same in his place. They never talked about it again.
He'd signed up on 23andme and FamilyTreeDNA, used word of mouth and the media. But years passed with no leads. His search slowed. His dad passed away.
Then his daughter was born. He wonders now if there might have been some connection between her imminent birth and his renewed interest in the search. He signed up with Ancestry, and almost immediately got a fairly close match and an extensive family tree. He was able to connect the dots: his close match was the donor's half-sibling, his "half-aunt."
Everything fit. The dates. The place. The face. He'd found him.
The search took nine years.
"From the time I had the Ancestry match pop up to the time that I was 99 percent certain it was him was less than an hour. The family tree was so conclusive and the resemblance was so striking that I would have bet every cent on it.
"I made no contact with my half-aunt whatsoever. I figured let's go straight to the source, straight to the donor. I found him on Facebook. Through Facebook, I learned he had a daughter three years older than me and a son one year older.
"Many in the donor-conceived world that reach out to genetic parents get kind of nasty responses, very depressing responses. I can handle pretty much anything, but that's not to say you don't want to set yourself up for as much success as possible. So I sat down with my one-month-old daughter in my arms, and I recorded a quick video.
"When he got my video, his son-in-law said, 'Don't open this. Some stranger on the internet is sending you —' they thought it was a virus or malware or whatever. But he clicked on it and it opened and my sister and brother-in-law were next to him as this video started, and everybody kind of went like, "Holy shit!" And they knew. They knew in a heartbeat hearing me speak.
"He took his time. There were a few weeks that went by. I was a little bit anxious, but I had a lot going on. He eventually got in touch. He sent me a legal letter. Basically, 'I'm open to talking, but I need you sign this first. Please don't ask for any money, please don't tell anybody about this.' And I signed it.
"It wasn't a problem for me. I didn't know enough to know whether to be empathetic or not. I didn't know what kind of life this person had had, I didn't know if there'd been others before me that had been assholes, like, I didn't know. I guess that there was so much to be gained from just knowing him that I was still kind of on a high from that.
"There are a lot of really pivotal moments in life where you have this idea of what it's going to be like. How am I going to feel when my store opens? How am I going to feel when I finally sell my company? How am I going to feel when I finally have a child? It's always kind of just not — when it actually happens, it's not worse, it's not better, it's different. But I think that was the case here. You build this up for so long. And, by the way, you build it up not knowing whether it even will ever happen.
"I wanted to know badly. It occupies your thoughts, and then it doesn't, and then it does again. And then it doesn't. It's this weird dynamic of you care deeply and then you don't.
"In the end, it was less emotional than I expected — in terms of worry about whether he actually wanted anything to do with me. He's very kind and warm. I don't think was part of my thinking on him. That might have been self-preservation.
"We had a two-hour old-school telephone conversation covering the gamut. We talked about how we met our spouses, we talked about work we had done, we talked about running, we talked about singing and plays and theatre and everything under the sun. We talked about the granular history of how he came to donate in the first place — and asking for a raise and getting it.
"I resemble him a lot. He and I align politically. He doesn't with his kids.
"He connected me with my sister — his daughter — and we met up. It was delightful. She came to my daughter's first birthday party. They stayed at our place one time. We get together two or three times a year.
"One time we were able to get everyone together — him, his partner, my sister, her partner, her daughter and my wife and daughter. And it was lovely. It wasn't awkward.
"I couldn't sleep. That was the one thing — I could not sleep the night before.
"My brother has not expressed an interest. I presume that he's been told just about everything.
"I'm just still kind of waiting to see. I believe he's got a daughter about the same age as my daughter. And so you wonder. I feel like there will be an inevitable point. I know I'm weird to think this way, it's very weird to think this way, but like, my sister and her family — they'll be at my daughter's wedding. And my daughter will be at her daughter's wedding. That may be 25 years in the future. But presumably my brother will be there too, right? So like, at some point it's inevitable that it will will happen. I'm not really in any rush.
"The one thing I would change is not knowing that I was donor conceived from birth. I am quite ardent about that. I think that would have prevented a lot of heartache. And yeah, there was a lot of unnecessary pain. But I think I will say this: in the world where I didn't find out until my twenties, I think the 10 years to find out who he was actually was a good thing in hindsight."
He found out at age six, when his mother remarried. The donor, she told him, was a "nice man," a medical student, but they'd never be able to know specifically who he was.
As a teen, he found an online community of people like him and in his early twenties, he started actively searching. He looked up the names and photos of potential med student donors and did DNA testing with FamilyTreeDNA and 23andme. The breakthrough didn't come until years later, when he signed up with Ancestry.
There he got a match who was his biological father's first cousin. It was a game changer and he knew it. He had the cousin's full name and the cousin had a family business, complete with a website that outlined the family history. When contacted, the cousin confirmed he had the right family, but didn't want to be involved.
A day or two of sleuthing on the internet, and he'd identified the donor as one of two brothers.
The search had taken more than ten years.
"I wasn't 100 percent sure which brother it was, but I knew one of them was dead. I found the obituary online. There was a photo, but it was pretty low quality. I thought that he was probably the one, that he had passed away, just based on his age.
"Then I basically sat on it for about a year.
"I went to the library to track down a photo from a high school yearbook on file. I looked through to find what I could. I also visited the grave.
"I had found his two siblings and his nieces and nephews on Facebook. So I just kind of Facebook-stalked them for awhile. I drafted out a letter to send them and I probably edited it a thousand times, just to make sure it was perfect.
"Thinking back at why I was so hesitant to reach out to them, a lot of it was fear of being rejected. I wasn't sure how or if I could handle that after waiting my entire life to have that opportunity.
"Finally, I sent the letter to my father's sister. She didn't respond.
"I waited probably six months after that and then I contacted my biological father's niece — my cousin. She got back to me. Then she talked to her dad and he said I should call.
"He was good about it. He confirmed that his brother donated. And the story he gave me was that, you know, my father didn't want kids of his own. He was in law school at the time.
"We talked for maybe an hour. I just sort of wanted to talk to someone that I was related to on that side. I was happy with that. I also got pictures, which was really incredible.
"That was May, 2020. We haven't spoken since then. We've exchanged the occasional Facebook message but haven't had any extensive communication.
"It's not like they're not wanting to contact me, but it's sort of like this is a middle ground where we're not actively in a relationship. They're not condemning me or rejecting me.
"Still, it feels like a purgatory. An emotional purgatory. I just feel like everything's still so unresolved. Like, I still don't really know who he is.
"Early in the search, I think it was more anxiety-provoking. I felt violated. I felt like I was a second-class person. I just wanted clarity, I wanted it to be over.
"I really wanted to meet him but I didn't know much beyond that. I wanted to at least know who he was and have a conversation and just get the story. I'd had decades to prepare for it. So I would daydream — you know, just having a cup of coffee with him, filling in all the gaps in my personality and why I am the way I am.
"My father was 56 when he died. I still actually don't know the exact cause, but his brother said it was complications of alcoholism. Finding out that he'd passed wasn't pleasant, but I don't think I was overwhelmingly traumatized by it either. It was something I couldn't control.
"Not having the opportunity to speak with him directly, you know, face to face, there's going to be a loss there. I'm not going to feel great about that ever, I don't think.
"I think it would have been really wonderful just to be able to know my father when I was in those formative years. You're trying to figure out who you are. And, you know, you don't have that reference point.
"Because I always had this blank spot there, there was a certain comfort. I had had decades to come to terms with that. And so I had, to a certain degree, just sort of accepted that I might never get clarity. And then when it came, when I got clarity, that was scary. Because now I'm looking at myself in the mirror, I know where that comes from. I just had to kind of come to terms with that story. And there was a good six months where I was trying to convince myself that I had gotten it wrong, even though I knew I had gotten it right.
"Is this really over? I couldn't accept that it was over. Just all the years I waited and it just kind of ends at the snap of a finger. You know? That search is over."
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
All three people above were born in the eighties, to heterosexual couples. They were conceived at a time when donor conception was a secret, and families were counselled to never tell.
Over the years, things have changed. Same-sex couples and single parents drove a new trend of full disclosure. Open identity donors came onto the market. So did Facebook. Genetic testing made anonymity all but impossible.
So what about those donor conceived people? What has it been like for them after the find? Please get in touch if you have a story to share.