Missing pieces

Donor-conceived community navigates identity, discovers family through DNA testing

Image courtesy of Gemma Evans (Unsplash)

he first time I met my dad was at the bus station. For 18 years, I knew only what the New England Cryogenic Center had stapled in a packet. His SAT scores, hair color and height. How he majored in English and loves riding bikes. The facts ran circles in my mind as the Trailways coach cruised along Interstate 90.

I swiped open my phone for the twentieth time that cool fall day to study the photos again. Tall. Short brown hair. Glasses. We took the exit toward the State Capitol.

A drug store DNA test landed me here a month into my first semester of college. I stepped off the bus, searching for a familiar stranger. My eyes scanned over vending machines and metal benches until I saw him standing by the ticket booth.

It’s hard to describe how it feels to first meet someone you’re supposed to have known your entire life. I asked nearly two dozen donor-conceived people to do just that.

“Surreal.” “Healing.” “Awkward but wonderful at the same time.”

With little regulation of sperm, egg and embryo donations worldwide, many donor-conceived people grow up not knowing their full biological identity — or that they’re even donor-conceived at all. For those left in the dark about their biological roots for decades, a simple DNA test often delivers surprise results that unearth decades of family secrets. More than 26 million people have submitted DNA samples to companies like 23andMe and Ancestry, resulting in massive databases for accurate family matching technology.

Katey Hamilton, of Toronto, found out she was donor-conceived when she was 25 years old. Anxiety soon overwhelmed her day-to-day life as she began to question her own identity and everything she thought she knew about her blood-related family. She quit her job for a month and waited even longer before taking a DNA test in hopes of finding her donor father. Fear of the unknown stopped her from looking sooner.

She didn’t match with any relatives closer than a third cousin on 23andMe. But after uploading her raw DNA data to MyHeritage, Hamilton found a half sister who lives in the same city. They clicked right away and have been close ever since.

“When you’re an only child, you don’t have that sense of what a sibling really is or what it feels like,” she said. “It’s not a familiar thing to see yourself in someone so close in age and at the same point in their life.”

Their similarities go beyond looking like “twins,” Hamilton said. They‘re both vegan and their donor father is vegetarian. He and Hamilton have nearly identical wolf tattoos, too.

Sarah Michelle, a model from Hamden, Connecticut, sees her interests and personality traits reflected in her newfound relatives more than in the family who raised her. Her paternal side of the family is full of artists and entertainers. She wrote papers on Shakespeare in her college theater history courses, and her donor father studied English with a concentration in Shakespeare.

“It makes me feel like I belong. I ended up in the place where I was supposed to be,” she said.

Michelle remembers checking 23andMe one day around 11 a.m. and seeing nothing new. She checked again a few hours later and saw a predicted match for her biological father. Lucy Mae*, of Salt Lake City, connected with three new half siblings the same day her 23andMe results came in.

The first thing Mae’s donor father said to her when they met at the airport in California was “Your eyes are greener than mine.” She remembers immediately hugging everyone and staring deep into her siblings’ eyes to compare physical features.

“It’s a lot of crazy feelings, and beautiful feelings, but not really a lot was said,” she said. “It’s so hard to explain that feeling to other people.”

For Ki Ki Fennell, of Quincy, Illinois, those initial feelings were denial and disbelief. She researched possibilities that Ancestry could’ve been hacked and sought other ways to disprove her results. Fennell wasn’t upset with the choice her parents made, but angry that she had been lied to for so many years.

She sat on this information for six months before finding the courage to talk with her mom, Fennell said. To prepare for a difficult conversation, she printed out her research — including two DNA tests and matches with new relatives. Fennell told her mother that it’s no longer her secret to keep and expressed fear in a lack of medical history that not only affects her own health, but her daughters’, too.

In addition to genealogy services, 23andMe offers a health and ancestry combo kit that generates carrier status and genetic health risk reports. Laura McMillian, of Park City, Utah, took the 23andMe test for that reason. Her results were shocking, however, as a few surprise family matches revealed she was donor-conceived.

Before meeting him, her donor father seemed like a “magical, mythical being,” McMillian said. That visit changed her psychologically, she said, as she finally felt like a whole person for the first time in her life. McMillian’s personal experience inspired her to become a life coach and egg donor in an effort to help other families.

“I wanted to give someone the gift of being able to know their own donor, which I wish I had had,” she said. “So in a way, it’s therapeutic to me while being helpful to someone else.”

Theresa Lovdal, an ICU nurse from Charlottesville, Virginia, bought a DNA test on sale during Black Friday. After connecting with a first cousin through 23andMe, Lovdal’s donor father called her one day while she was taking a class at the hospital. She called him back later that day while she sat in the parking lot.

“I began with ‘thank you,’ because I knew that I didn’t know where it was going to go,” Lovdal said. “It was like, this may be my only shot to ever talk to him and to ever say to him, ‘wow, thank you.’”

They’ve talked nearly every day since then. Not all of Lovdal’s family members understand why she cares to know her biological father. She tries to reassure loved ones that this new relationship doesn’t change the ones she already has.

While connecting with her genetic history has been a big part of her life, Lovdal says her identity doesn’t depend on it. What’s most important, she says, is the identity she’s developed herself through the hats she wears as a mother, a wife, a sister, a Christian and a nurse.

“I don’t know if any of these emotions I’m feeling are normal,” Lovdal said. “There’s been joy and excitement in finding (my donor father), but then all of a sudden there’ll be grief that I went 32 years without knowing him.”

Michele Brehm, a radiologic technologist and small business owner from Baltimore, took an Ancestry DNA test at 42 years old to help build her family tree. Genealogy was trendy then, Brehm said, and she was curious to learn more about her heritage. But growing up, Brehm had an inkling that she was adopted. She and her brother thought they didn’t “match” their family, and Brehm’s high school friends joked about her quirks, too.

The test results showed a close family match with a half-sister in Texas whom Brehm had never met. They connected, and Brehm soon realized that the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father.

“I confronted my mother, who verified that it was true. Although it was something she had always planned to take to the grave,” she said. Growing up, Brehm remembers her mother saying that blood makes people relatives, but family is who loves you and takes care of you. She began to wonder if her mother said this in fear that she’d find out the truth one day.

At first, Brehm grappled with the idea of connecting with her biological father. In her mind, she wasn’t supposed to know this person. Even after visiting her biological father several times, Brehm said it still doesn’t feel real. But connecting with him has helped her gain confidence after years of questioning why she didn’t always feel comfortable in her own skin.

Cassandra Adams, of Jersey City, remembers calling 23andMe’s customer support after her results showed she was nearly 50% Ashkenazi Jewish. She thought it was a mistake but the company assured her that there are safeguards in place so samples can’t get mixed up. Adams then asked her mom what was going on — an emotional 15-minute conversation left her dumbfounded.

With no record of her paternal health history, Adams was scared. She looked over at her 18-month-old daughter and thought: What the hell did I pass on?

“Once it was actually confirmed, everything crashes,” Adams says. “Your whole identity, everything you’ve been told, my health history, I just — I freaked out.”

After being lied to for 35 years, Adams believes it’s important for parents to be honest with their kids about donor conception. She wants this part of her life to be part of her daughter’s story, too. Adams bought children’s books online that illustrate what being donor-conceived means as a first step. She’s also embraced her Jewish heritage, taking her daughter to Jewish events in her community and moderating a discussion group with people going through a similar experience.

Adams has committed to advocating for the donor-conceived community through artwork, writing and speaking at conferences. She’s also pushed for legislation for increased regulations of sperm banks in New Jersey. The current system is not only unfair to donor-conceived people being denied knowledge of their identity, she said, but also to donors who are falsely guaranteed anonymity.

Graphic by Haley Robertson

“Anonymity is an illusion,” said Stephanie Raeymaekers, one of the leaders of Donor Detectives. As a human rights advocate in Belgium, she hopes people begin critically evaluating the practices of donor conception so the interests of the offspring are put first. There are doctors who have destroyed medical files and lied to parents about what sperm is being used in procedures, she said, which can have harmful effects on the donor offspring.

Amy Tam, of Sydney, Australia, said she felt shame in not knowing who her biological father is. She hasn’t been able to find him through DNA testing, but the fertility clinic told her she has at least four half siblings. While her loved ones have been supportive throughout her search, Tam said her mother doesn’t understand the extent of heartbreak and confusion that this secrecy brings.

Single parenting through donor conception is uncommon in the Asian-Australian communities she identifies with, Tam said. She talks more openly about her feelings with her boyfriend’s family than her own, she said, because of cultural values that advise against artificial insemination.

“I wanted to find my paternal side, and the rest of my identity and DNA, more than I cared about these cultural concepts,” she said. Tam believes future legislation protecting donor-conceived people should include counseling to support families.

While some countries have set limits on how many children can be conceived per donor, it’s often impossible to track since private companies handle records on their own terms. People won’t take issues surrounding donor conception seriously until there’s regulation, said Jonathan Pollack, who helps moderate the Facebook group “We Are Donor Conceived.”

He found the Facebook community after looking to connect with people who are going through a similar experience. As a group admin, Pollack said he can see how much the donor-conceived community is hurting. People in the group share triumphs, like connecting with new half-siblings, but also hardships—like facing rejection after reaching out to a donor parent.

“I don’t think that any recipient parent ever set out to hurt their kids this way,” he said. “But over time we’ve learned, I think, that you have to consider what it’s going to be like for the child.”

*One name has been changed for privacy reasons.

Magazine Journalism student at Syracuse University.