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10:11

I was a little tipsy on an empty train heading back into London, my ribs aching from laughing harder than I had in years.

It was the first day of 2018, less than two months since I’d found out I had a half-sister. It was my third time meeting her, and it would be another month before I told her I loved her. And another five before she said she loved me.

I had been imagining this scenario for almost a decade and a half, ever since my parents told me it was likely my dad wasn’t actually my dad. I was 13 when they sat me down, facing me across a small kitchen table that felt like it spanned miles. They floundered with phrases like, “It doesn’t mean he loves you any less,” without explicitly getting to the point.

“So,” I remember asking with fear and childish impatience, “Dad’s not my dad?”

“He is,” Mum replied. And for a second my heart fluttered with hope. “But probably not in that way.’’

I felt as if the room was disintegrating around me. Her words hung in the air as I tried to make sense of the nonsensical. I sat mostly in silence. Mum did most of the talking. It was only the second time I’d ever seen my dad cry.

They had struggled to have children, she explained, so my parents made the choice to undergo IVF using both his sperm and sperm from an unidentifiable donor. (Just a few months after I was born, the legislation changed so that all UK sperm donors became traceable — timing that leaves me feeling somewhat hard done by.) But the use of two sets of sperm floated an inevitable possibility, a 50/50 chance that my dad could be my biological father. The hope almost made it more cruel.

That night, I fell asleep in my parents’ bed, sobbing occasionally between both of them, but mostly staring unblinking and glassy-eyed at their wedding photo hanging on the wall. Lying between them, I suddenly felt like the odd one out. At an age when I was just figuring out who I was, half of my identity had been torn away. And the family I belonged to didn’t take the shape I’d always thought it had.

I began to call my mum by her first name but continued to call Dad “dad.” It was a strange rebellion — an attempt to reclaim some familial connection with the father I’d believed to be mine.


Two years later, I asked my parents if we could do a DNA test. The results arrived one day while my dad was at work. I opened the letter and then waited by the front door for him to come home, accosting him as he was barely in the house.

“We got the DNA results.” There was a long pause. He looked at me, his face a blend of hope and dread. “It’s not the news we wanted.”

We hugged in the hall, and there was a series of sobs from 15-year-old me. That was the third time I’d seen my dad cry.


It was two years since I’d started my journey. But now it was different, definite. I had no idea who my biological father was.

Almost every night, I would square up to the mirror, staring at my face for minutes on end, until my eyes blurred out of focus. I would try to subtract my mum’s features until all I was left with was a rough guess of what my dad could look like. Brown hair, blue eyes, button nose, freckles.

I decided he was creative and musical like me. He played guitar and wrote. He was young, too, perhaps only 20 years older than me. I knew that a lot of sperm donors had been medical students, after all. I craved finding out who he was and thought about him every day — this substanceless man who existed somewhere but would never be in the form I imagined. I began to write him undeliverable letters. I wondered if he had children he loved. I wondered why he couldn’t love me, since I was his child too.

When I was 21, I decided to look for him. I did a DNA test with a small support group that matched donor-conceived adults to biological family. I sent the test into the ether. And waited. And waited. I waited for five years.


During that half decade, something changed. Life was fast and distracting. My sense of identity began to take shape. I went to college and matured into strong relationships with my parents. I grew tired of trying to find myself in the face of random men with brown hair and blue eyes.

Eight years after that difficult conversation in the kitchen with my parents, I was asked to be part of a TV documentary. Changes to the DNA test I’d done a few years ago meant that everyone had been retested, so I could have a match. They filmed me opening my new set of results.

Nothing.

The producers looked at me with a pity that made me defensive. They said they were sorry. In the end, the show was canceled. But I remember how that camera felt focused in on my face, on my disappointment, on the prick of tears in my eyes. The exasperation at myself for getting my hopes up.


A few months later, I signed up for the DNA testing sites Ancestry and 23andMe. I’d like to say I was driven by a gut feeling, a sense that now was the time to finally get some answers, but in reality, the tests were relatively cheap and there was a sale. And no matter how you imagine it, spitting into a tube rarely feels life changing.

A few weeks later, I got the results. More disappointment: no matches.

Then, one night in November, I got an email through Ancestry. Thirteen years after that night in the kitchen distorted my world, I had a match. By this time, I’d been looking for more than half my life.

There is a video of me bawling like a child as I saw my sister’s face for the first time when she messaged me on WhatsApp. I’ve rewatched it many times to relive that joy, disbelief, and the overwhelming relief that my search might finally be over. And underneath, just a hint of fear that maybe we were both mistaken and had interpreted the results incorrectly, and that once we both came to that realization, I’d replace my tears of relief and joy with tears of grief over losing what I’d never even had and tell myself, “Oh well, better luck next time.”

That didn’t happen. Two weeks later, we met in the middle of London’s Waterloo train station, which I now know is a terrible place to meet someone new because everyone looks like they’re walking toward you. We were meant to meet under the clock in the center, but I was there first and began to panic. I asked if we could meet by a store instead so I could at least put my back against a wall. Then I freaked out there, too, so I hid behind one of those large advertising signs. Which is, of course, where she first saw me in real life. Hiding behind a giant sign.

My first minutes with her were marked by equal measures of nerves, joy, and a mild desire to throw up and/or cry. We shared a bumpy hug and walked to a restaurant while I chattered in a new high-pitched voice that wasn’t totally mine. I suppose I wanted everything to feel effortless and to avoid an awkward silence. I shouldn’t have worried: At the restaurant, we talked for so long that our waitress gave up trying to take our order.

We spoke about our lives and our experiences — hers so vastly different to mine. She grew up with two mums, so the role of an unnamed sperm donor was always obvious, if not necessarily spoken about. Her decision to search for siblings surprised them. But it came from the same place as mine—a yearning to discover new family, the curiosity of meeting someone who is “half you.” And like me, her inquisitiveness was underlined with a nagging and terrifying thought: “What if she hates me?”


I’m 27 this month, eight months younger than my sister. We message every day. We’re alike in many ways: creative, instinctively feminist, sometimes a little shy. We share the same principles, the same childhood hobbies. The same cheeks, arms, button nose.

There are moments when we laugh together so hard that I can’t breathe. And there are moments of silence that are either comfortable or awkward, or both. I’m still working it all out.

There are joys and struggles in trying to form a relationship with someone you have never met, especially a relationship that comes with so many expectations attached. Until a few months ago, we had no emotional connection whatsoever. And now I expect, and hope, that she’ll be in my life forever. I’m sure one day we’ll have our first fight. I’m getting used to the idea that I could one day be an aunt.

I also have two wonderful parents who raised me, and I sometimes forget that as much as this is my story, it is also theirs. I was born just 13 years behind the world’s very first test tube baby, when the world had barely caught up to the idea. There was, and in many ways still is, a certain stigma attached, and the decisions my parents made were undoubtedly shaped by that. Ultimately, my dad is undeniably my father in every sense of the word. None of this was ever about finding another father. It was just about filling in the blanks.

Everyone talks about IVF babies: people trying to have children, the church, scientists, journalists. Nobody ever thought about IVF teenagers, or IVF adults. But now the early waves of IVF babies are grown, and DNA testing is unexpectedly everywhere — in a form and at an affordability that couldn’t even be imagined when IVF began. I could still discover that I have a dozen or more siblings.

We live in a world of openness that’s in direct conflict with the anonymity donors were once promised and the secrets many families had hoped to keep hidden. Today, my sister and I have found matches close enough to track down our biological father, which is what I thought I always wanted. But I’m not looking for him anymore. My sister is enough.