Knowing where you came from is not a prerequisite for understanding who you are.
For a significant portion of my life — until just a couple of days ago in fact — I thought I was conceived through IVF.
This doesn’t really seem to be something that a person could ever be confused about, but there were extenuating circumstances. In fact, I was conceived via artificial insemination from an anonymous donation which, while less technically innovative, was still pioneering in its own socially important way when I was born in 1981.
When the kids in my school found out about this — I was never ashamed of it (why would I be?), so I probably let it slip one day — word somehow spread through schoolyard Chinese whispers that I was a Test Tube Baby. Purple Monkey Dishwasher.
IVF was a novelty back then and hadn’t been covered in our Biology curriculum, so there was general confusion amongst my peers as to what that even meant. How did I fit in the test tube as I grew? Was I transferred to increasingly larger laboratory apparatus? They were occasionally cruel, occasionally inventive; among the more witty epithets: “Womb With A View”. My nickname, briefly, was Pyrex.
We were in that cohort which would become the bridge between Gen X and Gen Y, who could remember a time before the Internet, but who would still be informed about the world by the modern 24 hour news cycle. We already showed the early signs of collective ADD and an infatuation with the new, so it’s no surprise that within a short period of time, group attention rotated on to some other unconventional fact about another kid.
In that brief period though, my true history and perceived history became conflated, and I came to think that the rumours were true. Being born due to IVF in 1981 would have made me one of the first 40 children in the world to be conceived in that way. There have been more than five million since. Everyone secretly wants to be special, and maybe this was my way of making myself unique.
The realisation that this wasn’t the case happened to come out in a casual conversation with my mum a few days ago. I might have expected to have been deeply affected by it, but in truth my origin story was always little more than a curiosity to me. It never formed an important part of my identity and so its “loss”, if that is the right word, hasn’t changed me.
I would hope, after more than 30 years, that there are far more interesting things about me than how I was conceived.
Recently, I signed up for 23andMe, the genome typing service. I did this partly because my wife and friends had done it, and partly to see if I was a carrier of or pre-disposed to any genetic diseases. It only occurred to me after spitting, sealing and sending that I might find out more about my genetic father, of whom I know next to nothing.
I know that he had sandy hair, was 6' tall, had green eyes and studied engineering at Liverpool University.
Intellectually, I find it interesting that I’m a rough approximation of him: sandy-ish hair, 6'1" tall, with grey-green eyes and a degree in software engineering.
Emotionally though, there are no ties. No longing, no desire to ever meet. I imagined what it would be like to see “father” come up in my list of genetic relatives and found the notion comical. Idle curiosity perhaps, but no more. A parent isn’t the person who you come from, it’s the person who nurtures you. I only have one parent and she’s already more than I could ever need. She made me who I am.
In 2005, anonymous sperm donations were outlawed in England. The decision was not retrospective, and I was not concerned. I give very little thought to who my father is (was? Schrödinger’s father!). In fact, this is probably the most I’ve ever really thought about him. Previous references were few and far between, limited to situations like the mostly-tongue-in-cheek-but-you-never-know-do-you allusion that a girlfriend could be a secret half-sister.
In the event, there is no tale to tell. He was certainly Caucasian, almost certainly from the UK or Ireland and is in the subgroup R1b1b2a1a1. I find this fitting and in line with how I’ve thought of him. Detached, scientifically, objectively.
My known genetic relatives are limited to 3rd cousins. Of course, that could change as more people use the service, but I don’t anticipate ever knowing who he is.
I’m not concerned either way. I know who I am. There isn’t some truth I’m searching for. He doesn’t define me, except in the most literal genetic sense. And genetics do not make the person, parents do.