Friday, March 13, 2015

Donor Conceived

A few years ago I started thinking about my biological father again.  It's a topic that resurfaces in my mind every so often since finding out around age 12 that I was conceived with anonymous donor sperm.  I made a list of what I knew about him: 
  • blond or brown hair;
  • blue or green eyes;
  • my mother said he was a medical student.
Since I was allegedly conceived with fresh sperm at a local university hospital, I didn't have a donor number or any of the things that cryo banks sometimes hand out.  The doctor had allegedly chosen someone whose coloring resembled my dad's so that I'd be able to "pass" as his child, and my dad's eyes are sort of blue-green and his hair is light brown.  The one time my mother talked about the conception, she claimed she'd seen my biological father.  She said I was conceived on a Saturday when the offices were otherwise closed.  There were only two cars in the parking lot, including her own, and she saw a man who looked like my dad's brother walking to the other one.  He must've been the donor, she said.  His was the only other car in the parking lot.

I also knew the hospital where I'd been born.  It was a university hospital.  There are several universities and colleges in the area where I grew up, but as my mother has never been one to shop around, I thought there was a good chance the clinic had been at the same hospital and that my biological father had attended the same university.

I looked up the hospital online.  They had a clinic devoted to Assisted Reproductive Technology, so that seemed like a step in the right direction.  I called the clinic.  I explained that I'd been conceived there with donor sperm and was looking for any information that might exist from my conception.  The woman sounded unnecessarily hostile -- though this may have just been my perception -- when she informed me that they'd moved offices and everything from before the move had been destroyed.  She said they don't keep patient records for more than ten years anyway, which means my mother's records would have been destroyed well before she'd told me I was donor conceived. 

I hadn't expected to learn much, but after hearing about donor numbers and sheets of non-identifying information some people receive from cryo banks, including facts like height and college major, I'd thought calling was worth a shot.  It was frustrating knowing so little and having no way to find out more information, like when you have a song stuck in your head but you can't think of the lyrics and can't figure out any way to look them up.  I put it away, as I always have when I've reached the point where there was nothing new to be done.  The frustration feels overwhelming if I don't keep tamping it down and putting it out of my mind. 

Then a few months ago I read about 23andMe's autosomal DNA tests.  They had been prohibitively expensive the first time I'd heard of them on a PBS special, but now they only cost $99.  I didn't think I'd find any close relatives on their "DNA Relatives" database, but I liked the idea of finally knowing my genetic ancestry.  When people asked, "Where are you really from?" (in response to my "America" the first time they asked because America apparently doesn't count) I'd grown accustomed to saying, "Guess," and then telling them they were right, regardless of what they guessed.  It made them so happy to be right, and for all I knew, maybe they were right.  Their guess was as good as mine.  I'd learned to take anything my mother told me with a giant grain of salt, so even my maternal ancestry was a pretty big question mark.  I ordered myself a DNA test for my birthday, and I waited.

I recounted the things my mother had told me to my closest friends, and an odd suggestion came up that hadn't occurred to me.  "She said the donor looked like your uncle?  You know who else looks like your uncle?"  My dad.  I confided in a cousin about the DNA test, hoping she could help me by remembering more of the surnames on my maternal side of the family than I did.  "Have you considered maybe your mom was just lying about there being a sperm donor?  That seems like something she would do."  The people I confided in who had met my mother all suggested the most likely scenario was that she had lied to me, probably in order to further alienate me from my dad.  My cousin was particularly doubtful since our incredibly gossipy extended family didn't seem to have a clue I might have been conceived by interesting means. 

I told my dad (when I say "dad," I always mean my non-biological social father, my mother's husband) that I was taking a DNA test out of general interest.  I had still never told him what my mother had said about him not being my father, and I wanted to see if he would tell me himself.  Instead he told me again how his great-uncle had once spent over a thousand dollars on a genealogy researcher and then refused to show what he'd found to the rest of the family.  I'm not sure if my dad was waiting to see what I found before being forthcoming or if maybe he'd forgotten we weren't related.  Or maybe my mother had lied.

Finally I got an email from 23andMe saying my results were live online.  My "DNA Relatives" in their database numbered close to 1000 people, from 2nd cousins to distant.  I searched the database for all the surnames I knew from my dad's family.  Anyone claiming to have the same surname in their family tree would pop up.  They were odd names, but I had a lot of them, gathered from a family tree with pictures my grandmother had drawn that hung on my dining room wall.  Not a single match.  Not a single one of my 1000 cousins claimed to have a single one of those weird surnames in their family tree.  That's when I concluded my dad really wasn't my biological father.  My mother might have been telling the truth.

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