Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Search for My Sperm Donor Father (Spanning 1.5 Decades!)

When I began my search for my missing family, I could not have imagined the journey ahead. Despite numerous attempts to gain access to the medical records that possibly contained information about my sperm donor/biological father, I discovered that they were either nonexistent or worthless. Several times I was told that all records were destroyed; other times, when sperm donation was not mentioned, I was told that they did in fact exist in storage and would be provided in 30 days under HIPPA law. Then they magically disappeared again when I would follow-up for the records. In fact, donor-conceived people I know have sometimes been told their records were destroyed by flood, by fire, or even by both flood AND fire! Even if records were kept (but withheld from me on purpose) after all of these years, however, sperm from more than one sperm donor was mixed prior to the insemination. In other words, it is likely that not even the clinic knows the identity of my biological father. Unfortunately I was conceived prior to the assignment of donor numbers, which further complicates an already complicated quest.

With no other options and with only the information that my biological father sperm donor attended Baylor College of Medicine in 1981 at the time of my conception, I decided to find the one man with a familiar face - my face, but with more masculine features - out of hundreds and hundreds of black and white photographs in old yearbooks. Changes in appearance from year to year and men who were listed but never photographed made my search more complex than I had originally realized. To solve this problem, I googled all 600 men to obtain recent pictures and to hopefully narrow in on the most likely candidate. Instead, I saw my lips in one man, my eyes in another, and my checks in someone else. My friends and family reviewed my binders - in which I devoted one page per Baylor graduate that included his yearbook photos (if any), recent pictures through online searches, and contact information - and used sticky tabs to mark those who most shared my facial structure. I nervously sent my carefully crafted letter, along with my pictures from infancy through adulthood in case I resembled him more at one stage of life than another, to the 20 men selected by all of my friends and family as looking like me. I explained what I was wanting, disclosed what I was not seeking, and offered to take a non-legally binding test to prove that I was not pursuing money. My 20 letters expanded to an additional round of 20 letters, then 30 letters, 50 letters, 100 letters, and 200 letters, until I eventually wrote 600 men through snail mail and email to find out if anyone recognized my face. I signed all of them in blue ink, hoping that I, as a person, would stand out beyond the black ink, and that therefore my letter would be at least somewhat harder to ignore. To me, this was a real-life mystery that I hoped to solve.

After sending a letter to every man who attended Baylor College of Medicine from 1979to 1984, I was pleasantly surprised to hear back from 250 graduates. The responses came in the form of snail mail letters, emails, cards, phone calls, messages, and even unexpected gifts. 40 men admitted to being sperm donors; others who never wanted to donate their gametes simply emphatized with my search and encouraged me to continue looking for my family. Some even had suggestions of men I could contact who had once bragged to classmates about donating sperm. A few nasty responses arrived, too, but these were in the minority and did not discourage me. Some donors admitted to having forgotten about their sperm donations over two decades ago, while others confided that they had always hoped to locate their donor children. Other donors called, only admitting after a long conversation that built up a little trust that they did indeed provide sperm to the clinic where my mother had gone. I discovered that these men had been told to forget about their children through sperm donation, since the parents/recipients were encouraged to keep it all a secret forever. In fact, parents were even encouraged to go home, make love, and assume that conception occurred through that romantic encounter. The more I learned, the less I liked the fact that a clinic had the right to decide that we could never find each other. I wanted him to make that determination on his own.

Out of those 40 donors, we were able to deduce that only 14 were possibilities in terms of matching me due to various logistics. Over a 14-month period, all of those DNA tests were negative. My life was an emotional rollercoaster as I waited for one, sometimes two, paternity test results each month. I oftentimes felt that I had some sort of understanding of what it must feel like to have bipolar disorder (without actually having it), only I felt that my life had the disorder instead. Eventually I grew very numb, and even the excitement of an upcoming test lessened to protect me from another possible negative paternity result. The kindness of the men from the yearbooks also helped reduce the sadness and frustration of each test to some degree. In fact, I have stayed in contact with most of the donors who agreed to a paternity test with me. In addition, several men, who I have termed non-donors (men who never donated sperm), grew into friends. Not only did some attend my baby shower, but I have also met their partners and children (and they have met mine), seen one as my new opthamologist, gone to their homes for lunch, attended their performances, met for dinner, and participated in media together. They affectionately refer to me as their collective pseudo-daughter. Likewise, I feel that I have gained a new nonbiological family that made my entire search worthwhile.

Some people are surprised by the bonds formed in my search. In terms of the donors, I think it has made them realize that they have children like me out there. It is no longer such an abstract concept for them and my letter brought their past to the forefront of their minds. Many probably have grandchildren as well. My biological father has a 4 1/2 month old grandson through me. My son already has two grandfathers in his life, but I would not mind if he had another. There is no limit when it comes to the ability to share love. For the men from my pursuit who never donated their sperm, they are interested in me as the daughter of their former classmate. Either way, we have formed an attachment that I think will last our lifetime.

I was initially devastated that my biological father never came forward. My donor father entered my dreams at times, sometimes reassuring, sometimes disheartening. I never viewed his lack of contacting me as a negative reflection of me and I did not take it personally, but I assumed there was some issue that he must be battling himself. Perhaps he had never told his wife of his prior donations; maybe he could not get past his concern that I would ask him for money; perhaps his wife viewed me as a threat and did not want to share his love.

People sometimes assumed that I was only upset and searching for him because I must idealize my sperm donor father. I did not care what he did with his life in terms of profession or accomplishments (or lack thereof), nor did I expect him to be a perfect person. Perfection is boring anyway. I simply wanted to know that I had reached him and had given him the opportunity to know me, which had been taken away from both of us. And I wanted to know the other half of me.

With time, I agreed to share my story publicly. My hope was to increase public awareness of donor conception as well as the issues stemming from it. In addition, I hoped that perhaps my biological father or someone from his family would see me and contact me. I have continued to discuss with my story with journalists for these very reasons. Even with media, which had to have reached someone related to me, I got no leads.

Without him in my life, I initially felt as though he had died. Not only did I miss him, but I longed for my half-brothers, half-sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles. I wanted to know who I looked like, where I belonged in the world, who contributed to half of who I am, and how I was similar to those relatives. I wondered about my heritage and I had no access to my medical history, despite being diabetic. My parents had fulfilled their dream of a child, but I would never know a significant portion of my own family.

I now accept that my biological father probably knows of my existence. Between my media and letters, I am quite confident of this. With a lot of time and thought, I have developed a sense of peace with my situation that has replaced a lot of the sadness. I still do not think anonymous donations are fair to the produced children and I hope that my sperm donor/biological father will eventually come forward, but I never wanted to force him into a relationship that he did not desire. I instead focus on people who care for me without any sense of obligation, including my family, husband, friends, and Baylor College of Medicine former students.

I have also searched through my half-siblings. I suspect that I have some through my donor's other donations as well as through his probable marriage. I know for a fact that I have a donor-conceived, maternal half-brother with Down syndrome who was put up for adoption, but that is another story in itself. I have grown accustomed to the frustration of knowing my family exists yet they somehow elude me. If you have any other ideas for locating my biological father, donor-conceived half-sibings, or my maternal half-brother with mental retardation, please email me. I even wrote to The Locator (you never know!), but never heard back. I actually never expected to, as I figured that there was too much legal risk for the show. I considered placing an ad in a newspaper explaining my situation and showing my face with the hopes of being recognized by someone, but this seemed more than pathetic and too much like a lost dog sign.

Nonetheless, I have had some activity with legislation with the hopes of helping to end anonymity in egg, sperm, and embryo donations for future generations. I wrote an affidavit, along with a lawyer, to be used in Olivia Pratten's court case in Canada. I also agreed to have my story presented in a public hearing in Missouri. Cynthia Davis from the Missouri State Legislature was attempting to help end anonymity in her state. This determination is made on a state-by-state basis in the US, but surprisingly no state has yet to end anonymity. In contrast, many other countries determined that anonymity was a violation of rights and ended it decades ago. In an ironic twist, I have also been employed at Baylor College of Medicine (the institution responsible for my existence that also trained my biological father) conducting research for 1 1/2 years. Sometimes as I walk through the hallways, I cannot help but realize that I am sharing the space where my biological father once stood during the years of his donations that brought me into existence.


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