Sunday, December 17, 2006; Page B01
I really wasn't expecting anything the day, earlier this year, when I sent an e-mail to a man whose name I had found on the Internet. I was looking for my father, and in some ways this man fit the bill. But I never thought I'd hit pay dirt on my first try. Then I got a reply -- with a picture attached.
From my computer screen, my own face seemed to stare back at me. And just like that, after 17 years, the missing piece of the puzzle snapped into place.
The puzzle of who I am.
I'm 18, and for most of my life, I haven't known half my origins. I didn't know where my nose or jaw came from, or my interest in foreign cultures. I obviously got my teeth and my penchant for corny jokes from my mother, along with my feminist perspective. But a whole other part of me was a mystery.
That part came from my father. The only thing was, I had never met him, never heard any
stories about him, never seen a picture of him. I didn't know his name. My mother never talked about him -- because she didn't have a clue who he was.
When she was 32, my mother -- single, and worried that she might never marry and have a family -- allowed a doctor wearing rubber gloves to inject a syringe of sperm from an unknown man into her uterus so that she could have a baby. I am the result: a donor-conceived child.
And for a while, I was pretty angry about it.
I was angry at the idea that where donor conception is concerned, everyone focuses on the "parents" -- the adults who can make choices about their own lives. The recipient gets sympathy for wanting to have a child. The donor gets a guarantee of anonymity and absolution from any responsibility for the offspring of his "donation." As long as these adults are happy, then donor conception is a success, right?
Not so. The children born of these transactions are people, too. Those of us in the first documented generation of donor babies -- conceived in the late 1980s and early '90s, when sperm banks became more common and donor insemination began to flourish -- are coming of age, and we have something to say.
I'm here to tell you that emotionally, many of us are not keeping up. We didn't ask to be born into this situation, with its limitations and confusion. It's hypocritical of parents and medical professionals to assume that biological roots won't matter to the "products" of the cryobanks' service, when the longing for a biological relationship is what brings customers to the banks in the first place.
We offspring are recognizing the right that was stripped from us at birth -- the right to know who both our parents are.
And we're ready to reclaim it.
Growing up, it didn't matter that I don't have a dad -- or at least that is what I told myself. Just sometimes, when I was small, I would daydream about a tall, lean man picking me up and swinging me around in the front yard, a manly man melting at a touch from his little girl. I wouldn't have minded if he weren't around all the time, as long as I could have the sweet moments of reuniting with his strong arms and hearty laugh. My daydreams always ended abruptly; I knew I would never have a dad. As a coping mechanism, I used to think that he was dead. That made it easier.
I've never been angry at my mother -- all my life she has been my hero, my everything. She sacrificed so much as a single mother, living on food stamps, trying to make ends meet. I know that many people considered her a pioneer, a trailblazer for a new offshoot of the women's movement. She explained to me when I was quite young why it was that I didn't have a "dad," just a "biological father." I used to love to repeat that word -- biological -- because it made me feel smart, even though I didn't understand its implications.
Then when I was 9, the mother of one of my classmates ran for political office. I remember seeing a television ad for her, and her family appeared at the end -- the complete nuclear household in the back yard, the kids playing on a swing suspended from a tree and eating their father's barbeque. I looked back at my lonely, tired mother, who sat there with a weak smile on her face.
In the middle of the fifth grade, I met a new friend, and we had a lot in common: We both had single mothers. Her mother had suffered through two divorces. My friend didn't have much to say about her dad, mainly because she knew so little about him. But at least she got to visit him and his new family. And I was jealous. Later, in the eighth grade, another friend's father had an affair and her parents divorced. She was in so much pain, and I tried to empathize for the loss of her dad. But I was jealous of her, too, for all the attention she was getting. No one had ever offered me support or sympathy like that.
Around this time, my mother and I moved in with a friend and -- along with several other teenagers, one infant and some other adults -- lived with her for nearly a year. I went through a teenage anger stage; I would stay in my room, listening to Avril Lavigne and to Eminem's lyrics of broken homes and broken people. I felt broken, too. All the other teenagers in the house had problems with their dads. I would sit with them through tears during various rough times, and then I'd go back to my room and listen to some more Eminem. I was angry, too, and angry that I had nowhere to direct my anger.
When my mother eventually got married, I didn't get along with her husband. For so long, it had been just the two of us, my mom and I, and now I felt like the odd girl out. When she and I quarreled, this new man in our lives took to interjecting his opinion, and I didn't like that. One day, I lost my composure and screamed that he had no authority over me, that he wasn't my father -- because I didn't have one.
That was when the emptiness came over me. I realized that I am, in a sense, a freak. I really, truly would never have a dad. I finally understood what it meant to be donor-conceived, and I hated it.
It might have gone on this way indefinitely, but about a year ago I happened to see a television show about a woman who had died of a heart attack. A genetic disease had caused her heart to deteriorate, but she didn't know about her predisposition because she had been adopted as a baby and didn't know her biological families' medical histories. It hit me that I didn't know mine, either. Or half of it, at least.
So I began to research Fairfax Cryobank, the Northern Virginia sperm bank where my mother had been inseminated. I knew that sperm donors are screened and tested thoroughly, but I was still concerned. The bank had been established in 1986, a mere two years before my conception. Many maladies have come to light since then.
I e-mailed the bank five times over the course of a year, requesting medical information about my donor, but no one responded. Then one Friday last spring, I started surfing the Web. Eventually I came upon an archive of "Oprah" shows. One was a show about artificial insemination using anonymous donors. A girl perched on Oprah's couch. Next to her sat her "donor," the man who was her biological father.
I froze. Why hadn't I thought of that? If I wanted medical information and a sense of roots, who better to seek out than the man responsible for them?
I set out to find my own donor. From the limited information my mother had been given -- his blood type, race, ethnicity, eye and hair color and hair texture; his height, weight and body build; his years of college and course of study -- I concluded that he had probably graduated from a four-year university in Northern Virginia or the District within a span of three years. Now all I had to do was search through the records and yearbooks of all the possible universities and make some awkward phone calls. I figured if I worked intensely enough, my search would take a minimum of 10 years. But I was ready and willing.
A few days later, searching for an online message board for donor-conceived people, I came across a donor and offspring registry. Scanning past some entries for more recent donors, I spotted a donation date closer to what I was looking for. I e-mailed the man who had posted the entry. A few days later he sent a warm response and attached a picture of himself. I read through his pleasant words and scrolled down to look at the photo. My breath stopped. I called for my mother, who rushed in, thinking something was terribly wrong. "I think I've found my biological father," I gasped between sobs. "Look at the picture. . . .That's my face."
After a few weeks of e-mailing, this stranger and I took DNA tests. When the results arrived, I tore open the envelope, feeling like a character in a soap opera. Most of the scientific language went over my head, but I understood one fact more clearly than I have ever understood anything in my life: There was, the letter said, a 99.9902 percent chance that this man was my father. After 17 years, I let out a long sigh.
I had found the man who had given me blue eyes and blond hair. And it had taken me only a month.
My life has changed since then. Once the initial disbelief that I had found my father wore off, my thoughts turned to all the other donor-conceived kids out there who have been or will be holding their breath much longer than I. My search for my father had been unusually successful; most offspring will look for many, many years before they succeed, if they ever do.
My heart went out to those others, especially after I participated in a couple of online groups. When I read some of the mothers' thoughts about their choice for conception, it made me feel degraded to nothing more than a vial of frozen sperm. It seemed to me that most of the mothers and donors give little thought to the feelings of the children who would result from their actions. It's not so much that they're coldhearted as that they don't consider what the children might think once they grow up.
Those of us created with donated sperm won't stay bubbly babies forever. We're all going to grow into adults and form opinions about the decision to bring us into the world in a way that deprives us of the basic right to know where we came from, what our history is and who both our parents are.
Some countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, are beginning to move away from the practice of paying donors and granting them anonymity, and making it somewhat easier for offspring to find their biological fathers. I understand anonymity's appeal for so many donors: Even if their offspring were to find them one day -- which is becoming more and more probable -- they have no legal, social, financial or moral obligation to their children.
But perhaps if donors were not paid and anonymity were no longer guaranteed, those still willing to participate would seriously consider the repercussions of their actions. They would have to be prepared to someday meet the people whom they helped create, to answer questions and to deal with a range of erratic emotions from their offspring. I believe I've let go of any resentment about the way I was conceived. I'm playing the cards I've been dealt and trying to make the best of things. But not all donor-conceived people share this mindset.
As relief about my own situation has come to me, I've talked freely and regularly about being donor-conceived, in public and in private. In the beginning, I also talked about it a lot with my biological father. After a bit, though, I noticed that his enthusiasm for our developing relationship seemed to be waning. When I told him of my suspicion, he confirmed that he was tired of "this whole sperm-donor thing." The irony stings me more each time I think of him saying that. The very thing that brought us together was pushing us in opposite directions.
Even though I've only recently come into contact with him, I wouldn't be able to just suck it up if he stopped communicating with me. There's still so much I want to know. I want to know him. I want to know his family. I'm certain he has no idea how big a role he has played in my life despite his absence -- or because of his absence. If I can't be too attached to him as my father, I'll still always be attached to the feeling I now have of having a father.
I feel more whole now than I ever have. I love our conversations, even the most trivial ones. I don't love him, and I don't know if I ever will, but I care about him a lot.
Now that he knows I exist, I'm okay if he doesn't care for me in the same way. But I hope he at least thinks of me sometimes.
Katrina Clark is a student in the undergraduate hearing program at Gallaudet University.