As a contrast to last week’s post I would like to write about the father that wanted the role. I have been binging on the latest episodes of Queer Eye, and one of the episodes featured a transgendered man post top surgery whose parents were not at all supportive. There was also an episode where a mother describes apologizing for not having showed her son “unconditional love” after he revealed that he is gay. And in last episode I watched, the 18-year-old about to move out on his own was adopted and describes the woman who adopted him as his mother. I know I previously stressed the importance of biology, but I feel I should clarify that I did not mean to say that it is a necessary element in every familial relation… It just happened to be important in that particular relationship.
There is something to be said for the parents who show up and offer unconditional love regardless of biology. The parents that apologize when they were wrong, who understand the importance of their role, and do their best to fulfill it. Unfortunately, not every parent is equipped with such emotional intelligence.
The relationship that I had with my dad and the man on my birth certificate, became strained after the split and even more after I became a tween. However, the meat and bones of what it means to have had a loving father was still there. We shared no biology, yet he insisted on calling me his daughter despite losing custody, and not out of spite, but because he truly saw himself as my dad. There are warm memories of being a toddler and “helping” him make breakfast and napping on the couch watching old sci-fi movies. I remember feeling like spending time with him was my favorite thing. He was an extraordinary dad in that no matter what was going on, he never took it out on me in the slightest. He never raised his voice at me or seemed annoyed at any of my little kid antics. I liked to draw and paint, and he not only encouraged me by making sure I always had supplies, but painted alongside me, giving me some tips here and there. To this day, if I doodle a rose, it’s done using the method he taught me.
There were unfortunately aspects of his personality that made it difficult to have a real relationship with him as an adult, but I am grateful for what he contributed to my early childhood. Looking back, I think it was his peter-pan syndrome like nature that could make him seem like the better parent to me as a young child, and I think my adoration for him was wearing my mother thin. This was actually the very reason I was told about my conception… The disclosure of the truth was a thinly veiled attempt to place a wedge between us. I exclaimed that I wanted to go live with him instead of her and her boyfriend (now stepdad) during an argument. I reached for the phone when she blurted out “What if I told you that he isn’t your real father…. that you came from an anonymous donor?” The funny thing was, I didn’t actually want to go live with him, I just said it to push her buttons… This worked to my benefit because I got the info sooner than later. Earlier this year, I found out my mom and I have different memories of how it came out. Her version was she had planned on waiting until I was 18 but sat me down to tell me when I was 12 because she thought I should know sooner. I vaguely remember her bringing it up later, as though she hadn’t already told me, and I probably just said something along the lines of “I already know, but thanks”. When I revealed to her the context of how it actually came out, and that I was only around 7 she apologized. I told her I had already forgiven her years ago and was grateful to have been told either way.
What I find remarkable about finding out the truth is how little it mattered to me initially. I don’t remember feeling overly angry or hurt. If I was upset, it was over the fact that it was a big secret, not that it happened. I may not have understood all the logistics of donor conception at the time, but it completely made sense. It came as a bit of a relief. The way I had already felt about my relation to him and his family now had a name. I felt different than them in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
My knowing before being told could have been attributed to little things like the way he put stress on the word father in a sentence, or how often he would bring it up. “I am your father” was peppered into my life, like some sort of mantra, in case there was any doubt forming. I also had the sense that when people looked at the two of us that they struggled to see a resemblance. He might introduce me to a co-worker, and I could see their eyes scanning over our facial features, then there was this strange pause, maybe a quick furrow of the brow before they would say something like “She’s beautiful, Paul, she’s got your eyes.”, or “There’s no mistaking those big cheeks, she looks just like you!” It’s utterly comical to me that their attempt to cover up the thought “they look nothing alike, that is not his kid” was to point out the first vague resemblance they could muster up. With this reaction being typical, it’s understandable why he would emphasize so often that he was my father. When thinking of it from his side, I feel bad for him. I wonder if maybe I should have told him I knew and that I didn’t care so he could finally just relax about it. I wish I had thought of it that way before now.
Some other early memories that stand out… I made the mistake of telling a friend in elementary school that I wasn’t related to my father and I had a donor father that I never met. I ended up being called a “test tube baby”. I had no idea what that was, but I knew it wasn’t a term that was meant to be endearing. After that, I decided I wasn’t going to tell anyone else. Then there was the elementary school ritual of the family tree project. We had to find out what we could on our ancestry and give an oral report to the class while showing off our family tree. My school went the extra mile and followed it up with a luncheon where everyone brought a family dish to share based on their heritage. I knew the lie was the obvious choice, and the alternative meant a phone call home from my teacher or being called strange names by my classmates. I knew there are fair skinned and light-eyed Italians, (they made sure I knew this, even though my Italian ancestors on both sides were from Sicily, not northern Italy) but it was a truly odd thing having to go around telling everyone I am mostly Italian when I knew I wasn’t. I know to someone on the outside these things might seem like harmless white lies that are nonconsequential and trivial, but they weren’t my truth. I knew the freckles on my cheeks in the summertime were from my biological father. I knew, wherever he was, that he probably had a slightly upturned nose and blue-grey eyes shaped similarly to mine. But I also knew that I would never meet him, and more importantly, that he didn’t want to be my dad. So, there was no point to even think about him, and so I tried not to, for almost two decades.
(pictured with family from my dad’s side)
Anonymity in donor conception is now illegal in some countries. Without getting too deep into the practices and politics of the industry… I want to touch on the subject in closing. I believe that the anonymity aspect, at its core, is geared to protect a company’s bottom line and ensure steady profits more than it is to protect the interests of families and donors. Donors are told they have a right to privacy when there is no such law to back this up. I think it’s important to remember that donor conception is a for-profit industry, and that the regulations protecting the consumer are fewer than the ones protecting an organization’s “right” to make a profit. Despite this, over the years there have been numerous lawsuits against various cryobanks for things like donor switching (accidental or not) and false/ inaccurate donor health and background information being given to families. With a simple google search I learned that my particular cryobank was shut down for a period, after multiple warnings, for not consistently testing the sperm donations for diseases. I hesitate to share this as it borders on spreading around dirty laundry, but I think it is relevant/important enough… My dad was accused of cheating while my mom was getting the treatments (from various donors) and she had to pause and take an antibiotic… I can’t say for sure one had anything to do with the other, but now I must wonder, given the company’s track record. Whether or not he was a cheater, I know the topic was a contributing factor to their divorce. It’s strange to think that the unsafe practices around my conception could have set my parents up for divorce. I know there is nothing I can do to prove/disprove it now, and that there is no point in entertaining the idea, but on the other hand the secrecy helps to ensure the money keeps flowing in the setting of limited regulations.
Maybe I can’t speak for every family on this, but it seems to me that the anonymity aspect and the practice of withholding the truth from those that are donor conceived does more harm than good. If you are someone considering using an anonymous donor and you only take away one thing from this whole blog, I want it to be the following…
From the perspective of the “product” in the transaction of anonymous donor conception:
1. The secret did not protect me. It did not protect my family from anything other than maybe weird name-calling by people who don’t matter anyways.
2. Finding out did not cause me to love my dad any less.
3. Having to pretend my identity is different than what it is did not assist me in bonding with my non-DNA extended family. Instead, it gave me anxiety and made me feel like an imposter who didn’t deserve their affections.
4. My life would have been greatly improved had I been given the option to know about, or even meet my donor/ bio father.
5. In the setting of an “open” donation, I absolutely would have been able to maintain a respectful relationship with my bio father. I also don’t believe it would change or affect my relationship with my family. If everyone is mature and honest about the situation there is no reason open communication should change anything. To deny someone basic information about themselves (like where 50% of their DNA comes from!) is unethical no matter how you frame it. We live in a society where autonomy is protected, where we have a right to our medical records, and where informed consent for any and all medical treatment is the law. People that are adopted or donor conceived are not lesser beings and should have a right to know as much as possible!