TRUTH-SEEKER. TENACIOUS. EMPATHIC.
My dad, Pat, was sick with cancer my entire life. He went in and out of remission so many times it became like “the boy who cried wolf.” So often I was told “he’s not going to make it this time”, and then he would miraculously survive. My anxiety was constant, even though I was simultaneously conditioned to believe in my dad’s superhero-like ability to pull through every time. This terrible cycle of “will he or won’t he” happened over and over and over and over.
So when I was 11 and my dad really did pass away, I was in absolute shock. My deep distrust of the truth had been percolating for my whole childhood because of my dad’s rollercoaster health, so now I had no idea how to feel. I had stopped preparing myself for the worst because it was exhausting to do that every time someone cried “WOLF!” But now the worst HAD happened, and my sense of truth was skewed.
In the midst of my dad’s cancer, I was still just a little girl trying to fit in and figure out who I was. I started noticing that I didn’t look like any of my relatives. People would comment on how my brother and I looked nothing alike. Everyone but me had blue eyes and light features. It didn’t take long to feel like the black sheep. I never felt like I belonged to the Irish culture of my family. What I felt never seemed in line with what people told me I was. For example, I remember feeling drawn to the Hispanic/Latina Bitty Baby Doll from American Girl. Her brown eyes and medium complexion looked more like me, but my family thought it was strange I didn’t get the white one. They didn’t see it. I think that people see what they want to see; but it’s crazy what your body and subconscious mind know before you know the facts themselves.
Three years after my dad’s passing (I was a freshman in high school), after pestering my mom relentlessly about feeling different one day, she dropped the bombshell – my dad wasn’t my biological father. The chemo had killed his sperm count and they had used an anonymous donor. No one knew about it. It was meant to stay secret forever – I was never supposed to know.
People who know their biological parents will never understand what it’s like to be missing such a foundational part of your identity. It’s a subtle but all-encompassing vertigo. Your own identity can’t take form without ROOTS.
Amidst my shock and devastation, the first thing I wanted to know was the ethnicity of my donor – it finally made sense why I looked so different – but my mom had no answers for me. She was given no information whatsoever about my donor. All they were told by the doctor was that he would find a donor that looked like my father. Well, that clearly hadn’t happened…and there was no paper trail. I was blindsided by this revelation that erased half of my identity. Already having grown up with confusion surrounding the truth, I was set adrift.
Now I was complicit in the dirty little secret. I internalized it for years. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this secret built up a kind of sad, dark pressure inside of me. I couldn’t articulate how I felt, so talking about it wasn’t an option. The only thing that gave me any sense of relief was cutting. There was a primal release when I saw the blood; I could finally get that unspoken feeling out of me. Looking back, I believe it was my own way of having a secret that I could control. External validation including sexual promiscuity became another source of comfort. Basically, I craved anything that gave me a shot of adrenaline to overpower the noise in my head. I refer to these as the Lost Years.
“Fitting in” was an ongoing theme in my life. After graduating from Boston Conservatory with a degree in musical theater, it became vital to know where EXACTLY I fit in the industry. Spectrum and specificity are neither seen nor acknowledged by the majority of producers and casting directors (most of whom are white.) You are categorically put in a box. One box. But there isn’t ONE box for a donor-conceived, biologically-mixed woman raised with white privilege in an Irish/American family. I was very self-conscious because at the time I had no idea I was biologically multi-ethnic/mixed; I only knew my mother’s ethnic background and the other half was unknown. I was a deceptive blend of looking like one thing with the experience of something else. I was often given the (problematic) label of “ethnically ambiguous” and cast in Hispanic/Latinx roles. But I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t sure if I had a right to be there. I didn’t have confidence in myself with so many question marks about my identity. Ultimately, I decided to take some space from the industry to solve the mystery of myself.
Home DNA kits were becoming more and more popular – I took a DNA test, and the results that came in were powerful.
The highest percentage of my DNA was on my paternal side – over 60% Spanish. It also matched me with a 2nd cousin, who I eventually met. She clarified the results even further – I was Cuban! My biological family was originally from Spain, but had immigrated to Cuba. She provided me with a complete family history in the form of a massive document cataloguing four generations. Though she had no idea who it was, she was certain my biological father had to be in there. It was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
I started to go through the paperwork and cross off possibilities. It was a long, arduous process, not in the least because a lot of the information was in Spanish and required translation. I eventually zeroed in on the most likely candidate and turned my focus into trying to contact him. By this time, the pandemic had hit and I had gone into quarantine with my fiancé and my best friend. I decided to use the quarantine to find my biological father once and for all.
When I went over the information with my science-minded best friend, he suggested that the DNA test results might be misleading in my exact relation to my 2nd cousin – genetic markers are a tricky thing. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I might have been looking at the wrong generation of men. So we went through the family tree again and there, glaringly obvious, was a man born in New Jersey…who went to medical school the same year I was conceived right around the corner from the fertility clinic my parents used. I typed his name into a search engine and his photo popped up immediately.
There was NO QUESTION; I had found my biological father. My eyes were looking back at me. The brown eyes that had so long represented my “otherness,” my isolation, my confusion… now unequivocally represented connection – to roots, to a lineage, to a part of myself that had been floating in an abyss. I finally saw something I had been missing for so long. It was one of the most profound moments of my life, all while sitting at my kitchen table in my PJs during a pandemic.
Having lost my father at such a young age, I was ecstatic with the idea that I might be able to connect with this man who helped bring me into the world. It would be naive to say there weren’t daddy/abandonment issues at play, and I definitely felt guilty for being so excited… but I couldn’t help but hope he was as eager to discover me as I was to find him.
I contacted him through his work website, introducing myself and seeking confirmation. Since he is a doctor and because I’m interested in starting my own family, I inquired about medical history; one of the looming, important questions I had always wondered about. What I got was a response from a woman calling herself his “employee” (even though she is actually my biological aunt who works for him – oh yes, my sleuthing skills are on point.) I want to be perfectly clear about her wording and formatting because it was that calculated:
“It is true that technology robs well-meaning donors of their deserved anonymity, but because you took such care to try and find your medical history he felt it warranted an answer. <He> did, like many medical students, donate sperm in the 80s. In no way intending of course, like all anonymous donors, to embark on any relationship or asking for gratitude but in answer to the need for money and a couple’s need for help to make their dream of a baby come true. It’s the way <he> feels the dynamics are meant to be and stay… whether <he> was the sperm donor or not, it is nice to see that your parents got their wish and have a healthy, happy girl embarking on a future of her own now!”
Considering how monumental this discovery was for me, this was the coldest, most callous response masked in politeness I could have received. Notice how she didn’t actually confirm he was my biological father, even though we are genetically connected and all the circumstantial evidence points directly at him. Also, notice how his and my parents’ needs and wishes are acknowledged…yet there is no consideration regarding mine. The main thing I took from this response is that he has no interest in connecting. It truly broke my heart.
And so began a new journey of grief, wrapped up in reopened old grief. Apparently acknowledging the truth doesn’t matter to everyone the way it does to me. In normal circumstances I might have dealt with my pain using old patterns, but quarantine forced me to actually confront it. The pandemic became a time of mourning and reexamining everything I knew about myself.
I don’t blame my mom and dad for what happened. They did the best they could as a young couple dealing with infertility and illness. But every human deserves to know where they come from. I’m so grateful that my mom understands that now and has become a huge supporter in my journey.
I still struggle with what it means to me to be donor-conceived…what it means to be Cuban without the experience of the cultural upbringing. Even though I have the truth now, I will never fully feel like I belong anywhere because my experience doesn’t match my coding. I have realized there are many truths in my story, and sometimes the truth is complicated. Would I love to connect with my biological father? Do I wish I could look him in the eye and learn more about him, his life, and where I biologically come from? Absolutely. But I know he isn’t my dad. I was very fortunate to have my dad Pat, who loved and wanted me so much. I believe I get a lot of my tenacity from him. But I can’t get away from the fact that Nature and Nurture are both essential to forming identity.
Being a donor-conceived person (DCP) means I’ll always feel a sense of “otherness” and be on the outside until people start having an awareness of our perspective. Some people don’t even know that we exist! That’s a huge part of the problem, and why I feel it is important for the DCP community to share our stories.
Anonymous sperm donation must end. The terminology of “donor” needs to end – it’s not a donation if it’s being treated as a financial transaction. The biggest problem is that the “product” is a human being whose wants and needs aren’t being factored into the equation. Every person has a right to their own narrative, their own history. We must remove the stigma and shame from the donor-conceived community and the parents who choose it. We are not a secret and never should have been. Just because anonymity was agreed upon originally does not mean it should be honored now that people are learning the incredibly negative effects it has on offspring.
Throughout the history of humankind, many unethical decisions have been made that hurt/negatively affected marginalized people– we as a society progress when we make the choice to acknowledge and right those wrongs. It takes compassion, forgiveness, humility, and the understanding that love is not a limited source. When we do that, we move forward together – better and stronger. As technology continues to advance, we all must accept that anonymity has already ended regardless – but for future generations’ sake, embrace truth over fear. No one can escape the truth – we either find it or it will come for us.