Joni Mantell


I am a late discovery donor-conceived person. I found this out at age 60, after raising an adopted daughter (born 1998) in an open adoption; specializing in infertility and adoption as a psychotherapist for 25 years; am the Founder and Director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center (2008 to Present), and have done over 400 sperm donor recipient parent evaluations.

I always instinctively felt comfortable with, valued, and advocated for openness in adoption, donor conception, and well…life. Not sure why, but I never personally felt anxious or insecure about involving our daughter with her birth family, and actively pursued developing these relationships for her. I knew it was good for her emotional development and identity; enjoyed witnessing the nature and nurture aspects of her personality, and felt secure in the fact that a village loved her.

Realizing my penchant for open adoption was not the norm, and that so many parents of adopted and third-party gamete conceived kids felt threatened even talking about their child’s origins and other parents – no less meeting and developing relationships with them – my well-attended professionally led workshops on How to Talk to Kids about Adoption and Third-Party Reproduction devoted as much time to helping these parents with their personal anxieties and insecurities about being open with their children – as to the expected “how to” do this at the different ages and stages of their child’s development. Fortunately, these workshops were followed up with frequent requests from attendant parents for consults to deal with their own insecurities and to help them customize this material to meet the needs of their child. Many families came for check-ins every few years to learn about their child’s cognitive and emotional developmental needs in relation to keeping these conversations fresh and relevant. As an aside here, I think this is the way this needs to be done, incrementally and frequently.  

My position about openness in my work and my life has always been very clear. I was quoted in Parent’s Magazine Article “Open Adoption is the New Norm” in 2005 stating, “it is a parents’ job to help a child understand (her) history.” This is the bedrock of who I am as an OPEN ADVOCATE THERAPIST and most importantly, MOTHER to my daughter through adoption. 

It is in this context in 2019 that I learned I was donor-conceived through a 23andMe test. My brother, an Ob-Gyn, had learned he was donor-conceived from 23andMe but kept this news from me until after my second wedding.  My 23andMe results were very clear. My biological father’s name, including his middle initial, city, and state were listed, as were two half-siblings.

I was quickly thrown from being the educator and examiner of other families to being the subject in question. Gob-smacked is a word that comes to mind, and that is not a word I typically use. But nothing about this experience is typical for any of us. And smacked with gobs of emotions, memories, and questions is what I felt.

My brother and I had grown up knowing our parents suffered 8 years of infertility but were told that a test  – similar to the currently used hysterosalpingogram (HSG) –  “blew out my mother’s tubes and she was able to conceive.” Given that I specialize in infertility counseling and my brother is an Ob-Gyn, one has to wonder if my brother and I picked up some family obsession with reproduction. That said, our parents’ HSG story was good and we both believed it – although I imagine we both picked up something that drew us to devote our professional lives to focus on reproductive matters. 

My brother had waited to tell me until after my second wedding out of kindness and because he wanted to be able to confront our mother together with me doing the talking. I discussed my situation with trusted colleagues in the field of infertility and planned the ‘confrontation’ with the goal of getting our mother to talk (as opposed to just expressing the outrage about the secret and how that robbed us of our true identities and other family relationships.) One sentence started my discussion with her,  she said “It’s true.” That was a good start, but her second sentence derailed me and all of my plans to be tactical vs. emotional. She said, “wouldn’t you have done this if you were me and you wanted a child.” Wrong question, and then a lot of pain emerged for me.

Most hurtful is that several years prior I had suffered a medical condition similar to what my Dad had died of over 25 years earlier. At the time I was panicked that I would die early like my Dad, and my daughter would be grief-stricken and still need me. I have no understanding of my mother not telling me at that time that I was not biologically related to the father I had known and loved. At the end of the night of our confrontation with our mother, I said my customary ‘Night Bro to my brother,’ and without skipping a beat he said “half-bro.” We both needed the comic relief.

I had the good fortune of being able to connect easily with my biological father, half-brother, and half-sister from his marriage, and some other relatives. Getting to know them has been the silver lining of this experience for me. In a word, this feels grounding. Knowing them, I feel more like me. I have more family to care about and to feel cared about by. My village has grown.

The more difficult aspects of this experience have been feelings about my parents’ secrecy;  the loss of time knowing who I really am and knowing my full family; the fact that my father is deceased and I will never be able to tell him I love him nevertheless; and my anger at the Reproductive Medicine Industry.

From my insider professional vantage point, I witness the inadequate preparation of gamete recipient parents (of sperm, eggs, and embryos) especially by therapists that work for the fertility clinics (which fortunately I never did. I work privately); the industry’s business-incentivized defensive posturing about their responsibilities to the thus conceived “child;” and their archaic view or calculated nod to the most minimal of openness. Open ID donors at age 18 are simply too late to meet a growing child’s needs.

However you spin it, it’s been strange for me as it has been for all people with an MPE (Adoptees, Donor Conceived People, and People with an NPE) learning from DNA tests that we are not who we thought we were and that we have other family, but we are still ourselves and will continue to develop as such.  I plan to continue developing my relationships with my new family, and working for Openness for all people with an MPE both directly through pre-conception and parenting education and counseling, and through advocacy for change in the business of Reproductive Medicine.

All of us with an MPE share some experiences, each cohort has unique experiences, and each of us are individuals with our own experience. Being part of a community with other people with an MPE is very important to me personally, and my heart goes out to each of you.