Contacting your donor for the first time can be an exciting yet scary experience. You might be nervous about making a good first impression, or you might be worried about scaring them away.
Here’s some advice for contacting your donor for the first time:
Be gentle and respectful. This can be a scary situation for donors who haven’t yet been contacted, or who haven’t told their families they donated, or who have family members who are against contact. You want to get your foot in the door as gently as possible.
Reassure them so they know you will allow them to set the boundaries. It can be very important for the donor to know they’re in control of the situation.
Let them know that you don’t want to disrupt their family in any way. You just want to give them the opportunity to know you. This should be an invitation, not a demand.
Let them know that you don’t want anything from them — not time or money or another parent, just the chance to know more about where you come from. For starters, explain the importance of knowing about your ancestry and medical background.
You can also let them know what type of relationship you’d be open to. A friendship? A more familial relationship? Tell them why you think this connection could be fulfilling for both of you.
Appeal to the donor’s heartstrings. Tell them about you (or your kids); it’s helpful to make yourself more than just an idea — an actual human being, and one to be proud of.
Send photos. Again, this appeals to the donor’s emotions. Seeing similarities with the children they helped to create can be profound for a donor who wasn’t sure about contact.
Know that if a donor doesn’t reply or says “no,” it isn’t because of who you are. It’s likely because of their family situation, their lack of emotional bandwidth, or a lack of understanding about what connecting might mean for them and their family. Their hesitation might also be about their own health issues, fear of not being “good enough,” etc.
Have patience. Sometimes a donor needs some time to work things out with their family members. If you get no reply, try again in a few weeks/months. If they say no, let them know you’re always available if they change their mind. Give them space to hopefully work it out and come around.
Keep the focus on yourself (or your kids), even if you know about other half-siblings. Consider sharing that news in upcoming correspondence.
The mission of the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) is to educate, connect, and support all those in the donor family: parents/prospective parents, donors, other relatives, and most importantly, donor-conceived people. All connecting takes place on the DSR website, but our Facebook group helps fulfill our mission to educate and support because it’s where DSR families come to ask advice, share experiences, and educate themselves about donor industry issues and recent news.
A recent DSR Facebook discussion took a deep dive into the terminology used by some egg and embryo donor parents. This discussion highlighted some confusion regarding what a “biological” or “genetic” parent actually means. A few mothers chimed in:
“I used donor embryos to conceive my daughter. She is not genetically linked to me, but I carried her and gave birth to her. I’m her bio mom, and she has genetic donors.”
“I used a donor egg and donor sperm … I carried them. I am clearly their biological mother — just not their genetic mother.”
“…biological mother and genetic mother are different, though.”
It is also not uncommon for me to hear, when on a phone consult with an egg donor mom, “I carried and delivered my child, so I AM the biological mother.”
To these women, I ask: When your children are older and have taken 8th-grade biology and want to know about their biological mother — the woman who contributed ~50% of their genetics, physical attributes, ancestry, and medical history — what will the conversation sound like? Will you tell them that even though you used an egg donor or a donated embryo, you are the biological mother and the woman who donated the egg isn’t?
A biological parent is the same as a genetic parent. A biological/genetic parent gives approximately 50% of the DNA to a child. Each person has two genetic/biological parents:* One provides the egg and one provides the sperm. Yes, the woman who carries/delivers the child has some influence (epigenetics, diet, stress, etc.) but she is not the biological/genetic parent.
Only the biological/genetic parents can pass along ancestry, physical and mental traits, blood type, and medical and genetic diseases. They are also who the child will match with as “parent” on any DNA test. A surrogate who carries and delivers a child with someone else’s egg is also not the biological/genetic parent — and will not be related via DNA, either.
The person who carries and delivers a baby, whether it’s the mother or a surrogate, is not the biological/genetic mother if she didn’t contribute the egg. Her ancestry, physical traits, and biological predispositions are not passed along to the child.
I was stunned this past January when I was on a panel at an egg clinic in Denver and a mother in the audience stood up to share that because her daughter so closely resembled her, she simply didn’t believe the science. She asked how I might explain the close physical resemblance if her genetics were not passed along to her egg-donor-conceived daughter. Closely watching the clinic staff, waiting for them to gently step in and educate the woman, I was shocked when no one uttered a word. It was then that I understood how some of these mothers could so easily slip into denial, thinking that they were magically genetically related to their children even though their eggs were not used.
I know this discussion is often frustrating for donor-conceived people to hear, as they desire and expect honest communication from their parents. In the DSR Facebook discussion, one offspring explained exactly why proper terminology is so important for all donor families:
“As a DC person, the amount of answers here trying to twist language around to make DC [donor-conceived] kids somehow biologically related to their non-bio parents is making my head hurt. The definition of biological parent is the person who supplied your DNA. That’s what it means. And in certain medical situations, accurate information about this and access to people you are related to can mean life or death, so twisting this around to support your own emotional needs is deeply selfish. If you were really all as ok with the DC process as you claim, you would be ok describing it as what it is, which is a very early form of adoption. There IS a legal process of transferring child custody over from the bio parent to the recipient parent, that’s what all those forms you filled out at the fertility clinic were.
Truly supporting your DC children means not stigmatizing, twisting, and being in denial about the basic facts, which includes not being so secretly bothered by the lack of genetic connection that you try to usurp and manipulate language to muddy and conceal the basic scientific realities of our bodies.”
“Parent” is both a noun (sperm and egg contributors) and a verb (parenting by the parents who raise you and who love you), so shying away from accuracy only indicates that there is something still unsettling about the reality that you don’t have a biological connection to your child. Not having a biological connection to your child in no way diminishes your role as a parent or the importance of carrying and delivering your baby. If you are a non-bio parent of a donor-conceived child it’s important that you work through any grief or sadness you may have about not having that biological connection with your child before you start having conversations with your child about the way they were conceived, which ideally should be when they’re pre-verbal.
Ultimately, this discussion is about the children. We would never want donor children to be afraid to use accurate terminology for fear of hurting their parents. It’s important that as we talk to our children we use honest and accurate terminology and give them the freedom to try on and use whatever terms they’re comfortable with. We want our children to know that they’re a special and unique combination of both nature and nurture and how, through the use of a donor or donors, they came to be.
My kids belong to one of the larger groups of half-sibs on the Donor Sibling Registry. You know the groups—the ones whose numbers make everyone say “OMG!” Our current count is 90* kids, but it changes frequently. A year and a half ago, we were at 68; I’m certain we’ll pass 100 this year. As you might imagine, navigating a group this large can be quite challenging!
One of the downsides of a large half-sib group is simply keeping track
of everyone. After we’d found about two dozen kids on the Donor Sibling
Registry, I created a spreadsheet to keep everyone straight. But now, that
spreadsheet doesn’t even fit on my computer screen. We have a few kids with the
same names, so it can be hard to know who someone means when they’re talking
about one of those kids. Sometimes, all the kids’ names swirl in my head and it
takes me a few seconds to connect a name with a face.
Planning get-togethers has also gotten exponentially more difficult as
our group has grown. Between trying to account for everyone’s schedule and
budget, it’s almost impossible to find a time and place that works for
everyone. And then there’s the issue of accommodating different interests and planning
for individual kids’ dietary restrictions, allergies, and medical conditions. I
want every get-together to be open to everyone, but that just isn’t possible
with this size of group. It’s sad when one of the kids wants to attend a
meet-up but can’t make it work.
As we’ve grown, I’ve also found it hard to make the same connections
with new parents that I once made—and in fact, new kids’ parents rarely reach
out anymore, since many of the kids who now find us do so through DNA, without
their parents’ help (and sometimes without their knowledge). That lack of
parent connection means I don’t know some of the newer kids as well as I know many
of the earlier group, most of whom we found on the Donor Sibling Registry and
connected with when the kids were under 18.
I’ve been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which documents the
evolution of human species from our earliest ancestors to modern Homo sapiens. In the book, the author
asserts that “most people [cannot] intimately know … more than 150 human
beings.” I’m definitely finding this to be true.
My experience seems to be true for the kids as well. We have a pretty big
age range, but the older kids are fairly tight-knit—and I’m sure it’s
intimidating for a new half-sib to jump into their Facebook or Snapchat groups.
Likewise, a certain amount of fatigue has set in, and the excitement level isn’t
as high for everyone as it once was when a new half-sib joins the group. As one
of the adult kids told me, “Every additional member makes it harder to have
meaningful relationships with everyone.” I feel for new kids in a group this
large, who deserve the same welcome and excitement that everyone before them
So far, the younger kids aren’t as involved in the group. A mom of one
of the younger kids shared that her son is “uncomfortable with the idea of being
related to SO many strangers.” It remains to be seen whether the younger kids
will flock together the way the older group did and whether the dynamics will
be any different as newly discovered kids join that group.
Our donor echoes the feeling that it’s difficult to connect with everyone. The sperm banks told him his donations would go to only a limited number of families (which wasn’t true), and they promised him anonymity (which they can no longer guarantee, in the age of commercial DNA testing). He told me, “I don’t feel like I can meaningfully connect with everybody; it’s just too big and spread out and still semi-secret” (semi-secret because some of the kids have found us without their parents’ knowledge, and the donor’s own family didn’t know he had been a donor until very recently).
An Emotional Minefield
I can’t imagine what it feels like to be one in a group of 90 kids,
especially for the half-sibs who are only now stumbling into our group. My own
kids were the first from our donor to learn about and meet a half-sibling, so
they’ve been able to mentally assimilate the numbers as we’ve grown. Still,
they sometimes feel lost in the crowd. Others, who found us at a later age,
feel like “just another number.”
Some of the parents in our group have asked, “When will it end?” I
don’t have a good answer for them. I’m not sure it will EVER end. Our donor
donated at more than one facility, and although he thought that each facility
had a limit, we’ve already passed those numbers. The truth is, sperm banks
can’t adhere to any “official” limits that they promise donors or parents,
because they don’t have accurate records of how many children are born. Although
our group seems huge at 90, there are plenty of groups on the Donor Sibling
Registry that number between 100-200. In a donor-conceived group, there is
ALWAYS the possibility of another half-sibling surfacing. This knowledge can be
unsettling, at a minimum. It can also cause serious stress and anxiety.
All families are complex, and not everyone in a given family gets along. The same is true in donor families—sometimes even more so, since all the kids were raised in completely separate families. Socially, there is no common parent or grandparent guiding the kids’ upbringing. In our case, multiply that by 60, which is our number of separate families. The kids in our group have all been raised differently, with different values and belief systems. This can cause conflicts in a group as large as ours, sometimes between parents and sometimes among the kids.
In case it sounds like being part of a large half-sibling group is a
negative experience, let me share the positive side of it. Our group has
actually faced very few of the emotional downsides. Everyone in our group
respects everyone else’s differences and opinions, and all the parents and kids
are supportive of one another. One of the adult kids shared that “if someone in
the group is going through a tough situation, I feel a responsibility to reach
out and support them, because that’s what family is for.”
The feeling of community in a group like ours is unlike anything else.
Every kid has literally dozens of closely related relatives who care about
them. The kids have a Snapchat group that is constantly active. They talk to
each other about their relationships, they trade memes and jokes, they share
travel tips and stories, and they sometimes even help one another with
homework! Regardless of where they are or what time of day it is, these kids
have someone to talk to—someone who truly cares.
This is important to many of the parents, especially those whose kids
are “only” children. Long after we parents are gone, the kids in our group will
still have family. A LOT of family. If someone isn’t getting along with their
full siblings, or if someone has a disagreement with a half-sibling, there will
always be someone else to provide emotional support. In a group of 90(+), they
will never run out of someone to talk to.
Back when we were aware of about 15 half-sibs, I used to joke that if
one of my kids ever needed a kidney, I knew where to look. But in all
seriousness, having a connection to so many biological relatives has clear
medical benefits. Some of the kids have the same health struggles and can
compare treatment plans. And (God forbid!) if anyone ever does need a stem
cell, bone marrow, or kidney transplant, they are almost certain to find a
match among their half-sibs.
I know it’s important to many of the kids to have a connection to one another, and it’s very important to some of them to have a connection to the donor. Likewise, it’s important to our donor to be connected to the kids. He says he is “constantly amazed by the kids’ accomplishments and travels” and that he thinks about the kids “every day.”
We Are Family
For better or worse, my three kids each have two full siblings and 87 half-siblings (as well as a social dad, stepdad, and biological father). And, like it or not, the number of half-siblings will continue to grow. While it can be tricky to juggle such a large group, the rewards are worth it. The connectedness of a donor family is hard to describe, but it’s very real. As one of the (non-bio) parents in our group put it, “I don’t know the right wording for our relationships, but these kids feel like family to me. Love is the relation.”
*Our group was at 89 when I started writing this blog post, but we got a new 23andMe match in the meantime. [Update: as of May 6, 2020, our group is at 93 half-sibs.]