My story starts in the early 1980’s. My parents have been married for many years but unable to conceive. After exhausting all avenues my parents finally get pregnant with the help of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and I go down in the history books as one of the first collection of IVF babies ever born.
I had a fantastic childhood. Like the best. I’m sporty, confident and successful in school. As the typical ‘Daddy’s girl’, my dad and I are inseparable. He was my world. We were incredibly close. We just got one another.
At around twelve years of age I remember having a huge knot in my stomach. My parents wanted to tell me something. They sat me down and told me about their IVF journey. The fact that I was a “test tube baby” and about how much I was wanted. They showed me all the newspaper articles and said that they tried for years to have me. I was relieved. Relieved as I remember thinking they were going to tell me I was adopted. But I wasn’t I was “just an IVF baby”. Unusual but that was the end of that.
In my late teens I go off to university to study sports science and eventually specialise to Masters level in applied psychology. At 18 I came out as a gay woman; I travelled, I loved, I lost, and just embraced life and all it had to offer.
In my late 20’s I meet my (now) wife. Discussions move on to children. My wife has always dreamed of being a mother and we start looking at options to become parents. We both have good careers and buy a house together. Plans to start a family are put on the backburner for now.
2015 my world falls apart.
“He is not who you think he is” a family member shouts at me in an argument.
“Not who you think he is”. …What my Dad?
It’s a phrase I’ve heard periodically throughout my life. Normally mid argument about one thing or another. This time it is taking place as my parents are looking to divorce.
What does that even mean? I thought maybe the comment was referring to an affair, or possible criminal conviction I wasn’t aware of?! Curiosity got the better of me, so this time I decided to challenge my dad.
“We used a donor to have you, it’s likely I’m not your biological father” my dad spills out in tears. I cant quite believe what I’m hearing. Like I’m free falling into someone else’s life.
A paternity test later and the truth is out. I am a donor conceived person. My parents have no information on the donor other than he was a medical student with similar colouring to my dad. What do I do with this?
For the next two years I don’t really know what I did with my thoughts. Initially I was dismissive about the “donor”. It didn’t matter. My dad was still my dad, but I had this deep sadness. A sadness as though I had lost my lovely dad. The guy who raised me, who I adored. His light hair and fair skin no longer belonged to me. My keen interest in sport, my love of hockey all attributed characteristics I had taken from my dad… all untruths. I looked in the mirror and felt uneasy. The distinctive nose I had always wondered about, having to wear glasses for an eye condition no one else in my family seemed to suffer from, my desire to find out about the human mind and all things psychology… did they come from the donor?
In 2017 my wife and I once again had serious discussions regarding children. My wife longed to have a child and experience pregnancy. With my new discovery of being donor conceived I felt uneasy once again. Would history repeat itself? Would our children grow up and resent us if we used a donor? The truth was that I would never be able to give my wife the biological child she had dreamed of having. “Love is all you need”, but in the case of (in)fertility love is sadly not always enough.
We looked at all options. We began the process of fertility treatment looking at the possibility of using a “known donor”. Usually a male friend or someone who is known to the parents. However, a series of legal loopholes and unsuitable candidates meant this ideal option was unreachable for us. My wife had a very poor egg count and was advised that IVF would be the best approach. We were running out of time. We researched “open ID donors” as an alternative option. Such a donor is recruited by a sperm bank with identifiable details released when a child hits 18. As parents you are afforded more legal security via this method, the candidate is vetted for medical issues and you receive a detailed profile of the donor. The major downside for me was the absence of identity. An identity that would be kept from our unborn child till they reached adulthood. With the clock ticking and doors closing on all other options we decided on this route. Miraculously we were successful after our first round of treatment, and in 2017 my wife gave birth to our beautiful twins; a baby girl and baby boy. We were on cloud nine.
But being donor conceived still haunted me. Yes my children could identify the donor, their biological father at 18, but would this be enough? Although they would be raised in a fully open environment about their conception would they still resent us? After a lot of talking therapy I decided to take a DNA test for myself. Although I was curious about my parent’s “donor” my main motivation for doing one was for my two little ones. I wanted to set the example, showing them that there is nothing wrong with wanting to know your genetic heritage. How could they ever feel comfortable connecting with biological relatives, their biological father if their own parent had ignored the elephant in the room?
So at the end of 2019 I sent off my DNA sample to Ancestry. It was a nervous wait. Would I have fifty half siblings?! Would I match with my biological father directly….
When the results came in I was a little deflated. I had a couple of 2nd cousin matches but nothing significant. No siblings, but I was 30% Russian/Eastern European decent? Strange, must be from my paternal line I assumed.
Fast forward 6 weeks, and through a very helpful 1st cousin once removed I was able to narrow down my biological father to a set of brothers. Both doctors, one lived thirty minutes from me the other in Canada from what I could gather from records and other sleuthing. I managed to get a possible address for one of the brothers and in a moment of madness decided to drive to the address as was only a short distance away. My heart raced as I reached the front door. Dr. #### displayed on the buzzer. It was his house. Oh god what am I doing?? I gingerly knocked. Nothing. There was no one home so I left a hand written letter with some basic info and asked him to contact me if he could so I could explain more.
A month went by. Nothing. Had he got the letter? Was he ignoring it? Was it the right guy?
Then the text came.
“Hi Hayley it’s Jonathan. I got your letter, I’ve been away on a long trip. I would love to talk. Best wishes”.
Wow. This was it. I just knew it was him. And a phone call later he confirmed he was the donor. My biological father. Also a gay guy and who never had children of his own. He said he was thrilled that I had located him as he had always wondered about his donations all those years ago when he was a medical student.
So that was in March 2020. Although the world has gone a little crazy since then we have stayed in touch and met up quite a few times. He has been very welcoming. We have a lot in common and share many personality traits. I have his nose and he also requires glasses to correct an eye problem that no one else in my family suffered with. He specialised in clinical psychiatry, I had studied psychology. And of course we are both gay!
I feel very blessed to have two amazing men in my life. My Dad and my biological father. Things are not always rosy. Forty years of living the wrong narrative is difficult to move on from. I do not blame my parents, the 80s were a different era, but it doesn’t change the daily pang of pain I feel when I realise once again that my dad is not biologically linked to me, but I’m getting there. And of course my dad will ALWAYS be my dad!
Initially, I was angry at my parents for keeping such a life altering secret, however years on from the disclosure I have come to realise that my parents were just trying to do their best in what must have been very different times. There were no online support groups available to them as young parents in the 80’s, no educational story books or leaflets about ‘when’ or ‘how to tell’ your child that they were donor conceived. Ultimately, they were advised to keep the secret by the so called ‘professionals’; and of course no one could have ever foreseen the advancements in DNA testing all those years ago which has led to so many of my peers discovering late in life that they are in fact the product of donor conception.
Despite the heartache, my dad has been a wonderful support throughout all this , and I love him even more for being present in my journey. He is aware I have met Jonathan and he gives me his full blessing. I think this act alone by my dad epitomises the definition of selflessness.
….So that just leaves us with the “Unknown” part of my story. I assumed that my strong eastern European DNA was from my unknown paternal line, however after further research (involving my mum taking a DNA test too!) we discovered that my mum was conceived as a result of an affair with a polish man after the war. My mum had always “suspected” but had never had any concrete evidence. With the help of some distant relatives/lodging records I was able to identify my mum’s biological father, my maternal grandfather. Sadly, he died a bachelor in the 1990s. According to living relatives he often discussed having a “daughter” but normally after one too many drinks, so all assumed he was joking.
So that is my story. If you’ve reached this point thank you for reading. There’s a lot more depth to what actually happened, and is still happening – (including half sibling that I matched with on 23&me) but I have tried to reduce the content for purposes of this piece.
My wife and I continue to learn about donor conceived people, recipient parents and donors in this crazy triad we find ourselves in. We have connected with the twin’s donor sibling families early and are advocates of honesty and openness with our children. I hope they can look to me as they grow and see that although the world of donor conception is not always easy but there are good things to come out of it with honesty, trust and biological connections (if desired) being key to this mechanism.
Final Word: for the past few years I have been a member of a lot of DCP/RP social media groups and often sit on this strange, awkward and sometimes uncomfortable “fence” that I find myself on being both donor conceived and a recipient parent. It saddens me to see so many people bickering, which spiral into hateful comments. These conversations may help people to vent, but they really do not assist in the progression of the subject. With the world moving forward, equal rights making parenting accessible to all types of “family”, children born from third party reproduction is only going to increase.
Therefore, we all need to learn from one another and to listen to all of our stories, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Becky and I are planning to work together to improve the dialogue and understanding between donor conceived people and recipient parents through respectful conversations, empathy and continual learning – join us over in Paths to Parenthub as we will be working with members to unpick the topics that are quite often referred to as the “elephant in the room”.
I want to say a huge thank you to Hayley for sharing her unique and powerful story with us. I connected with Hayley less than two weeks ago and have already had hours of conversation with her (we both love to talk!), sharing insights that are incredibly useful for us as parents to hear, in a relatable, empathetic and understandable way. I’m delighted to have connected with her and am looking forward to working together to provide better support to parents on this path to parenthood.
When we were in the early stages of considering donor conception I heard someone talking about how every year they’d informed their child’s school teacher that their child was conceived using donor sperm. I was taken aback and immediately thought – why make such a big deal out of it? Why do they have to know something that is so private, surely all that matters is that I’d be the mum and Matt would be the dad?
It was difficult back then to consider these types of conversations, I found it hard to allow myself to even imagine having a school-age child and I feared what people might think, that I may feel like or be seen as ‘less-than’ other mums.
Mila starting school last year was a huge trigger point for me, without realising it, I struggled with ‘letting go’, knowing that it was time to start letting her fly into the big wide world. I think most parents can struggle with this, but when you’re so consciously grateful for your child and sensitive to how topics such as donor conception can still be a taboo in society, it’s natural to go into full-on protective mode. My grief definitely resurfaced as I realised that, although I wasn’t always going to be able to control what she’s exposed to, what I could do was prepare her and ensure that those who are caring for her are aware too.
Although we always knew we’d be open with our children, what I hadn’t thought about was how they themselves might openly talk about how they came to be and that in doing so they would be exposed to reactions, rather than myself. We share our story with such pride and are so open about how special they are, that it’s quite conceivable to think that Mila might start talking about Mummy’s broken eggs or that her curls were from the donor’s egg. Thinking of that scenario is exactly why I spoke to her teacher privately, so that she can encourage Mila if she talks about it and so that she is met with understanding, not blank faces. I still get nervous preparing to bring up this topic to someone I hardly know, it feels like a huge over-share to jump straight in with something so personal, but within seconds Mila’s teacher was grateful to know, amazed at everything we’d been through and simply said “I knew Mila was a special girl, now I know she’s an extra special girl”.
So, even though it’s really not a big deal and there’s so much more to our girls than how they were conceived, it’s a big enough deal for me to want comfort in knowing that those who are caring for our girls are comfortable to match our own pride and openness in talking about how they came into this world. It may not even come up, but if it does, I know that they will be empowered and encouraged to be proud of who they are…and that is what any parent would want.
I think this is a really important topic to think about as parents and so I’m hosting a Paths to Parenthub live chat later this year with a Primary School Teacher and PSHE lead to talk about how we can have these conversations and become more aware of different topics taught in schools that may spark conversations around family and genetics, to best prepare us to best prepare them. I’d love to connect with someone involved in the Secondary School curriculum on this topic too, particularly as I believe that donor conception may be more overlooked and less known about than other paths to parenthood, such as adoption. How can we make sure that the school experience is inclusive for all children, recognising all different family make-ups and paths to parenthood that are so much more common in today’s world? If this is something you’d be able to help with, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’d like to join Paths to Parenthub to access all of our other webinar & live chat recordings, as well as our private community app & support groups to allow you to connect with others who understand this path to parenthood, you can do so by clicking here – I would love to welcome you there!
Love, Becky x
Wonderful image from @sketchymuma.
I’m continuing to share experiences from those who are donor conceived themselves, a vital perspective for us to understand and learn from as parents through donor conception.
I’ve found it much more difficult to find voices of those conceived through egg donation, most likely because it’s more recent and less common than sperm donation, but I am very grateful to two egg donor conceived ladies who have very kindly taken the time to share their experiences with us. I asked my Instagram followers what they would like to know and, with so many questions received, I’ve condensed them down into key themes. Last week I shared the experience of Chloe* and today I’m sharing the thoughts and feelings of Martha*, a UK born egg donor conceived individual.
As I did before, I want to acknowledge that some of the experiences and viewpoints in this Q&A series might not be easy for us as parents to hear, especially where elements of their conception have ultimately caused distress to them as individuals. As a parent who used an anonymous donor, I found Martha’s story difficult to read and I know some of you will do too. I think it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean our children will feel the same, but I believe that listening to these views is a big part of preparing ourselves as parents for how our child might feel in the future, whilst also holding onto the perspective that (as Martha acknowledges herself) there can be such a wide spectrum of responses. Martha’s story gives us a particular insight into the impact that donor anonymity has had on her throughout her teenage years, after learning about her conception at the age of 12.
I want to say thank you to Martha for so bravely opening up about something that has clearly been very difficult for her, whilst using her experience to educate us as parents.
How did you find out that you are donor conceived?
When my parents divorced (I think I was about 12 years old at the time), I received a letter from my Dad informing me that both my twin brother and I were egg donor conceived. Apparently my Mum had never wanted me to know so I would not otherwise have been told.
2. How did it make you feel?
It was a shock. My Mum is an amazing person and up until that point in my life I pretty much thought that she had no flaws whatsoever. So, when I found out that I was egg DC and that my Mum had wanted to keep such an important thing about myself secret from me forever purely because doing so made her feel more comfortable, it was especially upsetting, because that action did not tally at all with the sort of person who I thought that she was.
However, I also felt very sad for what my Mum must have gone through. The first thing that I did after finding out was to go and give my Mum a hug and tell her that I loved her. And, as time went on and I processed my feelings, I did come to understand and accept why she had acted as she did.
There was also, from the moment that I found out that I was DC, the strong feeling that I had to find out who my genetic mother is. This feeling still persists over 10 years later and I have struggled a lot with the fact that my parents used an anonymous donor.
3. How would you have preferred to find out?
I would have preferred for there never to have been one pivotal moment of ‘finding out’, but just to have been raised always knowing that this was the case. My aunt and uncle used a traditional surrogate (i.e. with the surrogate’s own eggs) to have my cousin, who has always known about her conception and been in touch with her biological mother and siblings throughout her life. This dynamic seems to have worked a lot better for all involved.
4. Did you feel any differently growing up?
I am not sure whether this question is asking whether, when growing up, I felt differently than I do now about being DC or if, growing up, I felt different from other people because I was DC. So, I’ll answer both.
Growing up, after I found out that I was DC, I felt pretty much the same way as I do now. The most important thing to me then was to discover the identity of my donor parent. That has not changed.
As for whether being DC made me feel any different from other people: not really. I definitely felt jealous that my friends all knew exactly who both of their biological parents were. Also, it did prompt me to be especially observant of how my friends resembled their mothers. I would often look at myself and try to figure out how my genetic mother might look.
5. Often parents can worry about who to tell, how do you feel about it being your story / a family story and would you prefer to control who knows about your conception?
I personally think it’s better if everyone in the family knows. Then it just seems normal to the child and not like some big secret which they have to choose to tell or not tell everyone else.
6. How did/do you feel towards your parents? Have your opinions evolved over time?
My Mum is the person that I am closest to in the world, I love her a lot. My opinions/feelings towards her have not changed. I have not seen my Dad since my parents divorced ten years ago, but that has nothing to do with the fact that I am DC.
7. Do you feel closer to your Dad as your genetic parent?
I haven’t seen my Dad since my parents divorced about ten years ago so no, I am not closer to him. I have a really close relationship with my Mum and genetics don’t come into that.
Even before I discovered that I was egg donor conceived, I noticed that personality-wise I was completely unlike my Mum and much more like my Dad. Regardless of whether genetics have anything to do with that, I wouldn’t say that our differences have caused problems in my relationship with my Mum. I think I was always closer to her than my Dad actually, even before my parents divorced.
8. Do you feel like your mum is your mum?
Yes, definitely. She may not be my genetic mother, but she’s 100% my Mum.
9. Do you wish to find the donor / genetic parent? If so, what do you hope for in finding them? Would you like to meet them?
Yes! This is the main (to be honest probably only) issue that I have with being donor conceived. I have no idea who my genetic mother is and that’s a question that I feel a deep need to answer before I die, just for my own sense of identity if for nothing else. I need to know where half of me comes from.
I have DNA tested on all of the commercial DNA testing sites but have not had any matches high enough to enable me to find her. I will not stop looking until I do find her, but it is extremely upsetting and frustrating that it has to be this way.
If I do ever find the donor, I will be respectful of her wishes when it comes to how much contact we have. Although I would love to meet her at least once, I realise that she may not be comfortable with this. At the very least I would like to know who she is and what she looks like, a bit about her family history, her personality, whether she has any children, why she chose to donate.
I think it’s important to note here that I am not looking for a mother-daughter relationship with this woman. I already have a Mum! I am not sure that I would even want any sort of ongoing relationship, but I desperately need to know who she is and I would love to have certain bits of information about her.
10. Are your parents supportive of you seeking out the egg donor?
My Mum used to hate the idea that I wanted to find my genetic mother. I found that hard because I wanted someone to talk to about my feelings, but whenever I tried to talk to her, she would either get angry and it would lead to an argument or she would give me the silent treatment. This went on for most of the past decade. I don’t know what changed, but over the past few months she has become supportive of the fact that I am looking and will have a proper conversation with me about it and say encouraging things. I am so grateful for this!
11. If your donor is anonymous, do you resent your parents for that choice?
My parents used an anonymous donor. I really struggle with that and am doing everything that I can to try and find out who she is, but I don’t resent my parents for this. When I was conceived, all donor conception in the UK was anonymous so they didn’t have a choice. If I resent anybody, it’s whoever was responsible for the laws surrounding donor anonymity in the UK at the time that I was conceived.
After I found out that I was egg donor conceived and that the donor was anonymous, for some time I felt very out of touch with my identity and myself, which I believe partly lead to me struggling with an eating disorder throughout my teenage years. Of course there were other factors which contributed to my mental health but I feel that if I had been able to learn who my genetic mother was, I wouldn’t have struggled with the identity issues. This is why believe it is so important that we have access to information about where half of our DNA comes from.
It’s worth bearing in mind that not all anonymously conceived DC people do struggle. Many DC people don’t have the same amount of curiosity as others do. My brother isn’t so interested in who our genetic mother is and has been mostly ok and that’s fine. But just because some DC people are ok with not knowing who their donor parent is, I don’t think that licenses us to remove the right of all DC people to know. It’s like saying ok some women don’t want to vote, so let’s not give any of them the right to do it!
12. Have you looked for and found any half siblings?
The HFEA has told me that I do not have any DC siblings. The donor had no children at the time of donation but I do not know whether she has since had children of her own or not. I would guess that probably she has. I am on all of the commercial DNA testing sites looking for the donor and have not found any half siblings but I’d be happy to find any.
13. Would you like your parents to support you with this?
Yes. My Mum’s support in my search means so much to me. It helps me to feel that I am not doing anything wrong or that I should be guilty about, and in general it’s just nice to have the people closest to you be supportive of the things which matter most to you.
14. Have you ever experienced comments about you looking like / not looking like your mum? How did it make you feel?
I look absolutely nothing like my Mum and I remember as a child feeling a bit confused about this, but so far as I can remember nobody has ever remarked on it although plenty of people have said that I look like my Dad.
15. Have you ever had any bad experiences / comments from friends and family who knows?
I don’t talk about this with family or friends because when it comes to donor conceived people wanting to find their donor parent, people can be extremely judgmental and lacking in empathy. So no, I have not personally had any bad experiences/comments from family and friends.
16. What advice would you give to recipient parents?
I understand that it must be really hard to be going through fertility problems, sometimes it can be forgotten that when you’re desperate for a child of course anonymity isn’t necessarily going to be the first thing on your mind, but my number one piece of advice would be not to use an anonymous donor. Known from birth would be a best case scenario (I personally desperately wanted to know who my genetic mother was long before I turned 18), but I know that that isn’t always possible or realistic. Open ID at 18 is in my opinion also a positive thing, certainly much better than forever anonymous.
Although I would always encourage parents to try and go for a known/open ID route if possible, I realise that sometimes that isn’t possible e.g. for financial reasons people may have to go abroad for fertility treatment where it is all completely anonymous. I think what would be great would be if fully anonymous donation was banned everywhere, but that’s on the fertility industry, not recipient parents, or perhaps rather it’s the responsibility of governments in different countries to sort out the issue with anonymity and bring in more appropriate regulations with respect to that.
Very often, I hear recipient parents assume that the main source of negative feelings from donor conceived people is that the details of their conception was kept a secret from them and that, if they are up front and honest with their children from the start, using an anonymous donor won’t be a problem. In my personal experience, this is not the case. What I have struggled with most is actually the fact that my donor parent is anonymous, not the fact that the truth was kept from me for 12 years. Being honest from the start is definitely important but that doesn’t mean that the issue of anonymity is not important at all. Being honest won’t ‘cancel out’ a child’s desire to know their genetic origins. Donor conceived people who have always known that they were donor conceived can still be very upset about the fact that their donor parent is anonymous.
Another misconception that I frequently hear goes along the following lines “It doesn’t matter if you use an anonymous donor, because commercial DNA testing means that no donors can ever be truly anonymous anymore.” Whilst a lot of DC people have been able to find their donor parent using commercial DNA tests, it is not a guaranteed thing. I personally am on all of the commercial DNA testing sites and have had numerous people who are very experienced in tracking biological family via DNA try to help me, but with no luck. My matches are just far too low. Commercial DNA testing is very new still and who knows how popular it might be in ten years time. It might take a long time but it’s very likely that eventually someone close enough will test so that if your daughters wanted to they could find the donor via DNA sites. I hope that happens in my case anyway!
I think especially since you (Becky) are so supportive of your children, there’s every chance that your daughters will not be upset by it. It’s such a spectrum. I just think it’s important for people to have the right to find the donor but at the same time there are people, like my twin brother, who aren’t so interested in it.
17. Do you feel like your parents understand how you feel about being donor conceived?
Since I am not in contact with my Dad, I will answer with regards to my Mum. I don’t think that she fully understands how I feel when it comes to my desire to identify the donor, but she is trying and I appreciate that.
18. Is there anything you wish they would understand more?
I would of course love my Mum to understand completely why I want to find the donor. But, in general, I think it is really hard for someone who is not in this situation to understand how it feels. Before I discovered that I was DC, I was definitely guilty of not understanding why adopted people would want to know who their biological parents were, or why my aunt felt it so important for my cousin to know her biological mother (my cousin was conceived using a traditional surrogate with the surrogate’s own eggs).
So, I appreciate that since my Mum lacks the first hand experience that I now have, she’s not going to be able to grasp precisely why or how it is important to me to find the donor. Given that, I don’t think it would be fair of me to expect more of her.
19. What have you found to be the most difficult part of being donor conceived?
The fact that the donor is anonymous. Actually, that’s pretty much the only part of being DC which I struggle with. I will not get closure until I find out where half of myself comes from, but the searching and the uncertainty of when or if I will get the answers that I so desperately want and need is emotionally exhausting.
20. What have you found to be the best part of being donor conceived?
I suppose the fact that I exist at all! And also the fact that I got to have my Mum as my mother.
*The name Martha has been used to protect anonymity.
If you want to learn more about the support, connection and resources on offer through my platform Paths to Parenthub do follow the link below. There are already many recorded resources to support you on your donor conception journey, including conversations with experts about talking to our children, examining our common fears and chats with other recipient parents and donor conceived individuals themselves. There’s also a private community, away from social media, for members to join and connect with each other for support. I would love to welcome you there! www.pathstoparenthub.com