So Many Siblings

There is a difference between sperm and egg donations which are utilized in assisted reproduction to enable a couple to become parents. A man donating sperm can father a lot of genetically related children – which is now becoming apparent to many of the maturing individuals who owe their lives to that process. It is a lot more complicated and involved for the woman who donates her eggs. Generally, she is never going to be involved in the number of offspring that a man donating sperms can theoretically create.

Donor conceived persons do have some concerns in common with adoptees as it relates to their medical family history and cultural genetics and the unknowns that such conceptions entail. Therefore, my blog today is inspired by a story in The Guardian about Chrysta Bilton. Her father was a prolific sperm donor. In her 20s, she discovered that she had dozens, and most likely hundreds, of biological siblings growing up all over the US. That the man she knew only as her dad, the one who struggled with homelessness and drug addiction, was secretly one of the most prolific sperm donors at the California Cryobank.

Chrysta’s story is complex, worth the time to read it, if it interests you. I was a young adult in the 80s and settled down into the married life that is mine late in that decade but I have some sense of what it was like. My life does not resemble Chrysta’s in the least really but there were the unconventional choices that I made as well – to leave my daughter with her paternal grandmother (I was already divorced from her dad) while I tried out driving an 18-wheel truck, which I found I could do. That led to taking off to live without much of a safety net in the marijuana growing region of Humboldt county. We had some bags of dried beans and the guys (I was the only woman and did the cooking and cleaning up afterwards) shot critters for us to eat. We also got some Salmon from the local indigenous people. Those were my wild days.

I do have some understanding of the issues related to donor conception. With the advent of inexpensive DHA testing, something that seemed like it could be kept private within the closest family, is not something that can or should be kept private today. I’m grateful my husband and I have always been open, honest and transparent about our own choices regarding how we became the parents of our two sons.

Chrysta ends her story with this contemplation – What is family? What does it mean to be in someone’s family? What responsibilities do you have to those people? Meeting her 35 new siblings, she realized “something shared between all of us is that we all had a mother who desperately wanted us to exist.” That is a truth, children born by assisted reproduction are not accidents. They were intended. I believe that is an important factor.

In Britain today, donor children born since 2005 have the right to find out the identity of their biological parents when they reach 18. This “removal of anonymity” law came about after studies found that adopted and donor-conceived children benefited emotionally from knowing who their biological parents were, regardless of whether or not they had any contact with them.

As of late 2021, in the US, it is still technically possible to have anonymous donations. There is a Right to Know movement that is seeking to unseal closed adoption records but that has only been accomplished in about half of these 50 United States jurisdictions.

Chrysta’s book about her experiences is titled – A Normal Family. Her book is available in the US at all the usual booksellers.

Reunion Questions

If at 17 years old, adopted from foster care with no contact with your birth mother your entire life but now with an opportunity to ask some questions . . .

What would you as this adoptee ask your birth parents ? If you have been through such a reunion, what were the questions that you thought, in hindsight, weren’t helpful to potentially building a relationship ?

Some responses –

Ask for the family medical history. This one is one of the more important ones. This is what drove my mom to try and find her original mother and/or obtain her adoption file.

Ask how many biological siblings you have. This one lets you know if you are the only child of your birth parents or did they go on to have other children, maybe through a remarriage to someone who was not your original father as well.

Ask for the reason they chose whatever decisions they had in their power to make that led to you ending up in foster care. This one could be a tricky one, it may lead to defensiveness or in the best possible situation, at least regret, and even better, ultimately to a radical change in lifestyle.

If they relinquished for adoption, did they decide to do that early on at the beginning of the pregnancy or at the last moment just before birth or just after ? In both of the cases of my adoptee parents relinquishments, it appears that their original mothers actually tried very hard to keep their first born child, and in the case of my mom, the only child born to her mother.

Ask who your biological father was. Does she know how to contact him ?

On a sweeter, more intimate note (I know this was the kind of information I yearned for related to my mom’s mother that finally at the end of most of my discovery journey, I finally received from my mom’s cousins, the daughter’s of her youngest uncle, who were about my age) – ask her what her favorite foods are, what is her favorite color. Ask about her childhood memories and ask her to tell you something about her extended family members.

One says – “I really wanted to look at my birthmother, hear her voice, and look at her handwriting. Basically I wanted to see if I could find that mirror of who I am.” This is the personal connection many adoptees crave. I do believe my mom yearned for these kinds of experiences. I now have the adoption file that was denied her and one of the treasures are two examples of her personal writing, a post card and a brief letter (though I also have her signature on the surrender papers).

Another interesting perspective that I saw even with my mom who wanted something, though my dad claimed not to want it at all – it is a strange juncture for any adoptee to arrive at, when been raised by people with whom the adoptee has not genetic or biological connection but who were the actual parents and sibling’s in the childhood family –

I told them that I was not ready for a full relationship with them. I wanted them to know I was alive and wanted them to know I had an amazing childhood. My mom told me that as a mother, she would want to know that everything turned out okay for her child. In one case, the biological father started calling the adoptee, “daughter.” He was buying her things and saying “I Love You.” This made her feel very uncomfortable and so, she asked that he not do those things anymore. For this adoptee, she was not his daughter. Happily, he accepted her boundaries. She shares the rest of the story going forward – they are now Facebook friends. Today he is a little more involved in my her daily life. We talk by phone from time to time. She admits that she still does not have the feelings towards him that a raised biological child would (though some of my friends do not have good relationships in adulthood with their genetic, biological family today).

And sadly, this is always a possibility – “I’ve reached out to my birth mom and have been shut out – no answers to my questions. No desire for a relationship.” Yet, there is something you can do in this situation to bring you closure and comfort. Write a letter. Tell her everything you want her to know about you, your childhood, who you are now as a person. In this way, you end feeling you said everything you needed to say.

Almost Good Enough

So this morning, I was reading the story of a couple who adopted a baby and finally got around to fulfilling their intention (when she reached the age of 6) to make this understandable to the child.  They used this book to open their discussion.

What is interesting is that within this adoption discussion community it wasn’t the book or that they had “done the right thing” in making their child aware of the circumstances around her entry into this family, but the issue turned out to be no effort to remain in contact with the original mother.  The couple’s response was – “Currently we do not have contact. When our daughter wishes to seek her out, of course.”

That did not sit well with this group.  She was told – “You shouldn’t wait until your daughter asks.”  And she was questioned as to why she had not.  Furthermore, “If you wait, it could be harder to find her first mother or something could happen to her (there’s no shortage of adoptees who have searched and found a grave at the end of the search – and I will note here, that is what my own adoptee mom found and it broke her heart). Also, what if she goes on to have other kids and your daughter has siblings? It’s another important series of conversations you guys need to prepare to have with your daughter.”

Another adoptee goes on to share, “I was too scared to ever ask anything about my birthmom because I sensed how anxious that made my adoptive mom. So, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that your daughter may have that loyalty we talk about adoptees having and not want to upset you guys by asking questions.”  I have seen this my self with my niece, who my sister gave up at birth for adoption.  It is a real and deep concern for many adoptees.  Very common.

Adoptees deserve their truth – however that looks – and however they process it.  It’s the adoptive parent’s job to be ready to help their child navigate the issues and to be a soft landing place as the reality sinks in.