After a year of being married and providing pediatric genetic counseling in a brand-new city, I started to feel settled. My personal and professional lives were coming together, and I was gaining confidence in myself and my abilities. Then, my mom visited in April 2020 and shared news that changed everything. “When we went through IVF to have you, we used an egg donor.” Shocked does not even begin to describe how I was feeling. I looked in the mirror and seemed like a stranger.
I quickly dove into the world of donor conception and found an online community that made me feel less alone. There were thousands of others like me who discovered they were donor conceived later in life. I immediately ordered DNA testing kits putting my previously held hesitations about these products aside. I had to know everything. I called the IVF clinic my parents had used and ran into one dead end after another. The only information my parents were given was that the donor looked like my mom (which explains our resemblance), wore glasses, and passed a basic health screen. The clinic cited their anonymity policy and refused to give me any information, though admittedly, they weren’t even able to find my mom’s records. I was panicked about what ticking time bomb could be hidden in my own DNA, a fear so many patients have shared with me. Half of my family history suddenly became blank, and the irony of my chosen career path felt like a slap in the face.
With time, I’ve become good at compartmentalizing this strange new frontier, but sometimes it does seep into my work as a genetic counselor. I can’t help but be personally affected by certain situations. I spend more time talking with families about communicating a diagnosis to their child, hoping to help my young patients avoid the shock that I experienced. Cases where an adoption or nonpaternity are a secret are especially difficult and always give me pause.
Admittedly, before this news I talked about egg or sperm donation like it was an option on a menu. Now, I give it the attention it deserves. In the fertility world, all rights go to the donor and the receiver, and none to the child that is created, even when done with the best intentions. I do not have the right to my own healthcare information, and critical details about my donor sit collecting dust in a storage facility. I certainly don’t fault my parents for their decision to use an egg donor, and I’m grateful they did, but they were vastly unprepared to discuss this complicated situation with me. Now, fortunately as fertility treatments continue to advance and more couples turn to donor conception to fulfill their dream, there are resources. There are books and articles and YouTube channels that have given donor conceived people a voice. There are also children’s books and numerous online resources to help parents talk to their kids early and often. This will make all the difference.
Early one morning while I was getting ready for work, I found my biological mom. I immediately saw the resemblance in her photo. I reached out and after a few stressful weeks of waiting, she got back to me. It was amazing how much we had in common. She had recently traveled to New Zealand, as had I. She loved craft beer and shared my liberal views. She even lived a couple blocks from one of my first apartments. My previous employer’s parking lot backed into her front yard, and I can’t imagine how many times our paths may have crossed. She described my contact as a “beautiful surprise.” And while I have no expectations about our relationship moving forward, hearing that, to me, has been enough. Well, that, and all the new family health information she provided. Now the dust has settled, and I look in the mirror and am able to recognize myself again.