Searching For My Donor Dad
Hana R. Alberts 12.01.08, 6:00 PM ET
Newly minted doctors--some beaming, some brooding--stared up at me from their yearbook's glossy pages.
Self-conscious, I scanned photo collages for any recognizable feature. Like those deep creases that form when I smile and my cheeks puff out too far over my mouth. Or perhaps a short stature ran in that side of the family. (I'm very nearly 5'4".) Scrutinizing the male fourth-years for hair lighter and straighter than my mom's, I felt uneasy.
I wasn't looking for a dad. I was looking for a donor.
In 1984, my mom wanted to have a baby. She was unmarried and 38 at the time, with a Ph.D. in educational psychology, but adoption agencies denied her an infant because her household would have only one income. Artificial insemination became her only recourse. She was, as they say, a single mother by choice.
She was also a pioneer. In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, 52,041 infants were born as a result of assisted reproductive technologies, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Experts estimate the fertility industry is now worth $3.3 billion.
There aren't comparable figures for 1984, but it's telling that the CDC only started tracking these procedures in 1995. Today, women can peruse baby pictures, SAT scores and page-long descriptions of potential donors. Two decades ago, none of this elaborate scaffolding existed.
My search--which my mom blessed because, heck, she was curious, too--started off on a promising note. The two doctors my mom saw are both still practicing. I called one twice and even stood in his office lobby so I could catch him between patients. He looked at me kindly and said, vaguely, that he remembered my mom and would call me back. He never did.
So I tried the other doctor, whose receptionist, Dorothy, told me apologetically that, at the time, the doctors only knew the height, hair color and ethnicity of the sperm donor. (Mom has always told me her donor was 5'7" or taller, had brown hair and was white.) Patients' medical charts--not that they would have contained any identifying information--are destroyed after 20 years. Well, shoot. I am 24.
Other doctors said--and Dorothy confirmed--that the donors at the time were Mount Sinai Hospital residents or medical students who needed a few bucks. (This was common. An NYU doctor who graduated from its medical school in 1986 told me it scared her to think about how many children her male classmates must have fathered.) An affiliated doctor called a beeper number when he had a patient primed and fertile and, a few hours later, a courier buzzed the doorbell bearing the sperm.
So I began by asking the Mount Sinai alumni association for a list of residents in the department of obstetrics and gynecology. Only three names surfaced; they didn't return my calls. I leafed through yearbooks in the hospital's archives and creepily called a dozen men who looked somewhat like me. I was prepared to ask them if they had ever been approached to donate when they were in school. No one got back to me.
I reached out to every doctor listed in an August 1983 newsletter article lauding the team that made possible the hospital's first successful test tube pregnancy. I figured they would know where the sperm came from. At least one team member had died. Another is now at Northwestern, and her secretary asked me to explain more about myself and what I wanted to know. I still haven't heard back.
The head of the ob-gyn department at the time, Nathan Kase, is still seeing patients. Reaching him on his desk phone, he was downright rude. "I'm not going to sit and go further with you about something you're curious about," he said, disparagingly emphasizing that penultimate word. I was shocked at his tone; hot tears suddenly sprung into my eyes.
That felt odd because, growing up, I never felt bad or even unsure about the way I was born. Secure in my identity as a die-hard New Yorker, a bookworm, a wander-lustful traveler and a fan of musicals, I take after my mother in myriad ways. But I like baseball. And she can't write. She's so laid-back that I didn't have a curfew. By comparison, I'm pretty Type-A.
Where, I wondered, did those traits come from? More importantly--still flinching at Dr. Kase's response--did I even have a right to wonder?
I have a hazy memory of explaining matter-of-factly to some nursery school playmate that, well, I just didn't have a daddy, and then flitting on to some other matter of importance, like glue. There were no secrets at the kitchen table where I spent my childhood, no black holes in my sense of self.
But this search rattled it. I now harbor a somewhat subversive interest in the donor--even though it feels a little like an insult to my mom to do so when I am so damn lucky. Inane questions continue to surface. Does he also tan easily? (My mom just gets freckles.) Does he too concoct bizarre culinary combinations that grossed Mom out, like tuna fish and grape jelly sandwiches?
"I think it's innate to want to know where we come from," comforted Wendy Kramer, the founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, a Web site through which parents, donors and their children can find each other. "No one is there looking for a dad. No one wants money. It's really simple. We just want to know where we come from."
Browsing around Kramer's site, I came across a post by a woman who had been inseminated with sperm from a Mount Sinai donor and given birth to a son just three weeks before my mom went into labor. I shivered. Then I reached out to her.
I found April Martin, a psychologist and author of a gay and lesbian guide to parenting who has three children conceived with donor sperm. Her kids are in their twenties, crack jokes about their daddy in the freezer and have a mild interest in finding out his identity. But April's children also grew up sheltered by a close-knit network of other kids who had donor dads.
"So they never felt strange," she explains, adding that the only children she's met with a passion to track down their donors are raised by just one parent. "My kids have two moms, so there's a sense of completeness about the family. There's no one missing."
I mentally parsed my family tree. My great-grandmother immigrated from Hungary and her name's on the wall at Ellis Island. She and her husband were tailors on the Upper East Side decades before it became an impressive zip code. My grandma toiled in a factory. My uncle works for the Pentagon and makes homemade granola. My first cousin and I do crossword puzzles together. No one is missing. How can I miss someone I never had to begin with?
And, I wondered, what would I really discover if I found him? Olivia Pratten, a 26-year-old Canadian journalist who has been hunting for her sperm donor for years, recently filed a class action suit to reveal donor records in British Columbia. She has a theory about what's missing, what about our identities needs to be redefined or, more accurately, filled in.
"It's like missing the first chapter in the story of your life," she said. "The rest of the pages would make more sense if I knew what the first chapter was. It's not that I don't know who I am. I do. I just feel like there's several important points that I would like more information on."
I, too, want to know what those pages hold--even though, as little as a month ago, I didn't think I even cared. I believe, now, that everyone needs a creation myth, a story we constantly revise and tell ourselves and others about where we come from. It's how we place ourselves neatly, reassuringly, into a larger narrative.
Eventually, I hope to find not just a likeness in a yearbook but an external source to which I can attribute, or assign responsibility, why I am the way I am. If my first chapter is still blank, at least now I have a preface. And for this writing and rewriting, there's no deadline.