The Hidden Cost of My Parents’ Secrecy
The day after I found out I was donor-conceived, I spent the afternoon walking through the streets of midtown Manhattan, wondering if anyone I passed by could be a relative. The information I had about the anonymous sperm donor my parents used was minimal: He was Jewish and had been in medical school in the ’80s. As I strolled by hordes of Jewish-looking middle-aged men, with the same brown eyes and brown hair my genes expressed, the unlikelihood of ever meeting my biological father weighed on me.
I was proud of myself for being realistic. It was borderline laughable, contemplating an accidental run-in with or street-sighting of a genetic relative. Yet I felt a fierce urgency to find out whose DNA I was walking around with: 50%. An equal amount to my mother’s.
My parents were in their thirties when they found out my dad was infertile. It was the 1980s, they’d recently married, and they wanted to start a family — but couldn’t the biological way. They’d turned to artificial insemination with anonymous donor sperm to have me, to build their family. But they also made the decision to tell no one — not even me.
I was in my early twenties when they course corrected and decided to tell me the truth. My mother likes to remind me that I was wrapped in the cocoon of her womb when this story was created. She assures me I wasn’t yet alive when they made the decision to hide the truth from their friends and family forever. She is clear-minded: Their choice is their choice. It has nothing to do with the person I am.
The truth about my DNA and the lie my parents had perpetrated for so long was destabilizing.
Still, I was raised with a false belief about myself. Unearthing that I was donor conceived and that I had been living the lie that my dad was my biological dad for more than two decades did something to me. When my mother revealed the secret, I cowered, unflinchingly, feeling decrepit and alone. The truth about my DNA and the lie my parents had perpetrated for so long was destabilizing in a way I’d not known before.
Worst of all, the burden of secrecy was passed on to me, my father’s shame a disease transmitted to me from birth. Once I knew I was not my father’s biological daughter, I was intent on being honest with those around me. But my parents demanded that I maintain the facade they had intricately constructed for so many years.
The potential consequences of telling people the truth felt enigmatic, incalculable, and overwhelming. Every time I raised the topic with either of my parents, there was a threatening energy in the air, as though telling people could destroy them. For a time, this newly revealed identity felt like it would destroy me. No matter how many times I attempted to change their minds, to get permission to speak freely, they remained obdurate. Eventually, I stopped bringing it up.
Soon after my parents told me the truth, I spoke with a friend about curveballs and secrecy. I chose my words carefully, avoiding specifics on anything considered precious, private — the things that I wasn’t supposed to talk about.
“I like a little twist in my plot,” she said, winking at me. She often spoke coyly, even cryptically, and her statement made me question whether she was hoarding profound secrets as well. Are we all walking around hiding parts of ourselves from each other? I knew my parents had kept a secret for a long time, so who else was hiding things from me?
At that moment I wished I could share my new reality with my friend. Instead, I dropped it, and we fell asleep.
Throughout my life, I’ve integrated copious changes into my identity. I fell in love for the first time and embraced being somebody’s girlfriend. There was the time when, after months of protesting, my mother allowed me to quit my stint at her church, leading me to newfound religious exploration. There was the shift when, in the middle of high school, I began partaking in moderate drug use and butted up against sober friends who were appalled at my curiosity. All of these identity shifts were parts of the overall picture I had of myself.
I was not my father’s biological daughter. I was part of a genetic lineage I knew little about.
But my parents’ secret was the first time I’d been thrust into a new identity against my will. My mother’s confession felt less like a trickle and more like a flood. It was easy to entertain a cascade of thoughts, each childhood memory taking on new meaning in light of this information. I was not my father’s biological daughter. I was part of a genetic lineage I knew little about. And I was a donor-conceived person, an identity I had so little context for. It was an onslaught of new identities to grapple with.
I meandered around the city that afternoon, peering up at skyscrapers and calculating how much money my parents must have spent on sperm, the expensive multiple rounds of artificial insemination. Every attempt at conception was another vacation they’d never take. I felt uneasy thinking there had been a price tag on the DNA in my cells. If my dad hadn’t had his high-paying job in the ’80s, perhaps they would have succumbed to not raising children. My existence was tied to social class and the ability to purchase frozen sperm.
I felt like I was collapsing under a ton of unknowns. What else didn’t I know about myself? The thought made my head spin — unless it was New York’s signature scent of garbage mixed with exhaust fumes and day-old urine. Either way, I had to sit down. I stepped into the nearest sushi joint, took a seat by the window, and ordered some miso soup.
Looking out at the sea of people, I felt resigned to what felt like the most probable outcome: I would never successfully track down my biological father.
Still, I wanted nothing more than to find him.