Your dad is still your dad

By Melissa Daniels

“Your dad is still your dad.” Donor conceived people hear this a lot. And sure, on paper and in my heart he is, but he’s not in the nucleus of my every cell. He’s not in the chromosomes of my children, no matter how hard or how long I wished he was. 

My mom knew this to be true when she snapped back with “Well, your dad’s not your dad” during an argument some 13 years ago. That moment is salient to this day. It was as though a ship wrecked into our home bringing water with it. I was sure I’d drown before I got any closure. 

My dad was already dead for seven years when I found out he wasn’t my biological father. For seven years I was able to cling to the idea that I was and always would be a part of him. But finding out that comfort I coddled in was a lie—that I was not a part of him—hit me like a ton of bricks. Half of me was a lie. What’s worse, I had nothing to fill in the void. Nothing to make sense of where I came from, who I came from. Whose DNA I carry and the history behind it. 

For years, I asked my mom about my conception. She failed to recall anything, either intentionally or coincidentally. I’d browse the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), and wonder if any of the people there could be connected to me. But it was all fruitless. He could be anyone, they could be anyone. It seemed like I’d never know. I’d never have a donor number, I’d never have a profile, a face, or a name to put to the person who is half of me. 

Still, I only entertained the idea in existential angst. I didn’t want to be donor conceived. I wanted Dad to be MY DAD. Especially with the nature of my relationship with my mom. We were always at odds and things between us were often tumultuous at best. How could I be related to her, and not him? I wanted to believe it was a lie. 

When I heard about 23andMe in 2013, I thought it’d be my chance to get some answers. I recall being perplexed by some Hispanic DNA in my results, and the Hispanic surnames in my matches. Though, none of them were closer than a second cousin. 

A few months passed. Then, in March I get an email notification from 23andMe. A girl messaged me saying we’re sisters and she has another sister who is also donor conceived with the same donor. I was shook. Who are these people? What do they know? What can they tell me about who I am? 

I decided to do an AncestryDNA test to see if there were more siblings on that database. While I anxiously waited for my results I learned about forensic genealogy so that I could piece together these second cousins and find out who this mystery man is for not just myself, but for my sisters too. I made an extensive tree with surnames for his biological family. I was so close. I couldn’t wait to see what leads I could get from my Ancestry matches to fill in the missing pieces. 

My results came in late one evening. I went straight to the matches. I was floored to see the top match listed as “Parent/Child”. I shared 3,460cM with this person. It was him, it was my biological father—our biological father—there on Ancestry. He’d been on there for a few years already. It didn’t make sense at first, the name connected to the username didn’t match any of the surnames in the mirror tree I made. Later, I’d find out that he was adopted (great screening practices, Zygen). 

If he hadn’t tested to find out about his birth parents, particularly his birth father, we’d probably never be able to find him. There wasn’t an easily traceable paper trail connecting him to his birth mother in my mirror tree. I never anticipated matching him. That would be too easy. I thought at best I’d find some more donor conceived siblings. Not the donor himself and his natural son.

I had no clue what to say in a message to this man. How do you casually say “Hey I’m your biological daughter. Thanks for jacking off into a cup a few decades ago so I could exist. My parents really appreciated it. Oh, by the way, what’s your mental and physical health history?” 

I Googled his username and found his name and a photo. It’s weird seeing yourself in a stranger. I sent the photo to my sister and the shock and awe was real. We all had really low expectations and to have come so far and learned so much in two months time was akin to an avalanche. 

My first message was pretty short and concise. I thanked him on behalf of my parents for his donation and asked if he could tell me anything about himself and what I should know as far as medical history is concerned. 

Three long days went by without a response. Frustrated, I postulated a second message to him. If he wasn’t going to open up to me about him, I’d open up to him about me. I told him I have my own family, my own house, and my own life. I stressed I wasn’t out for his money or support. I figured it’d go one of two ways, it’d either compel him to reply or make him run for the hills. I was so anxious. I had no clue what to expect. 

Some time later I got an email. It was him. He introduced himself and sent a photo of him and his wife. He told me how they’re both adopted, and how they understand the curiosity and the questions that come with it. He said he’d be happy to answer my questions. I forwarded the email and photo to my sister and we were both shocked at his openness and empathy, even more shocked by the openness from his wife. I’m not too familiar with luck and what it feels like, but this totally felt lucky. 

We exchanged pictures, he told me about his kids—my siblings—and I talked to him about my kids. I learned he’s a lefty like my son, his kid’s eyes match my siblings’ eyes and my daughter’s. I learned where my lips and chin dimples come from. We share interests, too. My unwavering interest in politics and policy came from him, something I never really related to with the parents who raised me. I never imagined there’d be so many similarities between us all, him and all of his spawns, all of my siblings. 

I didn’t imagine it could ever feel like family. I don’t think any of us did. It’s been over a year now, we’ve met up twice (his family and several of us siblings), and we found another brother and sister along the way too. Poor dude went from three to eight kids in a year. “Congratulations, you’ve got millennials!”

I’m grateful that he and his wife have been so welcoming and such great sports about everything. As I mentioned my expectations were low, like down there deep in the gutters with Pennywise low. 

Still, my DC siblings and I often feel we have to be somewhat reserved about the good and happy things to come from this as to not hurt our out our families, or make them feel replaced. But the truth is, biological or not, your family isn’t replaceable. The people you have known your entire life will always have value, that’s not something that can easily be wiped away. People always wonder after their first child how they could possibly love another as much as they love their first. Then they have another and realize love isn’t a limited resource; there isn’t a capacity to our ability to love and be loved in return.

I don’t need to hear “Your dad is still your dad”. I know that. I need to be heard. I need people to understand that one does not take away from the other, that my biological father and my dad both have value in their own right. I simply have a third (albeit complex) branch to my family tree. 

I’ve decided to keep my last name when I get married and hyphenate, because it’s the only tie I have to my Dad. The time he spent raising and loving me will always have value and will always matter to me. However, knowing the source of certain facial features, aspects of my personality, and traits my kids have are important too. 

I waited 13 years for closure. 13 years to make sense of who I am and why I am the way I am, why my kids are the way they are, why they both have blue eyes when neither me nor my parents did. 13 years is a long time to wonder about your identity. Still, during all that time, I always knew and never doubted that my dad is my dad.

Top photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash; all other images courtesy of the author