When I was 20, and home from college, my mother was planning a reunion of a theater company she and my father had belonged to in the years around the time of my birth. I was in another room when she got a telephone call from a woman accepting the invitation to the reunion. It was the first time my mother and she had been in contact since that time. I overheard my mother’s responses to the usual “where are you now” questions. As a former actress, my mother’s voice carries, and I will admit to eavesdropping, because that time of my parent’s lives was and remains intensely glamorous and nostalgic to me.
Then my mother’s voice and responses became tense and guarded. I heard the following: “How did you know that? I didn’t know you knew that.” “Yes, of course, she’s fine, she’s wonderful, she‘s doing well in college.” “No, no, no … he‘s been a perfect father to her. She adores Tony [my father‘s name] and he adores her.” “No, he’s never treated her any differently and she believes he’s her father.” “Please, please don’t say anything about that to anyone. That would break a lot of hearts if that got out.” Then the conversation turned back to the caller’s life.
You know the expression, “my blood ran cold”? It’s not just a saying. Sitting in the next room, I was frozen. I left the house and walked for hours, sobbing hysterically, and mentally replaying the one side of the conversation over and over. That’s why I can, 33 years later, still repeat it word for word. There was no way to interpret my mother’s words in any benign way: My father was not my father.
I returned home and dinner was about to be served, some stepsiblings were visiting. I pulled my mom into the bathroom and confronted her. She wept as I did, and denied everything, finally saying that my conception was due to early, primitive fertility treatments, insemination, but with my father’s sperm. The first “test tube baby” had been born by then, and my mother said she didn’t want me to feel like a “test tube baby,” that I might feel strange that it wasn’t in the usual way. I didn’t believe her. She asked me to smile in the mirror and said, “You have your father’s smile.” That may be true, but otherwise I look exactly like my mother. It proved nothing to me. I could tell she was even more upset than I was, so I pretended to agree with her. I didn’t raise the subject again.
For the next five years I knew part of the truth but not all. Had my mother, unlikely as it seemed, had an affair? By then, donor insemination was performed openly, but what about the 50’s? Would there be any records? I tried to get my birth records, they revealed nothing, a normal birth. I could not obtain my mother’s pre-natal records, though I did find out that she switched OB/GYN’s in mid pregnancy. I even asked my godfather, a close family friend and an emotional second father to me, with no children of his own, whether he was my biological father. Bless him, he claimed ignorance of the whole thing and said, “I’m not, honey, but I wish I was.” If my dad wasn’t my biological parent, I wish he was too.
Finally, a friend’s mother who had been a nurse since the 40’s, and who knew of my mother’s first OB/GYN, yielded to my questions. She had heard rumors that this doctor would sometimes do favors for infertile couples. However, in the 1950’s, it was worth his license if the facts came out, and he would never admit anything to me. He was long retired and had moved, anyway. I was certain I was donor-conceived, the only question was whether my parents knew the donor.
When I was 25, by this time married and in law school, I confronted my mother again late one night. She denied, denied, wept and denied. I asked the ultimate question of my mother, a deeply spiritual woman: “On your soul, Mom? On your SOUL, who is my father?” It was dirty pool and I knew it, but I wanted the truth from her, and it worked. The doctor had indeed done a favor. She told me the few facts she knew, the donor was a medical student, married, with a healthy child or children. Mom had wanted a donor of Italian heritage, to match my father most closely, but the best the doctor could come up with was a brown-eyed, brown-haired man of French ancestry. Because of health issues in my mother’s family, he had no known diabetes in his family. That’s the sum knowledge she had, and that I have to this day.
My first reaction, at 20, was total, utter confusion and dismay. I felt like everything I knew about myself and my parents was wrong. I felt betrayed. My initial confrontation with my mother marked the first time I knew she lied to me about something important. It put a real distance between us, at least to my mind, but I hid that for five years. I felt like a spy, trying to root out the truth during those years.
Very, very quickly, I knew that I could not ask my father anything. What if my mother had an affair and he didn't know? And if he did know, and had been such a wonderful father, a proud and supportive and protective presence, I loved him all the more for never raising the issue or distancing himself from me, the bastard. I never told him I knew.
One of the most moving things my mother told me was that once my mother confirmed her pregnancy, my father never mentioned the circumstances again, even during the divorce when he could have challenged my paternity and avoided child support payments. (That would have been possible at the time. The law has changed -- a child of a marriage is presumptively the husband's.) My mother and I believe that he effectively forgot it. He was (he died in 2000) my rock, never wavering in his love. The gods gave me a fabulous father.
My mother's shame -- and that's what it was -- rubbed off on me. My husband knew, close friends at the time knew of my search for the truth. I can't say that I thought negatively about myself because of it, but I was so close to my mother and she was so obviously horrified that I felt, at best, very different. A little freaky.
Since her admission, I've had a great deal of healing. I am intensely grateful to the doctor, the donor, and my parents for coming together and making my very existence possible. It feels, still, a little strange to be the result of a community effort like that, but as the donor-conception experience becomes more common, I feel more like the outcome of a pioneer experiment than a back-room shameful after-effect. I wish my mother knew how proud I am of her and Daddy, of all involved, for going so far to have me. I feel an extra obligation to them because of it.
Currently, I am caregiver to my mother, who at 78 has COPD and pulmonary fibrosis, is oxygen-dependent 24/7 and is nearly home-bound. I realize that I am, in her mind, her "creature" -- her solo creation. She fully expects me to be her carbon copy. This has led to some tension and misunderstanding when she confronts our differences. We are much more similar than we are different, but we are not twins, I am not her clone.
I had a huge insight, quite belatedly, a few months ago. I was thinking about where we differ. I am much more analytical, process-oriented, decisive and proactive than she. Even though I went to law school, I have a fascination with areas of medicine and have read extensively on infectious diseases, genetics and neurology. I seem to have an affinity and sympathy for those on the autism spectrum and am very close to several friends with Asberger's Syndrome -- their differences don't seem alien to me, and it seems they can relate to me better than other non-spectrum people. I do not have Asberger's, but their mental processing makes sense to me somehow. A dear friend has two grandchildren on the spectrum and those boys mean the world to me.
I put that together and realized that it may just be the genetic gift of my biological father, the medical student. Perhaps he had Asberger's, perhaps he studied it. That may be fantasy, but still, it comforts me. It gives me a sense of being true to something unfamiliar in my family, but a heritage nonetheless.
I floated this theory to my mother. We hardly ever talk about "the donor" but I thought this idea would help her too, help her deal with my differences. It seems to have worked, it clicked with both of us.
Adoptive children are usually told early, these days, as are donor-conceived children. I've always wanted to know what the late discoverers feel. Did you want to know more about your biological parent(s) and how did you react on your discovery? Do you ever, as I do sometimes, wish you had never learned? Do you sometimes instead find comfort in your difference?