By Carolyn Bernstein
Published March 30, 2020
It was fall 2008 – six months after my parents split and I was on the job sleuthing facts. I sensed something was being kept from me about their divorce after 39 years of marriage and I was determined to dig it up. One day while my one-year-old daughter was napping and my husband in his studio, I sat down at my computer to read some documents not intended for my eyes. They had been addressed to my dad’s lawyer and very clearly outlined the timelines of my parent’s marriage. In the first paragraph lay words, I’ll never forget – “my children were conceived through artificial insemination by anonymous donors”. I had to re-read the paragraph a dozen times. My dad was not “my real dad”? Where did I come from? Who did I belong to? What ethnicity was I? Why had I not been told this?
This new truth about my identity and our family story knocked me off of my feet and spun me into a stress response so deep it would take years to dial back down. There was the initial adrenaline, increased heart rate, the panic which bled into not eating, not sleeping, weight loss, obsessive, circular thoughts about who my donor was, where to find my donor, how to find out the truth about the details around my conception. I physically manifested symptoms in the form of an autoimmune condition that developed 18 months later after the birth of my second child and deep in my grief. I stewed in anger and resentment about why I had never been told the truth about where I came from while some lawyer in Boston was privy to the facts.
My parents married in their early twenties and it was always curious to me that they hadn’t had children sooner- it was 10 years after they married that I was born. They had explained this away by saying while my father was in med school it made sense to wait financially. Their story sounded reasonable at the time though I was aware most of their peers started families a year or two after getting married.
When my birthday arrived this year on February 3, I found myself browsing the photo album my mother meticulously curated of my first months of life. It was clear they had to work so hard at building a family: a process so many take for granted. They held me like a precious jewel in their arms during my first days of life. Contentment and relief in their faces resonate through the photos 44 years later.
For the last several years, not long after the initial shock wore off, I’ve known it did not matter I did not share my dad’s DNA- he showed up as a parent 1000% and in such a solid way regardless of genetics. I am always very clear to correct people if they mistakenly call my donor, my dad. In fact, I struggled with 23 and me’s categorization of the person with whom I share 50% of my genetics as “father”. Since he was a stranger to me the intimacy I associate with the word father doesn’t feel like the appropriate description.
Looking into my parent’s eyes at that time after decade long struggle with infertility brought a softness to my heart. What if they had not kept going? They endured 10 years. 3650 days. 87600 hours of longing for something and doing everything in their limited power to make it happen all while never knowing if it would actually ever be possible.
The early phase of my processing the fact that I was a donor baby and it had been concealed from me for my life was full of anxiety, uncertainty, anger, frustration. This new wave of emotion caught me off guard: Empathy. I suddenly had the ability to lift myself from the myopic resentment of not knowing the truth about my identity and to see the many years my parents spent waiting and wondering if a baby would ever be conceived in a sympathetic light. They spent years worrying if the family they had envisioned for themselves from the time they were young would ever actually materialize. I found myself feeling compassion for the endless procedures, the poking and prodding. Sympathy for what must have been an anxiety-ridden search for experts and helpers who could usher my parents through this uncertain time. An understanding of the pressures to make excuses as to why they were not pregnant yet; it was 1976 and they had been married a decade earlier. A typical family trajectory would have included babies by 1970 at the latest. They had carefully built a story laden so deeply in secrets and that they would retell so many times perhaps they actually believed it was true.
For the past decade as I processed the secret my parents kept I initially felt I deserved to know the truth of my origin: I deserved to know that they were infertile and my dad was not my biological parent. It was my right to know my identity and to know where I came from. This was MY story, not theirs to control and choose when to share if at all. And while I still feel all of that is true and that secrets cloaked in shame have no place in families or the fertility world anymore (I am a strong believer there should be NO CLOSED DONATIONS and that babies know their truth and their identity, ethnicity, what and who they come from); I believe I have finally come around to know the heartbreak and longing that being infertile and struggling to create a family can bring.
I suppose I am working to heal the pain and shame so many couples from the 1970s and early decades of fertility CIA-like operations felt by celebrating my life as a miracle. As a testament to how love can create a family in a variety of ways: for same-sex couples, infertile couples, older couples with surrogates, donors, bio dads, bio siblings, egg donors, sperm donors, IVF, IUI- the list of variables and possible equations are now seemingly endless. And my hope is they are all celebrated. That no one feels lesser than because they can not or choose not to. And to celebrate all of our stories of beginnings- not shroud them in shame. What I have come to over the 10 years I’ve spent processing this is that I say this with pride and I embrace and love my tangled messy and nonlinear story of origin.