My Parents Used a Sperm Donor To Conceive Me, and It Led Me To 9 Half-Siblings
“TESTING—ONE, TWO, THREE. TESTING. Can you hear me?”
This was the first time I heard my biological father’s voice. As I guided him on Facebook Messenger’s talk-to-text feature, he accidentally pressed the microphone button. I held my breath, pressed the play button, and felt relief. He was a real person.
In the late 1980s, my parents used a sperm donor to conceive me and my brother. They had spent five years trying to have children on their own, until a kind doctor on an air force base in Wyoming, where they were stationed, finally broke the news that because of a genetic condition, it was unlikely my dad would be able to help conceive children. They were presented with adoption or artificial insemination requiring a sperm donor. They chose the latter.
The man who would become my biological father was selected because he looked so much like my dad, according to a questionnaire he had submitted to the sperm bank. He was tall, with light brown hair, green eyes, and a medium build. He checked the boxes describing himself as boyishly cute, loyal, friendly but not outgoing. My parents were told there was a one-in-four chance the process would work. They were successful on their first try with me and their third with my younger brother, Dustin. Across the country, a family in Boston had conceived a son by the same donor. Another in Michigan was preparing to welcome a daughter.
When I was growing up, the fact that my dad was not my biological father was never a secret. It was also no secret how much my mom and dad loved my brother and me. We were a close bunch and open with our feelings. Because of their parenting, Dustin and I never felt unsure of ourselves or our place in our family. We were proudly Broxsons. Throughout my childhood, my parents broached the subject of the donor gently and asked if I had questions. For the most part, I didn’t.
On my own, I wondered about my biological father. His profession. Whether he too was called the Jolly Green Giant in middle school. Ah, adolescence. I wondered if he ever thought about the children he might have had a hand in creating. I sometimes thought about how I’d find more information on him. But fear—of hurting my parents’ feelings, of discovering something alarming, of all the other unknowns—always stopped me. I was, after all, a kid who was too cautious to go on the high dive one summer in the mid-1990s until I watched every other kid take the plunge.
Would the donor be a person I connected with? Would knowing him make me feel different about myself? Would I feel comfortable knowing that I shared DNA with him? I worried how it might affect my dad, the man who had raised me, sacrificed for me, timed my swim meets, and texted me about the weather. I watched talk shows that featured donor children who were connected with their fathers. The process they went through seemed arduous and required private investigators, lots of money, and endless records requests. It especially seemed unattainable because my donor had requested anonymity, and the paperwork my mother received from the cryogenic lab offered nil in the way of information. So I set the idea aside through high school, through college, and even when I started my first journalism job and learned how to use databases to find people.
IN 2017, AMID LATE-DECEMBER resolution pondering, I set a goal: Say "yes" to things that made me uncomfortable.
I started with an oyster. Really. Sure, as a Floridian, I was no stranger to unconventional foods. Alligator nuggets, quail breasts, and kumquats, devoured skin and all. But the idea of consuming raw oysters made my mouth turn inside out. One night at dinner, my brother, the family thrill seeker, topped one with hot sauce and handed it over. I slurped it down. “Not so bad,” I thought. “What had I been so afraid of?”
That briny bivalve was the first domino to fall in a line of uncomfortable but rewarding situations. I went on a group fitness trip during which I pedaled my butt up a mountain (OK, a steep hill!). I said "yes" to networking events and mingled with people I didn’t know (an introvert’s nightmare). And yes, that girl who was once too afraid of heights to jump off the high dive went up thousands of feet in a hot-air balloon. Something I didn’t realize about fear is that the confidence you gain from facing it head-on is contagious. With every scary leap, I felt more daring.
When an email from AncestryDNA, a genetic testing company, landed in my inbox one day in May asking if I’d like to do a DNA test and learn more about my family history, I replied "yes." I spit into a tube and completed the family tree that came with the kit. My mother’s side was more lush with leaves and branches than the other, of course. But I was used to the bare limbs by now. It had come up at the doctor when I was asked about my family medical history, at the “around the world” elementary school program where I was asked to prepare the food of my ancestors. After so many years, I was ready to know more.
In mid-June, I made an appointment with a genealogist from AncestryDNA to hear the results. I pictured just a pie chart of European country percentages. When I sat down with corporate genealogist Crista Cowan, I could tell she knew far more than what percentage Polish I was. She told me that when my DNA had gone into the company’s system a few days before, my profile started to receive messages. We read one together from a man named Mike who claimed I was one of eight other known half-siblings. Then she said she thought she’d be able to tell me the name of my biological father that day too because someone in his family had also completed a DNA test and matched with me as a family member. Over the course of 30 minutes, we went through census records, marriage certificates, and newspaper clippings. At the end of our session, I walked out, legs wobbly, with my biological father’s name on a piece of paper.
After pouring myself into a cab, I texted a picture of Crista and me to my mom, the first person I call with all my major news. “This woman just told me the name of my biological father,” I said. “What?!?!” she replied. We talked over the phone, excited and shocked about what I had just learned. Later that night, I responded to Mike’s message, and he added me to a Facebook group with my other half-siblings who had previously connected on AncestryDNA and other sites like 23andMe. Instant siblings. We shared photos and background about our lives. Our group included a biological scientist from Michigan, a police dispatcher in Florida, a lifeguard in New York, and a naturalist in Oregon. It was not uncommon for us to be so spread out, I later learned. Many donor centers send sperm across the country so recipients aren’t concentrated in one area.
No one else knew who the donor was. I kept the information close for a week or two, processing how the situation should unfold. I searched my biological father’s name on AncestryDNA, and a high school yearbook picture of him populated on the screen. Shaggy hair, an oval face with a soft, closed-mouth grin. I was startled by what I saw because I had seen that face a million times before. He looked just like my brother, Dustin. Or my brother looked just like him.
I also waited a few weeks to tell my dad, knowing he might be more sensitive. When I did, he was initially scared that our relationship would change. Slowly, and after many candid conversations, he said he realized he had nothing to worry about. I would always be his daughter.
Above: The author’s biological father in a high school yearbook photo (left) and her brother (right).
MIKE WAS THE FIRST of my newly discovered half-siblings I met in person. He’s the oldest of the siblings (I’m the second). He worked in the same building I did, 30 floors up from Real Simple’s offices. It was a detail that freaked me out at first but has since felt serendipitous. We looked out the same westward-facing window each day at the ferry boats crossing the Hudson River. We ordered dumplings from the same place in the food court.
Mike and I met after work at a dive bar a couple of blocks from our office building. I felt an instant connection to him. We shared the same green, almond-shaped eyes, discovered we had both played the trumpet and spoke in a similar cadence. Over $4 beers, I emotionally told Mike about my meeting with the genealogist and about the donor. He said later that he felt like the exploding-head emoji. Afterward, we told the news to the rest of the siblings and were faced with a choice: Do we reach out to the donor or not?
After many group Facebook polls and discussions, I drafted a message explaining that our desire to reach out wasn’t motivated by much more than wanting the chance to thank him and possibly hear more about his medical background. For two months we waited. And then my phone pinged right as I was drifting to sleep on a Friday in September. We confirmed his donor ID number and made plans to talk as a group with the other siblings the next day, and he signed off with: “Please let everyone know today has been one of the greatest days in my life.”
“You and me both,” I thought.
WHEN I LEFT FLORIDA for New York City to pursue a job in magazines (a risk I took long before my first oyster), my mom said I was going to “be with my people.” She was talking about “city people,” who enjoyed the hustle and bustle my small coastal hometown didn’t provide. Little did either of us know I would discover a few new family members too.
It’s been rewarding to connect with my eight half-siblings (and counting). I don’t love the term “half-sibling” because in some ways, it implies that these people are half as important to me since we share only some of our DNA. But what do you call someone whose wedding you attended two months after meeting? At his wedding, Mike introduced me as his sister, which just felt right. I may not have known them or grown up with them for the first third of my life, but I’m excited to get to know them and grow close for the next two-thirds.
It’s said that the oysters with the biggest prize inside are the hardest to pry open. But when you have experience tackling the easier ones—taking the hot-air balloon rides, saying "yes" to the networking events—that prize is so much sweeter. My year of tackling fears brought me closer to my family (both old and new) and also made me bolder in my decisions. I feel like the world is my, well, you know.
Brandi Broxson isReal Simple’s senior editor. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her partner, Francisco, and rescue dog, Ranger.