I found the envelope at 3 a.m.
It was wedged into my mailbox at school, a packet the size of a large book. I didn’t normally check my mail after a late night editing The Alligator, the University of Florida student newspaper, but for some reason I made the detour.
I pulled out the envelope and flipped it over. There was my name in my mother’s perfect calligraphy. “Oh my God,” I said out loud. “She actually sent it.”
Inside might be the most I would ever know about my father.
I had been asking about him since elementary school. Back then my mother, single and a second-grade teacher in the Miami-Dade public schools, answered my questions about him in the same way she had announced her pregnancy to her students: The doctors helped me. I wanted a child very much.
It wasn’t until I was 10 that she told me the whole story. At the age of 32, she said, she had gone to the South Florida Institute for Reproductive Medicine. She looked through the list of sperm donors and, after a week, chose a musician. Then, as now, sperm banks had their own specific requirements for donors, but most accepted less than one percent of applicants. There were height minimums — at least 5 feet 10 inches tall for white men — preferences for four-year college degrees and, in some cases, I.Q. requirements.
The insemination was unsuccessful after two tries, so the doctors suggested my mother pick another donor. She selected #2065, an industry analyst for a semiconductor company.
In January 1995, my mother was on the examining table for a third time. The doctor did the insertion, then, my mother says, crossed both fingers as my mom pulled her knees up against her chest.
“C’mon guys,” the doctor said with a half smile. “Swim.”
I was born nine months later.
As I grew up, I asked more questions, but my mother only parceled out small clues.
Did he like to read? “Yes, and public speaking.”
Was he short, like me? “No, he was 6 feet tall.”
When she caught me searching for his donor number or reading about donors reuniting with their offspring, she was brusque.
“That man is not your father,” she would say, calmly turning away to focus elsewhere, implicitly discouraging me from looking further. “You have so many people who love you. You don’t need him.”
But it bothered me that half my ancestry was a mystery, that I had to put “unknown” on any official documentation that demanded information about a father. It became one of the few things that festered between my mother and me.
By the time I was in college, I had given up asking. My mother will probably die, I told my friends, before I know anything about my father. I was dedicating my career to answering questions for other people, but this was the one question I would never be able to answer.
Then, after a doctor’s appointment during my junior year, I called my mother while filling out some medical paperwork.
“I need his medical history,” I said. It wasn’t healthy to not know both parents’ medical histories, the doctor told me. See if you can get it.
There was a second of silence.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll mail it tonight.”
He was born in St. Louis and has a twin sister.
When he donated in 1991, he had graduated from college. He was also an Eagle Scout who had passed AP Calculus despite, as he noted in all caps, not liking math.
He caught dysentery backpacking through Asia, and had a pet eel. He spoke some Mandarin and loved African dance. I started to cry when I read his answer to what he wanted for the future, the final sentence carefully typed on the packet’s second page.
“Find a bright sweet interesting woman to enjoy my life with,” he wrote. “To keep traveling the world.”
Altogether, there were 32 pages that outlined his academic history, medical records and personality traits. The most significant thing was the donor number, stamped on the top right corner of every page. This was what would connect me to the bank, any potential siblings and, most important, the donor himself.
His number didn’t register on any of the common sibling registry websites, so I called California Cryobank, which had shipped sperm to my mother’s fertility clinic in Florida, to learn more. After roughly three weeks of ambiguity staff members confirmed that I was indeed conceived from Donor #2065, along with five other successful conceptions — my half siblings.
Under the regulations of the center, I was allowed three tries to reach him.
In October 2017, the center sent the first of three letters to Donor #2065 on my behalf, to an address they were not allowed to share with me, explaining my wish to reach out. To my amazement, the donor signed for it. Now I know he’s alive, I thought.
There was silence after that. A second letter sent in January 2018 and a third in July of that year were returned unopened. I had struck out.
The rules I had to follow were those that have long shrouded artificial insemination in the United States in secrecy. Donors to fertility banks — they accept eggs as well as sperm — can choose to be anonymous, although anonymity can no longer be guaranteed because of DNA testing and the internet. Only recently have some donor-conceived children begun to fight to do away with anonymity in an unregulated system that accounts for some 30,000 to 60,000 births in the United States each year.
Some donor children have filed petitions with the Food and Drug Administration requesting, among other things, the creation of a universal database for donor records. While some banks already preserve all records, others remove them 10 years after a child’s birth.
“It was a much different world, and we know a lot more now,” said Scott Brown, director of client experience and communications at California Cryobank in Los Angeles, the nation’s oldest and largest fertility bank. Donors typically receive $100 per donation.
In 2017, the bank changed their program to only accept donors who are willing to have their contact information given to children once they turn 18. As part of the screening process, Mr. Brown said, donors discuss what will happen when, not if, a child reaches out.
Still, some experts say there is not enough emphasis on what the child may want to know about the donor. It’s often forgotten, even as some banks begin requiring counseling sessions for parents and donors to prepare them for possible questions.
The focus is on having a baby, they say, and babies don’t ask questions.
Until they do.
It has been nearly a year now since the third letter from Donor #2065 was returned unopened. My mother has told me that she withheld all the information as I was growing up to avoid hurting me. She was right to fear that I would be rejected.
The silence was at first painful. But slowly, over the past months I have begun to accept what my mother told me from the beginning.
He was a part of the foundation for the family my mother built for us. But sharing DNA did not make Donor #2065 beholden to me as a father.
I have also learned that fatherhood comes in many forms. My grandfather came to Father’s Day brunches when I was in kindergarten. An uncle taught me how to ride a bike, and later how to drive. Another uncle, a Navy veteran, was there for my college graduation.
A third uncle has read every single article I’ve written for this newspaper over the past two years. He lets me know with text messages, “likes” on Twitter and phone calls.
They are all my fathers. And they were there all along.
Emily Cochrane covers Congress for The New York Times.
Emily Cochrane is a reporter in the Washington bureau, covering Congress. She was raised in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida. @ESCochrane
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