Sibling, half-sibling, donor sibling, halfsie. Brother, half-brother. What’s in a name?
I have four younger siblings. The youngest has a different bio-dad than the rest of us. Once when he was about six, and we were walking to get ice cream, he said, “you’re just my half-sister, right?”
It floored me. I scrambled to tell him that it wasn’t true. Then I realized that it WAS true, of course, at one level, in that we have different genetics on the father’s side, and he was curious about that. I responded honestly – it’s not like we kept it secret. But I clarified that he was absolutely my “full” and “real” brother. We have never once used the qualifier “half” to describe our relationship with him, and we never would.
So. Our boys have the same donor, and different bio-moms. They share only half of their genetics. They are 100% brothers: we do not ever say “half-,” or god knows, “donor sibling.” I bristle when anyone expresses something about how “nice” it is that they’re “real” brothers. They’d be real brothers no matter what: they have the same parents, they’re being raised in the same household, as brothers. Obviously.
Let’s talk about donor siblings, though. That’s where things get a bit tricky.
I just got a newsy email from the the Donor Sibling Registry, and skimming it stirred up a lot of thoughts. I’m generally supportive of their work, which emphasizes transparency and better regulation of the gamete-donation industry, along with the rights of donor-conceived children to know about their genetic origins. Unlike some other organizations that purport to do this, the DSR seems genuinely celebratory of all kinds of families. There’s no scary right-wing agenda lurking beneath the surface. They are very firm in believing that it’s best for all donor-conceived kids to contact/meet/know their donor siblings and their donors. This might not sit well with everyone. Admittedly, it makes me a bit squirmy. After all, we chose to build our family in this way, and it can feel like there’s some sort of rebuke inherent in the transparency argument, like this was not the ideal thing to do, so now you’d better make up for it.
At the same time, I really, really, really want to see this from the point of view of the offspring. I grew up wondering about my biological father’s family; I knew who they were, but didn’t have contact. My closest cousin had no relationship with her birth father, who had never acknowledged her. Granted, these are very different scenarios, because they involve loss and pain and abandonment. Our boys were created purposefully, with great love; everyone involved, including the donor, I like to think, had the best of intentions.
Regardless, I think it’s natural to wonder about one’s genetics. I did, a lot. Thanks to social media, I’m in touch with some members of my father’s family now, and it satisfies a deep curiosity. I will never be close to my dad’s family, nor do I want to be, but I did want to know more about them. I think about this when I hear statements like, “IF the children want to know about their donor,” “when they’re older, IF they’re curious, we’ll look for donor siblings,” etc., because it seems almost certain that they’ll wonder. I don’t mean they’ll want to reject their family of origin! I just think they’ll be curious. And frankly, I don’t think that “love makes a family” is going to be a satisfying answer to adolescents in the throes of identity formation. That’s ok with me. My bond to my boys is unshakeable; I am not threatened by them exploring the donor side of the equation.
Well…maybe I’m just a WEE bit threatened, but I am doing my best to quell that, or at least, not let that get in their way.
Hence, our decision to reach out to other families who used the same donor. We are FB friends, and have met once in person with a few of them. Jaybird and Starling have 14 donor siblings that we know of, thanks to our bank’s private registry. We know the identities of about half that group. (This is because families can opt to post more or less info on the registry, and some have chosen to remain anonymous, which I totally get.) Those sweet-faced kiddos are technically their “half-siblings,” right? And in fact, they share as much genetic material with those relative strangers as they do with each other. Isn’t that weird? It’s weird to me.
I’ve noticed that the other moms in our little group use different language to refer to our kids’ relationship. A couple of them casually say “brother” or “sister,” while others are careful to say “donor sibling,” and one uses the term “halfsie.” Interestingly, all the sibs that we know are only children in their families. There is one exception: one of the single moms lives in the same city as one of the other single moms, and they loosely share parenting duties, though they live in separate houses. They refer to those two boys as “brothers.” I assume they chose the same donor intentionally.
I’ve also noticed, in the various donor sibling documentaries I’ve dug up, that donor-conceived teens and adults seem to like the term “brother” or “sister” instead of the other variations. I wonder if this is about identity: a way to stake a claim, to show investment. The featured teens, especially, have a defiant, fiercely loyal attitude about their donor sibling relationships. I can see that adolescence would engender this. Plus, some of these teens haven’t been raised with much info or transparency about their donor origins, and they’re understandably frustrated about that.
Our plan is to be honest about our choices, what we know about the donor, why we chose him, and that these siblings exist. My hope is that my boys will be able to talk to their donor sibs about the experience of being donor-conceived, and that they’ll find camaraderie there. What will their relationships look like, beyond that? I don’t know. They will determine that, eventually. For now, I just want to make sure the door is open.
That’s the idea. In practice, it can make me feel uncomfortable at times. I’m not sure how to navigate our relationships with these families. At this point it’s all via social media, pretty much.
What I didn’t expect is the level of affection I feel for the kids. I “know” them only via a constant stream of adorable photos and videos, but I just love them. I want to have them all over for cookies. I feel such a jolt of recognition when I see some of their expressions. There is quite a bit of resemblance between some of them, including our boys – Jaybird looks more like this one donor sibling than he does like Starling, for instance. They all seem to be confident, inquisitive, outgoing little people with a flair for the dramatic. They’re just so familiar to me, in a heart-squeezing sort of way.
Maybe that’s just because they have loving families who encourage them, though. I mean, how much is genetic? Who can say? Maybe I’m reading too much into the connection.
Beyond the kids, I like their parents. I feel close to some of them. We are similarly feminist, intellectual, witty, political, amused by and in love with our kids. (Yes, fine, I DID just describe 75% of the queer parent population.) But it goes beyond that – we share some definite career interests, educational experiences. A love of cooking, art. This is especially true with a couple of the families. I think we’d hang out, if we lived in the same city.
And, well …
One of the as-yet-anonymous families on the registry IS in our city. We know they have three kids, their genders and birth dates, and the first name of one of the parents. It’s an unusual first name, and thanks to Google, I’m 97% sure I know who this family is.
Oh, god, I know. I am SUCH a stalker. It’s terrible. Now I can’t un-know it! We aren’t friends IRL, but we do have friends in common, and they live in our area, and I can see the kids’ photos on FB and they look like the donor sibs, and are the same ages as what’s listed on the registry, including a set of twins – it’s just pretty obvious.
I’ve thought of sending a message to one of the moms. Then again, she’s chosen anonymity and I’ve gone and violated that, so maybe I should just keep my knowledge to myself. That’s what I’ve been doing.
How about all of you, dear readers? How do you name and navigate donor sibling relationships? Do you use the DSR, and what do you think of them? Do you think I’m super creepy for finding out who that family is? Wait, no, don’t answer that.