On February 19, 2019, I became – for the first time – a father. A couple hours later, I became a grandfather. On that cold, cloudy Wednesday afternoon, I was heading out to teach an English class in Mitte when an email popped up in my inbox from a stranger named Jill. Her carefully-worded message announced that she was a 28-year-old woman in Pennsylvania who’d been conceived by artificial fertilisation. A long search for her biological father had led her to me. I confirmed that yes, the facts lined up, the pieces fit. My newly-minted daughter friended me on Facebook. Scanning her photos, I spotted Jill holding a three-year-old boy who had my squinty-eyed smile.
Now all of this wasn’t a total surprise. A couple months before, I’d scraped the inside of my cheek and sent the sample to a DNA database in Houston, Texas. I knew I probably had some donor-con-ceived offspring out there somewhere. Still, scanning Jill’s Facebook selfies on that damp evening turned out to be surprisingly moving, a revelation. Because I’d been adopted at birth, Jill and little Zack were the first blood relatives I’d ever seen.
Ivy League seed for sale
Back in the summer of 1990, I was finishing my Master’s degree at Columbia University’s school of architecture when I spotted a flyer on a bulletin board: a fertility clinic was recruiting Ivy League sperm donors – $50 a pop.
Opened in 1974, Idant Laboratories was one of America’s first commercial sperm banks. By the time I showed up for my interview, they’d pioneered the science of freezing sperm samples and storing it for years. I filled in my basic info, fudging a bit on the family health history, then stepped into a windowless cubicle with a plastic cup. My test sample came back satisfactorily fertile, and I was in. I started donating in October 1990 to help pay my Manhattan rent. Once I found a job, it became a lunchtime routine: three times a week, I’d hop the subway to 33rd Street, walk in the back entrance of the Empire State Building and up the Art Deco elevators to the nondescript medical office on the 71st floor. The guy at the counter handed me a jar and assigned one of six cubicles stocked with recent issues of Playboy.
Another topic I had to fudge was my being gay. At the peak of the AIDS crisis, gay men weren’t supposed to donate, even with monthly HIV tests. I invented a long-term girlfriend named Susan. To boost the fertility of my three weekly samples, I was forced to refrain from sexual activity in between. That put a big dent in my sex life but, considering the times, was probably a good idea.
Idant provided me with a nice libido-reducing, tax-free side gig for about 18 months. In March 1992, the guy at the desk told me, in effect, that my little gametes had been too successful. I had co-produced the maximum allowable number of babies. How many? He said 12. But I didn’t trust him – I suspected I was getting the boot because they’d found out I was gay.
Idant Labs survived another 20 years despite some notorious scandals. In one, a white couple stored the husband’s sperm when he was diagnosed with cancer. After his tragic death, his widow was impregnated with the frozen sperm – but gave birth to a black baby.
I relocated to Berlin in 2000 and soon settled down with my German partner. We share a preference for unencumbered living – no cats, no dogs and no kids – so I had zero interest in actively searching for my genetic offspring. I already had too many birthdays to remember. Every time one of our friends announced they were having a child, I’d think, “There goes another sucker, duped by the twin impulses of social pressure and biological urgency.”
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said all human behaviour was driven by our compulsive fear of death. Our cravings for romance and sex are just tricking us into producing offspring and prolonging the species. But in the 21st century, adding another hungry mouth to our overstretched planet seems more likely to accelerate the end of humanity.
Six found, one lost
In November 2018, I rushed home to Houston, Texas where my mother was gravely ill. She died hours after I arrived, but I stayed on with my family for six weeks. By then, cheap DNA tests were all the rage, and my brother and sister, both also adopted, had used them to find their biological parents. They’d been nudging me to do the same, but I was reluctant to open what I knew would be a messy can of worms. But my mom’s death left a major hole in my life. It was time. Just before flying back to Berlin, I dropped my saliva sample in a mailbox. Two months later, I got Jill’s email.
My daughter Jill had learned she was donor-conceived when she turned 18 and had then spent a decade uncovering her genetic family. Locating me was a kind of final missing link. She’d already found five half-siblings via DNA websites and even organised a Google spreadsheet where they could share key information. Besides Jill, there were three girls and two boys. All had brown eyes and were about the same height. All but one described themselves as introverts. I contacted each by email then pored over their Facebook profiles. I was completely fascinated.
One column on the spreadsheet was mysteriously blank. Jill explained that this DNA son, Kyle Armstrong, was somewhat elusive and currently at a remote location in South America. I was intrigued. After several fruitless Google searches for his name, I spotted a boy’s photo and could instantly tell it was my son. I clicked on the link – it was an obituary. But the boy in the picture, the one who’d died, wasn’t Kyle – it was his older brother Jason. He’d died in a car accident in 2014 at the age of 22. Like me, Jason had enjoyed writing – he’d kept a daily diary and even earned a writing scholarship to the University of Maine. But it didn’t make sense – how could they both be my sons?
A couple weeks later, Kyle sent a long email from a fishing camp in Patagonia. He explained that their mother had conceived Jason via artificial insemination and then returned years later and requested the same donor so the boys would be full brothers. Soon after, their mom Beth got in touch and sent me a CD with photos of the boys. One in particular resembled a childhood shot of my brother and me: two boys stand proudly on either side of their Halloween jack o’lanterns, but in this one, both boys looked like me. I was stunned. The idea of two of my sons growing up as brothers made me feel sad, even negligent for not having been part of their lives. Why hadn’t someone told me? Even worse, I’d already lost a child who sounded so much like me. I spent the next week in a deep funk, mourning a son I’d never know.
The Empire State Building strikes back
That summer I flew home to the U.S. to visit my recently widowed dad. Hoping to cross paths with one or more of my offspring, I tacked on a few days in NYC and let everyone know I’d be there. Jill, a proud stay-at-home mom, had her hands full with Zack and could’t make it. Would anyone come?
Kyle Armstrong had returned to Maine after his South American sojourn and flew down to meet me. At 23, he was the youngest of my “kids”, but when he stepped through the turnstiles of JFK’s AirTrain and hugged me, he was the first blood relative I’d ever met. He had a brown ponytail and beard with a little nose ring, kind of a punky lumberjack look. Over a Thai lunch, he described growing up in a small Maine town with his brother Jason. Like me, both had been excellent students with little interest in sports. And also like me, both had played trumpet in their high school bands. The loss of his older brother just before his high school graduation had devastated Kyle, but he went on to finish a degree in Sustainable Agriculture. Now he was working at a farm-to-table restaurant while exploring his real passion, singing and playing guitar.
I spotted a boy’s photo and could instantly tell it was my son. I clicked on the link – it was an obituary.
It was Kyle’s first trip to NYC. We made a whirlwind tour of Times Square and Grand Central Station, then took the L Train out to sample beer at the Brooklyn Brewery, a block from my old Williamsburg loft. I dropped Kyle at his hotel around midnight, but once I’d left, he turned around and headed back out to explore New York’s nightlife.
Kyle was dragged from bed the next morning by the early arrival of his half-brother Andy. Though already 26, Andy had my gangly body and a preternaturally boyish face. He looked more like Kyle’s kid brother than a soon-to-be PhD. Riding into Manhattan, Kyle peppered Andy with questions about his doctoral research into plant genetics, my two test tube sons going on about dominant traits and zygotes. We three found we had identical hands. And Dr. Andy had also been a trumpet player.
Andy had recently learned he was donor-conceived via a DNA test. It was a shocking discovery, but, as a scientist, he was curious to uncover more about his biological family, particularly because he was certain his younger sister Nicole was also one of mine. Still, at their mother’s request, Andy was keeping Nicole in the dark.
The boys’ shared interest in plants led us to the Highline, a Manhattan park on a two-mile long stretch of formerly-abandoned train tracks. That night we shared pizza and Negronis with one of its designers, my ex-boyfriend Charles whose patient cooperation with my Idant-inspired sex schedule in the 1990s had helped make my kids possible. Watching Kyle and Andy walk off together in search of hip NYC bars, I had a distinct pang of parental protectiveness.
My daughter Heather arrived the next morning from Memphis. We met in her hotel then crossed Herald Square and settled in the ladies’ shoe department of Macy’s for a lively one-on-one. The only child of a single mom, she’d always known she was donor-conceived. She was working as a biomedical engineer and had a no-nonsense intensity. When I looked at the boys’ faces, I could see a bit of myself. Heather’s round face, almond eyes and dark hair were, I realised, a glimpse of the birth mother I’d never known.
When I looked at the boys’ faces, I could see a bit of myself. Heather’s round face, almond eyes and dark hair were, I realised, a glimpse of the birth mother I’d never known.
Kyle and Andy, both a bit hungover, joined us in midtown. We exited the subway on 33rd Street and entered the Empire State Building – a slightly surreal flashback to my thrice-weekly routine from the Idant Days – and snapped some photos in the place where it all happened. Our day in Manhattan ended at Madison Square where we witnessed the sun set directly aligned with the urban street grid, an annual event known as Manhattanhenge. Then Kyle again played pied piper, taking his half-brother and half-sister for a night on the town.
By the end of the weekend, I totally got the parenting thing. Each of the kids inspired a very particular response, a combination of reverence and “Awwww…!” But I also realised how important it was for each of them to meet me. On one hand, it’s comforting just to find other people who share your physical traits and neurotic quirks, but I was also a poignant link to Kyle’s lost brother Jason. I helped Andy understand why he’d always struggled to bond with his own dad. And all three of us filled a space in Heather’s life that had always lay vacant.
A proud grand-Vader
Most people would emphatically state that I’m not these kids’ true father. Others would disagree – Darth Vader for example. As I search to find a role in their lives, I instinctively lean toward drawing them, as Vader would, to the Dark Side. In my case, that means Berlin. 2020 was supposed to be the year when I bonded with my newfound offspring in my chosen home. Dr. Andy had some time off before starting his post-doctoral work. He booked a flight to Berlin, and I plotted an itinerary of science-related sights… then Covid 19 intervened and his March visit was scrapped. We had to settle for an extended Skype chat in which he revealed he’d compiled a comprehensive list of all my genetic offspring – a total of 15.
In the quiet of the March/April lockdown, I Google-searched these new kids. The first surprise was that a brother and sister in Chicago were actually twins, my Luke and Leia. One boy is an e-sports entrepreneur in Canada. Another, a muscle-bound party animal who looks nothing like me, proved to be my closest genetic match.
So far, none of these new kids has responded to requests to make contact. It’s likely that discovering their donor-conceived status had been a shock, a blow to their whole identity. This phenomenon has become so common there’s a name for it, NPE, or “non-parental event”.
One child proved a hard nut to crack. I had only an email address: his last name, first initial and year of birth. Searching with the most popular boy’s name that year – Brandon – I found a YouTube video: a teenaged boy extolls the importance of medical vaccinations, apparently a high school assignment. He looked like the missing link between Kyle and Andy. But the next search uncovered an obituary – he’d died in 2017. At the time, Brandon was an architecture student, following in my footsteps. Like Andy, he’d been a high school track star. His hobby was playing music, like Kyle. And like Jason, he’d died in a car accident.
To say this whole trip has been a mixed bag is kind of unfair – as Schopenhauer would remind me, Life and Death are necessarily intertwined. Last month Kyle wrote telling me he’s settled down with a girl. They want to start a family. He referred to their future offspring as “your grandkids”. After denigrating the idea of having kids my whole life, my first post-Covid task will be flying to Pennsylvania to finally meet Jill and build Lego castles with her son Zack. The slew of new birthdays to remember are a welcome excuse to exchange emails or have Skype chats. With my 60th year fast approaching, it’s hugely comforting to know that, regardless of what I have or haven’t accomplished, my real legacy on this planet will be these smart, beautiful kids, and their children – my grandkids – whose messy childhoods I will revel in.