I had heard about the film “Donor Unknown” via a message board I infrequently post to. The Tribeca film festival was screening it on their website on Friday, and I reluctantly reserved myself a seat. I say reluctantly, because I’m always a little leery of how donor sperm issues are portrayed in the media. I’ve already had to fight the “what does their father look like” from my own parents, and equating our sperm donor with a person to whom my children are tied from a familial perspective always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
The film is about a group of young adult, donor-conceived children who find each other and ultimately their sperm donor, through the help of the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR). We are members of the registry, and have made contact, and a small private facebook group, of families with children who are “donor siblings” of N & J. They include a set of girl twins, a daughter, two sons (two different families), another set of boy/girl twins, and us. We’ve since learned there’s another daughter, and contact has been made to hopefully have them join us on facebook.
We’ve had the pleasure of meeting one of the families in person, and our children have enjoyed time together. I would consider us friends. What I don’t consider their son, at this time in this journey, my children’s brother. While they share genetic material, they do not share parents.
The film was centered specifically around the youngest of the donor-conceived children of California Cryobank donor #150. At one point in the film, after the identity of the donor is revealed (he came forward after seeing a story in the New York Times), she finds the donor’s father and visits him, calling him her “grandfather.” This didn’t sit well with me, for a lot of reasons. One, it seemed a violation of the donor’s privacy. While I believe our children have the right to have medical information about their donors, and the opportunity to meet them once everyone is an adult, co-opting a donor’s family as one’s own seems to be overstepping this boundary considerably. Two, in my opinion, this man was not (he’s since passed away) her grandfather. He may be related to her by genetics, but her grandfathers would be the men who were fathers to the parents who raised her.
Now, here’s where my belief in what makes family may be playing too large a role in my opinions on this. Because bloodlines to me have absolutely nothing to do with family. My best friends are family to me. My friend B and I might as well be sisters. I love her no less than I love my brother. Our friendship has withstood time, falling outs, and traumatic events. I don’t know that she hasn’t been there for me MORE than my own sibling has. Her mother has stepped in and treated me like her own daughter. H’s best friend’s mother is “Nana D” to our children. She has not one drop of blood relationship to them. Yet her relationship with them is twice what my parents’ is. So my inability to see the donor’s extended family as an extended family to the donor conceived children is largely a product of my inability to believe that blood is thicker than water.
What were poignant to me were the relationships that had developed between the donor conceived children. Regardless of whether they called themselves sisters or brothers, clearly these kids needed these relationships. One of the young women noted that not only were these the first donor siblings she’d met, but the first donor conceived people she’d ever met. While I believe it’s my responsibility to expose my children to other kids like them, that wasn’t always possible for these earlier trailblazers because families had no way to connect with one another. In today’s age of the DSR, gay and lesbian parenting groups, and the internet, finding other people like you is easier and easier.
Unfortunately, the film was filmworthy partially because the donor himself was a caricature. Living at Venice Beach in an old, beat-up RV; homeless by choice; his eccentricities became a strong focus of the film. One of the mothers mentioned that learning about him was almost the death of a fantasy she held in her head about the kind of person he was. I have no such fantasies about our donor. In my mind he’s a college student finding easy ways to make money while getting through school. Maybe he believes he’s helping families achieve their dreams of children or maybe he believes it’s an easy way to make a buck. The reality is I have more information on my donor’s family and health history than I have on my own. I’m disappointed that the donor in this film is the way he is, not because of some crazy dream I have about what a donor should be, but because who he is gets so much attention that who the kids are is overshadowed.
I get it. It’s much more interesting to do a movie about a wacky guy and the kids his sperm made. But like everything surrounding “alternative” family building – whether it’s lesbian families, IVF, surrogacy – the REAL stories aren’t interesting. It’s much more sensational to make movies about guys like the donor in this movie, or films about surrogates who change their minds, or IVF embryo switching. Meanwhile, “mainstream” people believe that these sensationalized stories are the norm rather than the exception. While it may be boring to read about what real families dealing with these things are actually like, the more we hold up movies like “Donor Unknown” as an opportunity for people to understand how are families are built, the more we do ourselves a disservice. On top of it, holding up the donor as some sort of icon in our families minimizes the completeness of our own familial unit. If we want OUR stories told, then we have to be willing to tell it. To remove the hushed whispers. To make conceiving via a donor, be it a sperm donor or an egg donor (the differences between which are so vast that deserves a whole other post), something that doesn’t make people think of some crazy guy living in an RV as your child’s “father.”
My children have two mothers. They have a plethora of aunts, uncles, friends, Godparents, and all sort of folks who have influence in their lives. Half of their genetic make up is tied to a man I’ll likely never meet. Yes, I made that decision for my children and I can’t un-make it. Will they resent me for it later? Possibly. And if so, probably only for a short time. The reality is, it’s not my kids I worry about when it comes to understanding and assimilating the information surrounding being donor-conceived. It’s the rest of the world. But the only way to change people’s perceptions is to stop producing media – be it news articles or movies – that glorifies the exceptions among us.