I had a dream last night. A dream so vivid—the kind one awakes from feeling a change that even morning coffee can’t erase. Studies suggest that dreamtime is similar to real time, in that what sometimes feels like hours is really just a few minutes. Statistically, dreams range from just a few seconds to thirty minutes. I wonder how long I had been dreaming, because this dream was so rich in history—dating back nearly a century, with a full cast of characters—strangers, family members, plus what seemed an army of extras—all in the fragments of REM sleep.
In my dream, my father had received a letter from an unknown, distant cousin stating she had information my father would find relevant, and suggested he come for a visit. Being the family historian and a lover of history, this was an invitation he couldn’t refuse. So my father and I set off, traveling back to Russia, the homeland of my grandfather.
In my dream, we were at lunch at this strange, new cousin’s house when a nearly century old secret came out. According to family lore, passed down by Old World ancestors, and unbeknownst to my grandfather—my grandfather had conceived a child prior to setting sail for America. The story was that of a son, who had spent 93 years searching for the father who unknowingly left him behind. The dream was so real I could almost taste the tears of the man sitting across from me, and feel the pain wash over my father as our cousin spoke the words, “This is your brother.” And there, sitting at the table as if he’d been there all along, but I was only just now seeing him, was a feeble old man, with a jawline and profile I knew well. In that moment, history was rewritten; the joy of one man’s discovery tempered by the enormity of a family’s loss.
Upon waking it didn’t take long for me to recognize the impossibility of this story—but only because my grandfather was just a boy when he arrived in America.
A lifetime spent in search of a parent, or the discovery that you have an unknown sibling, are common stories that affect too many families. Biology cannot be ignored. It’s true, there are people who willingly abandon their family, but to most of us, abandonment is not an option. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Finding out you share a close genetic connection to someone—especially someone you don’t know—is relevant information.
The problem with donor conception is that none of us enter into it knowing the ramifications of our decisions. While people end up needing donor sperm and/or donor eggs for a variety of reasons, most of us have one thing in common—Plan B. Our Plan A of having a family the natural way, the old-fashioned way, the Biblical way, just didn’t work. So we’re on to Plan B and, for many of us, if we’re honest, it wasn’t the dream we’d envisioned. Yes, it’s wonderful to have other options, but many Plan B-ers are wannabe As. We want to have a baby yet can’t conceive naturally. And so here we are. Stuck with Plan B. And at our most vulnerable.
When I chose to conceive via donor conception, I was at peace with the idea that I chose a willing-to-be-known donor. It was important to me that, upon reaching her 18th birthday, my daughter would have the right to know where she came from. And for a very long time, I felt good about my decision and had no expectation that it would or should be anything different.
But life moves quickly. And, as a friend once told me, life is a gift that is never guaranteed for even one more day.
I’m now questioning all I once agreed upon—and primarily because I now know those decisions weren’t mine to make. I went to a sperm bank and got a baby, the donor went to the sperm bank and got money, but my daughter—who never even stepped inside the damn building—got a void and a lifetime full of questions.
Here’s the thing—my surprise, long-lost cousin from the Old Country? The decades-old family secret? The surprise new uncle in the family? That’s all the stuff of dreams. Not real. So what IS real? The fact that my daughter might have a very real, flesh and blood uncle, or aunts, or grandmother or grandfather on her father’s side of the family, people who could enrich her life immeasurably. People who might not be around by the time she can reach out to her donor father when she turns 18. Ohhhh, that NUMBER. So distant. So random. Why not 19? Or 17? Why 18? Just because you get to vote then, too? Because you once got to drink then? Is the right to meet your own father really just another random, negotiable event on par with those? The timing of the most important meeting of a child’s life has just been lumped in with those other things because, well, 18 is a big round number?
I dread the thought of waking up one morning to learn that my daughter’s paternal grandmother died before she ever had a chance to meet her. That’s no dream. That’s a nightmare.