A former sperm donor, searching online, finds both offspring and love.
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A former sperm donor, searching online, finds both offspring and love.
I didn’t meet my girlfriend, Jessica, until 12 years after our daughter, Alice, was born.
Let me explain. Nearly 25 years ago, I returned from a year of teaching English abroad, moved in with my mother and, lacking prospects, began driving a cab. One day I saw a newspaper ad seeking healthy men, 18 to 35, to participate in a semen donation program.
“Donors” is the standard industry word, yet virtually all of us are paid. Forty dollars a pop was what I received in 1994.
I applied to sell my sperm and sold twice weekly for a year. At the time I was in a long-distance relationship, so this seemed like a good outlet. When I told my mother, she presciently wondered aloud if this was the only way she was going to have grandchildren.
Today, sperm buyers view detailed profiles for potential vendors, whereas I wasn’t asked to provide much beyond college major, hobbies and family health history. Jessica and her partner at the time chose me primarily because I was a writer and musician.
After a year of selling my sperm, I went back to giving it away and largely forgot about the whole thing. Occasionally the subject of whether I had children would come up, and I’d make a joke about probably having a bunch. I had signed a nondisclosure waiver and assumed there would never be a way for my progeny and me to find one another.
Then the internet happened.
In the early 2000s, I searched online for a way to find my offspring and discovered the Donor Sibling Registry but didn’t see any leads there and never got around to checking back. (I had looked way too early: My progeny began to use the site to find each other when they became teenagers in the 2010s.)
A couple of years ago I began seeing ads for 23andMe, a service that analyzes your saliva — you spit in a test tube and mail it off for analysis — and provides you with information about ancestry, health and DNA relatives. The opportunity was obvious, but I assumed the odds of finding my children were low. I procrastinated for months before curiosity and an urge to know them made me order a kit.
I got my results back, and boom: I had a son, Bryce. His full name was unusual enough that I easily Googled him, and the picture resembled me enough that I felt confident this senior geography major was mine (mine?). Guessing he had been notified of my existence by 23andMe, I mulled in agitation for a week before finally putting fingers to keyboard.
“Dear Bryce,” I wrote. “I recently joined 23andMe and found you listed as my ‘son,’ so I believe myself to be your biological father. I hope my existence isn’t a shock and wonder whether you joined in hopes of connecting with me.” My letter continued awkwardly from there, giving him a brief sketch of my life.
Bryce replied almost instantly: “Dad, I cannot express how excited I am to be hearing from you. I did join 23andMe hoping that you would have already done so and was upset to see you hadn’t. This is amazing though and I’m so happy. I’m one of six of your children that I’m aware of and in contact with. I’m 20 years old and live on Long Island but I’m studying in upstate New York.”
“Dad?” I was briefly concerned that Bryce might have some fatherly expectations of me and show up on my doorstep, but my worries were unfounded. It’s a brave new world, and we’re all struggling with the terminology.
More important, six children? Yikes! I did some napkin math based on the number of samples I provided and the odds of conception and estimated that I may have as many as 67 children.
Bryce connected me with Madalyn, 19. Upon viewing her Facebook page, I had my first parental thought ever: My daughter should put some more clothes on.
I may be biased, but I found my children to be ridiculously attractive. I felt a sudden need to share their photos with all the ex-girlfriends who chose not to marry and procreate with me.
A few months later a new DNA relative appeared on 23andMe: Alice, age 11. Her mother, Jessica, wrote me a note. She and her former partner had each given birth to one daughter conceived with my sperm. They broke up years ago but had been raising both girls together until recently, when the other mother moved away with the daughter she had given birth to.
Jess and I began to chat online. She knew a lot about buying sperm and self-impregnating, which was fascinating for me to learn, and, it turns out, more difficult than my role: masturbating into a cup. She also no longer identified as lesbian and was dating a man who, incredibly, had my same first and middle names (Aaron David), with a similar, monosyllabic last name.
Had there been a mix-up at the Bureau of Boyfriends? Was I the one who was supposed to be dating her?
My children and I exchanged written biographies. Bryce’s showed me how little I know of young adult culture and reminded me that one’s 20s are a difficult decade. Madi’s revealed a keen understanding of her upbringing and the parts of it she would like to break from. But it was Alice’s, entitled “A series of awkward events separated by snacks,” that floored me.
Hers was a hodgepodge of lists and memories written under duress (“Mom: Write or death!”). Favorite color: “Black. Like my soul.” Favorite holiday: “Halloween (because candy and murder).” She liked Alfred Hitchcock films. “Basically,” she wrote, “I’m an angsty teen in a child’s body.”
This kid’s 11?
A plan developed for Bryce and Madi to come to Seattle for a couple of weeks in the summer. Jess and Alice lived a few hours south and would drive up. I figured meeting my children was going to be the closest thing I’d ever have to a wedding, so I decided to host a party.
I had told my news to a few people, but most learned of it from the “Meet My Kids Party” Facebook invitation, featuring photos of Bryce, Madi and Alice. The shock value was high.
Be it genetics, good luck or force of circumstance, I loved my children right away. They have an uncanny aura of me-ness. Bryce is shy but sharp and obsessed with memes in a way I might have been had I grown up Gen Z. Alice has little use for adults, as I still don’t. Madi, especially, has my sense of humor and eyes: Locking gazes with her makes my brain explode, but then we laugh.
At the party, we played a nature-versus-nurture question-and-answer game and discovered we were all quite liberal and that none of us believed in God. None of them, however, sleeps with a pillow between their knees, as I have long done.
The first time Jess and I found ourselves alone we hugged at length in a way entirely inappropriate for people who had just met. Jess says I have mannerisms that remind her of both of her daughters and thus felt instantly comfortable with me.
Whether we were pawns of fate or unwitting participants in a chromosomally arranged marriage, Jess and I quickly bonded. I deployed my Bureau of Boyfriends mix-up line to a grudging but sweet reception. During the vacation, she and I fell easily into the mom-and-dad role for Bryce, Madi and Alice. We soon had in-jokes and teased each other about our foibles, just like any family. I even gave Bryce and Madi a lecture about smoking.
At the end of the visit, Bryce somehow managed to get Jess and Alice kicked out of the house they were renting by climbing onto the roof to retrieve a toy, so I invited them to stay with me while they figured things out. What Jess soon figured out was that she wanted to keep staying with me. Alice rolled her eyes as if she had been tricked into a traditional family arrangement.
While 23andMe is not generally considered a dating site, Jess and I are grateful to the technology that has made our backward-formed relationship possible. We have a lot of questions about love and genetics and whether we would have felt this connection had we met in a more conventional way.
Our bond has survived the “How cool is this?” phase, though we still enjoy cybermonitoring my other progeny and speculating about how many more may emerge. (I’m up to 10 now; I have had some contact with the new ones’ mothers but haven’t made plans to meet yet.)
Madi liked the West Coast and us and recently moved into our place. We’re hoping to lure Bryce back, too.
In the end, the sci-fi trappings of our love story are irrelevant: Jess and I work as a couple because we like spending time together. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that I happen to be the father of her child.
Aaron Long is a writer in Seattle.
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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page ST6 of the New York edition with the headline: Am I in a Chromosomally Arranged Relationship?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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