The Children of Donor X
When Elizabeth and her son came for a visit last spring, Gwenyth watched David open and close a CD player over and over again. Then Elizabeth walked into Dylan's room. "I saw that he had lists of numbers and Spanish words on the wall," she tells me later when I reach her on the phone. "As soon as David learns something, he wants to know all about it. He learned quickly how to count to 100, and then to 40 in Spanish."
Last June, soon after his fourth birthday, David got the same diagnosis as Joseph: PDD-NOS. Like Theresa, Elizabeth called Gwenyth before she told her family—it didn't matter that the women had met only once. They stayed on the phone for more than an hour.
Gwenyth tried to say what she wished someone had said to her—that an autism diagnosis isn't a terrible lifetime sentence, that a range of outcomes is possible, particularly for bright kids who get help at a young age. "It was easier to talk to Gwenyth than anyone else because she understands what this diagnosis means," Elizabeth says. Gwenyth and Theresa have a word for their relationship: sister-moms. When Elizabeth heard it, she started to cry. "They feel like family to me," she said, her voice breaking.
In the 1970S and '80S, their early days, sperm banks primarily catered to couples who could not have their own biological children because of male infertility. Many of these families kept their children's parentage a secret. With a mother and a father accounted for, there was no particular call for honesty. As late as 1995, one study found that none of the parents in 45 sperm donor families planned to tell their children the truth about their genetic origins. Today, however, at least 60 percent of sperm bank users are single mothers or lesbian couples, according to Liza Mundy, author of Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men, Women, and the World. These women can't fudge the father question so easily, and they've fueled an increasing push for connection and information—especially medical information.
For the Donor X mothers, the drive to find out about the paternal side of their kids' family tree eventually led them to the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR). Started in 2000 by Wendy and Ryan Kramer—an enterprising mother and her sperm donor son—the DSR has gone from a small Yahoo discussion group to a sprawling Web site that has matched more than 4,000 children with their half-siblings or biological parents. The site is a nest of personals ads—it's just that the sought-after partner isn't a lover, but a parent, child, brother, or sister. Or perhaps, a "sister-mom," since many of the ads are placed by mothers on behalf of their children. "Some women use the Internet to build this new kind of kinship network," Mundy says. "They're raising their children on their own, but they feel like they have an extended family. The families are often far-flung, and yet the women have these intimate relationships."
Through the DSR, Gwenyth, Theresa, and Elizabeth found each other as well as two other single mothers, a lesbian couple, and a husband and wife who all chose Donor X. For some of them, the decision to join the site was made with a great deal of angst. One mother, who lives in Florida with her 5-year-old son, says that when friends told her she could look for his half-siblings, she wanted nothing to do with it. But later she started reading blogs written by mothers who had connected with the families of their kids' half-siblings, and she found herself craving the kind of knowledge they had. "We get to know the donor by getting to know the other children," she says.
The married couple, who have twin 4-year-old boys, went through a similar change of heart.