Guest Blog: by Lavon Peters
My kids belong to one of the larger groups of half-sibs on the Donor Sibling Registry. You know the groups—the ones whose numbers make everyone say “OMG!” Our current count is 90* kids, but it changes frequently. A year and a half ago, we were at 68; I’m certain we’ll pass 100 this year. As you might imagine, navigating a group this large can be quite challenging!
One of the downsides of a large half-sib group is simply keeping track of everyone. After we’d found about two dozen kids on the Donor Sibling Registry, I created a spreadsheet to keep everyone straight. But now, that spreadsheet doesn’t even fit on my computer screen. We have a few kids with the same names, so it can be hard to know who someone means when they’re talking about one of those kids. Sometimes, all the kids’ names swirl in my head and it takes me a few seconds to connect a name with a face.
Planning get-togethers has also gotten exponentially more difficult as our group has grown. Between trying to account for everyone’s schedule and budget, it’s almost impossible to find a time and place that works for everyone. And then there’s the issue of accommodating different interests and planning for individual kids’ dietary restrictions, allergies, and medical conditions. I want every get-together to be open to everyone, but that just isn’t possible with this size of group. It’s sad when one of the kids wants to attend a meet-up but can’t make it work.
As we’ve grown, I’ve also found it hard to make the same connections with new parents that I once made—and in fact, new kids’ parents rarely reach out anymore, since many of the kids who now find us do so through DNA, without their parents’ help (and sometimes without their knowledge). That lack of parent connection means I don’t know some of the newer kids as well as I know many of the earlier group, most of whom we found on the Donor Sibling Registry and connected with when the kids were under 18.
I’ve been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which documents the evolution of human species from our earliest ancestors to modern Homo sapiens. In the book, the author asserts that “most people [cannot] intimately know … more than 150 human beings.” I’m definitely finding this to be true.
My experience seems to be true for the kids as well. We have a pretty big age range, but the older kids are fairly tight-knit—and I’m sure it’s intimidating for a new half-sib to jump into their Facebook or Snapchat groups. Likewise, a certain amount of fatigue has set in, and the excitement level isn’t as high for everyone as it once was when a new half-sib joins the group. As one of the adult kids told me, “Every additional member makes it harder to have meaningful relationships with everyone.” I feel for new kids in a group this large, who deserve the same welcome and excitement that everyone before them experienced.
So far, the younger kids aren’t as involved in the group. A mom of one of the younger kids shared that her son is “uncomfortable with the idea of being related to SO many strangers.” It remains to be seen whether the younger kids will flock together the way the older group did and whether the dynamics will be any different as newly discovered kids join that group.
Our donor echoes the feeling that it’s difficult to connect with everyone. The sperm banks told him his donations would go to only a limited number of families (which wasn’t true), and they promised him anonymity (which they can no longer guarantee, in the age of commercial DNA testing). He told me, “I don’t feel like I can meaningfully connect with everybody; it’s just too big and spread out and still semi-secret” (semi-secret because some of the kids have found us without their parents’ knowledge, and the donor’s own family didn’t know he had been a donor until very recently).
An Emotional Minefield
I can’t imagine what it feels like to be one in a group of 90 kids, especially for the half-sibs who are only now stumbling into our group. My own kids were the first from our donor to learn about and meet a half-sibling, so they’ve been able to mentally assimilate the numbers as we’ve grown. Still, they sometimes feel lost in the crowd. Others, who found us at a later age, feel like “just another number.”
Some of the parents in our group have asked, “When will it end?” I don’t have a good answer for them. I’m not sure it will EVER end. Our donor donated at more than one facility, and although he thought that each facility had a limit, we’ve already passed those numbers. The truth is, sperm banks can’t adhere to any “official” limits that they promise donors or parents, because they don’t have accurate records of how many children are born. Although our group seems huge at 90, there are plenty of groups on the Donor Sibling Registry that number between 100-200. In a donor-conceived group, there is ALWAYS the possibility of another half-sibling surfacing. This knowledge can be unsettling, at a minimum. It can also cause serious stress and anxiety.
All families are complex, and not everyone in a given family gets along. The same is true in donor families—sometimes even more so, since all the kids were raised in completely separate families. Socially, there is no common parent or grandparent guiding the kids’ upbringing. In our case, multiply that by 60, which is our number of separate families. The kids in our group have all been raised differently, with different values and belief systems. This can cause conflicts in a group as large as ours, sometimes between parents and sometimes among the kids.
In case it sounds like being part of a large half-sibling group is a negative experience, let me share the positive side of it. Our group has actually faced very few of the emotional downsides. Everyone in our group respects everyone else’s differences and opinions, and all the parents and kids are supportive of one another. One of the adult kids shared that “if someone in the group is going through a tough situation, I feel a responsibility to reach out and support them, because that’s what family is for.”
The feeling of community in a group like ours is unlike anything else. Every kid has literally dozens of closely related relatives who care about them. The kids have a Snapchat group that is constantly active. They talk to each other about their relationships, they trade memes and jokes, they share travel tips and stories, and they sometimes even help one another with homework! Regardless of where they are or what time of day it is, these kids have someone to talk to—someone who truly cares.
This is important to many of the parents, especially those whose kids are “only” children. Long after we parents are gone, the kids in our group will still have family. A LOT of family. If someone isn’t getting along with their full siblings, or if someone has a disagreement with a half-sibling, there will always be someone else to provide emotional support. In a group of 90(+), they will never run out of someone to talk to.
Back when we were aware of about 15 half-sibs, I used to joke that if one of my kids ever needed a kidney, I knew where to look. But in all seriousness, having a connection to so many biological relatives has clear medical benefits. Some of the kids have the same health struggles and can compare treatment plans. And (God forbid!) if anyone ever does need a stem cell, bone marrow, or kidney transplant, they are almost certain to find a match among their half-sibs.
I know it’s important to many of the kids to have a connection to one another, and it’s very important to some of them to have a connection to the donor. Likewise, it’s important to our donor to be connected to the kids. He says he is “constantly amazed by the kids’ accomplishments and travels” and that he thinks about the kids “every day.”
We Are Family
For better or worse, my three kids each have two full siblings and 87 half-siblings (as well as a social dad, stepdad, and biological father). And, like it or not, the number of half-siblings will continue to grow. While it can be tricky to juggle such a large group, the rewards are worth it. The connectedness of a donor family is hard to describe, but it’s very real. As one of the (non-bio) parents in our group put it, “I don’t know the right wording for our relationships, but these kids feel like family to me. Love is the relation.”
*Our group was at 89 when I started writing this blog post, but we got a new 23andMe match in the meantime. [Update: as of May 6, 2020, our group is at 93 half-sibs.]