If you met me and asked one of those routine introductory questions—where I grew up, if I have any siblings—I would probably tell you I'm an only child. Technically, though, I also have 17 brothers and sisters, and counting. Let me explain.
I was conceived by a sperm donor. My mom never had a hard time with men, but when she found herself single at 40, she decided it was time to fulfill her lifelong dream of having a child—even if it meant doing it on her own. She paged through a huge binder of sperm donors at the California Cryobank and quickly made her choice: He was healthy, tall, athletic, and creative. This man would be my dad.
From the very beginning, my mom was very honest with me about where I came from. Some parents tell their kids that babies come from "two people who love each other very much." My mom told me, "You were conceived on the corner of 79th and Park on my lunch hour, no man present."
While I didn't know much about my dad, I would sometimes flip through the donor binder that my mom kept in a big, brown cabinet in our living room. The description of my donor was short but informative: He had curly brown hair, was on the track team, liked to make art. Track was the only sport I proved to ever be good at. I did art. I had curly brown hair. I felt a connection.
Still, I always felt like something was missing. It had always been just me and my mom—one set of grandparents, one side of the family tree. I was jealous of my friends with huge families, or the siblings in Disney Channel movies who were always bickering. I had never been pranked. I didn't have any brothers to roughhouse, any sisters to share clothes.
Then, when I was seven, I got my wish. My mom sat me down at the table and explained that I did have siblings—two of them, in fact. She had found them on the Donor Sibling Registry, a website for donor-kids and their parents to locate other kids conceived by the same donor.
It's hard to estimate how many donor-conceived kids there are in the United States, because "there has never been anyone keeping track," according to Wendy Kramer, the director of the Donor Sibling Registry. But the database alone has more than 50,000 members, most of whom are donor-conceived people. Every sperm donor is assigned a number, and you can use it to find other kids from that donor who have registered on the database. To date, the Donor Sibling Registry has helped to connect more than 13,000 half-siblings.
That summer, we went to Boston to meet my new brother and sister. Gus was a year younger than me; Macy was three. They were full siblings, raised together by a single mother. I don't know what I expected from the visit, but I remember feeling shy and awkward on our trips to the park and the museum together. We all had some resemblance, but it mostly felt like meeting strangers.
The weird thing about finding your siblings is that there isn't an instant familial relationship. You share DNA, sure, but you don't have the shared experience of family vacations or ragging on your mom together. But there is something that feels special. The most common reason people look for their siblings on the Donor Sibling Registry is to foster "a more secure sense of identity," according to one study of almost 800 parents. And while meeting Gus and Macy for the first time didn't exactly feel like gaining a brother and a sister, it did change the way I thought about myself and my family.
Every year after that, a new sibling appeared on the registry, and we ran through the same routine: "Hi, I'm Claudia, and apparently we share the same DNA."
When I was about 11, we had our first Thanksgiving as a new "family." We convened at Gus and Macy's house near Boston, and I met Eve and Matt, a pair of siblings from California, for the first time. Eve and I were only three months apart, and we looked so much alike we could've been identical twins. Meeting her felt like a Parent Trap moment. Our lives had been different—I grew up in New York, she in California; she had a brother while I was raised alone; I had a single mom and she had two moms—but we knew we were cut from the same cloth.
That first Thanksgiving was weird and surreal, but also stunningly normal. I found myself squeezed on the couch between my two brothers and two sisters, laughing and hanging out like I'd always wanted. Our moms spent a lot of time sitting at the kitchen table trading stories of our upbringings, comparing our freckles and foot size. They made us line up against a white wall to compare height. Cameras flashed and flashed, and we all stood there awkwardly, but together.
Years passed, and we found out about more and more siblings. Although we only saw one another once a year, at most, our new family had become just that—a family. We wished one another happy birthday, shared updates in a massive group text, and flew cross-country to see one another every once in a while.
We had our biggest "family reunion" to date when I was 16. Seven of us, plus our moms, met up in Northern California, where my half-sister Charlotte lives. While the moms (or the "donor-in-laws," as we call them) drank wine and shared stories in the kitchen, we (the "donakids") took to Charlotte's room. There were too many of us to fit on the bed, so we piled on the floor and talked about our separate lives. Some were raised as only children, some had full siblings; some had never had a dad, and one was actually raised with one. Some of us went to private school, others public school; some lived in rural areas, and others in big cities. But each of our mothers had fought hard to have her child, and each of us knew what it was like to grow up wondering about that second half of our genetic material. More than just our DNA, we shared that experience.
We're all over 18 now, which means we have the option to contact our donor, but none of us have done so yet. When we do, I'm not sure he'll be prepared for what's in store—not just meeting 17 donor kids, but realizing that we've all forged a "family" together.
Last month, my mom and I found a new sibling—the 17th one we've found on the Donor Sibling Registry so far. We met her and her mom three days later. My new sister had signed up for the Donor Sibling Registry a year back, not really expecting any results. Over dinner, I told her to brace herself: She may have felt like an only child her whole life, but her family is about to get very crowded.
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