Finding out that you don't share half your DNA with the person you believed to be your biological parent is bound to shake the very foundations of your identity. And when the man or woman whose egg or sperm helped to conceive you was an anonymous donor, the revelation can throw up even more self-perception-shattering issues.
Under UK law, people conceived via egg or sperm donation after April 2005 can find out their donor's full name, address and contact details, and get in touch with them. Before then, the onus was on donors to lift their anonymity if they were comfortable with anyone conceived by their donation making contact. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the body responsible for regulating egg donation in the UK, found that the established donor anonymity rules weren't working for everyone and decided to introduce greater openness. "Before the law was changed in 2005, we consulted widely with donor-conceived people and donors about how donor anonymity should work. We found there was a strong desire on both sides to leave the door open to potential contact if both parties wanted that," the HFEA says on its website.
The rise of at-home DNA kits has kickstarted countless conversations about shock parental discoveries and left an increasing number of people unexpectedly part of the "NPE" (Not Parent Expected) community. But family secrets are nothing new, and sometimes the revelation that your mum – who read you bedtime stories, bought you your first bra and held you while you howled about your first break-up – isn't your biological parent, comes via something as simple as a slip of the tongue.
Robyn Ranford, 21, was 16 when she found out she was conceived by an egg donor; the discovery came a year after her mum, the woman who raised her, passed away. Robyn pushed the issue to the back of her mind for four years until summer 2017, when she contacted the HFEA to ask for more information about her egg donor. She waited six months after receiving her donor Angie's contact details to get in touch, in February 2018. The pair first met in May 2018 and have met monthly ever since. Robyn shared her story with Refinery29.
"When Dad told me I was conceived by an egg donor, it was a big secret – no one in my family knew, not even my sister. I'd gone to the doctor's with my friend who wanted to go on the pill and the nurse said it increases your chances of breast cancer. I didn't want to go on the pill myself at the time but it worried me, because my mum had died of breast cancer. So I told my dad I was worried about it in the car on the way home and he just blurted out the truth. He said, 'You don't need to worry about that because you were a donor egg and conceived by IVF'. I cried hysterically, as most people would.
My mum had died less than a year before, so it was like a double grief and suddenly half of my identity was missing. I was never suspicious while she was alive. The only inkling I had that something wasn't right was in a biology class after she'd died. We were learning about genetics and talking about the colour of our parents' eyes and how they matched up to ours. Mine didn't add up – my mum's eyes were brown and mine are blue, and my science teacher was confused. Another time, my dad was suspiciously interested to know what I thought of IVF after I told him about my friend who was conceived through it. These moments were significant looking back, but at the time they didn't really stick in my mind.
It was weird and complicated not knowing who my biological mother was for four years. I felt so much more distant from my mum, which made grief more complex, but it also made me admire her even more – she'd had fertility problems and endometriosis and it took them seven years to have me. I never knew any of that and it gave me a newfound respect for everything she'd gone through. At the same time, I'd look around me, see women in the street and think, You could be my biological mum.
It was a long process tracking Angie down. After an initial email to the HFEA to say I wanted to find out about my donor, everything had to be done by letter. You have to fill out loads of forms, send off your passport and convince them you're sure you want to find out. I was also offered counselling. It was a lot. My boyfriend and I were on a road trip around England when a letter arrived containing her contact details. My dad sent me a picture of it. It was surreal and overwhelming as so much had been building up for that moment, and it was a relief to finally have it. I typed in her name on Facebook and the first time I saw her face was really weird. She looks a lot like me – I think I look more like her than my dad.
It was the summer holidays before my third year of university when I emailed the HFEA; I was at a good, stable point in my life and felt ready. But then once I got her information it took me another six months to feel ready to contact her. I'd previously written a long email and deleted it, but then one day I was in the library and suddenly decided to write her a much shorter email introducing myself as her donor-conceived child. She replied within 20 minutes and was happy to hear from me. We had a nice interaction, swapping photos and information about ourselves.
Angie is a blood donation nurse. She has two children of her own who are older than me – weirdly, they're born on the 6th and 7th May and I'm born on the 8th. She originally donated her eggs anonymously after seeing a newspaper advert saying that women were waiting for eggs as there weren't enough. Then in 2015 she saw another news article about people trying to find their biological parents and decided to lift her anonymity. Angie was open to the idea of finding out what had happened to her eggs – she didn't even know if it had been successful until then. Her eggs also created a boy born in 1996, who I feel quite connected to. I'd love to find him, too. I don't know anyone in my situation and it's weird knowing there's another person out there who shares half of my DNA. I got a 23andMe kit for Christmas so hopefully I'll find him through that.
Angie and I met for the first time outside a Pitcher & Piano in Bristol. My boyfriend came with me, her husband came with her and we had lunch and a drink. It was scary and I was really nervous beforehand. We asked each other a lot of questions and talked about everything – we're both very talkative and open. We spoke about my mum a lot. Angie was sad that my mum wasn't alive because she had donated eggs for my mum – an unknown woman who wanted a child – and she was sad that she wasn't able to meet her. We raised a toast to my mum.
I wouldn't call her my 'biological mum' or use any variation of the word 'mum'.
It's a big sense of relief to have Angie in my life, and nice to have the missing half of my identity confirmed. It felt real late last year when my boyfriend pointed out that it was the first time he had to reply to two of my parents thanking them for the birthday cards they'd sent him. He never met my mum. We message all the time and meet up roughly every month. It's like the relationship you'd have with an aunt, it's really nice. We're both navigating this very weird situation together. We address each other by our names – if I'm talking about her to someone else, she's my 'egg donor'. I respect my mum so much, I wouldn't call Angie my 'biological mum' or use any variation of the word 'mum'. But a lot of people, especially people whose mums are still alive, call their donor their 'biological mother' or 'biological father'.
I didn't really tell anyone what had happened until last summer. My sister was lovely and really understanding when I told her over the phone. She's my half sister on my mum's side so we're not actually related at all, which was a big thing for us to find out. I didn't want to tell my grandma because she'd already lost her daughter so it's difficult. In November, I decided I didn't want to continue living with a huge secret about half my identity. I'd been taught it was a bad thing and decided I didn't want to continue seeing it that way, so I posted a photo of Angie and me on Instagram explaining who she was and what had happened. Everyone was really supportive and interested.
Everything has worked out better than I thought it might. I've learned the importance of resilience – it's a huge thing to have been through – and openness. It's so important to know things that are happening to people, so they feel less alone. Having a support system has also been crucial. My boyfriend has been amazing – he's been there every time I've met Angie and I imagine it's been hard knowing what to say. It's hardly a normal situation."