I had been told stories and given information from a young age. However, as a child, not understanding the science behind my conception coupled with a vivid imagination, I convinced myself that I was a robot: a prospect that both scared and excited me. I knew I was special, as my mum had repeatedly told me.
She was open with me so I was never ashamed or shy about explaining that mine was a single-parent family. I thought it was only polite to be honest with the rest of the world: “It’s just me and my mummy because the doctor helped make me,” I’d say proudly.
At only five I was unable to process my mother’s struggle to beat the odds against her uncooperative ovaries and the social stigma of wanting to become a single parent. Instead, what upset me most was that after numerous operations, she was unable to pick me up and swing me round like the dads who collected their daughters from school.
Later on, at seven, I loved the occasional spotlight of attention at school, greeted with a surprise “oh” and smile from the teachers when I told them or when they saw my photograph in the newspapers. My primary teachers were understanding when it came to projects such as our family tree, and when the class made Father’s Day cards I made cards for my mum or my grandpa. I remember the day the headmaster approached me in the hallway, holding the newspaper that showed me and my mum smiling. He was full of praise. I felt just as special as the kid who could run fastest in the class. At that age, I confidently retold stories of my mother’s malfunctioning ovaries and numerous fertility treatments, which I, of course, considered to be a normal subject of conversation. I soon found out, however, that others did not hold the same view.
At a family wedding, another guest seated at our table innocently inquired about my dad. I launched into a long explanation of fertility treatment, sperm donors and single parenthood. When I had finished, the woman’s face was the colour of her bright pink wedding hat and she was staring into her soup. My mum, sitting beside me, smiled when she caught the woman’s eye and said, “Well, you did ask.”
When the subject of sex education came up at school, just before my 11th birthday, I raised my hand to remind the teacher that sex was not the only way to make babies.
During most of my primary years, I was unfazed by my lack of a father. But at 12, when I started secondary school, the issue came into sharper focus. Suddenly I had to deal with stronger, deeper emotions I had been too young to appreciate. What had made me special now brought me pain and sadness. My longing for a father-daughter relationship grew.
Mum and I talked about what my father might look like. What I treasured most was her saying, “At least you know he must be a very kind person.”
She often joked that he must be messy because that was a trait I certainly did not get from her. I had an artistic streak she was baffled by and an interest in theatre. As a young teenager, I had seen nearly every musical on the West End stage and knew all the classics and Disney songs by heart – The Lion King was my favourite.
I constantly imagined meeting my father and fantasised that he must be searching his long-lost daughter. I also envied friends’ relationships with their dads.
At 14, at my insistence, my mum wrote to the Human Fertilisation Embryology Authority (HFEA) and it provided the basic characteristics of my other biological parent. “Medium height, medium build, brown eyes, 5ft 6in”, describing himself as “bright, chatty and extrovert”, interests “arts and theatre”, occupation “theatre director and manager”. I was ecstatic. These bare facts made him feel real to me. He wasn’t a figment of my imagination – he was out there.
At 15, I was less concerned about being special than fitting in. Close friends knew about my unconventional beginnings and were very accepting. Yet I felt I always put on a brave face and when people did ask, I used my stock phrase “test-tube baby”, quickly dismissing with a smile and a “yes, isn’t it interesting?” nod. I was less open because I didn’t want to have to deal with the emotions that lay below the surface.
The information of a year earlier did nothing to stem my curiosity as my mum had hoped. If anything, it whetted my appetite for more. I longed to know who he was, to find out more now that I had something to build on. But Mum put her foot down. She felt I was too young to try to find him; we would do it when I was older.
These years were difficult for us both. I resented her for holding me back. I knew she was trying to protect me but from my adolescent perspective it felt like Mum was deliberately hurting me. I felt utterly alone.
She tried her best to help – she got in touch with the Donor Conception Network and arranged a meeting in London. Later on, I signed up to the Donor Sibling Registry based in the US, only to be met with false hopes.
When I was nearly 18, I was finally able to apply to the HFEA for more information. I had to send copies of my birth certificate and passport and Mum had to legally verify all the documents, which she could as she’s a solicitor. Shortly afterwards, to my surprise and delight, the HFEA replied, informing me that I had four half-siblings – two girls and two boys – born in 1992 and 1993.
To an only child, finding out I was one of five … it was much more than I could ever have hoped for.
Until my four half-siblings sign up to the voluntary registry I am not allowed to know anything about them – no name, no basic information, no contact details, nothing. The ball is in their court. I hope that my biological half-brothers and sisters share my curiosity. I also realise they may not be like me – maybe they have brothers and sisters, and maybe they don’t know how they were conceived.
It was, at least, a comfort to know they were out there, like my dad, but, more than two years on, I am still waiting patiently for contact.
As I grew in confidence and maturity, I chose to stop my “fatherlessness” defining me. I stopped calling him my father and instead referred to him as my donor.
Now, in my second year of university in Edinburgh, I see things from a different perspective. I am not looking for my donor to be my dad any more but remain curious about who he is as a person. Does he know that he helped to bring five assisted-conception babies into the world? Perhaps he also has natural children of his own.
I want to know more about my donor and half-siblings but am unsure how best to turn my curiosity into reality. I’ll be 21 this year and, rather than waiting, I hope this article might help me to make contact with an interesting theatre director and four half siblings. I am also curious to know if other people have similar stories to mine and are willing to share them. You never know, my donor might just be reading this newspaper.
Portrait by Robert Ormerod Photograph: Robert Ormerod for the Guardian