Late last fall a small black cat – really more of a kitten – started to show up around my friend Caroline’s house. It was very skittish and wouldn’t allow itself to be pet, but it was very happy to get scraps from the house. Only then would she allow herself to be pet as she ate. Again, she was very much still a kitten when she showed up. After about a month, Caroline’s daughter realized that she might be pregnant. She was, so the family cleared out some space in their chicken coop to create a safe space for her to birth and raise the kittens. When they are of age, all of them will be spayed or neutered and go to a long list of people who want them. We have two cats already but we are going to see if they might welcome another into our home. 

The kittens are now 4 days old and I have been taking about 50 pictures a day so far. I arrived when there were 4 kittens born and still one to be birthed. The mother, had laid down behind the chicken coop to give birth and Caroline moved them all into the coop that evening for warmth and safety. Again, the cat is almost still a kitten herself. What’s kind of amazing is how much this event has transformed her. Now, she is much more willing to be pet, and is clearly aware that she is being supported in her efforts to nurture her kittens. While she was a wild cat, these kittens will grow up around people and, I imagine, much more comfortable with them. We have another friend who took in a month-old kitten after its mother was hit by a car. While she was loved, and taken care of, she still has a very difficult time around people. 

Genes and nurture interact in very interesting ways. This cat is way less than a year old and already is a very competent mother, she is both taking wonderful care of the kittens, and making time to take care of herself. She left them for a bit to lounge near the adult humans and I went to make a few photos. One of the kittens hadn’t had enough to eat and had fallen away from the warmth of the group. It started to meow and within 15 seconds momma had jumped back into the coop to make things right again. I imagine she would have known what to do without the support of the family she attached herself too, but having that clearly makes it more possible for her to be attentive. She had faced some trauma before finding the family as she was extremely skittish and skinny. It’s interesting to observe how a limited amount of support can create space for healing and growth.

I think a lot about the connection between nature and nurture. I have two daughters with my wife Suki and they are very different. Our older daughter is a lot like me while our younger one is much more like her mother, both in looks and personality. When we decided to have kids, I held the firm belief that nurture was more powerful than nature. Having grown up in the 70’s on a steady diet of Sesame Street, Free to Be You and Me, as well as having a psychologist and social worker for parents, I was led to believe that if we simply supported people emotionally, and pointed them in the right direction with good parenting and social connection, then everyone could thrive in equal measure.

My daughter getting oxygen before being taken to NICU. I’m holding her tiny hand

I was somewhat unprepared, even blindsided, by the profound levels of both love and responsibility that I felt when our first daughter was born. She came into the world with great haste; so much haste in fact, that her lungs were still filled with amniotic fluid and she had some difficulty breathing at first. This landed her in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, which meant being separated from us for her first few hours of life. She has a lot more outward anxiety than our younger daughter and I wonder if the impact of this first experience of life affected her in profound ways. At the same time, this expression of anxiety reminds me a lot of my mother. So, it can be hard to unwind what comes down the DNA trail and what veers off from it. Our younger daughter can also be anxious, but expresses it internally, like her mother.

A few months after our younger daughter was born. I was picking my older daughter up from the hair salon by our house where she would hang out while I walked the dog and the baby. My friend Lois asked me when I was gonna go for my boy. I was so overwhelmed with current responsibilities that I shot back, “Never, I am done!” However, as I walked out with the two girls and my dog I thought, “Oh my god. I probably have some boys and they must want to know who I am.” Fifteen years earlier I had spent some time donating sperm. Since I didn’t think that nature was all that powerful, I assumed that my genetic material wasn’t that significant. I believed I was doing a mitzvah for families in need, and hadn’t had an understanding of just how powerful our genetic connections are. I understood that people searched for their birth mothers because they had created a deeper connection to them through their 9 months of gestation. That made sense from the nurture perspective, but my own experience with having children made it clear that I was woefully uninformed.

I went home and did some googling. Unsurprisingly, I found that a lot of donor-conceived people were upset about being intentionally separated from their genetic roots. A friend of mine in college had been a donor and convinced me to donate after I graduated. Perhaps they gave me the option of being contacted in the future, but I only recall being told that it was all anonymous. That made sense to me at the time, but given what I had come to understand about the power of my genetic connection to my own children I was struck by a sense of responsibility to make myself available. One of the sites I found was called the Donor Sibling Registry, which had been set up to help half siblings find each other. It took my a year to track down my donor number from the lab. I added myself but no one found me.

A self portrait around the time that I graduated college and started being a sperm donor

I’m a filmmaker, so I also started to explore the subject for a possible documentary. I also wrote an op-ed explaining why I thought that sperm donation should not be anonymous. Within hours of posting it, I had connected with a donor-conceived woman named Alana who offered music and support. A friend of mine let me know that she was adopted and looking for her birth father. Within a couple of weeks, Alana was crashing at our home and we filmed with my friend. A month after that, my friend found her father. The documentary was off and running. That was a decade ago. I ended up following a number of stories, and my own faded into the background as I wasn’t contacted by anyone.

I work with my wife and another filmmaking partner. I tend to be kind of a hunter/gatherer. I collect a lot of material and I can’t always get them involved enough to push projects forward. Sometimes that can be a good thing. The longer it takes to make a project, the more breadth it has, which can mean it also has a lot more resonance. It can be hard though. Sometimes the waiting pays off. In January of 2019 my mother fell very ill with pneumonia. It was actually kind of terrifying. I got a call that she was on the way to the emergency room in Hillsborough which is about 20 miles from my house. I live only a mile from the other area hospital, but they sent her to Hillsborough from her retirement community because it has a geriatric center and is much quieter. I wasn’t feeling so good myself and was woken up from a nap to the news. I was a little groggy as I jumped in my car. When I got there she was nowhere to be found. I assumed that she had been taken to the one near me, and as I left the ER I got a call from her.

Unfortunately, while she was holding her phone, she wasn’t talking to me. She was in a panic and calling for help. I screamed her name but she wasn’t holding the phone near her ear. Still, it didn’t hang up. I double lined my brother because it was almost unbearable to sit with it alone. Finally, I arrived at the hospital and made it up to her room. Her heart rate was in the 150’s and her oxygen was very low but she was so agitated she kept pulling off the oxygen support tube. I put a firm hand on her shoulder and leaned in whispering to her that I was there. I could see her heart rate stabilize. Soon it was in the 120’s and things calmed down. Still, she was very agitated. They came in and did a chest essay which revealed severe pneumonia. They decided to send her to the geriatric center at the other hospital. In the meantime, I stayed with her. Keeping a hand on to keep her calm.

I was holding her hand as she dozed when I got a call from my cousin. Afraid of waking my mom I declined the call and sent her a text explaining why I could not talk. Then I got text from her in response.

“Oh my” indeed. It was a lot to process. I quickly texted my, new to me, daughter, Holly, letting her know that I had heard about her from my cousin but that I was in the hospital with my mom. As my mom rested I used my phone to film the feet walking by outside of her ER cubicle as I knew that I would need footage if I was ever going to make a film Frankly, I was not sure that my mother was going to make it. She was 84 and very ill. I spent the next four nights up all night with her in the Intensive Care Unit. On the second day, I went home to rest and shower during the day and on my way back I talked to my daughter for the first time. It was nice to connect. I had done some thinking about it and I felt like I had a profound responsibility to be available and present for her, but also that I was not owed contact. I wasn’t exactly thinking that I had to “earn” it, but instead that I needed to center what she needed rather than what I might want. I also did not want my film to get in the way of us forming a relationship.

My mother made it through her illness. A couple of weeks later I went to New York for a 50th birthday celebration with my twin brother. I had already planned to fly up a day before my family in order to deal with other business. So, I arranged to meet Holly at Penn Station. I filmed myself a little before hand, and filmed with my phone as we met. Then I put it away and concentrated on just being present. I felt a profound sense of connection. It’s hard to describe, but I had no doubt that she was my daughter. She wasn’t ready to come to the birthday celebration, but we continued to connect by phone quite a bit.

A couple of months later my mother fell and cracked her skull. Over the next 4 months I spent a lot of time taking care of her. I really wanted to get Holly down for a visit. While my donor conception project was stop and go, I had assembled a lot of stories and footage over time. I followed one friend who was adopted into an evangelical family. When she was twenty she got pregnant right around the time that she found her birth mother. She was in despair when they met. When she was introduced to the family, her birth grandmother handed her 20 birthday cards. Every time I hear that story I get an ache in my chest; a kind of signal of the profound genetic connection. I kept thinking of how important it might be for Holly to meet her grandmother. I wasn’t able to make it happen.

A week after my mother passed away my family was scheduled to be in New York for a college interview for my older daughter. At first we weren’t sure we were up to it, but decided to go ahead and go. We arranged to all meet Holly and once again we chose Penn Station as a meeting place because it was easy for her since she was coming in from New Jersey. I stopped by a camera shop near Penn Station to get a mic and pistol grip for my phone. While I hadn’t filmed anything else since our first meeting it once again felt important to capture. We got there first. When Holly arrived I pushed record and as she walked up she burst into tears. Then I realized that I hadn’t actually pushed record. Holly had never met a sibling before and she had no idea that it was going to have such an impact. Emotions are powerful, and so are genes.

I’m still not sure how I’m going to pull this whole donor conception project together, especially the more personal parts. We spent much of this last year working on another project but I hope we can finally turn our attention to this one. Last night I was doing some scanning of images I shot in 1990. That’s when I found the self portrait that I shared above. Last night I sent it to Holly. Then I remembered the first photo I took of her after we met, also above. A week ago I sent the picture to a friend without any explanation. He replied that I looked great in drag. On my phone, I laid the images on top of each other. It was strange to watch them merge into one. Again, genes are very powerful and so is nurturing. We need to understand both as we integrate them in our efforts to help people become as healthy as possible emotionally.

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