A Friendship That Fuels a Bigger Notion of Family

“It’s comforting to have a village of companions in this adventure to raise these children.”

illustration of a sperm donor network
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two couples—Jenny and Marisa (parents to Atlas and Blaise), and Lora and Michelle (parents to Finnley and Tegan)—who had their children using the same sperm donor. Though they originally were just hoping for their kids to connect, the parents found themselves forging a unique friendship of their own and blurring the line between friend and “family.” In this interview, they discuss the hopes and fears that come with meeting your kids’ donor siblings, finding a “village” that supports both them and their children, and why their families have connected so deeply.

The Friends:

Jenny Bowman-Frye, 37, an operations specialist for Starbucks who lives in San Francisco
Marisa Bowman-Frye, 36, a human-resources director who lives in San Francisco
Lora Liegel, 37, a farmers’ market director, author, and creator of the Second Parent Project who lives in Bellingham, Washington
Michelle Metzler, 36, a waste-management professional who lives in Bellingham, Washington

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: How were you able to learn who had used the same sperm donor as you?

Lora Liegel: In the beginning, I was so focused on creating our own family. After Finnley was about 2, a friend mentioned that she had connected with other donor-sibling families. That lit the fire in us. So we reached out to the sperm bank. [They sent us] a simple online form that connected us to the other folks who had used that site too.

Michelle Metzler: It’s not promoted—we didn’t know that it was even an option until a few years into our son’s life.

Marisa Bowman-Frye: We went first on the donor-sibling registry. You can pay to post there and then other people can pay to contact you.

Jenny Bowman-Frye: When we bought the sperm, we browsed quickly and no one was listed. So then we got back to the business of making a baby. When Atlas was about 18 months old, our friends posted a picture of their donor siblings. That sparked within us [the desire] to look again.

Marisa: Later we found out about the sperm-bank website and found some families. Lora and Michelle joined after. We’ve now been on this journey of creating relationships with donor-sibling families for four years.

Atlas and Finnley actually became the first siblings to meet of anyone in our group. We had already planned a trip to Seattle [where Lora and Michelle live], so once they joined, I looked at Jenny and said, “Hey, do you want to try to meet them? It might be weird. They might be weird. They might be cool. We don’t know.” She was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So I messaged them and said, “We are coming to your part of the world. Would you want to meet up for a play date?”

They were like, “Yeah, we’ll meet you at the park.” We just had a regular play date. I’m so grateful that Lora and Michelle decided to take a chance on this weird friendship.

Four women and two young boys dressed in puffy coats. All of them are posing for the camera, except one of the young boys who is turned around jumping on one of the women.
From left to right: Marisa Bowman-Frye, Lora Liegel, Lora and Michelle’s son Finnley, Marisa and Jenny’s son Atlas, Jenny Bowman-Frye, and Michelle Metzler, holding her and Lora’s daughter Tegan. (Courtesy of Lora Liegel)

Beck: What was your motivation for making these connections? Was it something you were always excited about?

Michelle: At first, we were thinking, Why would we want to seek out these donor siblings? Then, the more we thought about it, it was like, Why not? Let’s just try it and see what happens. Part of our reservation was a little bit of insecurity about our family. The unknown of: What is this web going to be? What if we meet the other families and we don’t connect?

Beck: With the insecurity, were you feeling like you didn’t want this donor network to supersede the importance of your family connection?

Michelle: At the time, that was part of it, because we were jumping into the unknown. Now that’s not at all a reservation for either of us.

Lora: Why did we say yes ultimately? We’re pretty open with our children. They know that we used a donor to conceive them. We’re obviously two women so we had to get some help from somewhere. But beyond that, we’ve wanted to normalize it. There’s no reason to hide all of these other families. Our children are so young right now, but if they want to connect with all of these other siblings later down the road, then they can.

Jenny: I wanted to know how many children there were, and where they are, because in the future, who knows? A fellow donor-conceived kid could potentially be in the same class. So for me, it was about knowledge to help inform our children’s lives. The bonus is we’ve met some incredible parents.

Marisa: For you, it seemed like it was really about curiosity. You had some satisfaction with seeing what we found. One of the first families that we connected with, their kid looked almost exactly like ours. The similarities were striking. You could have mistaken them for each other.

Jenny: Or the speech pattern [that some of the kids have], it’s the exact same. It’s crazy.

Marisa: It’s really interesting [to see] commonalities that are clearly genetic, because the kids are growing up in different families in different parts of the world.

As Atlas’s non-birth parent, I want to be his best ally on matters related to him finding out who he is. We know from listening to some grown-up adoptees and adult donor-conceived people that biological relationships are not everything, but for a lot of people, they are something. I really wanted Atlas to know that I was going to champion him if he wanted to go down that path. That was my inspiration for building these relationships.

Beck: How many siblings from this donor are there?

Jenny: The short answer is we don’t know, and we will never know. But we’re in pretty regular contact with maybe 15 or so?

Michelle: It’s opt-in, so I’m sure there are other kids from families whose parents don’t want to connect.

Lora: It’s cool that our kids get to have this experience with all these other families when they’re young. When we met up for a second time with Jenny and Marisa, we went to the aquarium. Later that same week, Michelle was with the kids and someone asked Finnley, “How many other siblings do you have?” And the first thing that he said was, “I have a brother Atlas. He lives in San Francisco.” Even though his sister was right next to him.

A view from behind of two women and two young boys holding hands, with the boys holding hands in the middle, as they walk down a park path
The families during a meetup in Seattle. (Courtesy of Lora Liegel)

Marisa: For our kids, we’ve made magnets [of the donor siblings] with their names on them. Our 1-year-old comes to the fridge, looks at the magnets, and touches them. That’s how we engage with the idea that these are people who we care about.

It started out as, We’re the grown-ups and we’re going to facilitate this relationship so that our kids have the option down the line. And then over time, we became friends. That wasn’t the start—How do I find myself a friend? No, we came together a different way.

Michelle: That kept us engaged—that there are these really thoughtful parents who care for their children in every sense of the word. It’s great to be part of a network of people who have the same level of engagement with their kids.

Jenny: We’re on the younger end of parents in San Francisco. We didn’t really have any mentors who came before us. So it was also about fostering this community, because it takes a village. It’s comforting to have companions in this adventure to raise these children.

Beck: How did your friendship evolve from “We’re in touch because we have this cool connection through our kids” to “Actually I really want to be friends with you independent of that”?

Lora: Part of it is geographic. We’re both on the West Coast, so we can actually make it happen. That has helped me want to invest in this friendship.

Marisa: We connect in terms of being two-mom families and we chat about media. A few days ago we were texting about the new L Word.

I feel a sense of trust from Lora and Michelle—that they are invested in our kids’ futures because it impacts their kids and they care about their kids. I feel invested in the futures of Finnley and Tegan. They’re important to me because I think they’re going to be important to my kids. We’re building it as we go. And so far, I think we’re doing a pretty good job.

Lora: A lot of it is reciprocity. We know of 10 to 15 other families and everyone’s at a different level of engagement. One of the things that keeps bringing me back to Jenny and Marisa is that they want to engage just like I do, at the same level that I want to.

Marisa: I don’t have an answer for how friends come to be friends. I think people work their way into our hearts and minds, and then we think of them. And now that I’m in my 30s, when I think of somebody, I let them know. It wasn't like that in my 20s. I'd be like, I don’t want to bother them.

Beck: Are you close with any other families on a similar level?

Marisa: We’ve traveled and met up with other families. Two years ago, we gathered in Europe with five families. We have pretty close relationships with most of the people that we’ve met in person. We’re also developing friendships with one or two other families who we haven’t met yet.

Beck: Has this experience made you think any differently about the lines between friendship, family, and community, and how those blur?

Lora: This is redefining family to me. Originally, family [felt like] just this nuclear thing, but [by] getting to know all of these donor families all across the world, we get to make it big.

Michelle: The hesitancy I felt about meeting them was coming from some of our insecurities. Now that’s totally washed away. What were we worried about? Just because our kids have more siblings, why does that matter? That’s part of our evolution as a family—feeling more open and not feeling that this threatens our roles. Why would we not want to have more people in our lives who care about us? Why would we not want more people in our kids’ lives who are loving, engaged parents?

Jenny: I feel very secure as my children’s parent. But what really stood out for me, especially with the European trip, was this idea of multiple mothering. At one point I left and got a water. In my absence, this wonderful group of people stepped in, in a mothering fashion. It happened when they would step out too. One parent took a nap and we’re like, “Yes, we’ve got your kid.” This incredible phenomenon of trust, respect, and love that happened was really cool.

Marisa: I grew up with lots of layers of family. My mom comes from a huge family; my dad comes from a tiny one. I grew up with half-siblings who lived on the other side of the country—in many ways what my kids are experiencing now. It was normal for me to have people introduced as my family even though I was meeting them for the first time at age 8. In my case, the foundations for that blurred space between friendship and family were built before I ever got to this.

Lora: I definitely have insecurities about my role as a nonbiological parent. But finding this group and folks like Jenny and Marisa has solidified that I don’t need that genetic connection to create family.

If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.

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