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Random Families

Genetic Strangers, Sperm Donor Siblings, and the Creation of New Kin

Rosanna Hertz and Margaret K. Nelson

Publication Date - 01 August 2020

ISBN: 9780197519981

312 pages
6.14 x 9.21 inches

In Stock

A revealing and moving account of the unprecedented families formed by sperm donor siblings and the remarkable relationships that emerge out of the human desire for identity and intimacy


Random Families is about the unprecedented families that have grown up at the intersection of new reproductive technologies, social media, and the human desire for belonging. Children of the same donor and their families, with the help of the internet, can now locate each other and make contact. Based on over 350 interviews with children (ages 10-28), their parents and related donors from all over the U.S., Random Families chronicles the chain of choices that couples and single mothers make from what donor to use to how to participate (or not) in donor sibling networks. Children reveal their understanding of a donor, the donor's spot on the family tree and the meaning of their donor siblings. Through rich first-person accounts of network membership, the book illustrates how these extraordinary relationships-woven from bits of online information and shared genetic ties-are transformed into new possibilities for kinship. Random Families offers down-to-earth stories from real families to highlight just how truly distinctive these contemporary new forms of family are.


  • Includes over 350 interviews from donors and both parents and children in the same families
  • Sheds light on critical processes like choosing a donor among parents and the development of identity among children with an unknown donor
  • Chronicles the choices couples and single moms make, from conceiving, to accepting donors into their families, to discovering that other children share their child's DNA
  • Explores how children at different ages understand their relationships with their donor and donor siblings
  • Describes what happens when people are brought together by shared genes, what they say about family resemblances, and how they work through the ways donor siblings become kin

About the Author(s)

Rosanna Hertz is the 1919 50th Reunion Professor of Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies at Wellesley College. She authored the widely acclaimed Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice, a path-breaking study of women who choose parenthood without marriage. She is frequently sought out by national media on issues related to women, work and changing families in contemporary society.

Margaret K. Nelson is the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Sociology Emerita at Middlebury College where she taught for four decades. Her books include Working Hard and Making Do: Surviving in Small Town America (with Joan Smith), and Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times.


"Rosanna Hertz and Margaret Nelson provide an important and significant expansion of the field [of donor kinship]. At the core of the book is a sociological investigation and analysis of whether and how strangers become relatives, and what happens to the meaning of family as these strangers who share genes manage their new relationships. Random Families is an impressive bookâ Ultimately, this is not a neatly tied package of family connections but instead an analysis, an attempt to create a narrative to describe these otherwise âunscriptedâ relationships (p. 198) that are so different from other kinship-based bonds." -- , Society

"add[s] substantially to the literature on Americans' changing families, family values, and behaviors. This clearly written and organized text ... [is] a groundbreaking and illuminating study ... Highly recommended." -- W. Feigelman, CHOICE

"Hertz and Nelson's approach is a welcome addition to the scholarship on searching for genetic relations among donor-conceived people and their parents . . . Random Families is an intellectually honest account of the complexity, and diversity, of same-donor networks . . . What becomes of these [donor network] possibilities remains to be seen, but for bringing them to light, Random Families deserves recognition." --SCIENCE

Table of Contents

    Introduction: Unprecedented Relationships

    Part I: Making Sense of the Donor and Donor Siblings
    Chapter 1. Choosing Donors
    Chapter 2. Inventing the Donor / Inventing the Self
    Chapter 3. Parents Make Contact with Genetic Strangers
    Chapter 4. The Surprise of donor siblings

    Part II: Networks of Donor Siblings
    Chapter 5. Michael's Clan: The Arrival of the Father
    Chapter 6. 7008 Builders: We are Family
    Chapter 7. The Tourists: Just Related Strangers
    Chapter 8. Connected Soul Mates: Emotional Ties
    Chapter 9. The Social Capitalists: Joining The Preschoolers Group
    Chapter 10. Donor Sibling Networks: Continuity and Change
    Conclusion: Choice in Donor Sibling Networks

    Appendix A: Respondents
    Appendix B: Interviews, Virtual Ethnography And Language In The Book