Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to Olivia’s View.

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This blog is my own personal view of donor conception:  the issues, the questions, my reflections on family life, plus comments on media coverage and events: I’m one of the co-founders of DC Network and mother to two sons and a daughter, now adults, conceived both with and without donor help. The views expressed here  are not necessarily those of DC Network.

Meet my family:  Husband Walter, who was the first Chair of DC Network, only stepping down in April 2017. He also used to be on the board of the HFEA;   eldest son Peter from my first marriage, married to Emily and parents to our first lovely grand-daughter; younger son Will married to Rebecca and now in 2018 parents to our new grand-daughter, and daughter ‘Zannah, a talented therapist and healer.  Then there’s Milo, a seriously noisy and annoying but ultimately lovable Siamese cat.

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Would-be parents key to the well-being of future generations of donor conceived people

On Wednesday 19th June Progress Educational Trust (PET) in partnership with University of Liverpool ran an event titled Anonymous No More? Donor Conception and Direct to Consumer DNA testing.  We heard short presentations from genealogist Debbie Kennet, former sperm donor Andy Waters, donor conceived adult Becky and Louise Johnson, CEO of the Victorian Assisted Reproduction Treatment Authority (VARTA) in Victoria, Australia.  All speakers, from their different perspectives, were clear that direct-to-consumer DNA testing means that in the donor conception world these initials now stand for Donors Not Anonymous.  Four million people in the UK have already undergone DNA testing.  The number world-wide is 30 million.

In answer to audience questions, Debbie spoke of the need for nothing short of a revolution in the way donor conception is managed worldwide.  Becky talked about the earthquake in her life and the massive sense of loss when, in her thirties, her mother told her of her beginnings by DC.  Andy was clear that ‘telling’ was the only way to go because anonymity is now dead and Louise told the audience about Victoria where retrospective legislation has given all parties to DC the right to identifying information and, through VARTA, to approach other parties for contact, although both donors and DC people can veto this.  Putting information about DC on birth certificates was mentioned by several people as a way to make sure that parents ‘tell’, but with revolution in the air, this didn’t feel sufficient (or in my mind necessarily the right way to go).  Becky hit the nail on the head when she spoke about feeling that the onus to change the way DC is managed is falling on DC people because they are the ones whose sense of identity is being shattered and lives turned upside down by finding out about their origins.  It didn’t feel fair to her that DC adults should have to take the burden of pushing for change when so many other people were involved – from policy makers in the government and HFEA, to fertility doctors and clinics, to couples and individuals making decisions about family creation.

VARTA is held up by progressive thinkers as the model to follow but I can see that whilst it opens many doors it can also feel to some DC people as if it opens them, only to have the door slammed in their face if a donor vetoes contact.  Why not just do a commercial DNA test and find your donor or half-sibs without having government contracts binding your actions.  I also think it is wrong that VARTA can give identifying information to donors so that they can track down offspring, many of whom will not have known they are donor conceived.

Although I understand that time is limited at these events, my frustration came from the lack of talk about what can be done without legislation (although we need changes there also), at the level of how we speak about and approach donor conception and how the procedures are organised.  For a start, donor conception is NOT a fertility treatment https://oliviasview.wordpress.com/2018/11/06/donor-conception-is-not-a-fertility-treatment/

DC should be treated from the start as a way of creating a different sort of family. Those qualified to talk through the implications of this would not be doctors and nurses but counsellors, social workers and the wide range of people who understand about family dynamics.  Preparation for bringing about this different sort of family would be an accepted part of the contract (as it is in adoption) and doctors, instead of leading, would play an important but adjunct role in providing medical services when potential recipients were ready on an emotional level to consider a pregnancy.  Part of the preparation would be an acceptance of the donor(s) as people who would play a part in the lives of children conceived from their eggs or sperm at an agreed point in their lives.  I know that those of radical bent would want the donor to be a part of the child’s life right from the start, but I’m talking about starting slowly here.  The vast majority of would-be parents would retreat to other countries for egg donation and to the often seamy world of private sperm donors if this was suggested now.  Most people don’t like change and changes that appear to challenge the boundaries of the family are most strongly defended.  I would see a slow progression towards a culture change where donors would be matched to recipients through mutual choice and agreement and contracts established that would be flexible enough to change with all participants needs but focusing first and foremost on the needs of the child.

The people missing on the PET event panel were parents.  Why are parents or would-be parents so important?  Because they are the people who are taking the decisions about where to go for donor conception procedures and whether or not to share information with their children. These are the people who are key to the well-being of future generations of donor conceived people.  Of course how donor conception preparation and procedures are organised are going to have to change significantly as well. This means convincing the clinics that they are doing so much more than baby-making when they use donated gametes to help create a family or happily send people off to Spain for egg donation.  It’s up-hill work, but SO worthwhile making the effort to do.

In my last blog https://oliviasview.wordpress.com/2019/06/23/openness-as-a-state-of-mind-for-parents-by-donor-conception/ I talked about the people who come to the Preparation for Donor Conception Parenthood workshops run by DCN.  These couples and individuals are in the vanguard of those who really want to think about what they are doing BEFORE they choose donor conception.  We facilitate their process of understanding openness as a state of mind.  All recipients of donated gametes deserve this sort of information giving and support.  Everyone needs to hear and respond to Becky’s cry for taking responsibility for change.  Donor conceived adults, you are not alone.

I do continue to work part-time for DC Network but some of the ideas I have written about in this blog are mine alone and are not necessarily shared by DC N.

 

 

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Openness as a state of mind for parents by donor conception

For as long as I can remember ‘telling’ and ‘openness’ have been virtually interchangeable terms when talking about letting donor conceived children know about their beginnings.  You told the children so that openness could be established in the family and hopefully with a wider circle around the child as well.  But the words of a donor conceived adult who has spoken at both a DCN conference and the workshop DCN held for professionals last year have rung more and more true of late.  Openness is a state of mind not just something you achieve by ‘telling’.

Quite often I run what is referred to as the Psycho-social Session at the Preparation for DC Parenthood workshops run by DCN.  The people who attend are mostly those potential parents (not necessarily via donor conception as some will go on to adopt or foster) who want to think more about what they are getting into – or might get into, before taking the step of starting the medical treatment side of seeking to create a family using donated gametes.  They understand that there is more to it than that, and they come to explore their hopes, fears and anxieties about how different donor conception parenting might be to being the parent of a child conceived without help from sperm or eggs from another person.   Those of us facilitating the participants progression over a weekend do not shy away from talking about ‘difference’; from recognising the men and women who give/gift/sell their gametes, as real people who are likely to come into the lives of donor conceived offspring at some point or another and the potentially uncomfortable language their children may use to refer to this person.  Of course we talk about the importance of ‘telling’  children early and often but I have only realised recently that what we are partly, but most importantly doing, is attempting to facilitate the start of an internal process leading to openness becoming a state of mind, the final stage of which involves the ultimate responsibility of a DC parent to accept their (whatever age) child’s feelings about, and language around, their unknown progenitor and support them in whatever they need to do.

Thank you Becky.

 

 

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New findings shed light on when children really understand about donor conception

Perhaps because I was one of the speakers at the DC Network London conference held at the end of April, I haven’t blogged about the event, but it was a wonderful day.  The title of my presentation was Are the Children Alright? and in hindsight actually all of the presentations turned out to have this question as a theme running through them.  I was struck by many things throughout the day but for now I want to concentrate on the presentation by Dr Vasanti Jadva from the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University.  Vasanti was with us to talk about the latest findings from the longitudinal study the Centre have been doing for eighteen years now with families created through egg and sperm donation, including surrogacy in a few cases.  Children whose parents were being open with them about their conception were asked at ages 7, 10 and now 14 how they felt about being DC and their responses showed clearly how understanding of what being donor conceived means (fundamentally a genetic disconnect between at least one parent and child) comes about only very slowly.  Jadva reported that whilst children of seven often seemed very positive about their donor conception and/or surrogacy, they found it very difficult to explain anything about it.  By age ten they had a rudimentary understanding but it was only by age fourteen that they fully understood what it meant.  The young people who took part in the research are now eighteen and the Cambridge team are about to re-interview them.  I suspect that it will only be by this age (or older) that the participants will be able to say what being conceived this way means for them, as opposed to simply understanding about the lack of genetic connection.

I think there are a number of implications of these findings.  Firstly, and probably most significantly, it is important for parents and others to know that just because children can parrot language they have heard from parents or books about donor conception and seem to be unconcerned about it, that we can assume they fully understand what being donor conceived means.  That they are comfortable and open about it is wonderful and a good foundation but it is only a snapshot in time.  We cannot assume anything for the future based on the evidence of a seven or ten year old’s indifference to being donor conceived.  Things can and do change over time. Not necessarily for the worse, but definitely demonstrating much more nuance and sometimes ambivalence.

The realisation that children still only have a rudimentary understanding of donor conception at 10 also means that those parents who do not tell significant others about a child’s beginnings because they say it is the child’s story to tell, are missing an important opportunity to provide community support for their child during the years in which a child’s comprehension is minimal but growing.  It is unfair for a child with incomplete understanding to be expected to carry the burden of telling others when all they have is language provided by their parents and not a true realisation of the implications of the information for themselves.  In my opinion it is the parents’ responsibility to let those who need to know (including close family, carers, teachers and doctors) in their child’s interest until the child is old enough to take on that responsibility for themselves, possibly in tandem with parent(s) for a while.  Not sharing the information could well lead to a child being upset at not being able to tell their story properly and also puzzling over why Auntie Tracey or Grandma didn’t know.  Does this mean that there is something shameful about being donor conceived/something wrong with me?

These findings could at first sight appear to undermine the current orthodoxy of openness about donor conception with children from a very young age, but I think that would be to misunderstand it.  Sharing information from under five not only allows parents to practice and get comfortable with the language but also encourages a ‘small steps at a time” approach with a child, building up the information over the years.  In this way there is no moment of shock and the story of how the family came into being can be amongst the normal and everyday topics the family chats (and laughs) about.

Getting back to the Cambridge research, the numbers are small – only 44 out of 56 ‘told’ adolescents agreed to discuss their conception – but this may reflect the awkwardness of being 14.  It also only looks at heterosexual couple families.  However, it is the only longitudinal study of DC people that has ever been carried out and it is exclusively British, many of the other surveys or studies being mostly American.  It is definitely a good start and I for one can’t wait to know what the eighteen year olds have to say.

The perspectives of adolescents conceived using surrogacy, egg or sperm donation, S.Zadeh, E.C.llioi, V.Jadva and S. Golombok,  Human Reproduction, Vol.33, No6 pp.1099-1106, 2018

 

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When donor conception families find themselves in trouble

I cannot believe that I have not yet blogged this year.  It’s not as if there was nothing going on in the donor conception world.  It’s probably because there has been so much.

I write here from a personal perspective but my part-time job at the Donor Conception Network has never been busier.  I have just finished writing a new Telling and Talking booklet for parents of 12 – 16 year olds who are telling their teenagers for the first time about being donor conceived.  “Light the blue touch touch paper and retire three countries” said a friend when I told them what I was doing.  Sharing information of this sort in teenage years is absolutely not the ideal time to do it, but sometimes that is how life works out.  There is no avoiding the ‘rug pulled from under their feet’ moment when a young person realises that everything they ever thought was true about genetic connections on one (or both) side(s) of the family are not as they thought they were. But if parents have prepared themselves well and are ready to listen to and acknowledge all feelings and to continue the conversation (life-long if necessary) then damage can be limited and there is potential for relationships to eventually be closer because of the removal of the secret in the family.

My next big task is to write a Telling and Talking booklet for parents of young people and adults from 12 up who were ‘told’ about being donor conceived from a young age but whose parents want to be able to continue the conversation as their children grow into teenage and adult years and their needs change.  I’m really only at the very beginning of this project and would welcome ideas of what needs to be included.  From experience in my own family I know that views of donor conceived young people can shift as they move in to adulthood.  ‘Telling’ early is absolutely no guarantee that a DC person will not want to search and have contact with their donor/bio-father or mother and/or half-siblings.  And in the UK we have 2023 coming up fast, when the first 18 year olds will be entitled to have identifying information about their donor. Your thoughts are welcome.

Aside from the writing, much of my time is spent answering emails, taking part in long telephone conversations and sometimes seeing personally people who find themselves in complicated family situations involving donor conception.  DC Network has been overwhelmed since the New Year by people needing help and support to ‘tell’ adult or teenage children or requesting guidance where a family is splitting up or has split up, there are ‘untold’ children and parents disagree about what should happen and who should do it.  Sometimes the courts are involved, both helpfully and occasionally unhelpfully.  Finding the right sort of guidance for these latter families in particular is difficult.  Counsellors or therapists need to know something about donor conception and child development as well as knowledge of how the court system works and ideally be experienced in work with couples as well.  These specialists are rare on the ground.  It is a puzzle to me that so few therapists seem to have a grounding in child development and this is why they sometimes give very odd guidance to parents (and courts) around ‘telling’.

The office staff at DC Network spend hours on the phone listening to people’s stories. They are all very experienced and knowledgeable and are often able to help.  Sometimes they need to hand someone on.

From time to time people ask why DC Network charges the amount(s) that it does for membership.  It can feel like a lot.  What do I get for my money they want to know?  Well, alongside two wonderful family conferences a year, access to local groups and personal connections to people who share a donation or family type, plus eBulletins full of news and much more…membership fees support advocacy for donor conception families with the outside world, and the personal help and support described above, most of it with non-member families.  None of this can be found elsewhere and DCN never turns anyone away.  That is both priceless and worth every penny.

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Sameness and difference: a film about adoption raises questions for donor conception

We went to see the film Three Identical Strangers the other day.  It is a documentary about male triplets who were given up for adoption in the 1960s and with the collaboration of the Louise Wise Adoption Agency in New York were separated and adopted into three families of different socio-economic status so that the impact of the different environments they were being raised in could be studied.  The adopting parents were not told that their sons were one of three or that the frequent questioning and measuring that their sons were subjected to was anything more than following up on the welfare of adopted children.

The triplets came together by chance when they were 19.  The first two were at the same college and newspaper publicity about their meeting made the adoptive mother of the third realise that her son made three.  They did look amazingly alike.  The boys appeared on TV talk shows and every media outlet before opening a restaurant together called…what else, Triplets.  Everyone saw what they wanted to see.  Three young men who looked and appeared to behave identically to each other.  But when the restaurant failed and the father of one of the men, someone who had acted as something of a father to all three, died, a darker side began to show.  One of the triplets had a mental breakdown and shortly after being discharged from hospital committed suicide. What started like a feel-good film about the inevitable sameness of identical triplets began to move into a more questioning mode.  The parents of the men confronted the Louise Wise Agency who managed to cover their tracks whilst the parents were in the room by saying the reason they were separated was because they couldn’t get anyone to take them together but one parent, returning for his umbrella, caught the board members drinking champagne and toasting to having avoided a catastrophe.  Researchers for the film found relatives of the families who recalled all the boys being really difficult as children but the two with more nurturing parents came through this time.  It was the one whose parents were strict and had a father who was demanding and cold, who committed suicide.

Little by little the genetic samenesses dropped away to reveal three men who looked like peas in a pod but were actually very different people, shaped by the environments they had been brought up in.

The ethics of deliberately setting out to separate three children who belonged together and treating each as a scientific experiment is beyond belief and I don’t think could happen in the West today.  The study was never published and the case files are locked in the vaults at Yale University, although since the film was made some heavily redacted papers have been sent to the surviving triplets.

What is intriguing for those of us involved in the donor conception world is, are there things that we can read across and learn, not just from the experiences of the triplets, but from the expectations of people who thought they could see three clones instead of recognising the men as different people.  I often hear parents of donor conceived children say that people see what they expect to see, and that is a familial likeness.  Do we all feel more comfortable if we know we share looks with someone?  It is of course the first thing that people will say about a new baby, “who does s/he look like?”.  I find myself almost saying it but usually manage to stop, but the ‘instinct’ (is it a biological instinct or is it a cultural norm, I’m not sure) is strongly felt.  Our eldest grand-daughter is a complete 50/50 mix of her parents, both in looks and personality.  I’m not really sure who the new one looks like yet, except her wonderful and feisty self, but people do keep on saying they can see our son in there.  Well yes, he is definitely the dad, but I can’t see the likeness myself.  Our daughter has always said she would like to meet someone who looks like her.  She certainly doesn’t look like me. But what if she met a tall, blonde, blue-eyed man – donor or half-sib – who was a liar, cheat and gambler and he let her down badly (it could be a woman if it was a half-sib of course), then what do looks mean?

As the film draws to an end, commentators mostly from within the families, move from a kind of genetic determinism to understanding the role that each family played in shaping how things turned out for each triplet.  Warm and nurturing parenting seemed to play an important part in the surviving two dealing with what life threw at them.

I have read many accounts of donor conceived adults feeling immediately at home with half-sibs and/or their donor – just like they had known them all their lives.  But I have also read accounts of people who feel like this on the basis of an assumed genetic connection, which on DNA testing turned out not to be so.  So can our longing to find someone like ourselves blind us to just seeing the samenesses and ignoring the differences as happened for so long with the triplets?  This won’t be so in all cases of course but I thought it was a question worth contemplating.  And perhaps more controversially, can good parenting give donor conceived children and people the resilience and confidence to seek out genetic relatives without expecting these people to be like them?

 

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Donor Conception is not a fertility treatment

On November 2nd a new and important event took place in London.  Entitled, From Secrecy and Anonymity to Facebook and DNA Testing, this workshop for professionals working in and around the donor conception industry and put on by the Donor Conception Network, was an attempt to help those in positions of influence to get to grips with what 21st Century donor conception practice needs to look like.

Marilyn Crawshaw set the scene by looking at research that addresses three fundamental background questions –

  • What helps people to decide whether DC is right for them?
  • How can we be sure that ‘telling’ children early is the best thing to do?
  • What do people say helps them or hinders them in their contact with clinics about donor conception?

I am going to assume that anyone reading this blog is quite clear that telling a child from early years is best for both child and family in the vast majority of cases so lets look at Questions 1 and 3.

Crawshaw explained that the most effective and supportive way of helping people make the decision about whether DC is right for them is a psycho-educational approach that is ideally adopted by all clinic staff, rather than just the counsellor. This way of working first takes into account everything that the would-be parents bring with them – their personal histories, their relationship (if a couple), their culture etc. and then supports their decision  confidence by giving high quality information in a way in which it is possible for those particular individuals to hear it.  The importance of the decision should be underlined by helping the potential parents to think about who else needs to know and building strategies for talking with the child and others.  Marilyn identified that concerns from the would-be parents could usually be divided into those that are child-centred and those that come from the here-and-now adult.  Examples of the former are anxieties around both medical or emotional hazards for a donor conceived child and the latter are demonstrated in worries about bonding and whether they could love a non-genetically connected child.  All staff in contact with parents should ideally be aware of the need for a balance of both types of concerns and be prepared to give good information or point the contemplating couple to people or places where their anxieties can be addressed rather than brushing them off with bland reassurance that everything will be fine.  Here-and-now adult concerns can also influence how people visualise the donor.  Someone who wants to see a donor egg as ‘a clump of cells’ rather than a vital component of life that comes from a living person is giving a message that this is the only way she can get her head round the idea of using a donor at the moment.  As this way of seeing is obscuring a more child-centred approach, staff need to have the skills to gently challenge this vision and help the person concerned (probably a would-be mother) to be able to accept the reality of egg donation so that she and her partner can move forward in a way that will help sustain healthy relationships in their future family…or decide not to go ahead.

Crawshaw’s presentation was rich and dense and contained so much more than I can possibly bring you here.  I hope it may become more widely available but in the meantime these are the points that Marilyn has extracted from research and experience as being the most helpful for clinics to bring to the attention of clients and support them with.

  • Present DC as bringing additional aspects in family life that need preparation
  • Be alert to the ‘here and now’ adults AND the ‘parents-to-be’
  • Make clear that counsellors are there for patients not as gatekeepers
  • Acknowledge that ambivalences and uncertainties are normal and can ebb and flow over the years to come but rarely disappear all together
  • Normalise that people may need time to come to decisions and that sometimes (for couples) one partner has to wait for the other
  • Aim for patient-led rather than clinic-led donor selection but provide help and support to the process
  • Display DCN books and DVDs and copies of their free material

Even before genealogist Debbie Kennett’s presentation on the revolution that DNA testing is bringing to the DC community and the hugely complicated situations that can arise from the information about genetic relatedness that becomes available, it is possible to extract from Marilyn Crawshaw’s talk the seeds of a new way of helping people create families using third party conception. I will return to this shortly.

Becky, a donor conceived adult in her fifties and a member of a well-known group of DC siblings, spoke movingly of the tumult that occurred in her life when at 37 she was told of her DC beginnings by her mother.  But to my mind her most valuable contributions were in challenging the language used by many around ‘telling’ and in her explanation of how complicated and emotionally draining the appearance of so many recent new half-siblings is to manage.  These are often older people who have been given DNA testing kits for big birthdays as a ‘fun’ present only to have secrets opened up that have sent shock waves through extended families.  Becky explained that the DNA companies had difficulty interpreting the connectedness between so many apparent half-siblings often appearing to be only months apart in age and that these new people often appear as ‘grandparents’ in the list of genetic relatives that is available for her to see.  She knows just who they are, but the recipients of the ‘fun’ present usually think that there must be some fault with the DNA testing process.  Is it her (and her already known half-siblings) responsibility to reach out to these people or should they leave them to make enquiries that will lead to donor conception becoming known about or give up and declare the whole DNA testing process a farce?  An ethical dilemma that is debated hotly in Becky’s half-sibling community, but also undoubtedly a reason to continue limiting the number of families created from each donor and in the importance of openness about donor conception.  Which leads to Becky’s significant observation that ‘telling’ is not good enough.  Although ‘telling’ is now advocated as a process rather than a one-off event, Becky believes that ‘openness’ is a preferred term as it implies an internal process within an individual or couple as well as the external act of sharing information with a child and others.  What is required for donor conception to be managed in a healthy way in all families is for openness to become a state of mind for parents.  For this to become possible I am quite clear that a new way of providing donor conception services to would-be parents is needed.

The first principle that needs to be put in place is that donor conception is not a fertility treatment. Using DC does not make a person more fertile.  It circumvents the fertility problem and replaces missing or sub-par gametes with eggs, sperm or embryos from someone else.  It is a different way of founding a family.  This difference I believe is at the heart of Crawshaw’s guidance to fertility clinics to ‘Present DC as bringing additional aspects in family life that need preparation’.   The fact that DC is different to all other treatments to help people have a child leads I believe to a radical idea that services for people requiring donor conception should be separated from those treating people using their own gametes.  This service, probably based in the same building because medical services are needed, would start from the premise that they are helping to build families rather than simply helping in the creation of a baby.  Building families, rather than a narrow focus on making babies, inevitably leads to a longer view, taking into account the needs of the child as they grow and move from infancy to school years, becoming teenagers and then adults possibly thinking about a family of their own.  One of the reasons that Becky’s mother told her at 37 was because Becky had recently had a daughter  and the new grandmother didn’t want the secret to be perpetuated down the generations.

A new type of service would be based more on an adoption rather than a medical model, understanding that decisions made before donated gametes are used for conception (for instance, to go abroad for anonymous donation but actually all decisions) will have an impact that will last longer than a lifetime.  DNA testing to find donors is likely to become available world-wide within ten years or so but donors promised anonymity may not want to be found, with all the pain and sadness that implies, and communication may be difficult because of different cultures and languages.  A new service would understand that  parents-to-be need time and opportunities to really get their heads round what they are undertaking and be prepared for the responsibilities that come with making a family with the help of a third/fourth party.  DC Network’s Preparation for DC Parenthood workshops do just that but at present can only reach a tiny number of people undertaking donor conception.  Part of this process would be helping potential parents to gain insight into their own motivations for wanting a child and recognising that if blood lines and the child being a ‘mini-me’ are really important for them, then donor conception is probably not the right way for them to create a family.  And most of all a new service would, in a matter of fact and gentle way, encourage would-be parents to accept the donor as a real man or woman (a biological parent) who may, at some point, sooner or later, have a place – close in or more remote – in their family.  It goes without saying that this new service would have openness at its heart and as a result many more parents would feel confident and comfortable with this path to family creation. As a consequence of the new open climate DC would become, like IVF, just another way for modern families to come into being.

I wonder which of the current clinics will have the foresight and the courage to break out of their mould and develop the service that is required for donor conception to become more mainstream.  Perhaps that place doesn’t exist yet but I throw down the challenge to existing clinics that have been leaders in the recruitment of identifiable donors and understanding that good donor information is important in developing the confidence of potential parents rather then seeing it as a route to ‘designer babies’.  DNA testing has quite rightly had the term ‘revolution’ attached to it  Who will step up to be the first revolutionary provider of a new donor conception service in the UK?

 

 

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The book I wish I had written: Three Makes Baby – How to Parent Your Donor Conceived Child

This wonderful book should be read by everyone contemplating having a child by donor conception, people who are parenting a child conceived by egg, sperm or embryo donation and the professionals who support them.  The author, Jana Rupnow, is a counsellor from Texas who says this book has been a labour of love and written with the people she has been helping over the last ten years in mind.  She takes a child focussed perspective but writes with enormous compassion for people struggling with infertility and trying to make the decision to have a child by donor conception.  As Rupnow herself is adopted and has a daughter she adopted from China she is no stranger to issues of loss, difference and interest in genetic heritage.  Throughout the book she uses examples from her own experience of adoption and parenting her daughter, recognising that adoption and donor conception, whilst sharing some features, are not the same.

What makes me most excited about this book is that it supports and mirrors very closely  my own approach to parenting donor conceived children.  Firstly she recognises that children will understand and give meaning to their conception story in different ways at different developmental stages.  Rupnow then acknowledges that mixed feelings about donor conception are normal in both intended and actual parents and indeed for DC children and adults.  The ability to be able to hold these mixed feelings at the same time, to be able to see both sides, (what she refers to as dialectical thinking) is vital for successful family building by DC.  If parents are happy to recognise and embrace difference whilst also embracing similarities between themselves and their children there is then room in the family conversation for children/adults to have both positive and negative feelings.  Rupnow endorses something I often say in Preparation for Parenthood workshops that becoming a parent by donor conception is a wonderful opportunity to raise a child who is ‘themself’ rather than expecting a chip off the old block.

Rupnow acknowledges that two of the most important states for potential and actual parents to develop are a sense of confidence and comfort with the use of donor conception, ideally before having treatment, and the ability to separate their own feelings from those of their children.  The first is likely only to be achieved after a period of grief and mourning for the child it was not possible to have, before moving on to have the child who is possible.  The second will take practice over time but is an essential component of healthy parenting.

Rupnow’s style is gentle on parents but very clear that the child’s future needs ‘the one who has not had a choice’ should be paramount in all decision making, and that, most importantly, means ‘telling’ and preferably from an early age.  She also acknowledges that modern direct-to-consumer DNA testing is changing the face of donor conception and that all parents need to take this into account when making choices.

Jana Rupnow is an American and so you would expect some references to be different to the UK experience, but the vast majority of this book, being focused on the emotional and social experience of potential and actual parents, is relevant for everyone thinking about becoming a parent by donor conception or parenting children of any age.  She uses many family examples and these include gay couples of both sexes.  There are no specific references to solo mums but there is much in the book that is just as relevant for a solo parent as it is for a couple.

Apart from the main title being poor grammatical English and one or two other teeth-grating Americanisms, I cannot fault this book in any way.  I definitely wish I had written it and recommend it to all without reservation.

Three Makes Baby: How to Parent Your Donor Conceived Child: by Jana M. Rupnow, LPC Available NOW from the Donor Conception Network, dcnetwork.org  

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