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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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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Donor conceived adults with new ways of telling us how they feel

I belong to a couple of Facebook groups that welcome donor conceived adults, donors, parents and intending parents to post.  Conversation on these boards can be bracing and challenging at times but recently there have come along some young DC adults who have found ways of saying exactly how they feel without alienating others and it’s like a breath of fresh air.  Interestingly two of the most prominent posters are young women from Australia, a country that has a tradition of speaking plainly.  Could it be that these young women have somehow caught the confidence of a country that has, at least in the State of Victoria, the most progressive legislation in the world, giving full rights to DC adults and providing support to all parties to donor conception?

Chloe, one of the women mentioned above, is a young DC adult with a difficult background.   She struggled with mental health issues as a teenager and has only found peace now she has discovered her donor  via a search company.  Chloe puts her plea to parents and others to think about the language they use, in moderate tones.  Read below and then watch her wonderful video.

  1. Be grateful you are alive.’
    It is unfair to make this comment because as many have said before, a human being not created cannot suffer-plus you do not go around telling people created through one night stands,rape or adoption, to be grateful, so please, it may be nice to refrain from using this.
    2. ‘He is not your biological father, he is just your donor’
    For me this is minimising the donors role to provide us with half of our DNA. Technically my donor is my biological father, and it’s important (especially for children) to understand correct and factual terminology.
    3. ‘ I understand wanting a medical history, but any more than that, I just don’t get it’.
    This comment lacks empathy for many DCA’s who want to seek out their donors. It is a natural response to want to know where you come from. If someone wants to search for their adoptive parents people seem very understanding, it is hurtful that people dont give us that same understanding and feel that we are ungrateful or selfish. This is already an isolating and lonely experience for some, it makes it worse to know so many people are openly against your decision to seek your origins.
    4. ‘But you were created through love, and very wanted!
    I think this one hurts me the most. This is a blatant assumption and does not consider the fact that many of us did not feel loved or wanted-just because you may want your child to feel this way, it doesnt mean dc adults have had that experience.

I would add to this last one by saying that even where a child has been genuinely wanted, loved and cared for, being put in a position where they are supposed to feel grateful for their existence because of being loved , shuts down the potential for that person to have their own feelings about their creation.

 

The next post from an older woman explains how it is perfectly possible to be living a full, happy life and still disagree with the way she was conceived.  It is one of the most articulate pleas for early telling and the ending of anonymity I have come across.

I am a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and a DCA. I had a happy childhood, my parents love(d) me. I am a happy content person and have a good family that I love. I struggled for a while as a young adult but eventually became comfortable and confident with myself. I did not know I was DC until the age of 35 (over a year ago). While my parents could and should have told us long ago, since this has come to light, they have dealt with this in the most positive way possible.

I understand that my parents deeply desired to have children (tried for 10 years) and if they would not have used donor sperm they would not have conceived my brother or me. While I don’t agree with it, I am not angry or resentful of their choice and I do not fault them for it, it is an excruciating and horrible place to be in. I am not depressed or wish that I don’t exist. 

I am at odds with my conception, and lack of genetic history and connection to my paternal side. I have very little connection with the people that share 50% of my DNA. This is and will always be a sense of loss for me, I deeply desire to be connected to the people that share my DNA.
You can be at odds with your conception and still love that you are alive. They are not mutually exclusive.

I’ve seen quite a few posts commenting on how angry DCPs are, while I know I don’t speak for everyone I do know that most of us are not angry, but we are passionate about a subject that is very personal to us. I don’t deny that sometimes that passion (especially in written form) can come across as harsh to some, especially those who are already in a vulnerable state. 

Please don’t dismiss us as angry and broken, we are not. We are only trying to help others see that there are far reaching consequences to these choices, consequences that most people would not ever consider.

I cannot say strongly enough how important it is for parents, and particularly intending parents, to listen to people like these courageous women.

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The truth about having a baby in your 50s

This is the title of a wonderful article in today’s Guardian G2. What struck me most on seeing the supplement was that the front cover is a coloured drawing of a woman (of indeterminate age) with a baby asleep on her shoulder, NOT the wonderful full page colour photo I know was anticipated by the commissioning editor.  The journalist, Joanna Moorehead, tried her best to find women who had had a baby after 50 who would agree to being named and photographed but only one agreed to her real first name being used.  The other two had full pseudonyms and none was willing for a photo to appear.  All three had used egg donation to achieve their pregnancies.

Carol’s children are now 13 and 10 and she,understandably, did not want her children exposed to questioning by their schoolmates about their beginnings. Both children have known about their origins since they were little but Carol felt media exposure at sensitive ages would not be helpful for them.  The other two women have babies who will be told about their origins as they grow up, but neither woman would be photographed or have even her real first name used.  Despite their protestations that motherhood is a great leveller and no-one asked their age in mother and baby groups, I suspect that exposing themselves as older mothers, rather than the fact of egg donation, was what kept them from revealing their identities.  Men are very rarely berated about becoming fathers after 50 (quite the opposite sometimes) but women face criticism, taboo and even ostracisation for daring to challenge the menopause barrier to having children.

But there are other downsides to maternity post 50.  Moorehead quotes fertility specialist Adam Balen on the greater risk of miscarriage and pre-eclampsia for older women.  Caesarian delivery is always recommended for women in this age bracket and was indeed the way all three of the interviewees gave birth.  Nina Barnsley, Director of The Donor Conception Network points out that “motherhood after fifty will only ever be a choice for the well-off and that some women will spend a lot of money on something that doesn’t in the end, work out.  Imagine borrowing £50,000 and then being unsuccessful.”

More importantly Barnsley brings in the perspective of the child.  “I’m thinking of the 21 year old who, instead of travelling the world, will be looking after a parent with Alzheimers.”  Our daughter had a schoolfriend whose father was in his seventies when she was in primary school.  He was in such failing health when she was going through teenage years that she could not bring friends home and had to stay and look after him in the evenings when her mother went to work.  Older parenthood can be fun  at the beginning and older parents may be wiser guides for their children but ill health and disability strike much more quickly as we age.  Children, many of them singletons, may well end up carrying a heavy burden of responsibility for parents at an age when they should be being supported by parents as they explore the world.  They are likely to find themselves raising their own family with no grandparents around – a situation that is already becoming common as having babies later and later becomes the norm.

Fertility education, as advocated by Balen on behalf of the British Fertility Society, is a good idea but what is likely to eclipse this call for women to have babies in their twenties and thirties is the continuing reality of many men not feeling ready to commit to parenthood before forty or so and the economic imperative of simply being unable to afford to have a baby at a time when one’s fertility is at it’s peak.

The online version of Moorehead’s article is illustrated with photos of celebrities who have recently had babies over the age of 50.  Brigitte Nielson is the only one to have addressed the question of how her pregnancy was achieved.  She says she froze her eggs ‘in her early forties’ as her previous marriage came to an end and she was beginning to know her present husband.  This may be true, although modern vitrification of eggs was not available at that time and frozen eggs rarely survived the thaw.  This child was also her fifth and it is known that women who have had several pregnancies before sometimes do conceive another late on, but as she gave birth at 54 the clever money is on donor eggs and it is a certainty for all the others.  Why is this anyone elses business?  Simply because not acknowledging egg donation gives a false impression to many impressionable people that a woman’s fertility is almost endless and that IVF can perform miracles if you have enough money.  Sadly it can’t.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/aug/21/becoming-mother-in-50s-number-births-soaring

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