Next year is DC Network’s 25th Anniversary but before everyone gets their glad rags on to celebrate, let’s just acknowledge the success of this small but vibrant organisation by describing the 49th family conference that took place in Bristol this last weekend. The venue is a secondary school, the only space that can accommodate all the people and activities that take place; a hall for presentations; a refectory for refreshments; many classrooms for small discussion groups; a large space or spaces for a creche to care for babies to twelve year olds; and more intimate spaces for a workshop for 8 – 12 year olds and a facilitated group for teens and twenties. Members are welcomed warmly as they arrive – first-timers (particularly men and single women) looking anxious, and directions given to loos, the cafe and the bookshop and lending library, creche and children’s group.
After people, some with babies in buggies, are gathered in the auditorium and following initial welcomes and remarks, the Chair of DCN invites people to turn to the person nearest to them that they didn’t come with and introduce themselves. What a contrast to the strained silence and eye contact avoidance of a clinic waiting room…and what a buzz of conversation as 120 people’s stories begin to be told.
The first item on the agenda this time is a panel of five children and young people – three male, two female – ranging in age from eleven to twenty-three and Chaired by a female donor conceived adult. Whilst all panel members are donor conceived, they come from different family and donation types – two from solo mum families, the youngest boy from a same sex couple family and with a known donor and a brother and sister (same donor) from a heterosexual couple family. One of the solo mum young people knows two of her half sisters (same donor) and the boy who has a solo mum is embryo donor conceived. After they introduced themselves they were asked about their experiences at school – some having been open about being DC, others not – and about the materials that DCN have started to produce for parents to give to teachers in nursery and primary schools. They had had time prior to the event to read the leaflets and most felt they were enormously positive and could be helpful for parents and teachers and very supportive for children. Probably because of their invisibility as part of a ‘standard family’, the siblings from a heterosexual couple family were the only ones whose origins were not known about by their school and who felt there was little reason to share the information with teachers. The most interesting part of the panel for me was when the Chair asked the young people about any times when they had had mixed or negative feelings about being donor conceived. All except the youngest could recall incidences or periods of time when they had questions in their head that could not be answered or had felt unsure about themselves because of being donor conceived. But they also recognised that being a teenager is difficult anyway and that feelings that were normal for that stage in life could become confused with feelings about being donor conceived. I think everyone in the audience felt privileged to hear from such articulate and thoughtful young people.
This was a very hard act to follow, but two counselling psychologist researchers from the University of the West of England and The Open University did their best to give headlines from research into the well-being of DC children and their own research into embryo donation donors and families. For me, the most interesting part came at the end when they said that differences between egg, sperm and embryo donation families and their children were beginning to emerge. This is something that has been hinted at but not clearly identified before and I will be following up.
Hour-long facilitated small groups followed with participants divided into family type groups of around ten people to introduce themselves and talk about what they had heard in the morning. As usual, everyone in my group ended up talking about ‘telling’ and a lively discussion about the word ‘sperm’ ensued. Parents just don’t like it!
Lunch time is always a special moment, not just for falling on food following an early breakfast, but for catching up with old friends, making new ones and generally chatting with people who ‘get it’. Parents are reunited with children who have been in the creche or children’s group and those without children yet are filled with hope that their time will come and that DC children do not have horns or ‘I am donor conceived’ tattooed on their foreheads.
Back in the hall, with most children safely back in the creche, the day continues with Network news and huge thanks to representatives of the Van Neste foundation for funding the writing and production of the leaflets for schools. Nina also announces that DCN has had a grant for producing new story books to include surrogacy for all family types which gives an opportunity to update the illustrations in all the story books, and also some money to improve the training of volunteers working within the organisation.
And then, as Nina said, now for something completely different. Repeating a performance she gave at the DCN London conference in April, one of the members, someone from a non-Western culture who has had a fascinating career in music and performance art, told the story of how she came to conceive her son by egg donation at the age of 56. This is not an uncontroversial thing to have done and I personally have mixed feelings about it, but it was hard not to be completely charmed by her story-telling which included some fairly bonkers video clips from her earlier life.
We then adjourned to small groups again, this time topic based, mine being Telling and Talking with very young children. Most of the people present had little ones by egg donation and one woman was pregnant with an egg donor baby. Those with children said that they had started talking with their babies about how they were conceived but that now the children were verbal they found it very hard to continue. After a few minutes of wrestling with why this might be, one woman very honestly and insightfully said that she thought it was because now her child could speak she was afraid of rejection. There was a lot of nodding from others. This fear is so visceral for parents. We talked about being kind to ourselves but at the same time setting little challenges to get some of the words out there, using the Our Story book as an example of keeping the language very simple. And talking of language, everyone in this group, apart from one, hated the word ‘sperm’ too!
The end of the day. Lots of hugs, exchanges of contact details, last minute bookshop purchases, flurries of lost items of clothing, gathering up the books and flowers, taking notices down from the walls and a feeling of huge satisfaction at being part of something truly wonderful and ground breaking. Just another DCN conference.
The Schools Project materials referred to are currently available only to DC Network members. When the project is completed the leaflets will be made available to anyone via the DCN website dcnetwork.org probably for a small fee.