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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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.


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When telling early about donor conception is not always the right path to take

The default position these days is to advise parents to start telling their children the story of their donor conception from a very young age so that they will never remember a time when they didn’t know.  I have done this myself over and over at conferences and workshops and of course with individual and couple recipients of donated gametes and embryos. And usually that is the appropriate advice.  DC Network now has a zillion books for a huge variety of family and donation types that encourage all parents to – Tell early, Tell young.  But what if someone wholeheartedly believes this message and wants to do the right thing by her child but has not taken into account the culture in which the child is to be raised.  I talked with such a woman the other day.  She herself is from a very open society but since having conceived her double donation child she has married someone from a very closed culture and finds herself living in a community where donor conception is unknown but all members of the family are likely to be stigmatised and discriminated against should the child’s beginnings become known.  The woman – I’ll call her Laura – has started talking to her son but at just five he has only minimal understanding as yet.

As I was talking with Laura, it was Diane Ehrensaft’s wise words that were running through my head.  She is clear that there are only three reasons for not starting to tell when a child is young.  I’ll write them here as they appear in the Telling and Talking 0-7 book –

  1. Issues to do with the child’s ability to understand: a child with a significant learning or developmental problem may well not be able to take in information about his or her origins.
  2. Issues for the bond between parent and child: for instance if a parent has been away from the child for a long time for any reason, re-building this relationship should come before ‘telling’.  Where parents are separating or divorcing, ‘telling’ should never be used as a threat to break a relationship between parent and child.  Unless children are at real risk of learning about their origins from someone other than a parent, telling should ideally only begin when both parents agree and the emotional climate has settled down.
  3. Issues for the child from outside the immediate family: if wider family members or those in the community are likely to reject a child conceived by donated sperm, eggs or embryos, then it may be difficult for a child to feel any sense of pride about their origins.  This situation can apply where a child is being brought up within a culture or faith that disapproves of donor conception.

Ehrensaft goes on to point out that parents need to be very honest with themselves when deciding to postpone telling their child.  Concerns that a child may be upset or confused by being ‘told’ can cover anxieties and fears that properly belong to the parent and are not really to do with the child at all.

But of course in Laura’s case she is enormously keen to be open with her son.  It is the culture and community in which he is being raised that is a threat to his potential ability to be proud of who he is and how he came to exist.

I talked with Laura about how she might respond to any questions her son raises given that she has already opened the issue of how he was made with him, helping to postpone the issue to a time when he is older but without giving him the impression that this is a subject that cannot be talked about.  We also spoke about child development and how children make a leap in brain development around the age of 8 that allows a much broader understanding of donor conception and many other things. This would be the time to really talk with her son as he would then be more able to grasp that some things are private to a family and not everybody needs to know or would understand.   How he receives the news at this time will depend partly on how Laura explains it to him but I have no doubt that she will do this well because she knows where to seek support and her central concern is her son’s well-being.

It is very pleasing that in the UK at least the message of Telling Early seems to be getting through, but there are problems with this position as it becomes seen as a rule that has to be followed without the context of a child’s (or the family’s) life being taken into account.  Also people worry that if they have missed that early window then ‘telling’ later may cause damage to the child.

I would like to say loudly and clearly that TELLING LATER CAN BE DONE WELL.  Even ‘telling’ when the child has become an adult can be done without lasting damage – although there will always be shock, issues of trust and a range of emotions to be negotiated with adults.

The worst time to ‘tell’ is probably teenage years, particularly 13 to 16, but even then it is better that a teenager learns of their origins from their parent(s) in a planned way rather than by accident or as a result of a row or family breakdown.

Sadly sometimes the Telling Early message is pushed too strongly with potential gamete or embryo recipients by well-meaning counsellors, possibly at a time when the whole idea of donor conception is new and strange.  It is certainly one of the implications of taking the decision to use donor conception that needs to be raised and discussed with potential recipients. However, subtlety and nuance are likely to achieve more in sowing the seeds of decision making that is in the interest of the child than pressured pep talks.  Luckily counsellors are listeners and are responding to the message to tone it down a bit when it comes to talking about ‘telling’ in implications counselling sessions.

Child development is always the key to sharing information with children, no matter what it is.  Where the child is in their development, rather than their age in years, taken together with the  context of the child’s life, will give parents the clues they need as to when to start telling and what language to use.  Also what they might expect from a child in terms of understanding and response.  Another variable is personality and level of curiosity.  Some children ask a lot of questions and others just do not.  Some live their life with face outward to the world and others turn inwards.  Tuning in to who your child really is, rather than what we as parents assume they are or want them to be, is always the right thing to do, whatever their age.

‘Laura’ has seen this blog and given her blessing to her session with me being written about.

Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering Tough Question and Building Strong Families by Diane Ehrensaft published by Guilford.

Telling and Talking 0-7, 8-11, 12up and 17+ by Olivia Montuschi and published by the Donor Conception Network dcnetwork.org

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Balloons, sperm and the magic of a DC Network conference

April was a busy month.  Two events celebrating DC Network’s 25th anniversary took up a huge amount of energy and head space for all the office staff, particularly Director Nina, but the outcomes were a drinks reception at the House of Lords and a Conference that were both triumphs.  The weather was kind for the reception so that the doors of the Cholmondeley Room could be opened on to the terrace overlooking the Thames and the splendid view beyond.  The speeches from Ken Daniels, Professor of Social Work from New Zealand and Marilyn Crawshaw from the University of York were full of praise for the breadth of DCN’s work and the influence the organisation has around the world; Ginny, a parent, spoke of how she looked forward to continuing to be supported by DCN as her sons move into their teenage years and potentially had difficult questions; and Aled, an embryo donation conceived fifteen year old, told of the bizarre questions that friends asked when he explained that the embryo he came from had been defrosted after five years in cold storage.  Nina Barnsley, the Director, wound up by giving an update on DCN’s achievements over the years and plans for the future concluding with a plea for those present to consider helping the organisation to raise £25,000 in order to continue and expand the work.

There was a wonderful buzz around the room as people enjoyed the wine and canapés on offer and met up with old friends and colleagues.  Personally, it was great to see Dr Sheila Cooke, grandmother to the organisation, and most of the other founding families, all of whom had travelled from the North of England to be there.  I think we were all rather stunned and amazed to be celebrating 25 years since we gathered in Sheila’s clinic in Sheffield and boldly and possibly rather naively said we would start a national organisation for donor conception families.  And just look at it now!

The member’s conference last Sunday was the fiftieth in the history of DCN and sold out within 48 hours!  Two hundred and thirty people were lucky to get places and sadly another 100 were disappointed.  There were 100 children in the creche or attending the Children’s Group for 8 – 12 year olds and included amongst the 230 were a dozen or so DC teenagers and young adults.  The only venue possible for this sort of gathering is a school and DCN are delighted that a N.London secondary school has been happy to host them for the past few years.

Professor Ken Daniels gave the key-note speech, setting out the principles of good communication and confidence that both he and DCN believe are fundamental for the raising of donor conceived children who are comfortable and confident with who they are.  Later in the morning a panel of three DC adults aged 54, 37 and 26 gave the longer view of being a DC person by answering questions about how much being DC impacted on how they felt about themselves; how having their own children  (2 panel members) might have changed their perspective on being DC and if they shared the information with their children; who do they think of as ‘family’ and finally how they felt about their donor and actual or possible half-siblings.  The two older panel members know who their donor is and one is in contact with 25 half-sibs but said it was impossible to have relationships with so many people.  Via DNA testing the other is in touch with a first cousin of the donor, who via the cousin, refused to have contact with her.  She has, however, managed to find out who he is and has a photo of him.  The youngest panel member is intrigued by the idea of half-siblings but has not taken any steps as yet to find them.  Unlike the other two, he was told of his DC conception from an early age. He has a very close relationship with his parents and his DC (different donor) brother and cannot imagine anyone else being considered as ‘family’.  He has curiosity about his donor but no interest in contact.  His brother has never shown any interest in anything to do with his conception. This panel gave a fascinating insight into the different eras of donor conception and how both thoughts and feelings about being DC can change over time.

Whilst presentations and panels, like the excellent ones above, are an important part of any conference, the lasting impact of the event is in the friendships that are made over lunch and tea-breaks, breaking isolation and giving members a whole day in which they know that every person next to them in the coffee or lunch queue is going to understand their story.   People were loosely divided into different donation or family types for the morning long refreshment break and in the afternoon, following a session where a solo mum and her 17 year old daughter answered questions from the audience, members divided into pre-selected topic groups.  I facilitated a group of parents who had chosen Talking to Friends and Family.  Everyone had children and had started to share the information with others but in some cases only either the husband’s or wife’s family knew and with children advancing in age and articulacy they knew they had to change this.  For some it was fear of upsetting elderly and/or conservative parents – in one case worrying that the parents would worry about their grand-daughter’s future, and in two cases there were issues of language.  Parents who could speak English but not read it (so no point in giving them a Friends and Family Telling and Talking book) or parents who remained in the country of origin of the member and only spoke that language.  The power of groups is that members often have wisdom to offer each other and just coming together with others can help shift ideas…as with one couple who were contemplating telling their child and only telling their own parents when the child was old enough to speak about it.  Other group members helped them to see that telling their own parents first would help the child by giving them a community to grow up in where conversations could be open and supportive and ‘telling’ others would not be the child’s burden.

As is now often the case, the conference had an international contingent with Ken Daniels and his wife from New Zealand certainly having come the furthest, but Vince Londini from the DC parent support group in London, Ontario was hard on his heels with Claudia Brugge and her family coming from DI Netz in Germany.  DCN are always proud and pleased to have visitors from abroad and on Monday morning Vince and Claudia came to the DCN office to talk to staff about their organisations.

The conference ended with tea and wonderful birthday cakes.  A group of DC teenagers speculated whether the decorations on them were balloons or sperm and one decided it was sperm entering the egg!  When young people can joke about their means of conception you can be pretty sure they feel OK.  A perfect end to a perfect day.


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