Three things have happened either today or over the weekend. First, Walter and I had a letter from the couple we saw back in June who wanted help with telling their two adult daughters that they had been donor conceived. Second, Ken Daniels from New Zealand emailed a copy of a research paper he has written on work he did with seven sets of parents who all wanted to share origins information with their adult children conceived between 1983 and 1987. Thirdly, when I was in the DCN office this morning I received a call from a close relative of a woman who, with her male partner, has a young baby by donor insemination. This couple wish to keep their method of conception a secret but the mother was obsessed with being ‘found out’ because the baby’s skin colour was being commented on by strangers as being significantly different to her own. The mother was not talking with her husband about her concerns because he had made it clear that he did not wish to talk about the donor or the fact of donor conception. No wonder she was going quietly bonkers.
The seven sets of parents (actually 12 parents in all as some couples had re-partnered) interviewed by Ken Daniels had all been part of an earlier study, which was why he was able to re-contact them. The aim of getting back in touch with the 44 families in the original research was to see how they were all doing now. 35 percent of these families had told their children about their origins. The seven sets of parents identified themselves as now wanting to be open, describing their change of mind in moral, emotional or practical forms. “It’s an issue of honesty and integrity,” “We’ve lived a virtual lie,” ” They have a perfectly legitimate right to know” and “It’s like living with a lie or with a truth untold”. Several parents referred to their views changing over time with one parent summarising the views of others with the comment, “I don’t feel threatened anymore.” All of the parents felt that it was much harder to tell their adult children than it would have been if they had done so many years ago and many regretted not doing so.
What is really interesting is that almost all of the children had at some time or another questioned their parents as to the biological connections in the family. This was not, as has been suggested could happen, because of parental discomfort when issues of likenesses were raised, but through information about genetic inheritance gained through biology lessons at school. The parental discomfort came about when children directly questioned parents about their origins. Most parents wriggled but, having been caught on the hop, did not disclose at this point.
Ken Daniels is not only a researcher but a wonderful, warm and empathetic man and he was able to support these parents in at last being honest with their adult children. Walter and I were also greatly privileged to be able to do the same for the couple we saw in June. They too are very warm and lovely people and they hated not being straight with their daughters. Things have gone well and they have been rewarded with kindness and compassion from them and in all parts of their family. The relief in their letter was palpable.
With this morning’s caller, I could only empathise with the distress of the mother and help her relative by giving her information about a wonderful family counselling service that has experience with third party conception issues. This was not the moment to say that openness about their use of a donor with themselves and others would give the mother back her sanity and the family a better future. In fact, my sense was that she was suffering firstly from two unresolved griefs (see previous post), having fairly recently had a stillbirth of a child conceived without donor help and then going on to conceive by DI when clearly the couple were not ready to face and accept the reality of using a donor. What was their clinic – a top UK one with an apparently good counselling service – thinking of in allowing this still grieving couple to go ahead with treatment?
All the parents I have written about here felt, and the last still feels, deeply threatened by the use of a donor to create their families. Several of the New Zealand couples had broken up as a result of not talking about their feelings about donor conception. The couple Walter and I saw had not properly talked with each other until, in middle age, they decided to do some personal development work, and realised how unresolved they were about their feelings to do with this area of their otherwise very full and rewarding lives. The parents of the baby will no doubt need to do a lot of talking and I hope they get some good support from the service I have referred them to. I suspect openness, with each other about their feelings and then with their child and others, will have to be on the agenda sometime during this process.
Our national meeting this autumn is all about comfort and confidence…first in parents and then in the children. The bottom line is helping our children to have a sense of self-worth that gives them the resilience and confidence to make the best of their own lives. Honesty, integrity and trust within the family feels central to that to me.
Ken Daniels paper was published in Human Reproduction July 28th 2011 ‘Factors Associated with Parents’ Decisions to tell their Adult Offspring about Offspring’s Donor Conception, K.R. Daniels, V.M.Grace and W.R.Gillett Vol.0, No.0 pp1-8, 2011