Crawling up the M1 on Friday afternoon with a total journey time of four and a half hours made me seriously wonder why Walter and I had agreed to come to the national meeting in Leeds. We are supposed to be retired now after all! Flying back to London down the A1 yesterday evening I knew exactly what we would have missed if we hadn’t been there, and how important it had been to make the decision to go ahead with this meeting, despite lower numbers than usual. And the answer is, the people! Meeting up with the couple who who looked so sad two years ago and now have a gorgeous gurgling baby; admiring the couple and their son who were so determined to come to the meeting despite the loss of their car in an accident last week, that they cycled to the school and back from York – two hours each way; encouraging those who have yet to conceive and connecting them with information and people who may be able to ease their path. Plus the enormous flattery and pleasure of being greeted warmly by people whom I had not actually met before but who said I had helped them on the ‘phone or with something I had written. Members made it very clear that they were enormously pleased that we had brought the meeting to them rather than always holding events in the south. Their appreciation and general warmth I think guarantees that DCN will make every effort to return to the north, particularly if a regular Yorkshire local group results from this meeting as we are hopeful it will.
So just what is a national meeting like? Well each one is different but they do have a loose format and we do always hold them in a school. Schools are really the only venues that can give us the facilities we need – lots of parking on site, a large hall where everyone can sit and listen to speakers, a dining room where refreshments can be served and lunch eaten (everyone brings a picnic for their own family), infinite classrooms where small groups can gather and in many ways most important of all spaces where the Children’s Group (for children of 8+ to think about DC issues in a fun, age appropriate way) can meet and the creche can be held. Gateways School just outside of Leeds was particularly good in that they have a nursery on site and the weekday staff were willing, for a very reasonable fee, to staff it for our children. We also had volunteer help with parking directions, setting up of tables for bookstall and registration desk and with refreshments from a number of delightful young women, all sixth formers at the school.
The day starts with a welcome from the Chair – this year Tim, one half of the Leeds based couple who found the venue for us. He invited the participant members to ‘turn to the person next to you whom you DIDN’T come with’ and just introduce yourselves. This is a great ice-breaker and sets the tone for the day – despite the differences in family or donation type or the stage you are at – everyone here is in the same boat and this is a safe space to talk about whatever is on your mind. Tim then introduced the three speakers to talk on the theme for the day, ‘Being comfortable, building confidence’. Jane Ellis, mother to two DC young men, adoption social worker and Trustee started by first of all talking about the sort of parenting that can help build confidence and resilience in children and then moved on to share some of the outcomes of the recent research done by Marilyn Crawshaw into the effectiveness of the Preparation for DC Parenthood workshops. Patricia Lambert, senior counsellor at Liverpool Women’s Hospital then continued the theme of building comfort and confidence with a focus on the need for grieving the child that it is not possible to have before being able to move on to conceive the child it is possible to have and the value of weighing up the pros and cons of all possible options, including childlessness, when faced with not being able to conceive a child without third party help. Tamsin Mitchell, single mother of a ten year old, psychotherapist and facilitator of our Preparation and Telling and Talking workshops, spoke movingly of her experience of facilitating the workshops and how these had helped her think more clearly about her own situation and also of the importance of making space for parents and children to talk together about the fantasies each may have about the donor. If this can be done in a way that brings lightness and humour into the relationship then so much the better. Tamsin also stressed the importance of parents being ready for children to have their own thoughts and feelings about their donor and being donor conceived. There was time for lots of questions afterwards and the full text of the talks and many of the questions and answers will be included in the next edition of the DCN Journal (sent by email or post to all members).
Following the speakers we broke into small facilitated groups for an hour to start to introduce ourselves and to share thoughts on the theme and content of the morning’s talks. At one o’clock children were collected from the creche and Children’s Group for lunch and everyone met in the Macintosh themed dining room to chat and eat. Although it can be painful for those without children yet to see babies and children at these events, it also gives hope for their future and we know considerable reassurance that children by donor conception look just like any other children…no stamp on the forehead announcing their difference to the world!
Following food, children were returned to the caregivers and parents went into afternoon small groups, this time themed according to need and interest. The most popular groups are always those on sharing information with young children and talking with friends and family but we often run groups for families who have children with and without donor help, for men or women only and single women and lesbians always have their own groups. I was facilitating a group mostly consisting of couples contemplating either egg or double donation, but in addition we had an egg donor (also parent to two sperm donor conceived children), a woman who had a child conceived by egg donation in the US, Nina from the London office who has two adopted siblings and Patricia, the counsellor from Liverpool. Themes ranged from how important it might or might not be to stay in the UK for egg donation to the intense disappointment of failed or cancelled cycles, the value of some waiting time for egg donation so as to be properly ‘ready’ and when was the right age for children to ‘own’ their information and have responsibility for sharing with others.
In all the breaks, the library and bookshop, where books and films can be borrowed or bought was as popular as usual. The day ended with information about what was going in the Network at the moment and huge thanks to all involved in organising the meeting, particularly Tim and Natasha, without whom it really couldn’t have happened at all. Most participants who were able to stay then gathered in the dining room for tea and biscuits, lots of last minute chat and exchanges of email addresses.
We will lose money on this event. It almost didn’t run because we didn’t have enough takers, BUT our members really are wonderful people and they are why it will always be worth the frustrations of the M1 on a Friday afternoon.