It’s interesting how talking with family and friends about donor conception now seems to be much more of an issue than sharing information with the child concerned. That is with DC Network members anyway. I still get very frustrated with those backwoodsmen (and women) who seem to think that children don’t need to know and metaphorically clap their hands over their ears whenever anyone talks about how damaging deception can be in a family, Anyway, I’m not talking about dinosaurs but about the intelligent and well-informed people in DC Network (and elsewhere) who find family members making insensitive comments that make the couple or individual concerned just want to shut themselves away from the anguish their remarks can cause. Then this distancing often causes pain and puzzlement in the person concerned with resultant distress all round. It really needs both parties to be able to understand better where the other is coming from.
Infertile couples and individuals, particularly by the time they have had batteries of tests and probably unsuccessful treatment cycles, know an enormous amount about how their bodies do and don’t work. They are also only too familiar with the sadness, pain, anger, hope, joy and disappointment of the rollercoaster that is infertility treatment and their attempts to navigate it’s choppy waters. Those family members who have not had trouble conceiving, have never experienced this kind of tumult and/or find difficulty in empathising with the pain of others, often fall back on cliche and trite phrases simply because they don’t know what else to say. They are also genuinely ignorant about infertility and what can and can’t be done to fix or circumvent the problem. They need time to catch up on the knowledge than the infertile couple have. This would be fine, except that the couple or individual concerned are often feeling so vulnerable that the last thing they need is to have to act as educators to their family and teach them how to respond and behave.
This is just one of the reasons why we need the money from the Nuffield Foundation. One of the project strands is the writing of two booklets – one for couples or individuals to help them talk with family and friends and the other for the family and friends to try and help them understand what the members of their family who are undergoing fertility treatment are going through.
Three requests for support along these lines came into the DCN office this week. One was from a woman who would like someone in the office to speak to her mum to help explain why she and her husband need to shut down and be given space whilst they try to conceive. The second is from a woman whose husband is going to donate sperm to help good friends have a child. What do the donating couple tell their own children about what they are going to do/have done? And the third is from a couple who have a three year old by donation and are now hoping to have a second child using frozen embryos from the previously successful cycle. The sister of the woman is asking what she should be telling her child about how his/her cousins have been conceived. The anxiety seems to be that if the sister’s child, who is also three, does not start learning soon then s/he may begin to see the children by donation as not ‘real’ cousins.
Reading this request made me realise that I had no idea at all about how my sister had talked with her children about Walter’s and my children. They are the same age as ours and have always just regarded each other as cousins, full stop. I must talk with my sister about it sometime! Thinking about this made me also realise that the term ‘real cousin’ is adult language that a young child would never use. It is possible, however, that it might arise when an 8 to 12 year old was thinking about and exploring relationships in the family. This sometimes happens with DC children, particularly boys, when they are going through a rather literal stage around pre-teen years and at the same time doing simple biology at school. They may refer to their donor as a ‘real’ parent because no other word fits the rational and conventional linking of genes and family relationships. Sensible and well-prepared parents usually don’t take umbrage at this and tend to use it as an opportunity to discuss ‘what makes a family’ or just leave their child to develop the maturity to see things in the more complex way that is characteristic of the second half of the teens. Use of this sort of language by children does not seem to change emotional relationships in the family in any way.
I suggested to the enquirer that her sister use some of the language in the Telling and Talking 0-7 booklet (downloadable for £5 from our website) to drop into everyday conversations with her child that , “Sometimes Mummies and Daddies need some help to make a baby….” “When Auntie ….. and Uncle….wanted to have ‘B’ they needed some help from a kind person.” Each of these two sentences can be said on separate occasions and then referred to and elaborated on as the child grows older and/or asks questions. The tone of voice should be matter-of-fact and the information tagged on to everyday questions and occurrences, rather than being made an occasion of. It will be some years before the penny drops that the children are not connected ‘by blood’ so to speak and by then their cousin relationship will be cemented. If the DC child is comfortable and confident, and I have every reason to believe he will be as his parents are happily beginning to read stories and share information with him, then any cousinly jibes in the future can be countered quite easily. Although interestingly enough we have never had any occurrences of this sort reported to us over 19 years and it certainly hasn’t happened in my family.
Parents can worry that once they start telling small children about their donor conception story, or that of a cousin, then who knows what that child will go and tell others. Our experience shows that by and large children under six or seven are not in the slightest bit interested in DC matters so they don’t tell other people. If they do tell friends, those children have no interest either so tend to change the topic to something they are interested in. Older DC children can get quite frustrated by the ignorance or lack of interest in DC matters by others. By the time children do fully understand themselves and might choose to talk about the subject knowledgeably they are also capable of combatting the odd off-colour remark from other children. Parents can also tend to think that their child should be the first to have the information about being donor conceived and that it is then their information to tell others. But this can be putting an unfair burden on a child who does not have the complete understanding or articulacy to explain fully. Much fairer that others who are important in their lives or who should be capable of being counted on to support them, like teachers, should know in advance. We have no evidence at all that children mind others knowing about DC. It is we parents who sometimes project our much more complicated feelings on to our children. Our history is not their history, our fears are not theirs.