Second choice, not second best

On Wednesday I’m going West to talk with the patient group at the Bristol Centre for Reproductive Medicine.  This is something I’ve done a couple of times before and as on the last occasion I’ll be joined by a DI dad who lives locally.   People get very anxious about donor conception and there’s nothing like meeting with people who have been there, done it and got the kids (so to speak).

I was struck once again today when responding to a post on Fertility Friends forum how people almost always assume that when they tell people – it could be relatives, friends or the child themselves – about donor conception, that this is bad news.  Of course for heterosexual couples and most single women it is not the way they would have chosen to have a family.  For most people, an integral part of loving your partner is wanting to have a child with them.  Finding out that this is not going to be possible is a loss that needs to be mourned like any other.  But once the grieving is done – or well underway anyway – and it is time to think about ways in which it is possible to have a family, then donor conception can become a very positive second choice that does not have to be second best.   And having to think so very hard about having a family can be very good for parents in committing themselves to each other and the future of life together with children.  It mostly weeds out the relationships that weren’t going to stand the test of time anyway…and where parents with donor conceived children do split up both parents tend to remain very closely in touch with their children, whether or not they are genetically connected to them.

So the fact of donor conception is not bad news.  It is joyful news that should be shared with others as such and with a child as simply the way they came into the family.  Children have no preconceptions about DI or egg donation.  Our history is not their history.  They are happy to accept that mummy and daddy needed some help from a kind man or kind woman to help make them.  Questions will certainly come later, but parents who are confident, comfortable and able to listen to children and young people’s feelings without being defensive or overly emotional, are likely to find that bumpy patches can be overcome without long term hurt setting in.

That’s what I’ll be talking about in Bristol.  But first I’m going to have a damn good lunch with my sister!


About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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21 Responses to Second choice, not second best

  1. marilynn says:

    I’ve asked this question before but I guess I need to find a polite enough way of asking it that you’ll want to take the time to answer.

    I think your work in encouraging disclosure and an end to anonymity are groundbreaking and important and helping people become comfortable disclosing is a really important job. You talk an amount about the array of feelings a child might express over the course of his life after the information has been disclosed and you always say the important thing is to listen to them. Listen without judgement and you’ll ride out the bumpy times.

    Are you working on teaching people how to respond to the variety of things the child might say? For instance in your previous post you talk about the child feeling rejected by the person who donated because he is not interested in taking care of him like a father and suggest that if the person who donated is known its a good idea for them to take an active parent-like roll even if the mother has a partner that is already playing the roll of the 2nd parent the other person who reproduced can be involved without threatening the mother and the partner’s primary roll. I happen to agree with that response to feelings the child may express – its more than listening its doing something to fix the problem. But if the person who donated is unknown how do you respond to the feelings of rejection then? How do you teach people to respond to statements that might be like “How could you reproduce with someone that you knew would not want to know me and would want to hide me from all his relatives?” Or how do you teach people to respond to the statement that the child they really wanted was related to the mother’s partner so they are the Plan B kid. I recently heard a DC person use that term and say that they can’t just be who they really are they have to not have that other background they have to look like they are that plan A kid and not play the roll of child in their paternal family so they can play the roll of child to their mother’s husband’s family.

    I’m not saying all kids think like that but has DCN started thinking about giving tools to actually respond to the feelings they are listening to? It seems at some point you’d have to address why it was so important for the mother to reproduce with someone who would not want to be involved in their life or why it was necessary to conceal the identity of the donor from them for 18 years or forever. Why its important for them to not know who their siblings or other paternal relatives are and what benefits they will receive from not having to know those people. It just seems like listening to questions about why and whatever angst they have (if there is any) and not saying anything helpful back leaves a lot of room for resentment to grow.

    Children ask why about many things and they are generally looking to the parent to provide the wisdom behind the decision – if the only answer is because we wanted you so much…the question remains but why didn’t he want me? Why would he not want to know me why would his relatives not want to know me? What makes the children he raised more deserving of his love and attention than me if we are all his offspring to the same extent?

    Telling and Talking seems like there is not much talking after the telling – just listening. I guess it works out for lots of people raising donor offspring. I meet many once they are out of the house on their own though and they just don’t talk to their mother or her partner about that stuff. It hurts their feelings

  2. oliviasview says:

    Marilynn – My response to you here is similar to the one I just posted.
    “How could you reproduce with someone that you knew would not want to know me and would want to hide me from all his relatives?”
    I have never come across a DC child or adult who has expressed feelings even approaching something like the above.
    DC children of couples are reproduced with their partner not ‘with’ a donor. These people mostly don’t know each other and have no intention of being parents together. The donor donates to help others become parents. The infertile couple intend to become parents together, not ‘with’ the donor.
    There is a fundamental difference in our approaches here and I’m not sure we are ever going to get inside each other’s heads on this one.

    • marilynn says:

      “DC children of couples are reproduced with their partner not ‘with’ a donor.”

      No seriously. We have to be able to agree on some fundamental terminology to be able to have a conversation.
      She reproduced with the donor and is raising the child with her husband. Call her husband whatever you want, I am not challenging you on his worth or importance as a parent nor am I suggesting that the man who donates has worth as a father or parent. I’m just saying she reproduced with someone who does not want to take care of his offspring and that might upset the kid. You yourself say that in your post. I don’t understand why you would say that the woman reproduced with her sterile husband – “parenting” together and reproducing together are totally different things.

      I understand the desire to make it seem like they reproduced together but to really start believing it that is just delusional. Am I misunderstanding you?

      • oliviasview says:

        ‘Delusional’ is not a polite term Marilynn. I am talking about relationships, not the technical bringing together of eggs and sperm, which obviously belong to people who are not in a relationship with each other. The couple are reproducing in the context of their relationship. The donor does not intend to become part of that relationship, simply to contribute a missing element to help those people become a family – a relational unit. The difference between us seems to be that you see a gamete provider as part of this unit whereas I see a donor as outside the unit but making a vital (and wonderful) contribution to it. The donor is biologically but not relationally connected.

  3. Kriss Fearon says:

    I wonder why you’re assuming the donor and the donor’s family wouldn’t care or be interested, just because we step back after the donation?

    I chose to be a donor to give a couple who really wanted to have a child – which I thought put them in the best position to be good parents – a family of their own. I told my friends and family before I donated and in fact my family would be quite interested and welcoming if the person born from my donation wanted to meet us. It is not a dirty little secret; on the contrary.

    If you donate knowing that you can be identified when the child becomes an adult, then you have to deal with the fact that they may want to meet you and your family – or they may not. So at the same time you need to be both interested and detached. Personally I don’t feel a biological connection makes you a mum or dad, but the person conceived from my donation has the right to feel however they like about things, and I have to prepare for the fact that they may be angry, pleased to see me, curious or totally indifferent and not want contact at all. As an adult I went into that situation knowing what might happen and trusting that whatever did, things could be worked out between us at the time. Just as I accepted when I became an anonymous donor that I basically had no control over who the recipients were and had to trust that they would do their best for the kid. Trust was part of the deal.

  4. oliviasview says:

    Hi Kriss.
    At first I thought your comment was directed to me but I now think it is for Marilynn. I will be interested in her response.

  5. marilynn says:

    Kriss I help men who donated find their children so I totally know you guys care. I also help the kids find their biological fathers and still we find they do care. They usually say they were not really thinking things through at the time.

    I’m excited to ask you some questions since it sounds like you put some thought into this when you did it and its wonderful that you welcome contact and so do your relatives.

    Usually when a man knows if the women they get pregnant end up delivering healthy babies or miscarrying or if their offspring are born healthy. If you got 30 women pregnant and 20 of them miscarried that would be information your doctor would need to know – you know? I recently helped a woman who is the offspring of a donor locate her brother who has downs syndrom. He is also the offspring of a gamete donor. He was born 11 months before her, he was given up she was not. If that donor were like you, and was interested in meeting his offspring one day, how do you think he’d feel if 10 or 15 of his offspring had downs syndrom. Maybe he would not have continued donating if he’d known – downs syndrom kids take a lot of special attention and you might be able to trust strangers with healthy offspring but would you trust them with your offspring that were terribly ill or disabled? Maybe that man’s family would have liked to take his child in and raise him rather than having him be adopted out. Maybe his other offspring ended up in institutions somewhere. In fact that particular gamete donor may have produced quite a few children with special needs. Or maybe keeping up with the health of the offspring would be uneventful until they reached their teens and then they develop something and you can inform your sister and it saves your nephews life. Do you everr wonder if its wise to reproduce in a vacuum not knowing the outcome? Its good to know the results of your actions because it helps you decide whether or not its prudent to continue right? And you trusted the people would take good care of your offspring, why? I mean would you lend a total stranger your car for the afternoon? I understand that you don’t think of your offspring as your child because you are not the one raising them but lets say you were raising a couple of your own offspring – would you let them go for an afternoon with people you know so little about? Could you answer the question of why you’d be more concerned with the safety of the offspring you chose to raise vs those you did not choose to raise? Did you think about the fact that your relatives won’t be able to identify your offspring on the street either and they are likely concentrated in your area – you’ve added oodles of 1st cousins and neices and nephews etc to the mix of people they should not take to prom.and definately should not reproduce with. Are you at all worried that your offspring might end up making out with one another or with your cousin or brother or even you? Would it bother you if your donation were mixed with donated eggs to make house embryos that were not used by the first commissioning couple so they gave those embryos up for adoption and the resulting offspring are sometimes thrice donated? Do you worry that the child will never be told about you or have the chance to know that you do care? Do you worry they might lie to them?

    • oliviasview says:

      Marilynn – no doubt Kriss herself will tell you that she is a woman who donated eggs, but she may well be ready to answer some of your queries in principle.

    • Kriss says:

      Lots of questions 🙂

      Firstly I don’t have children of my own (and I use that expression consciously), unlike many donors, so I don’t have those issues about potentially passing on something that my own kids would need to know. I’m aware that probably makes things easier for me as I don’t have to deal with my childrens’ curiosity. Only one child was born from my three donations (one miscarriage, one didn’t take and didn’t freeze embryos).

      It’s hard not to look at the kind of problems that have been seen in the US with the undiagnosed autistic donor and think that it might be quite a good idea if there were some way to pass on relevant health information later on. Some health problems don’t come to light until later life anyway and lots of donors don’t have kids at the time they donate. So broadly speaking I would support that.

      In terms of the child/car analogy, my eggs were mixed with sperm from the male partner of each couple so the child is directly related to one of its parents. Yes, the worst could happen and the child could be abused or neglected – that happens with traditional families too and if/once it has the intervention is the same. At some point you have to let go of all those worries or decide not to do it.

      The embryos created from my donation could have been donated on without contacting me (but they haven’t been – I checked). However when you’re talking about one couple you don’t know vs another, it doesn’t seem that much different when you’re in that situation.

      I’m not concerned about the potential for incest. It seems to me to be extremely unlikely. But this is one of the reasons – not the major one – that I chose to become identifiable after 2005 and I hope the parents tell the child so they know and can find out if they want to.

      In terms of the family links, yes I did think about that. I’m too old to have kids now, my brother hasn’t had children either, so my parents don’t have grandchildren, and that seems like a shame. However if you make the decision to have an abortion, in the sense that you’re talking about it, it affects everyone who would be related to that child if it were born. If you give up a child for adoption, it affects the relatives too. I don’t think that means you should consult everyone – the choice is still yours.

      As it happens I have a half-sister who was adopted before my mum married my dad and had me and my brother. We reunited about four years ago now. It wasn’t until then that I realised how many expectations I had about how things would work out – I thought that we would feel like family, but we still feel like strangers. (We’re still in touch and get on, but don’t have that ‘natural affinity’ people talk about, we’re still getting to know each other.) So that gave me a different perspective on the biological connection. It didn’t feel right referring to her as my sister when I’d expected (without realising it) to have a particular set of feelings towards a sister, a large degree of intimacy and mutual understanding. It makes me wonder whether if the person conceived from my donation ever did meet me, they’d be disappointed. They certainly wouldn’t find a mum in me I don’t think. But we’ll see whether that ever happens, and work it out at the time.

  6. marilynn says:

    Kriss is female. Thank you for clarifying Olivia, my apologies.

  7. marilynn says:

    Same medical questions for Kriss – I had 12 miscarriages and one child die at birth before they figured out I have thrombofilia and gave me blood thinners so I could deliver 1 healthy child. If my eggs were being fertilized outside my body and implanted into other women I would never know if 12 miscarriages had occurred and when I would go to get pregnant my doctor would not have that information necessary to help me have a healthy child and I might never be able to have one actually. The health of my child tipped me off to my own health which in turn tipped my father off to the fact that the gene for thrombosis came from him and knowing that was able to add years to his life by adjusting the medication he was taking. Having had those 12 miscarriages and one child die and one healthy child told me I had this problem that my daughter has and now she will be able to have a healthy child right off the bat with no miscarriages because she can tell her doctor and they will treat her for it right away, my niece and cousins were able to have healthy pregnancies because they had that information. Medical information is a two way street an information highway amongst family members. Not knowing the results of your reproductive efforts blinds you and the information you don’t know could prevent a lot of pain and suffering for you or for your relatives that you know and care about. Also for the offspring you don’t know.

    To be honest your probably assuming that all your offspring were born healthy and are developmentally normal in every respect and won’t have any health problems as they grow that they’d need to share information about – or you would not have done it right? You have to assume – trust that everything is fine with them and that

    One of my friends donated her eggs to fund her search for her father who donated sperm. She also thought it would bring them closer together that she’d understand him more. She kind of regrets doing it.

    • Kriss says:

      The story of your friend is sad. It also reminds me of the US donor Alana Stewart who became an egg donor and later regretted it. Partly as a way of coming to terms with my own poor life choices in my early 20s, I have come to accept that making mistakes and having regrets about things you wish you hadn’t done is part of the human condition.

      Some things you can’t predict or you get a very different perspective afterwards, often from the act of doing the regrettable thing that’s given you that moment of enlightenment. So it’s not something I want to debate particularly – I just feel differently about my donation, which was motivated partly by wanting to feel like a better human being; it served that purpose and took my life in a totally different direction. You do the best you know how at the time, and sometimes it doesn’t work; either way you have to find a way to live with it.

      • marilynn says:

        Your awesome thank you! I hope she does get to meet you. she’ll like you. If you ever want help with that holler.

  8. marilynn says:

    I am so happy you answered my questions Kriss. And you really answered them too. No side stepping or word play or anything. Thank you that is so cool.

    I’m glad you see that health info is a two way street. Its really unfair of these cryobanks to let gamete providers reproduce blindly that way. Not knowing the health of one child could cost plenty enough but 5 or 10 or 20 its like driving blindfolded at that point.

    If you only have one biological child whose identity is unknown to you and your family there is little chance of incest unless your sister has children or unless you, your brother or your parents are apt to date much younger people. You are in a good position in that regard. But again it seems like you understand that for donors with more offspring a lot of the control people normally have when they date is taken away from them because the donor can’t introduce their offspring to their family members and can’t introduce their offspring to each other.

    So in terms of my child car analogy I know that abuse is just as likely maybe even more likely for children raised by both biological parents, its just that in real life you would be getting pregnant from someone you liked enough to sleep with and then if he turned out to be a jerk and abusive you could grab your kid and run. I am not suggesting that bio parents are so great its just you are not able to keep an eye on your offspring to protect them if something did go wrong. I’m not suggesting that you should feel like the mother of your offspring but you seem like a nice person and like if it were any kid off the street and someone said hey lady pick a family out to raise this kid like how would you go about picking out the family for that kid? Would you just kinda trust or would you want to get to know them? I was just trying to understand where the trust comes from. You wanted to do a nice thing and you did. I do stuff for strangers all the time I give away my passwords to detective websites they could mess up my credit, I know about blind faith. But even credit is not like a person. I guess you must have felt that a couple that would go to that expense must really want kids and would do a good job. And maybe that would be the best way to choose a family for a random kid if you had to help find them a home.

    Anyway thank you for answering and Alana is one of my friends. I reunite families and I don’t think they always turn out to be best friends. I’ve never had it turn out bad but sometimes its like you and your sister your just luke warm. You could be that way growing up together too. To me what is important is that you needed to know about one another and not be prevented from speaking if you want. Once that happens the world is set straight and you can go your seperate ways or have dinner twice a week. It would not be fair for someone to get between you though. That is my angle.

    • Kriss says:

      My brother does tend to date women half his age but that’s a whole other story!

      IVF is a pretty dismal thing to have to go through – it wasn’t a lot of fun being a donor and I didn’t have the expense and emotional investment of a couple, god knows what they must endure time after time to have a kid. So yes, because of that, I think IVF/DC parents are more likely than most to treasure their children. However people are human with human failings and you never really know. Trusting the strangers feels like a rational assessment of risk, but there’s an element of self justification in there too so who knows.

      I have never met a donor who hasn’t at least wondered what the parents are like and a surprising number ask about vetting. So I can understand the worries of ‘abandonment’ even though that’s not how it is from the donor perspective. It is more like a gift, that you’ve chosen and thought about carefully, and you hope the people you give it to respect that, but you have no control afterwards.

      This is where I think the language of parenthood muddies the waters, for a start it means different things to different people. When the biological parent and the social parent have almost always been the same person in traditional families, once that’s separated it’s hard to unpick which bits mean what. What’s undeniable is there is a connection there which is really important to some people. But from my perspective there is a difference between being biologically someone’s mother and being mum to someone you’re not bio related to but have given birth to and looked after for their whole life. I agree with Olivia that we need some new words to describe the bio relationships. I think that’s one of the reasons people swing from one extreme to the other in saying on the one hand it is important and on the other hand it’s not, because on some levels both of those can be true and it’s different for different people.

      I also feel quite strongly that DC people might need to meet their donor before they’re really clear about the difference between their social parents and their bio parents. That’s actually the main reason I became identifiable – it’s hard and upsetting to read what some DC people say about how anonymity has affected them and the best way to sort out that confusion and pain is with the truth. I can’t do anything at all about whether the parents tell or not.

      Reuniting was difficult for me, really upsetting for my mum and even though my sister replied to the adoption service letter the same day, it messed with her head for months and months, things like she didn’t know whether calling her birth mother ‘mum’ would upset her adoptive mum and she thought her birth mum might be offended by not being called mum. She seems to have come to terms with that really well now (she calls her adoptive mum ‘mum’ all the time and her birth mum ‘mum’ only occasionally) but I feel rather selfish for putting her through that, since it was my idea to tell mum I knew she existed and help her follow up on it. So I have mixed feelings about whether that was a good idea or not. I definitely feel people need the option of support from professionals who know what they’re doing; same with people reuniting who are linked through DC. You don’t want to have counselling from someone who hasn’t done donor conception 101.

      • marilynn says:

        You should not feel selfish at all. She is your sister just as much as she is your mother’s daughter. A parent really can only assert control over their own behavior, not their siblings or their parents or their nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and really not even their children. Their job should they choose to accept it, is to raise their child to adulthood and teach them how get through life without hurting anyone too badly in the process. So if your Mom did not want to get to know her daughter, that would be fair for her to say, she went through a court process intended to protect her child from trafficking and abuse she did not just disappear and hide with no provisions for the child. But I have reunited quite a few people with their siblings first when parents were resistant. If they’d had their way their whole family never would have known or gotten to know their child. That really is not their place to decide that for their children and other relatives. At some point their pain and embarrassment has to be theirs and theirs alone. Nobody owes it to their parent to hide because their parent is embarrassed because they were the product of an extramarital affair for instance.
        Counseling? I don’t know. To the extent that a person needs to approach a search with realistic expectations about it being a quest for their truth, their right to know their own information and to speak with whomever they wish, absolutely. There is no telling how the person you find is going to react. They have to feel really confident that there is not a reason in the world for someone to be ashamed to be related to them and if their parent wants nothing to do with them just move on to the next relative because at the very least those people have the right to know about them. I don’t think its wise to go into it thinking that there will be a beautiful bond or that they will even want to carry on a personal relationship after talking. But I don’t think its wrong or foolish to hope for the best and think that being together as family is their optimal outcome. They won’t know unless they try. I hope no counselor would discourage them from trying. I hope no counselor would put ideas in their heads about not wanting to disturb their bio parent’s family or whatever. As long as counseling makes them feel strong, confident and entitled to call and say hello. As long as they feel like they deserve to be acknowledged by their parent just the same as any kid they kept and raised then I say counseling is a fine idea. Every bit as deserving of their families acknowledgement. I’ve found a whole lot of kids and parents for people and nobody has ever been rude or angry, I know it can happen. I think chances are pretty good it won’t. You did what you had to do. Curiosity did not kill the cat, it let him out of the bag and gave him 8 more lives.

  9. marilynn says:

    And Olivia – if the donor is not a parent in the social sense then certainly social parents are not parents in the reproductive sense. If DNA and biological connections are so irrelevant to the experience of being a parent why is it that so many social parents like to imply they are genetically related by saying stuff like the couple reproduced with donor sperm? Why say stuff like a woman conceived her biological child with a donor egg? Really if genetics is irrellevant thaen they should stop throwing around terms that make it sound like they reproduced and then when questioned about it go “I meant they reproduce together in the social sense” Reproduce is not really a social kind of term is it? My question for you was how do you teach people to answer a kid that wants to know why their mother reproduced with a person that would not want to raise them. She did go out and reproduce herself with a man that did not want to raise their offspring with her right? She did that so she could raise their child with her spouse. Why could she not have reproduced with someone who would help raise them and then her spouse would be in addition to the bio father and the child would loose nothing.

    • oliviasview says:

      Once again Marilynn…I have NEVER heard a DC adult say ANYTHING like the above. Have you any idea about the fantasy world you are imagining people might choose in which to have children. Most people are much too insecure to be able to manage to have two partners, or to be one of those partners, raising a child. I could definitely wish they were and maybe this would be so in an ideal world. I don’t think genetics are irrelevant at all – I wouldn’t have campaigned for ending of donor anonymity if I thought that – but let’s deal with the real world, rather than some fantasy land.

      • marilynn says:

        I think you must listen to your own children very well but maybe not so much the donor offspring that comment on your blog because so many of the comments say just exactly that very thing – that its not fair that they had to loose half their biological relatives in order for their mother to raise them with her husband, they say they wish they could have had their biological father in their life as they were growing up as well as their social father. It really is not necessary for the child to have to loose its family in order for the mother’s spouse and mother to raise a child together. If they don’t want to be resented for interfering with the child’s ability to know and be known by his or her relatives it seems they’d want to work out a similar arrangement to the one you mentioned on your previous post about the donor being known and acting as a third parent. Its a good idea you came up with a good idea. It should just logically be applied to all situations regardless of the gender of the social parent that is all I’m hoping you’ll see that your idea has a much broader application than your seeing initially.

        Here is an example of the exact type of comment you have never heard before it came from your own blog:
        “My parent’s donor is my father says:January 3, 2012 at 2:16 pm I think, and I could be wrong, that ‘openness is not enough’ means honesty and identity disclosure at (16/18?) is not enough. And I’d agree with that. Of course I have a bias, I wouldn’t have wanted any other dad than my one and only dad but I would have loved to have had a meaningful relationship with biological father from the beginning – and wished my dad and my father (and our extended families) could have embraced each other from the beginning.”

  10. oliviasview says:

    Of course I am aware of the comment you quote above. I have actually met that particular adult, but she was NOT told about her beginnings from when she was very small. If you read what I have said several times again, it is that I had never heard anything of this sort from someone who was told early and had parents who were confident and comfortable. This, very thoughtful, DC adult does not come into this category…and I think it makes a difference.

  11. marilynn says:

    I was responding to where you said this
    “Once again Marilynn…I have NEVER heard a DC adult say ANYTHING like the above. ”
    and this
    “I have never come across a DC child or adult who has expressed feelings even approaching something like the above.”
    “However, I have never come across a donor conceived person who has felt this (paragraph below) way…have you really?”
    and recollecting where you said this.
    “Once again Marilynn, my experience is that children, young people, most adults, absolutely do not wonder why their donor did not want to take care of them. They have perfectly good parents (my definition of parent, not yours) and would not want the donor to be in that position.”

    on the next post you respond in one instance by saying that if they are told early they won’t feel that way. Since you write guides for telling at older ages as well then I can see where you might run into this situation and need to be addressing it.

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