Ipseity and donor conception…what does it mean for you?

I’ve been introduced to a new word recently…ipseity.  It means ‘essence’ or ‘self’…who I feel I am inside myself.  This feels to me to be an advance on the term ‘identity’ which is better used to distinguish one person from another and has associations with being asked to ‘produce evidence of identity’, like a passport or birth certificate, in official situations.

What is my ipseity I ask myself? Who I am seems so strongly connected to the relationships I have, the roles I perform and the life experiences I have had it is difficult to identify very much that is essentially me beyond these things.  Does my genetic background make any difference? Well,  I am the daughter of an English woman and an Italian man but brought up in the UK not speaking Italian and didn’t go to Italy until I was 17.  I am proud that my father was Italian – he seemed different to lots of other dads – but have no idea if my acknowledgement of being ‘half-Italian’ is based on  genes, environment or upbringing.  I know where I am from and that does feel important to me but it doesn’t feel as if it has anything to do with who I am.

And this is what sometimes troubles me when I hear or read about some donor conceived adults saying, “I don’t know who I am”.  Do genes really equal destiny?  I don’t think so and nor does the distinguished geneticist who spoke at our DCN national meeting recently.  But he was talking about science and DC adults are talking about feelings.  Are these competing discourses that can never meet?  Presumably DC adults are basing their feelings – or at least those feelings that are not to do with being deceived for many years – on what is known about genetic inheritance.  And, according to our expert, that doesn’t seem to be an awful lot.  With epigenetics now adding extra layers of complexity as scientists understand more about the impact parenting and the environment, in the womb and beyond, have on altering gene function.

It struck me when I read the Chairman’s Forward of the Law Reform Committee of Victoria’s report in to Access by Donor Conceived people to Information about Donors, how he referred to donor conceived adults being ‘denied information about their identity’, thus reinforcing the idea that somehow access to something beyond knowing where you came from was being withheld.

In an article in the Independent newspaper yesterday two donor conceived adults described their feelings on finding out in adulthood about their origins.  One is comfortable with the information but curious about her donor as she would like to know where she comes from.  The other is upset and angry and definitely feels that there is something missing in her life.  The first young woman was told by her mother when she was in her late twenties, the second found out through a third party and confronted her parents.  Did this make the difference between the way they feel about being donor conceived…one comfortable but curious, unworried about being told late, and the other furious about late telling and actively searching for her donor?  Wondering ‘where I am from’ and ‘who I am’ qualitatively feel like two different things to me.  I wonder what ‘ipseity’ means for each of them?

I am quite clear that I am much more than the sum of my genetic heritage, but how would I feel if I found out now that my male progenitor was not the man who raised me?  Pretty upset at being deceived, sad that my parents had felt they could not be honest with me and sad that my ‘half-Italian’ status might be questioned by some people, although the cultural and environmental connection would remain. Would I doubt who I am.  Unlikely.

There is no question that some DC adults genuinely feel bereft, abandoned, disconnected and angry.  How could anyone with heart try to deny them these feelings.  And I do absolutely support access to donor information.  But, apart from the deception if they were told late,  I still don’t understand exactly what these strong feelings are based on.  It doesn’t seem to be the science.  My own position is with the wise words of psychotherapist Adam Phillips in his book Darwin’s Worms, “The past influences everything but dictates nothing”.

Link to the article in the Independent –

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/so-whos-the-daddy-ethics-dilemma-over-sperm-donor-boom-7606835.html?origin=internalSearch

Advertisements

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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Ipseity and donor conception…what does it mean for you?

  1. RachelP says:

    Yes, there is anger at being deceived. But there is also anger at having decisions about MY life taken out of my hands. It was decided for me that I didn’t need to know who my father was. It was decided for me that I didn’t need to know who my half-siblings are, even though I grew up as an only child. I feel so powerless, like I was a pawn in somebody else’s game.

    Maybe the importance of genes depends on which genes you inherit. When I was growing up I felt like an alien in my family, so different am I from my parents – they are practical and down-to-earth, whilst I’m a highly-strung daydreamer. I often thought they must have brought the wrong baby home from the hospital and if I hadn’t seen the photos of my mum holding me in her hospital bed I’d have definitely believed I was adopted. Maybe if I’d inherited more congenial genes I’d have blended in more with my family and not feel the genetic link is so important.

    The quote is an interesting one. Could it be that you have to know what your past is before you can make the decision to let go of it and not let it dictate your future, though?

  2. DNA is not destiny, but it’s one’s basis. It doesn’t determine who you’ll be, but it is what gives you the building blocks you have at your disposal.

    The science keeps changing. Where it used to be accepted that behavior is solely the result of the environment, many geneticists nowadays believe that up to 40% of our temperaments are inherited.

    My genetic heritage does not determine my ipseity, but it gives me the foundation I can build upon. Not knowing where half my DNA comes from feels like trying to build a house on a black hole.

    I know who I am. I’m someone who’ll never know my father. I’m someone who has to gasp for air when someone mentions families, fatherhood, looking like one’s parents, ethnicity, which is quite often. I’m someone who was silent for 3 long minutes when I was asked about my ethnicity in a recent census. I’m someone who’s constantly afraid someone will ask me the wrong question. I’m someone who has elaborate fantasies about meeting my biological father and his family and finding someone like myself.

    There are other things that influence a person – nurture by (social) parents and the wider environment. Separating these factors makes sure that parts of a child will remain in a state of fragmentation. Genetically heritable traits will not develop in an environment where a child is surrounded by adults who share this DNA and have experience with handling it and seeing it develop.

  3. oliviasview says:

    You are right, science does keep changing and it hasn’t stopped. Epigenetics is showing us the significant influences – some permanent, some temporary – that environment and nurture have on our genes…during embryo development and afterwards. According to the expert I consulted it is only Mendelian (single) genes that develop without environmental influence and result in disorders like Huntington’s Disease or Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. He was pretty clear at our national meeting that personality, temperament, metabolism etc. are all significantly impacted by environment and this will be different for each person.

    I am sorry you feel who you are in so defined by not knowing your male progenitor. I know a young DC adult who has been very sad for some years that she will never know her donor (her word) and was devastated to find that none of her half siblings had registered with the HFEA to be in contact with others. Today she wrote on Facebook –
    “This morning I woke up and realised that each day I wish for what I don’t have, is another day wasted not enjoying everything I do have.”

  4. My parent's donor is my father says:

    “This morning I woke up and realised that each day I wish for what I don’t have, is another day wasted not enjoying everything I do have.”

    If only more adults, wishing for a child that they can’t have with their partner, thought this way! If only…

  5. “This morning I woke up and realised that each day I wish for what I don’t have, is another day wasted not enjoying everything I do have.”

    It’s true. And it’s certainly a noble sentiment.

    Would you offer this way of thinking to couples struggling with infertility? What would they say? Would it help them and how much? I guess that depends on the person. And we’re all different.

  6. My parent's donor is my father says:

    http://www.resolve.org/family-building-options/living_childfree/what-does-it-mean.html

    “Navigating the emotional journey towards being happy in a life without children involves a process of grieving. When individuals who have struggled with infertility face a life without children, it’s usually by default. It’s a loss of their dream. They often feel depressed, and their anguish is rarely understood. Outsiders incorrectly assume that people without children have chosen not to have them.

    Many people, especially women, connect their value in life with the activity of parenting. Society esteems and rewards those who raise children, often ignoring those who pursue other paths to form a worthwhile life. But it is precisely this step in the direction of another path that one must take when moving toward resolution.

    When you move in the direction of living without children, you may want to consider where you will direct the energies that you would have used to parent your child. Make an agreement with your spouse to identify and prioritize what each of you will agree to do to continue to nurture these maternal/paternal instincts. Give each other the space to grow and pursue these feelings.

    Resolution often involves couples building children into their lives: relatives, children of friends, children in need in the community. They appreciate that their involvements enable them to be free to do other things while maintaining a balance in their lives.

    Living without children is an opening into a world of possibilities. There’s a reinvigoration of connections with people. You begin to feel whole again. You may experience a sense of liberation. Suddenly they see a dazzling array of life’s exciting possibilities, some of which wouldn’t be possible with a child. As this realization sinks in, a huge surge of energy and excitement often is released. There’s a re-engagement with life broader than engaging solely with an individual child. Many people become more creative. ”

    More here: http://www.resolve.org/family-building-options/living_childfree/what-does-it-mean.html

  7. My parent's donor is my father says:

    http://artfulquestions.blogspot.com/2011/09/lasting-pain-of-infertility.html

    “Here’s the line from Ludden’s story that I want to focus on: “As test after test failed, LaBounty says, she felt a mounting sense of loss, as if the pain of her infertile parents had been transferred to her.”

    A hard truth about most infertility treatments is that they often can’t make the pain of infertility go away, although they can change the focus of the sadness and transfer it to others. This arises from the fact that most fertility treatments are not curative but compensatory.

    A curative treatment resolves the underlying disorder and genuinely makes it go away. Some fertility treatments are like this: blocked fallopian tubes and varicocele are causes of female and male infertility respectively that are sometime successfully treated with laparoscopic surgery. In such cases couples may go on to have children without lingering issues, almost as though the infertility had never been an issue.

    A compensatory treatment addresses symptoms without curing the underlying disease. There are many examples of compensatory medical treatments: artificial feeding to get around the inability to digest ordinary food, wheelchairs to mobilize the paralyzed, eyeglasses to correct for faulty vision. Every one of these treatments can be more than worthwhile, but each, to a degree that can range from very mild to very severe, brings its own inconveniences and troubles.

    The overwhelming part of infertility treatment is compensatory: it gets around infertility without curing it. And, the outcome of successful treatment is wonderful: a baby! But there is very often some sad remainder from treatment. This is the theme of two articles I published on infertility in The New Atlantis: one on the sadness in facing the so-called disposition decision for “leftover” embryos, another on complications that can arise for children and grandchildren from the treatment of certain kinds of male infertility. LaBounty’s insight that the sadness of her parents’ infertility was transformed in its focus and transferred to her is a frequent after-effect of successful fertility treatment. ”

    Full post here: http://artfulquestions.blogspot.com/2011/09/lasting-pain-of-infertility.html

  8. RachelP says:

    A couple of things I would like to add to this discussion. One, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I’d have tried to search for my donor even if I’d been told about my status as a child. I’m a naturally curious person. I used to read about adopted people who didn’t want to look for their biological parents and not understand them at all, thinking that if I was in their shoes I would look because I want to know everything that there is to know.

    Two, on reflection, I’m not sure I’m totally comfortable with how this has been discussed. I talk in the article about being angry at having been deceived, but I do not at any point say that I feel something is missing in my life. Olivia, I’m not sure whether this something you’ve picked up from my previous public writings or from personal conversations we have had. I suppose I have spoken publicly about having a hole where a father should be. But I don’t know if I would say there is something missing in my life…my day-to-day life, as you know, is very full – work, family, studying. It’s just that when I think about my father instead of a family history that could be really rich and interesting there is, like Panoia Agape talks about, a big black hole. Nothingness. I also do feel my donor effectively gave me up. But that doesn’t mean that after nearly 30 years without him in my life I’m not ok. After all this time any sort of relationship with him would be a bonus rather than something fundamental to my existence (I no longer need a father as such but I’d welcome a friend). What I really want is to know his name and see his face. If I could do those two things I think I’d be happy with my DC status.

    It is the lack of autonomy I have in the situation that makes me angry, the fact that I can’t know his name or see his face coz of decisions other people have made on my behalf.

    • Hey, me too – before I knew I was dc I also used to be shocked by adoptees who just didn’t seem interested in bio parents – I knew back then I’d do whatever it takes to find out. I’m also inquisitive and am naturally interested in roots – history, etymology, the origins of ideas and concepts, rather than, say, SF or any thoughts or conjectures about the future.

      This is part of my ipseity, actually – an obsession with roots. Before I knew I was dc I learned all I could about my social father’s ancestry, read his grandfather’s journal, looked at his old family photos – things HE NEVER DID, because roots just don’t matter to him.

  9. RachelP says:

    Sorry I got your name wrong Pronoia. I also researched my social father’s family history before I found out I was DC.

  10. Susan says:

    As both a DC person and a parent by DC, I find much of the above confusing.

    As children, we have no choice about how we come into the world — no choice about the circumstances of our families, about our parents decision to choose each other, about our class, our race, etc. Those are decisions that parents make. Those decisions are their perogatives. Being angry about them is like being angry about the rain, the sun and the wind. It is like being angry at death. The circumstances of your entry into the world is not something you get to choose. That is a law of nature. Trying to control it now is a waste of time.

    The DC people I know who are angry about their very existance are all young. None of them are parents. When you become a parent, you see that all of the initial choices are yours and you’re just doing the best you can. It’s easy to point fingers about what your parents should have done before you experience your own fertility or infertility, your own parenting. It is of very little use for those who are not infertile or gay (etc.) to say what they *would* do or what people with infertility *should* do. When you yourself become gay or infertile, you can make those statements.

    Similarly, those who are not donor-conceived should not offer us platitudes about how we should be more cheerful about life, how life is ours to live, etc. Of course, people should enjoy life. But, if something is unfair, I have a right to be angry about it. If I feel a loss, I have the right to express it. It is of very little use for you to imagine how you *would* feel or how we *should* feel about not having basic identifying information about our families. Your essay is a nice mental exercise, but you are not in the same situation as your children. You need to accept that and respect that your children are experiencing something that you will never know.

    Each of us lives with a sense of how much our background, our family, our ancestry, etc. affects our identity. But those things can only be put into their proper place when they are KNOWN. When they are *known*, you can organize them. When they are known, you can write essays about their place in your life.

    When they are *unknown*, they never find their proper place. They assume great or small proportions, they become objects of denial or obsession, but they are never just right. You must know something before you can put it in place. Knowledge is a pre-condition for wisdom in this area.

    This is the loss that most adoptions and donor conceptions entail. No one who is denied information about their ancestry can write the essay above. That does not mean we are doomed to obsession or unhappiness. It does mean that your experience is not relevant to us.

    Our experience, broadly taken, is that most of us feel that we have the right to know who made us. After that point, opinions about DC diverge widely. But I have yet to meet a DC individual who said that knowing didn’t matter to them. If policy would follow this simple princicple — that almost all children do want to know where they come from — these kinds of he said / she said / I feel / you feel debates could be put to rest and we could at least move forward in the one area where evidence (to my mind) is clear.

    • oliviasview says:

      Thank you Susan for your contribution. Very valuable. You are absolutely right that I cannot possibly put myself in the position of my children. Their experience is theirs and not mine. So far…and I do say so far, neither of them, at age 28 and 25 have any deep sense of loss at being donor conceived. Our eldest has never been interested (and we know others through DC Network who say the same) and the youngest is curious and would love to know half-siblings but does not consider her ipseity to be defined by being DC. I totally and absolutely support ending of anonymity for donors in every country (this has already happened in the UK) and the right of DC people to have information about and to be able to contact their donor if they choose to do so.
      I also agree that ‘knowing’ is important in many areas of life, and until this happens it is difficult to put that knowledge or information in it’s place. I recall before I went back into education as a mature student and gained the degree I did not get as a 21 year old, I was always angered by those people who had a degree but rubbished it. Once I had
      mine, I could do that too.

    • “The circumstances of your entry into the world is not something you get to choose. That is a law of nature. Trying to control it now is a waste of time.”

      Certainly, we don’t choose what happens to us when we’re young – but we are allowed to be angry about our parents’ choices. If my anthropologist parents had, say, decided to move to an Amazonian village when I was born and raise me there, and then returned to civilization when I was 18, I might be angry about that, although this would have been entirely their prerogative. Or if they’d moved every two months. Or if they’d given me up for adoption. Or if they’d had 25 children in dire poverty and I was the 21st. People get angry about things they can’t control all the time.

      “The DC people I know who are angry about their very existence are all young. None of them are parents. When you become a parent, you see that all of the initial choices are yours and you’re just doing the best you can.”

      I’m not angry about my very existence, so you probably don’t mean me, but I am angry about not knowing who my father is and not having the opportunity to meet him and his family. I’m also angry for my children, whose 1/4 of family is missing and who’ll never get to meet their maternal grandfather and other relatives on that side.

      “Each of us lives with a sense of how much our background, our family, our ancestry, etc. affects our identity. But those things can only be put into their proper place when they are KNOWN. (…) When they are *unknown*, they never find their proper place. They assume great or small proportions, they become objects of denial or obsession, but they are never just right.”

      Thank you for expressing this so eloquently. I had a moment in which I thought I knew who my mother’s donor might have been, and the moment I connected these dots DNA and ancestry assumed less importance – somewhere in the background of who I am and who I might become – as opposed to the obsession I “normally” have. But my sense of self changed, and in a good way.

  11. m says:

    “As children, we have no choice about how we come into the world — no choice about the circumstances of our families, about our parents decision to choose each other, about our class, our race, etc. Those are decisions that parents make. Those decisions are their perogatives. Being angry about them is like being angry about the rain, the sun and the wind. It is like being angry at death. The circumstances of your entry into the world is not something you get to choose. That is a law of nature. Trying to control it now is a waste of time.”

    The injustice to people in this situation does not occur at the time of donation or conception, conception when they are not even people with feelings or rights, it occurs at birth, when one of the parents who reproduced to create them is allowed to abandon them without so much as having to put their name down on a piece of paper as being responsible for the existence of their own bloody offspring. Nobody else is allowed to do that. Its a crime for anyone else to do that. You have to give the child up in court for the protection of everyone else involved. Why don’t donor offspring have a right to the dignity of being knowledge as the children of the people who reproduced to create them? Why are their medical records falsified? Naming no man as father on their birth record, a medical record is medically as inaccurate as labeling them the wrong gender, weight or length. Naming a man or woman who did not reproduce to create the child is equally medically inaccurate because the document ceases to be useful to the person who relies on it for medical reasons. Society relies on the accuracy of those records for medical research into genetic defects funded by our tax money and the margin of error is now so great that the outcome of any research into maternal and fetal health is completely virtually without merit.

    There is plenty to be angry about and its not their existence. The behavior of the adults responsible for having created them and the behavior of the adults who wished to raise someone else’s child so badly that they’d pay someone to fail to care for their own young and the behavior of our totally out to lunch law makers those are things to be angry with. The circumstances of their conceptions are totally irrellevant. How it is that unrelated people come to call themselves the parents of a child they did not reproduce to create or gain custody of in a normal court approved process is beyond the limits of acceptability.

    Really with so much injustice occuring after they’re born why on earth would they bother with trifles like the circumstances of their conceptions or the period of time prior to their birth when their fathers were not fathers but mere donors?

    • m, thank you for pointing out we’re not angry about something in the past we can’t control, like the “method” of our conception, but something that affects us now and will affect our children in the future.

      I’m not interested in controlling whether my parents conceived me via IUI or in the missionary position or on the kitchen table. That’s not the point. The point is they hid my biological father from me and my descendants for all eternity on purpose.

  12. RachelP says:

    Just wondering if an apology for the way I’ve been discussed and words have put in my mouth on here is ever going to be forthcoming?

  13. oliviasview says:

    The article about you, with your real name, appeared in a national newspaper and was therefore in the public domain. I had certainly heard you talk about feeling there was something missing in your life without the knowledge about your genetic father and I was drawing on the information given in the paper. Were you misquoted?

  14. RachelP says:

    At no point in the newspaper article did I say there is something missing in my life, as I’ve already stated above. And I’m not really comfortable with how I was talked about in this post, again as I’ve already stated above (on 4th April! And here we are on 18th June with no attempt to address the issue having been made).

    I don’t like how just because I’m prepared to talk about my story in public people seem to feel that, also in public, they can speculate about my innermost thoughts and feelings AND judge me for them. I always thought until just recently that my story is a cautionary tale about donor conception and that in a way I’m performing a service by sharing it, helping to ensure what happened to me doesn’t happen to other DC people. Now I’m wondering if doing media is the right thing for me, because I am a sensitive person and I find this kind of antagonistic attention hard.

  15. oliviasview says:

    Rachel: I’m going to respond to you privately because I’m not sure we can get much further here.

Comments are closed.