An issue that has been rumbling about in my mind for a while came up unexpectedly at the DCN Trustee/Steering Group meeting on Saturday. Are families where egg donation has been used to help conceive a child finding it harder to be open with their children than those where sperm donation has been necessary? This is a counter-intuitive question to me as my assumption has always been that a woman carrying a child by egg donation is likely to feel more confident in being a ‘real’ parent than a man becoming a father by sperm donation, simply because of the opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of the child inside her and by the act of giving birth. And confident parents tend to be the ones who are open with their children. But what if for some reason a woman isn’t feeling so confident? What if during her pregnancy some clumsy person -professional or friend – has intimated that this is not really her baby at all? Or perhaps the baby was conceived abroad and there was no opportunity to see a counsellor and reflect on the sense of failure or feelings of ‘unwomanliness’ that some women have when their bodies seem to have let them down.
In families where sperm donation has been necessary for conception women are used to their men going through a period of shutting down emotionally whilst they integrate the news of their inability to create new life biologically with their partner. Women need to be nurturing and supportive, particularly in helping their partner to see that this news makes no difference to the way they feel about him – particularly as a man in the fullest sense. In this way, over time, most men are able to accept their infertility and look forward in a very positive way to becoming a father in the only way possible…by donation. Openness is the likely result when such opportunities for reflection, grief, nurture and the passing of time have been allowed for.
This is what women do in families. They often do the emotional work for both partners, or at least take the emotional lead. But when it is the woman who has the sense of failure to deal with, how is that to be managed within a heterosexual couple family where, on the whole, men want to fix things (so egg donation isn’t necessarily a big deal because it overcomes the problem) but a woman is feeling bad about herself? These are stereotypes of course and there are many shades of grey within families about the division of emotional labour, but there’s a lot of truth in it too. Women also tend to take the lead in families with anything to do with children so it is likely that introducing story books about donor conception would fall within their domain as well. It begins to get easier to see how ‘telling’ in egg donation could easily be more difficult if a woman has unresolved issues about her infertility and lacks confidence in her right to call herself a ‘real mother’. Rejection by their child, always the background anxiety for parents by DC, feels so much more likely if a woman (or a man) lacks confidence in the decisions they have made.
It feels important that counsellors in clinics should recognise that egg donation may be more problematic for some women than has been previously thought and encourage them strongly and empathically with the reflection/grieving process. Also in seeking emotional support, the need for which may not be understood and forthcoming from a partner, around telling children. Within DCN, we will consider running separate ‘telling’ groups at our national meetings for those with egg donor conceived children and through our regular contacts with members try to understand more about their needs. We have wondered for a long time if there would be differences between families and children conceived by egg and sperm donation. Maybe we are just beginning to see them now.