Thoughts about egg donation and ‘telling’

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.

 

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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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23 Responses to Thoughts about egg donation and ‘telling’

  1. alloallo says:

    this is something I have noticed a bit as well. We are seeking to create a family through sperm donation, and at the same time have two friends currently pregnant who have used a donor egg (one a sister, one an unknown donor in the UK). While we have been really active in getting to know the issues through the DCN, through our own research, counselling, talking etc, I notice that in both of those couples there seems to be a sort of denial about the origin of the pregnancy. I don’t really think it is for me to force their attention to this, but I know that in my own heterosexual couple I am the one that has been driving a lot of this talking and thinking and learning.

    I worry quite a bit about how to bring this up with them, from what I have learned through DCN and other sources I think it is key that they are open with their children, but in one case I think the mother may well chose not to tell. I don’t think it’s my responsibility to correct her, and i also don’t want to make her uncomfortable with forcing the materials I have been exposed to on her (I’ve so far just gently suggested it). But certainly in my own limited experience this disparity you’re describing definitely exists.

  2. Maddymoo says:

    Thank you Olivia – a very interesting read. Some thought provoking stuff in there.

  3. Interesting, thank you.

    I can understand. The mother who carries and gives birth and probably breastfeeds and otherwise intensively nurtures someone else’s biological baby is actually more invested in the child being hers than the intended father of a sperm-donor child. She has more reason to try to ignore the facts because she stands to lose more than a non-biologically-related father, because she’s given more. It’s harder, after all she’s done, to imagine the child being able to say one day “But you’re not my REAL mother!”

    From what I’ve read, it appears some intended fathers of sperm donor children protect themselves psychologically from possible rejection by the child by being the first to distance themselves emotionally from the child, which is more possible and even more culturally acceptable for fathers anyway. The woman who carries the child and gives birth and breastfeeds and experiences all those hormonal changes doesn’t have the luxury of being distant and aloof. She will be heavily invested. And so her investment MUST pay off.

    Just my conjecture. I’m not a psychologist not do I have experience with egg donation. I just read infertility blogs and fora.

  4. Also, it appears to me you tend to explain any emotional difficulty in DC via issues with one’s infertility. A man feels insecure about being infertile and that’s the reason he has trouble reconciling himself with the prospect of sperm donation. The moment he is OK with his infertility, he’ll be just fine with raising another man’s biological child, happily, openly, confidently.

    If this were the case, fertile men raising stepchildren would be completely issue-free. They wouldn’t blink when the stepchild says “You’re NOT my father!” They would always be perfectly confident in any and all decisions they make on the child’s behalf. They’re fertile, they’re “real men,” and all else is therefore naturally just fine.

  5. oliviasview says:

    Hi Pronoia
    I think becoming a step-father is actually much more challenging than becoming a father by donor conception. There is all the history that all parties bring with them and complex relationships to manage. Experience over many years and with many families shows that once men have reconciled themselves to infertility and found themselves accepted as ‘a man’ they are most likely to become devoted and loving father by DC. They do need to go through that process first, however, and not all manage it.

  6. I certainly agree that both infertility on the one hand and complex relationship on the other are factors in the way a social/legal/non-bio parent comes to feel about the child they’re raising, but surely we can say that for quite a few people raising someone else’s biological child is in and of itself at least ever so slightly problematic, fertility and relationships notwithstanding, can’t we?

  7. oliviasview says:

    I can only say that my experience is that, mostly, neither parent thinks of a child as ‘someone else’s biological child’. You can call it magical thinking or being in denial if you like, but certainly most of us simply think of a DC child as ‘our child’. Doesn’t mean we don’t want them to know about their conception or to keep anything from them. Just that the child feels like, our child.

  8. single mum says:

    I am concerned by your assumption that single women who conceive via double donation feel what you appear to consider appropriate guilt that they have gone ‘a step too far.’ I do not believe that this is true and you offer no evidence other than the anxiety of one woman and your own disapproval (which you do not appear to extend to couples who use anonymous embryo/double donation).

    You also make it clear that you feel single women are adding an extra burden on a child by bringing it into the world without a father. Does the DCN view single-parent families as second best? What about lesbian families? This is not only insulting to single women, it is also contrary to research by the Centre for Family Research which shows that children raised in single mother by choice families do as well as, if not better than, children raised in two parent homes.

    As for this: “Within DCN our duty of care is to the children. To make sure they are told the whole of their story in the very best way possible. It is not in their interests that their mothers are made unwelcome in our organisation, even though some of us may have personal doubts about their choices.”

    If I, as a single woman, had conceived with double donation I wouldn’t want to be part of an organisation that disapproved of me, made it clear I headed a second-rate family – but then tolerated my presence for the sake of my poor, disadvantaged and hard-done by children.

    • oliviasview says:

      Thanks for your contribution Sandra. Just to point out that this is a personal blog. There are many views within DC Network. That said, I’m sorry you seem to think I am anti single women using donor conception. That is far from my view. I have enormous admiration for many of them and certainly do not think their families are second-rate or their children hard done by.

  9. Olivia, I guess the two of us have been exposed to different experiences and different ideas, views and assumptions in two very different (sub)cultures. If you read infertility fora in my country, you’ll see PLENTY of people expressing the “someone else’s biological child” sentiment when discussing the possibility of choosing DC, wondering whether they’ll be able to love the child. Most don’t plan to tell the child if they do opt for DC. But both these cultures use DC, and that should give us pause. There are different subcultures in your country as well, I’m sure, they’re just unlikely to join DCN.

  10. oliviasview says:

    Yes of course I accept and understand that there are different views elsewhere and that there are different sub-cultures in the UK…but believe me, we are winning in changing the culture and climate here.

  11. oboyoboyoboy says:

    You having “personal doubts about (my) choices” but not making me unwelcome (oh how different is this to making me welcome) in DCN for the sake of my children is not good enough.

    Judged but tolerated is not good enough.

    Disapproved of but accepted is not good enough.

    The only thing I will accept for my children and myself is pure, unadulterated celebration.

    I am saddened to see you and, by association, DCN take this view. My children happen to have been conceived using my eggs. But I stand side by side with the single women who for whatever reason used donor eggs as well as donor sperm. If DCN can’t celebrate all families who conceive using donors it is of no use to me and my family.

    I am saddened by this, really saddened.

  12. oboyoboyoboy says:

    but what are you sad about, Olivia? Did you read my post? I’d appreciate a response that addresses my point – that judging, tolerating, accepting for the sake of the children are not acceptable ways to treat families within DCN.

    All families have struggles. At times I imagine all families question whether they’re doing a good enough job, get bogged down in problems, worry about aspects of their parenting or the dynamics between family members. It is fine to highlight those but not to use a family / parent’s own self-reflection and worries (which probably means they’re doing a fine job actually and are thinking about their kids’ needs a lot) to question the very nature of that family and how it was created.

    I also have to point out you used my real name without checking with me that that was ok.

  13. single mum says:

    Thanks for your reply, Olivia, but I too feel you have not responded to my points. I think you do not support single women using double donation because you state this clearly in the post. I believe you have wider concerns about SMCs because you have commented on the challenges of being raised without a father. You may say you do not believe such families are second rate, but you appear to rank families built with donor gametes on a sliding scale of acceptability – with single women using double donation dropping off the far end (you say nothing about heterosexual couples, who presumably do not cross the moral line?).

    As for your point that this is a personal blog: I understand that these are your personal views. However, you are strongly associated with the DCN and it is likely that your views are going to influence, and be confused with, those of the DCN. This is particularly likely given that in this post you refer to the DCN and it’s members as ‘our’ and ‘us’ and single mothers who conceive with DD as ‘them’ and ‘theirs’.

    I have a great deal of respect for all you and the DCN have achieved. But like the woman who has posted above, I too am concerned by the attitudes and assumptions expressed in your post.

  14. oliviasview says:

    I would like to clarify as best I can.

    My post was trying to look at the different ways that using donor conception can be difficult for families and individuals, in this case looking at egg donation. There is no hierarchy to the many issues, and no judgement intended. My post started with my thoughts on how egg donation can be more difficult in some ways for some couples than sperm donation. I think it is clear that I was in no way implying that therefore sperm donation was better, or that egg donation was wrong.

    It is often helpful to acknowledge difficulties and issues, and voicing concerns can bring resolution and clarity. Over my many years at DCN I have spoken to lots of single women who have been very open about their concerns ranging from having a child without a father-figure or having to face parenthood alone, or using a friend as a donor to using an internet site to find a donor, or using an anonymous donor, or using double donation. We have heterosexual couples voicing similar and many other doubts and anxieties. Anyone who is brave and honest enough to seek guidance and support through sharing their thoughts with others is usually able to work out what is OK for them and what is not. And the outcome will be different for different people. Thinking about the implications of our decisions, for ourselves and our children, is important for everyone. I suspect we can all agree on this and that was what my post was about.

    I referred to single women in some contexts in my posts as ‘them’ because I am not single. When I talk about DCN and ‘us’ I am including ALL members; heterosexual couples, single women and lesbians.

    And to be ABSOLUTELY clear, all dc families are welcome at DC Network, whatever their circumstances, and we celebrate them all. But it doesn’t mean that I will shy away from dialogue about difficult subjects. This is how we learn and are able to offer helpful guidance to others in the future. I have certainly learnt from this dialogue, and am grateful for that. An online dialogue on emotive subjects may, however, not be the best forum for continuing this particular discussion. So much subtlety and nuance is lost in this method of expression without body language or tone helping to convey deeper meaning and sensitivity. Debate will continue, I’m sure, but perhaps not now and not here.

  15. single mum says:

    Thanks for your response, Olivia.

    I did not think you were implying anything is wrong with egg donation. However, you did make it clear that you felt there was something iffy about double donation for single women. You suggested such women might feel they had ‘gone too far’ and pointed out that you had doubts about the practice. You have not acknowledged this in your response.

    You singled out single women who use double donation, and specified the additional problem of children being raised without a father. You did not mention any anxiety for, or around, heterosexual couples using double donation. You have not explained why you find double donation problematic only for single women.

    You say that when you refer to ‘us’ and DCN you are referring to everyone who is a member of the DCN. However single women who use double donation are members of DCN and were not included in the ‘us’. They were the ‘them’. To quote:  “It is not in their interests that their mothers are made unwelcome in our organisation, even though some of us may have personal doubts about their choices.”

    It is good to know that all families are welcome within the DCN and celebrated, but I think that this was not reflected in your original post. That’s the problem.

    Online discussions may have drawbacks. But if you feel an online dialogue is not suitable for emotive topics then I suggest you cease writing a blog about donor conception. If you mean emotive discussions, then have no fear: the arguments I have presented are perfectly reasonable.

  16. oliviasview says:

    The portion of the post that is the subject of Single Mum’s and oboyoboyoboy comments above has been removed.

  17. Marilynn says:

    Hi Pronoia
    “I think becoming a step-father is actually much more challenging than becoming a father by donor conception.” Really? A man’s wife becomes pregnant by another man. Ok, same. same. She gives birth. Ok, same, same. He is not the father of the child she conceived with the other man. You can say she conceived the child with his sperm and not him if you want but he hopefully made the choice to conceive some of his offspring this way (as in we hope he was not a patient whose sperm was stolen or misappropriated – we don’t ever know because there are no tests and nothing is handled in court or with a neutral third party.) Anyway you can pretend that the other man did not choose to have offspring with the man’s wife but that would not be true, cause otherwise he would not have offered his sperm for that purpose, to impregnate her and bring forth upon the earth his/her offspring. So her husband can allow the false assumption of paternity to go uncorrected and he can take on the responsibilities for her child as if he were responsible for having a hand in that person’s creation or he can accept the truth, that he is sterile and not pretend that he’s not by having a hand in falsifying another human being’s medical records in homage of the child he wishes he could have helped his wife conceive. He can be himself (a sterile husband), the child can be his or herself (the child of a man who is not the mother’s husband) and the child can be fully loved and accepted by their stepfather and mother for who they actually are rather than who their Mom and step dad wish to make them over into and if everyone is accepting reality the man who got the Mother pregnant would accept that he is the father of his own offspring and not treat his other offspring better just because he happened to marry those kid’s mom. He’d include all his children as his children and allow them all to bear his name rather than the false moniker of their stepfather which is a sorry substitute for the real deal or so I’m told. I have seen so many of the people I’ve reunited change their names to their father’s names once they’ve found them or even know what that name is without finding them. Just knowing is enough for them to go to court and fix what was stolen from them. Having their real name is a big big deal. So the man that truly comes to terms with his sterility or his wife’s infertility does not play these mind games. He lives authentically and allows others to do the same. Real men don’t get henpecked into pretending they fathered children with their wives just because their wives can’t let go of the picket fence fantasy.

  18. Marilynn says:

    pronoia i did not mean to make it sound like you wrote that what i put in quotations, that was Olivia’s quote excuse me.

  19. Kea says:

    The child is not yours biologically – fact. When you look into it’s eyes you’ll see it’s real mother. It will never, ever belong to you.

  20. oliviasview says:

    Your opinion Kea, your opinion only.

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