Parenting donor conceived children: Is it different?

Twelve years ago I gave a presentation at one of DCN’s national meetings on this topic.  I just came across it again as I was continuing to rifle through the personal stories on the web site towards transferring the most relevant ones to the new site and thought I might share excerpts of it here.  Walter’s and my children were 16 and 13 at the time.  When reading you need to take into account that it is a transcription from speech.

“Let’s tackle this question head on. Is parenting a child conceived using donated eggs or sperm different from raising children where both parents are genetically related to the child?… Did you really think there would be a straight forward answer to this question? Well no, of course there isn’t. On the one hand it’s just the same, requires the same conditions, understandings, skills and information as any other parent. At the other end of the scale, it’s fundamentally different. As parents, or potential parents we have had to face making decisions which will have an impact – little or large – not just on us or our children, but over generations. The uncomfortable truth is that very few of us would have chosen to have a child in this way. We would have preferred to have the child of the person we love and live with. The delight and joy at being pregnant/giving birth/raising the child is likely to be tempered at one time or another by sadness that this is not the child of the person we love: for me – not the child I had in my mind when I imagined what OUR child would be like. For some people using DI or egg donation, this acknowledgement of difference happens when the child is quite young -the complete lack of physical resemblance to the non-genetic parent, the emergence of traits which seem to come from no-where. For me it happened slightly later. Our first DI child had been a difficult baby and a hyper-sensitive toddler and child. When he was seven or eight I went through a period of finding it very difficult to relate to him. It was only when I realised that it was because he wasn’t living up to my fantasy of what I wanted our child to be like – he wasn’t displaying the qualities and talents I had wanted a child to inherit from Walter – that I was able to mourn the child we couldn’t have together and accept our son for the truly lovely person he really is. I could not feel closer to him now.

Of course, fantasies, imaginings, wishes and unrealistic expectations are part of every parent’s repertoire – no matter how their child has been conceived. But perhaps for those of us using donated eggs or sperm, there is an extra dimension which has both plusses and minuses. On the minus side, we have to accommodate the lack of hope that a child might develop something of his father or mother’s looks and talents: accept that we can never make a family connection on the non-genetic side – and it’s amazing how much extended family conversation in particular revolves around who looks like who and where various talents (or horrible habits) might have come from. On the plus side, however, we have the real opportunity to put aside all those unfulfilled ambitions of our own that we secretly want our children to take on, and to accept each child for the person that they are. By using standard good parenting skills to stimulate the child’s curiosity in the world around them, nurturing interests and talents as they emerge – and most important of all, providing a balance of warmth and nurturing with clear boundary setting, our children have the best chance of feeling secure and having high self-esteem. A child who feels good about his or herself in this way is not going to let anyone bully them about being a DI child – viz our daughter at age of nine when an attempt to do this by someone at school fell at the first post because it didn’t press any ‘shame’ or ‘hurt’ buttons for her. I am not, however, talking about being ‘a perfect parent’. This is a trap we can easily fall into because our children are so wanted. We absolutely do not need to feel guilty at being infuriated, yet again, by our much sought after children.

…What of the future? Walter and I assume that at some point both our children will go through a range of feelings about their inability to know more about one half of their genetic inheritance. These feelings may range from sadness to real anger at having this information denied them. It is our guess that this may not happen until they are quite a bit older, possibly contemplating having children themselves and/or doing a mid-life stock-take, making family connections etc. Although they will be autonomous adults by then, what they will be going through will be the result of a decision Walter and I took many years before, so I think we have a duty to be there for them, emotionally at least, for the duration. I don’t think it would help to feel guilty (as I know at least one adult offspring’s mother does). Nevertheless we have to accept responsibility for the decision, and support our children whatever way we can, although we cannot be ultimately responsible for their happiness or success in life.

To sum up – our families are both the same as, and different from, those where children are genetically related to both parents; and different again from families formed in other ways. Avoiding that fundamental difference is I think avoiding facing a real truth and in the end, denial like secrecy, can only get in the way of relationships. But we also have to be kind to ourselves. Many of us carry baggage from our own upbringing which make us shy about acknowledging, even to ourselves, the implications of conceiving and raising the children of egg or sperm donation. Adult DI offspring, however, are very clear that straightforward and honest relationships in their childhoods would have helped them grow up more confident human beings. So for our childrens sakes we need to be able to manage the mixed feelings – acknowledging and accepting the sameness and the difference – and relate to our children and others in ways which will give our children the security and self-esteem to feel comfortable and confident about their place in the world.”

Well, Will and Zannah are now nearly 29 and 26.  They still feel pretty similar to the way they did twelve years ago, although neither of them is contemplating having children themselves yet.  Zannah has added a perspective on genetic determinism and DC adults sense of agency that has come from her Anthropology degree.  Will thinks medical info might be a good idea and that whilst parents should absolutely be encouraged to tell children and undergo preparation for DC parenthood, nobody can force them to do it…and children might suffer if parents did so under duress.  They said as much to the Nuffield Council on Bio-Ethics last week.  We are so proud of them both.

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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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19 Responses to Parenting donor conceived children: Is it different?

  1. eric11714 says:

    Good post. Posting a link to it in the Yahoo DI Dads discussion group now. Regards, Eric

  2. Thank you for this post.

    Your ability to acknowledge your feelings at every point of the way and encourage openness and free expression of your children’s feelings is certainly the best-case scenario in your particular situation.

    If it had been possible, would you have used a known donor?

    • oliviasview says:

      Thank you Pronoia. That means a lot to me.
      Thirty years on, your question about using a known donor is an impossible one. The climate and culture was SO very different then. In many ways we just did what the medics said we should do. There didn’t seem to be any other options and of course no-one was talking with anyone else about it then. We were completely on our own. Where we did go against medical advice was with regard to being open with our children. We just couldn’t understand why we shouldn’t tell them. Lying felt like such a poor basis for happy family life.
      If we were starting again now we would definitely want an identifiable donor. An actual known donor would have to be a very special person, but if he existed we would certainly go for him.

  3. Maddymoo says:

    What a fantastic post – thank you!

  4. Kriss Fearon says:

    “Although they will be autonomous adults by then, what they will be going through will be the result of a decision Walter and I took many years before, so I think we have a duty to be there for them”

    Yes. This is why I chose to become an identifiable donor despite having donated before 2005. You can’t just leave your responsibility for another person’s emotional welfare at the door of the clinic, even if you have only a small part of that responsibility.

  5. Maddymoo says:

    Wow kriss! Totally agree with your comment, I believe from what I have read our donors share that compassionate sentiment towards their donation.

  6. marilynn says:

    Kriss
    I hope they find you. They will be so happy that its you that is there on the other end of that phone call.

    Would you do it again? How many would you want and how many is too many? If you are raising any children, do they know about the others and have you explained why you see them differently than the others? Or if you were raising some yourself how would you explain the difference in treatment? Would it be timing/not ready for parenthood like when some people have a child very young? That seems to make it possible to deal with the whole “why are they more important to you than me thing”. I don’t mean to put answers in your head. All offspring being equal in that some number belong to you is there a way that you would address the topic of wanting to raise some but not others.

    I would think its hard not to be taken care of by a bio parent if the reason for that is only that they did not love your other bio parent – that they might only be worthy of care if their missing bio parent had loved or been attracted to the bio parent that raised them or in some instances the other bio parent who was a donor too? I guess. That the child may not have a relationship with their bio parent all because the two bio parents were not in love or married is rough and not altogether fair since one relationship is obviously the temporary or divorce able kind and the other is sturdy like death and taxes is one thing you can be sure of.

    • Kriss Fearon says:

      Hi Madalyn

      I think we’re coming at this from very different perspectives so I don’t think I’m going to be able to give you an answer that will satisfy you.

      I donated three times and might have done it again if there wasn’t an age limit. I didn’t have children because I didn’t meet someone, and I wanted to have children within a relationship, knowing how hard it can be to be a single parent. Things didn’t work out that way. I think of the donations as a separate issue because I donated to give someone else a family and I’m glad and grateful it was successful for one couple.

      So my thinking is that that child is not ‘my child’ even though we are genetically related, and I’m happy to acknowledge that genetic relationship and meet the person if they want to and work out what kind of ‘in real life’ relationship (ie is it parental, is it more distant aunt, is it friends) we have at a later date.

      It’s not that I don’t care or am not interested but that is the way I view it. I realise this must be hard for you to hear because your view as I interpret it is that all biological children are equal no matter what the circumstances, and that donation is wilfully abandoning your children who be brought up by people the donor doesn’t know and will probably never meet. And you seem to wonder how it is possible to justify being a donor and thinking that way. Put simply, it’s possible because I don’t think that way about it. I’m pretty sure most donors don’t either because people don’t donate if they think as you do.

      So I”m not sure where to go with this next really. I think of parenting as a role which anyone can take and the genetics of that are a different issue. However I’m not prepared to say that my view of what a parent is trumps your view which is based on your personal experience of being a DC person and go off on some kind of philosophical tangent based on theories of what a parent means. People do sincerely feel differently about what this type of relationship means though and I’m not sure how we reconcile that.

  7. Pingback: A Nerve is touched by a blog post “Parenting donor conceived children: Is it different?” | GENdMOM

  8. Marilynn says:

    Kris thank you for replying. I think my questions to you came out of reading what you wrote on the previous post where you said to Olivia “I’ll be really interested to see what you do here (and in the back of my mind is the question about how we support donors in telling their kids).” I’m also curious if DCN is helping the person who donated tell the children that they raised about the fact that they likely have brothers and sisters who they may or may not meet. I was interested to hear how you had or would navigate that issue yourself if you were in that position.

    I love that you say things like “You can’t just leave your responsibility for another person’s emotional welfare at the door of the clinic, even if you have only a small part of that responsibility.” If you are ever contacted by your offspring they will be very happy to hear that on the other end of the telephone; they will be relieved that it’s you that reproduced to create them rather than someone who is embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they’re related to one another. So far I’ve only encountered people who donated that feel as you do, but many of their offspring were afraid that they would be rejected and it was a huge relief when they learned that their bio parent does care about them.

    You might be interested to know that, so far, the people I met who donated who are now in contact with their offspring, also never had children of their own that they raised. In some sense I think they may have donated to carry on their family line because they were unsure of their ability to do so within the context of a relationship. I have not asked that question but it does not seem to be an illogical conclusion given the circumstances.

    “I think of parenting as a role which anyone can take and the genetics of that are a different issue. However I’m not prepared to say that my view of what a parent is trumps your view which is based on your personal experience of being a DC person and go off on some kind of philosophical tangent based on theories of what a parent means. People do sincerely feel differently about what this type of relationship means though and I’m not sure how we reconcile that.”

    We don’t need to reconcile anything. I am just interested in how you would handle certain situations because you do care about the people whose lives you helped to create and you are prepared to be contacted at some point and you articulate your thoughts really well so I stand to learn something helpful each time you respond to something I ask. I want the opportunity to be exposed to viewpoints that might broaden my understanding of how different people interpret the same situation. You have to understand, I cold call both donors and their offspring depending upon who is looking for whom and I sometimes even have to call the homes of the people who raised the donor’s offspring in order to locate them. My preference is to find a way to be honest without giving anyone a heart attack and be honest in a way that makes them feel its safe to talk to the relative that wants to meet them. I can do that better if I understand a few various ways they might be thinking so I can quickly switch gears and communicate in a way that does not piss them off. I’m capable of that when a specific person’s family hangs in the balance believe it or not. A single donor who has not raised any children is a pretty soft touch and not so resistant. What do I do when I get one that has kids they’re raising? I just contact the kids instead and tell them that I’m helping someone look for their family and that DNA tests indicate a relationship to their family and they are likely to be their sibling. So far it looks as if people who donate are not helped to know how to tell the rest of their families that they did it and it looks like explaining the whole thing might be pretty scary for them as it is for bio parents whose children are adopted. In the past when I’ve contacted kept siblings its worked out well and they wish their parent had felt comfortable coming to them but better late knowing than never. If the bio parent were to still not want to talk with their offspring then at least the rest of the family gets pertinent information about the fact that they have grandchildren or siblings nieces nephews cousins to avoid dating and for other health reasons and they can pursue a relationship or not at their own discretion.

    You misunderstand me. I don’t think that people who have offspring are necessarily the best suited to raise them. I agree that genetic kinship is a separate issue from raising a child. I just know that there is inherent responsibility for the outcome of our reproductive actions. You will automatically be more responsible for your offspring than say, I would. You and whomever you reproduce with will have decision making power about who is going to raise the offspring you jointly created and that is a big deal. Everyone comes from two people who are those ultimate decision makers about how they are going to be raised – they are link one in the chain of custody the chain of command. There is no “let me talk to your manager” if there is a complaint about anything. Making the decision to allow someone else to raise your offspring was a big one and I don’t think you took it lightly at all. I understand fully that you gave over any right to recognition as a legal parent so that who ever is raising your offspring can have the authority necessary to do that job properly. It’s not like I think you should have given someone all the responsibility with none of the authority. Of course I do think that all of a person’s offspring are inherently equal biologically speaking because they are. I was only interested to hear how a donor would approach explaining the thinking behind the difference in treatment.

    I’m not trying to be snide I’m sincerely interested in what you have to say. I’m sorry if I said things that upset you or made you think I’d passed judgement on your character. I am not in a position to judge you and I know that.

    • Kriss Fearon says:

      You haven’t upset me Maralynn and I responded because writing this out helps me think things through clearly and it’s interesting.

      Because I don’t have kids and the law is different about the number of offspring in the UK you raised several points I just haven’t had to think about. I don’t know how I’d explain things to any children I had but I found the words to explain things to my family before I donated (in case they had any mind-changing points that I might not have thought of). So I don’t think people necessarily need help to talk to their family, though that does depend quite a bit on the quality of the family relationships you have and people’s confidence in their own choices. Bear in mind that both Olivia and I are based in the UK where donors are offered free counselling to allow you to talk through these issues before you donate; even before the law on anonymity changed you were encouraged to discuss things with your family and especially your partner, if you had one.

      In terms of the explanation though, you have clearly talked to lots more DC people than I have but as a donor I don’t see it in terms of ‘these are the children I chose to bring up myself within my own family’ and ‘these are the children I gave away to be brought up by someone else’ because I don’t conceptualise donation as ‘giving away my children’ even though that is exactly the biological relationship between us. When I think about ‘my children’ I think about a relationship with someone I know and care for in a parental way. Now that might not be very logical in terms of the genetics but that’s where my feelings lie. Obviously dc people are free to form their own opinion and views but I would hope that they wouldn’t see donation as a rejection on behalf of the donor. Especially given that it is usually done to alleviate the parents’ infertility, a very painful condition, out of compassion for the infertile couple.

      I also feel that more often people don’t tell, not out of trauma, but because it’s hard to find the words to broach the subject and easy to persuade yourself there are better times, ie later. Some tools and good examples would be more broadly useful than counselling here – it can be a difficult subject emotionally but that doesn’t mean it always requires counselling. People tend to want to keep private matters within the family, so if they need it, let’s help them to take control of the situation and deal with it themselves. I’m sure there are many, many parents who are grateful their kids have sex education in school so they don’t have to have That Conversation!

  9. Marilynn says:

    When I say that I frequently contact a person’s siblings in order to get to their bio parent I mean siblings that are not minors. I have not contacted any siblings who are under age.

  10. oliviasview says:

    Am I right in thinking Marilynn that you are neither a donor conceived person nor a parent? Could you clarify you situation and what you do for Kriss and others.

  11. Marilynn says:

    I have been helping to reunite separated families for getting close to 15 years. I help people locate and contact their relatives for free. Many of the families who I have helped or am in the process of helping were separated by gamete donation. My interest in your blog and others like it is two fold; The first is to learn how all the players view their rolls so I have a better chance of helping families get back together and then second is to stop whatever is putting people in a situation where they don’t know who or where their family is.

    A few years ago I started to realize that all these families had something in common medically inaccurate birth records – false and incomplete identities. It seemed horribly unfair to me that they could not simply go have the erroneous information corrected. I wanted to understand why we had allowed that to happen to those people and how we could go about changing the law so that it would never happen to anyone again. A person’s parents should not have the ability to alter the identity of their child just because they don’t happen to want to raise their child themselves, Nor should the people raising that person have the ability to alter their identity just because they happen to be raising them.

    I’m now as interested in changing the law to stop this from happening to people as I am in helping them locate their missing relatives. I don’t think its reasonable to say that genetic parents must always raise their own children. I think there needs to be laws that give people the authority to raise children that are not their own offspring while identifying the child as the offspring of their biological parents and without a wholesale change of identity which is then locked in a drawer somewhere for ever or for 18 years. That part of the process is not necessary in order to raise another person’s offspring and its not fair to the person themselves or their extended relatives to have their existence mired in secrecy.

    That’s all that’s how come.

  12. Marilynn says:

    You are wrong Olivia about me not being a parent. I am a parent. I have 2 children a 7 year old girl and a son who died the day he was born. 13 miscarriages prior to the birth of my son and a condition that is among those that cause women to seek donor eggs. I am not insensitive to the plight of women in that situation.

  13. Marilynn says:

    Thrombophilia is the condition.

  14. oliviasview says:

    I actually meant, not a parent of donor conceived children. I am so sorry for the tragic loss of your son and your many miscarriages. So much pain.

    • marilynn says:

      Thank you. Sorry I misunderstood. No I am not a parent to donor offspring. I just know a lot of donor offspring and some bio parents who donated and their ext relatives.

  15. Marilynn says:

    Kriss
    When I say they’ll be glad its you I mean they’ll just be so damn happy they’ll split a seam. Your grounded, your logical, you understand where your feelings don’t necessarily jive with the cold hard facts of the matter, and you get it. Your opinion is not so different than mine. I completely acknowledge that feelings are part of the human experience and that it is not only possible but probable that people will not emotionally attach to their offspring in a parental and protective way if they don’t raise them and do also understand that people generally will attach in a very parental way to any child they raise whether or not they are their offspring and that children attach to those who raise them as if they were their parents even if they are not and that they won’t attach to their parents if they don’t raise them. I do get all of that emotional stuff too.

    You feel a sense of obligation though for having reproduced and you told your family and if they got a call out of the blue from your offspring one day they’d be like “oh! Hey..yes we heard about you.” And the weight of the world would be lifted off of that person’s chest and shoulders because you were not ashamed of them. That is the hugest biggest most wonderful thing in the world and i just want to hug you to pieces for that. If they don’t have someone teaching donors how to talk to their families you go get yourself a grant like Olivia over here and you lead the way. Loosen them all up, make it be OK.

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