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.