Baby boxes, foundlings, resilience and the need to know

There have been two stories in the good old Guardian over the last few days that have once again raised the issue of a child’s ‘right’ to be raised by biological parents.  In today’s main paper, and in a slightly expanded version on the website, Randeep Ramesh the social affairs editor reports on the spread in Europe of ‘baby boxes’ where children who are unable to be cared for by their mother/parents can be abandoned anonymously to the safety and care of a hospital.  The United Nations is apparently very concerned, warning that the practice “contravenes the right of the child to be known and cared for by his or her parents”.   Those in favour of the boxes argue that such rights are secondary to saving the life of a child who might otherwise been been allowed to perish.  Whatever the merits   of each argument it does seem worrying that apparently almost 200 of these boxes have been installed across the continent in the past decade in nations as diverse as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Latvia.  Since 2000 more than 400 children have been abandoned in the hatches, with faith groups and right-wing politicians spearheading the revival of the controversial practice that was common in Victorian times but had virtually disappeared over the 20th Century.

Although the article does not say, presumably babies left in these hatches are adopted quickly and because of this do not suffer the disruption of attachment that can happen when babies are taken into care in this country and probably passed round a number of foster carers before permanent adoption or long-term fostering takes place.  But they are likely to forever be foundlings, not knowing anything about their genetic parents and the circumstances of their birth.  How damaging this is for children seems to vary enormously.

Andrew Rowan was 32 when his mother died and he learned from a letter she had left that not only was he adopted but that he had been abandoned on a doorstep. These revelations, along with the death of his mother were a terrible shock.  Andrew had had a very happy and secure childhood, despite his father dying when he was eight.  He felt he couldn’t have had a more loving home but now these huge questions hung over his beginnings.

It was not until fifteen years later that Andrew decided to try to find out something about his birth parents.  Through an item about him on Scottish TV a man contacted him saying that he looked like his father.  DNA testing subsequently proved that they were half-brothers.  The man was able to fill in some of the gaps in the past, but Andrew has not contacted the woman he thinks is probably his birth mother.  He would be happy if she sought him out but does not want to disrupt her life with her current family.  As most abandoned babies never find out who their birth parents are he feels very lucky that he has found out about one of them.

What is so interesting about Andrew is how philosophical and calm he seems about the lack of knowledge about his beginnings and how, like Zannah and one of her respondents to the survey she conducted for her dissertation, he seems to have a sense of ‘more’ rather than ‘less’ because of his start in life.  To quote,

“I don’t feel judgemental about what my birth mother did.  Not knowing my exact birth date is strange but not upsetting, and being named by a nurse makes me feel fond towards her rather than bitter towards my birth mother.  “Abandoned” is such as emotive word, but I don’t feel any sadness or rejection, because I don’t know the circumstances of my birth.  Instead, I feel unique.

What is it I keep wondering that helps this man feel this way and can we learn from him something about the different ways donor conceived people feel about themselves?  He certainly seems to have a resilience that will come partly from the loving and secure experiences he had with his adoptive parents (although he spent the first year of his life in a children’s home).  He is a geneticist by profession (a happy coincidence?) so we can assume above average intelligence, another feature of resilience identified by Professor Michael Rutter.  Andrew has also been able to answer some of the questions around his genetic parentage, establishing for sure who his father was. From evidence recently gathered for an about to be published article on one of the largest UK donor sibling groups, knowing who their donor was and having contact with half-sibs seems to help donor conceived people balance their understanding of the inheritance they have received from both genetic and non-genetic sources.  Most of this group are happy to acknowledge the influence of upbringing and culture on shaping who they are today, as well as being thrilled at noticing a ‘certain something’ that seems to connect them all and enjoying relationships with half-sibs.  This is in contrast to the almost genetic determinism of SOME of the DC adults interviewed by Zannah.  These were all DC people who had not been able to find any information about their donor or half-sibs and in addition had often had unsatisfactory experiences of being parented.

I’m really asking questions here, not looking to provide answers.  In our workshops we do a session on What We Know and What We Don’t Know (about donor conception and how offspring feel about it).  What we definitely know is that ‘telling’ early is protective of  shock about the knowledge of being donor conceived but that most children/young people/adults are curious to a greater or lesser degree at some point in their lives.  Like Andrew some people survive the shock of late disclosure with greater equanimity than others.  Having information and the possibility of contact is enormously helpful for some, but of little interest to others.  Just knowing it is there if you choose to have it feels right and one of the main reasons for encouraging donor recipients to stay in the UK for treatment.

Let’s hope that those babies abandoned in the appallingly named ‘baby hatches’ in Europe are adopted by people who are not only open with them about their origins, but, if their children are curious about their beginnings, are able to be supportive of their needs.

Andrew Rowan’s story appeared in the Guardian magazine on 9th June 2012.  Today’s article on baby boxes can be found at


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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17 Responses to Baby boxes, foundlings, resilience and the need to know

  1. RachelP says:

    So donor-conceived people who are not “resilient” are generally of below average intelligence? That’s some pretty dodgy ground…

    As I guess I’m in the ‘not resilient’ camp, because I am bothered by the circumstances of my conception, I’d better contact Mensa and ask them to rescind my membership!

    I also think resilient is quite a loaded word – nobody wants to be weak, do they? Again you’ve made it clear that you think there is a right way and a wrong way to approach being donor-conceived, which, as you know, I feel is rather patronising.

  2. oliviasview says:

    So sorry you have chosen to misinterpret my words Rachel. Of course I don’t hold any of the opinions you have attributed to me.

  3. RachelP says:

    “He is a geneticist by profession (a happy coincidence?) so we can assume above average intelligence, another feature of resilience identified by Professor Michael Rutter”. What is this saying if not that people who are not resilient tend to be of below average intelligence? I’m genuinely interested to know how you think this can mean something different.

  4. oliviasview says:

    I don’t think that conclusion follows Rachel. Research has shown that people of higher intelligence have more resources available to them and because of this tend to deal with adversity better (ie. be more resilient). But this does not mean that every person of above average intelligence is resilient, nor that every resilient person has above average intelligence. The two things tend to go together but there are no absolutes.

  5. oliviasview says:

    There are of course many other factors that contribute to personal resilience. See table in this article for instance

  6. RachelP says:

    I understand the nature of a correlation, that is why I said ‘tend to be’ instead of ‘are’.

    I’m sure that people of above average intelligence do tend to deal with adversity better. What I’m not sure of is the appropriateness of quoting such research in this context, because I don’t think what you are talking about is adversity. What I got from your post is that you see this man as having the ‘right’ attitude towards his adoption and you are asking how we help DC people to have a similarly right attitude towards the means of their conception, i.e. not placing too much importance on genetics (it is clear you do not think much of those DC people in Zannah’s study who believe in “almost genetic determinism”). But what if he’d said, for example, “Actually, I have felt a lot of bitterness towards my mother but I’ve learned to deal with it by studying Zen Buddhism and mastering meditation techniques”? Would you still think he had a good attitude then? He would have ‘overcome’ the ‘adversity’ of being a foundling, after all, in that it would not be affecting his day-to-day life. Or is what makes his attitude good his acceptance of his adoption?

  7. oliviasview says:

    Zen Buddhism and meditation is fine by me.

  8. RachelP says:

    As it is by me. My point is it’s one thing to cope with something and another to accept it/never have negative opinions about it. For example, many people cope with poverty, it doesn’t mean they have to like or never question it.

  9. marilynn says:

    “He would be happy if she sought him out but does not want to disrupt her life with her current family.”
    What can we learn from that? Good gravy. I have reunited hundreds of people separated from their familes – hundreds – and every single one of them felt that very exact same way. What can you learn from that? Learn this: their self esteem is so horribly eroded that they do not feel they are entitled to pick up a telephone and say hello to their own flesh and blood mother for fear that they will ruin the life of any relative they speak to. They know that they are not as important as the children that their mothers or fathers chose to raise. They know that their parents have probably kept their existence a secret from the family members they love and that contacting them might ruin their lives and then everyone will hate them for it so they instead embrace the concept of gratitude. Gratitude to their parents for giving them life and they garner a deep respect for the privacy of this family they don’t know, their family and in order to be a member of their own family their roll is to protect the sanctity of their own family by never ruining their lives by contacting them. They are being so dutiful and so respectful to their family as if someday their silence will be rewarded and their family will step forward and say “thank you so much for waiting so patiently and quietly, you can come in now.” Like a person that commits suicide thinks to themselves that they want to see how hurt everyone is when they realize that they are gone but in reality they won’t be alive to see how much everyone misses them, this diminutive respect gains them no future ground in their families because nobody knows they are out there being silent. What can you learn from this? You learn the hot terror of being rejected yet again is an incredibly powerful mind fk and that this is their way of being a good child an obedient child. This is their way of fitting into their family from the outside and as long as they never actually approach them they are safe in the fantasy that they are doing what their parents want and they are in some abstract way loved and respected by their parent for staying away from them.

    Olivia do you know how many donor offspring actually know who their fathers are but are just sitting on the phone number and email address because they don’t want to ruin his life? Half the time I don’t even have to look for people’s relatives I just have to make the stupid phone call for them or send the email.

    I think what you should learn from this man is that his very happy and content feelings about the people who raised him have absolutely nothing to do with his feelings about the family that did not raise him. They are separate feelings and they are separate families. It does not matter how much the people that raised him wanted him, or how fantastic his life was or how early they told him or how little or much he may be interested in biology and genetics – that has nothing to do with how he is going to feel about being excluded from his own flesh and blood family because one does not replace the other. So yes different people will have different levels of interest but make no mistake they are being excluded from their own biological families and generally people don’t like being excluded from anything they don’t like feeling like they don’t make the cut or fit the bill whether its family or a country club. People don’t like feeling that other people would be embarassed to be seen with them in public whether it is family or the coolest girl in school.

    Learn to stop thinking the people raising the kid have any control at all over how they feel about not being raised by their biological parents and not being included in their biological families because being included an honorary member in someone else’s family is lovely but it certainly won’t fix the fact that they are not even allowed to speak to their own family let alone be seen in public with them.

    I hope you do let my comment go through because i cried the whole time writing it and it feels very important to me to get that message across to people raising adopted or donor offspring or even step kids.

  10. oliviasview says:

    I’m sure you are right in some cases Marilynn, but there is no ‘one size fits all’ anywhere here. I truly do not believe everyone separated from birth parents or donors feels this way.

  11. marilynn says:

    Thank you Olivia for letting my comment stand. You said that not every donor offspring feels that way. I’m really not over thinking this.
    In order to become donor offspring you have to be excluded from your paternal family, excluded meaning you are not given your biological father’s name and are not legally recognized as his offspring or descendant and his other offspring are not legally considered your siblings. Excluded meaning that its unlikely that any of your paternal relatives even knows you exist.

    Those things are all true right Olivia? The things that might be true is that he might be embarrassed at having created offspring that he did not care for and raise himself and he might be embarrassed at having kept this secret from his parents who are your full grandparents and his siblings who are your full aunts and uncles, his wife who is your step mother and his children who are your half siblings and and his nieces and nephews who are your full cousins.

    Its true that out of loyalty to him for having given them a chance at life they might feel obligated to help him keep the secret. Ask your daughter about that and see what she says. Ask her if she would have preferred being a fully legally recognized member of her paternal family as well as your husband’s family so that she would be legally recognized as the sibling of any paternal siblings she may find and be legally recognized as the cousin of her cousins etc. Ask her if she thinks it was necessary for the law to exclude her from her own family in order to become a member of someone else’s. Her answer might surprise you.

    I’m not making any judgement calls on whether she feels emotionally traumatized by it at all. Clearly she does not think that genetics defines the person but from a purely logical objective standpoint ask her if she feels that excluding donor offspring from their biological families is really necessary. Ask her if she thinks its best for donor offspring to be excluded from their biological families and ask her if she feels the husband of the mother and his family simply replace the biological family

  12. oliviasview says:

    Hi Marilynn
    I have forwarded your response to Zannah and we’ll find out what she thinks.

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  14. marilynn says:

    To be clear I am not asking if she feels hurt or traumatized, I am asking if she feels its necessary and exclude donor offspring, to isolate them physically and legally from their biological families.

  15. oliviasview says:

    I understand Marilynn and will make sure Zannah does.

  16. marilynn says:

    I am really looking forward to hearing what your daughter thinks on the topic

  17. oliviasview says:

    I have forwarded your request to her Marilynn. I’ll remind her again when I see her on Friday, but it’s up to her whether or not she chooses to respond.

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