I’ve not been feeling great over the past few days so have not got around to posting about the DC Network conference that took place in Bristol at the weekend. I want to put that right now.
About 120 members and around 50 children gathered in a large modern secondary school on the northern outskirts of Bristol on Saturday to meet and socialise with each other and also to talk about sharing information about donor conception with family, friends and the outside world. Over the past few years it’s become clear that making the decisions about who, what and when to share with others is more difficult for both potential and currents parents than talking with children. The decision was taken within DCN to focus on this topic for this reason and to help me understand the range of fears and actual experiences of members as a background for the booklets I am writing on this topic.
Once the young children were safely in the creche and a group of 8 – 12 year olds in their special group, the adults listened to a panel of four members speaking in turn about how they had approached sharing information with others. Helena, a mum by egg donation, had suffered a premature menopause and at first felt less of a woman because of her inability to produce viable eggs. However, as soon as she became pregnant this feeling disappeared and she is happy to tell those who enquire – and they often do because she has twins – that her children were conceived with the help of an egg donor. She has found that this openness has always been received well and has in fact led to many people confiding their own or a family member’s difficulty in conceiving. We heard next from Rose who describes herself as an older single mother. Defying the family stereotype of a ‘career woman’ Rose found support for her plan to have a child on her own from her siblings (one declaring herself to be ‘officially gobsmacked’ by the news) but she found it more difficult to share the information with her elderly mother. We were all very moved by Rose’s eloquent and almost poetic descriptions of the impossibility of inserting the information she needed to convey into decorous tea-time small-talk with her already unwell mum. The procrastination finally led to having to give the news in the less than friendly setting of the local hospital when her mother suffered a second stroke but a wagging finger on the unaffected side told her that indeed her mother was still herself!
Erica, one half of a lesbian partnership and mum of two young sons, acknowledged the celebratory nature of donor conception in a same sex couple who are free from the losses that precede the decision to use donor conception for heterosexual couples and single women. However, there is a constant requirement to explain the family situation and ‘come out’ to others time and again. She feels very lucky never to have come across prejudice in say, visits to A & E departments or with teachers but is constantly amazed by the inappropriate questions that some people ask, wringing an apology from her GP who was more interested in talking about lesbian family life than Erica’s stomach bug.
I filled the last slot. This was more by accident than design but I was able to bring the long view, it being just over thirty years since Walter and I contemplated creating our family by donor conception. I spoke about how we told Walter’s rather conservative parents – who chose never to speak about DC but always behaved warmly and inclusively with the children – and how we handled talking with the school; Zannah’s decision to tell her classmates age 9 and Will’s need to be ‘just like his friends’ in his early teens.
We spent the hour before lunch in facilitated groups introducing ourselves and talking about the four presentations before parents went to collect their children and we ate our picnics around large tables in the school canteen. The buzz of chat and laughter during these breaks, when people know that they are in the company of others who will understand just how they are feeling, always makes me feel very happy and proud to have been part of the beginning of this wonderful organisation.
With children safely back in childcare the afternoon started with an exercise to help people think about their own fears and successes in sharing information with others. They first talked with the person next to them (someone they didn’t come with so potentially scary), then joined up to make groups of six and ended with two minutes jotting down fears and successes on pieces of paper that were collected as they left the room. Thank you SO much to anyone reading this who was there. Such wonderful examples of courage and openness in sharing your thoughts and feelings with me…let alone facing your demons and sharing with others. Because of feeling so unwell since the meeting I have only been able to look through the responses once since arriving home, but three things struck me. First of all, the vast majority of people found that the fears they had had were completely unrealised in experience and that for those who still had yet to conceive or had very young children the two dominant fears were of being judged by others and of their children being bullied at school. These issues will definitely be addressed in the booklet.
The final session of the afternoon was small topic based groups where I found myself facilitating people who mostly had children by donors who are known to them…a different challenge when talking with others to those with identifiable or anonymous donors. One member of the group felt that she was treated differently when people discovered that her sperm donor was known to her. Like Erica, she had been subjected to very inappropriate questioning (had she had sex with the donor!!) and noted that egg donors were always referred to as wonderful rather saintly women whereas the whiff of sleaze remains surrounding sperm donors.
Next year will be DCNetwork’s 20th anniversary. I have taken part in the organisation of all the twice yearly meetings since the first one in Sheffield and only missed attendance at two…but I still get a lump in my throat when I see everyone coming together and a thrill when I see those who entered the school looking drawn and anxious, leave chatting to others with shoulders down and heads held high.
Full transcripts of the morning session presentations will be in DCN’s revamped member Journal, hopefully out before Christmas. If you would like to see a copy, just join! A warm welcome awaits, http://www.dcnetwork.org