I have spent part of today with one of DC Network’s long-standing members whose teenage daughter is in touch with two half-siblings. The three young people all met by accident through the Network and over the last two or three years have kept in close touch, sometimes going on holiday with each others families. This is a very happy arrangement and it was delightful to see a picture of three smiling girls in the summer sunshine, obviously enjoying each other’s company. All the parents concerned are very supportive of each of their daughters and delighted that these unexpected and unsought-after half-sib connections have worked so well. But what I am unclear about is whether the fact that the parents are all either single or lesbian mothers makes any difference to their openness to such links.
In DC Network it is largely, although not exclusively, the single women members who are keenest on making links between half-siblings. Some have specifically chosen donors from American sperm banks so that they can not only have an enormous amount of information about their donor but that they can find half-sibs whilst the children are young via the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR). Not having a father in the family seems to give them a freedom to happily extend the concept of kin to children conceived with help from the same donor but being brought up in other families. Heterosexual couples, and indeed some lesbian couples, on the other hand seem to be much more cautious, even fearful, of the integrity of their family being somehow contaminated by contact with half-sibs. The issue of ‘difference’ seems to me to be central to the ways people in each of these family structures view relationships ‘by donation’. Single women have already made a bold and courageous choice that is outside ‘the norm’ so to speak. They also very often only have one child (or twins). Whilst they definitely are a family, they are often a very small family. A woman’s parents may be elderly by the time she has given birth at around 40 and there may or may not be supportive siblings nearby. Without a partner to share parenting with single women find a real empathy and source of understanding and support from others who have made the same choices. And their children gain genetically connected companions of similar ages…even if they don’t always live on the same continent.
Male/female couples, however, are to all outward extent and purposes a ‘normal’ family…mum, dad, a couple of kids. This seems to act as a constraint on welcoming, or sometimes even acknowledging, half-sibling relationships as being of possible benefit to their children. It is true that if the connections were made whilst children were young it would mean having to have some sort of relationship with the parents. What if you didn’t like or even approve of them? Single women of course can’t possibly always get along with the parents of their children’s half-sibs but it seems that they may be willing to overlook some aspects of compatibility in order to fulfil their need to share their lives and situation. Couples, both lesbian and heterosexual have an ‘other’ with which to do this and male/female partners may also feel they have some societal sense of what is a ‘normal family’ to defend.
Of course if donors are known to the family then a whole other ball game ensues. I have written before about how known donation, well-managed and thought-about extensively has the potential to be of enormous benefit to children. They can be brought up knowing not only their donor but his or her children as well, slowly realising as time passes and understanding grows that they have a genetic as well as a social (and sometimes familial) connection. Sadly, so many people in all family structures, find themselves in a terrible mess because they just haven’t thought through the long-term implications of having a donor who is known to them. Sometimes this is through sheer ignorance and lack of understanding, mostly coupled with a kind of desperate optimism that somehow everything will turn out OK. Sometimes the very best intentions have been at the heart of choosing a donor who would be willing to have contact with children later…but that donor then makes demands that were never envisaged, because of unforeseen emotions or perhaps because of changed life circumstances. Working out what is best for the child in these situations is always painful, particularly if parents are not able to see that they may be projecting their own uncomfortable feelings on to their child…when in fact a child might well be able to manage a complex set of relationships quite easily.
And this is just thinking about contact with donors and half-sibs. What about the parents of donors? Are they grandparents to donor conceived children or simply people who happen to have a genetic connection but no other link? What about the donor’s brothers and sisters and their children? Does all this sound like heresy to you or are you excited by thoughts of lovely, large extended family groupings? That may depend on whether you are a single mum, same sex couple or a standard issue family. It’s certainly where a lot of thinking is happening in the donor conception world at this moment.