What do half-sibs mean and when should kids be told about them?

I want to return to a topic I have touched on before, that of children conceived with the help of the same donor but being brought up in other families.  Half-siblings is the most usual way these people are referred to, but the term can vary from person to person and family to family.  I know at least one teenager in DC Network who refers to her two half-sibs as her sisters, but it is possible that this is because she does not have any siblings in her immediate family and she is the child of a solo mum…or it might not be because of these factors at all.  If the relationships these girls have developed are sisterly ones then using the term sister presumably feels right to all three of them.  And that for me is perhaps the heart of the matter.  The three girls in this case all met when they were around 11 or 12.  This is a time in life when relationships are being developed and they are now all moving into teenage years with these connections being strengthened on a daily basis by text and social media contact, visits and sharing holidays.  The girls were brought together by the fact that they share a donor.  It could be this genetic link that is keeping them together, but to my mind it is much more likely that it is the social and emotional relationship that has developed between them that is the glue here.  After all, many of us have ‘blood’ relatives we see simply out of duty but choose to spend time with friends we have no genetic link with at all.   Teenage girls do not keep up friendships because they think they should.  They stay in touch because of shared interests and concerns…because they like each other and get something out of the relationship.  How much that is because of the genetic link is very hard to know.

The three girls I have spoken about above are all only children in families headed by a lesbian couple or solo mum.  Experience in DC Network has shown that it is solo mums who are keenest on making half-sibling connections for their children.  Both lesbian and heterosexual couple families tend to be much more cautious.  I have written recently about this topic https://oliviasview.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/thoughts-on-half-siblings-and-different-family-types/  and don’t intend to re-visit these thoughts for the time being.

What I am interested in exploring is more along the lines of the rather controversial post https://oliviasview.wordpress.com/2012/11/17/are-there-circumstances-where-it-is-ok-not-to-be-open/  last month, but more focused on half-siblings and when/if is the right time to introduce the idea that they might exist.

Walter and I did not mention the possibility of half sibs to our children and it was only when ‘Zannah was being interviewed by a journalist when she was 14 that she was brought face to face with the possibility.  She suddenly became very intrigued by the idea that there were likely to be other people out there who might look like her and said that she would be much more interested in meeting them than she would her donor.  Her registration at 18 with UK Donor Link was all about the potential for half-sib contact.  I’m not quite sure why Walter and I had not mentioned half-sibs before.  Maybe because of the era in which our children were conceived…no information about the anonymous donor, no register to imply even the possibility of contact.  Or perhaps because all three of our children were already half-sibs to each other and we felt like a complete family.  Others with a genetic link would not have the relationships that three children brought up in the same household were likely to have so could never be considered siblings.

These days it is possible for parents with children conceived in the UK since August 1991 to find out from the HFEA how many other children, their year of birth and gender, that their donor helped create.  Within the limit of ten families, this could potentially be up to 30 or so children, although the largest groups DC Network knows about are all under 20.  In the US, where there are no legal limits, huge sibling groups running into hundreds have been discovered via the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR).  Many single women deliberately import sperm from the United States so that they will be able to find half-sibs for their children via the DSR.  This is usually done whilst the children are young so that they will have the chance to make relationships with each other during this formative time.  Presumably children are told about the connection via the donor, although it is difficult to know what they make of this prior to really understanding what a donor is.  As with use of the word ‘donor’ itself, presumably (again) children adopt the language that their mother uses to describe who their half-sib is, but I would assume, as with most older children, this language might change as they develop a more mature understanding and also in the light of how the relationship develops.  If in fact at age 8, 12, 15 or 20 you decide you have nothing in common with your half-sib then either this becomes another ‘duty’ relationship or you drop the connection altogether.

So when is the right time to tell children about half-sibs or is it OK not to mention them at all?  My own sense is that little children really don’t need to know.  ‘Keep things simple’ is a maxim that fits well with children under seven.  From around the age of eight, when the penny drops for most DC kids and the questions can come thick and fast, then introducing the idea by dropping it into a conversation about DC that you were having anyway, is probably a good idea.  If your child is interested then they’ll ask more questions.  If it’s not the right time for them then they won’t.  Parents may or may not have found out information about half-sibs that could be shared, but my sense would be not to push this onto children until they ask…although as with information about donor conception itself, they do have to know that the possibility is there simply for them to be in a position to ask questions!   Again, children conceived in the UK since 1991, will at 18 will be able to put themselves on a sibling register held by the HFEA so that contact can be made by mutual consent with others who share the same donor, although sadly this does not apply to children in the family of the donor.  They cannot be contacted and neither do they have the right to be in touch with children conceived with their parent’s donated gametes.

A more tricky situation exists for children conceived in countries where half-sibling contact is currently not possible, although who knows what the future of DNA testing may bring.  Parents may find themselves in responding to questions having to explain that it is likely that there are half-siblings out there somewhere but the likelihood of being able to find them is remote.  This may trigger sadness and/or anger in some children for whom these connections feel important and parents may find themselves having to manage their own complicated feelings about the choices they made as well as supporting their child.

Is it OK not to mention half-sibs at all?  Well, if parents are tending towards not wanting to reveal this information, the first thing to ask themselves is why they are feeling that way.  Is whose interests are they keeping the information back?  If the justification for doing so is because you think it will upset or confuse your child or disturb the family unit then think again why it was important to you that you tell your child about donor conception at all.  Putting honesty at the heart of a family doesn’t stop when it feels a bit challenging.  It is actually possible to tell a child anything in a way that can be understood at the developmental stage they are at at that time.  As with everything in the DC world it is the way that a story is made sense of…the coherence, the way it hangs together that will make the difference to how a child takes the information into themselves and into the future.  And if parents are comfortable and confident then this is how a child will receive any news.  Who knows what the genetic connections mean but there could be some very rewarding relationships to be had from keeping an open mind and making the links.



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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5 Responses to What do half-sibs mean and when should kids be told about them?

  1. Kriss Fearon says:

    This is making me wonder who is taking care of these issues on behalf of donors, and their children.

  2. marilynn says:

    Olivia! Your finally doing it! This is so great. Your finally talking about the fact that the child has this whole other family and all these relatives that they are not allowed to see and you know the obvious question is going to be whose bright idea was it to cut them off from all those people and why was that a good idea. Why couldn’t the adults simply be grown ups about it and cooperate so the child would not loose contact with the donor and all their relatives. Its dangerous not to know who your relatives are especially when they are likely to be running around the same city or state. Even one unknown relative in the world is too much. The only time when people don’t know who their relatives are is when a parent fails to take care of their children which is bad enough when its only 1 but when it is 20 or 200 abandoned kids all being raised by separate people its an absolute health nightmare for their entire paternal family donor included. How is he suppose to avoid dating one of his own daughters? How are his nephews and nieces suppose to avoid dating their own full blooded cousins? Also there is the emotional factor where few grandparents would just not care about their grandchildren just because their son or daughter did not. But that is the emotional aspect of the donor’s family wanting to be a family with his kids and that is normal. But sticking purely to the health and incest stuff – nobody can argue that this is a big deal and donor’s and their offspring and all their relatives need to know who one another is otherwise they are walking blind in a minefield really. It is so so so important to explain that they do have this other extra family out there that will be difficult to pin down. The people raising the donor offspring should be ultra sensitive to the fact that they’ve placed this person and their relatives in a pretty screwed up position for no reason, there is no benefit to them or anyone so being apologetic and helpful and understanding I think is a good idea.

  3. marilynn says:

    I really like the way you framed everything Olivia about how being honest can sometimes be challenging but it is still important..

    I know there is an inclination with intended parents not to want to refer to the donor’s family as relatives of the child they are raising but honestly from a medical and health standpoint if nothing else of course they are simply their siblings. Yes half more specifically either maternal or paternal siblings. Is there really any other time where parents just let their children make up their own meanings to words? We teach children how to talk and communicate out in the world and you have to remember that family titles are a description of a person’s position in relation to other people who originated from the same source so generally you have your relatives and your in laws and your step family foster family and adoptive family. Your relatives are people who all originated from the same source you all trace back to a common ancestor where with in laws you all trace back to a marriage or step family you trace back to a marriage adoption you trace back to an adoption. When people are not raised with their siblings they are still siblings there is no way around the medical terminology that someone is your grandparent or aunt that is just who they are in relation to you. I know many social families think of the paternal siblings of donor offspring is more like distant cousins than brothers and sisters. If that is the approach people plan to take in teaching donor offspring about people their related to then it would be unkind to let them believe that those people really were just friends or that they were cousins it would be like teaching them the word for care was bicycle its just not the right word for the particular relationship they have whether there is any emotional or social relationship at all the proper word for two people who are both the offspring of the same person is sibling not cousin.

  4. marilynn says:

    One more thing since you are breaking into this area I’ve been hoping DCN would start talking about – the deeper issues surrounding telling a person that they have these unknown relatives out there has to do with any children the donor might be raising himself or herself. I get to talk to lots of donor offspring at the back end of things and hear stuff they don’t talk about with people who raised them. I know you’ll say you’ve never heard of such a thing what I’m going to say but my hope is you’ll file it away with things people should be thinking about when they embark on raising donor offspring:

    Fully all of the offspring I’m lucky enough to know have wanted to know what makes the kids the donor raised more deserving of his care and attention than they were/are. Why would some offspring matter more than others why raise those kids and not them. They ponder the idea that the children donors raise are probably those they made with women they were in love with; the donor did not love their mother and so therefore the donor does not love them and does not think them worthy of raising or even checking up on. So that is a pretty heavy thing to think about; that a person’s whole self worth is tangled up in whether or not the two people that made them were in love and if they were not in love then they have no value and are not worthy of care or attention. It might be easy to dismiss this at first as too radical a thought but then you see that generally the mother’s husband is serving as their father figure and so this reinforces the idea that a person has no obligation to a child unless they have an obligation to the other parent. Here a man is willing to raise a totally unrelated person, why? Because of his obligation to their mother through marriage and he loves her. It is pretty heavy to realize that in order to be valuable to their mother they must not identify as the child of the donor but rather identify as the child of the man she loves, her husband. And so they are loved by their mother only if they are the child of the man they love and he in turn loves the child only because of his commitment to the woman he loves and the child is irrelevant to his or her genetic family because he did not care about the child’s mother. In other situations family law stresses that parents have an obligation to their offspring independent of their romantic situation with the other parent and the child is important and has rights based on the relationship to the parent not their relationship with one another. This is a way of looking at things that makes the child important to both parties no mater what this makes them valuable to a step parent regardless of the lack of blood etc.

    It’s like saying I’ll only raise you if you are the child of someone I care about. If your not the child of someone I care about, you either pretend to be the child of a person I care about (and I’ll take care of you) or not and if you don’t pretend I’ll be too ashamed to admit you exist let alone take care of you. Yes it is really harsh. But mull it over because this is one of those big deep issues underlying whether or not to tell them about their siblings is whether or not they’ll view themselves as even worthy of knowing their siblings and other relatives. People need an action plan to help them deal with why the donor might value some offspring over others. Or why the people raising them might value them more if they refer to their siblings as distant cousins instead of their brothers and sisters.

    I know lots of people who are looking forward to DCN teaching how to communicate on these deeper issues. Thx.

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