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.