The Anatomy Theatre at University of London’s medical school was the venue for Progress Educational Trust’s event on donor conception: the recipient perspective last night. My fantasy that it would be obvious where ‘the body’ usually lay was not realised and instead it was fun to be with a panel of people I already knew and in the safe and capable hands of a very buoyant Juliet Tizzard (Head of Policy and Communications at the HFEA) who no doubt already knew that the HFEA had been saved from break-up.
I very much enjoyed the presentations of my fellow panellists, solo mum Caroline Spencer, counsellor Sue Moore, researcher Nicky Hudson and geneticist Marcus Pembrey and I think together we raised most of the issues. However, I do regret not saying more about the different approaches and ways of handling fertility issues, particularly around donor conception, that men and women have. Also not acknowledging properly the huge anxieties that parents have when contemplating ‘telling’ that their children will reject them or there will be significant changes in the relationship between them. I do believe that ‘telling’ is a responsibility that is part and parcel of having a child by donor conception but I do know that it takes courage to start the story. More support is definitely needed from all quarters for this.
There will be full reports of the evening on PET’s website and in Bio News next week http://www.progress.org.uk/bionews but in the meantime here is my contribution. Apologies for the weird spacing which seems to be beyond my control.
‘Thank you for asking me to speak.
I’m going to try to weave our own personal story into what I have learned in twenty years of DC Network.
I was asked to talk about challenges involved in raising donor conceived children –
The first challenges are for parents and getting it right for them is the key to getting it right for the children. Virtually no heterosexual couple sets out on their family building journey by deciding not to use their own eggs and sperm. Exceptions are those trying to avoid a heritable disorder. In my own case Walter was my second husband, chosen, I like to joke sometimes, as much for his willingness to mend zips and clean loos as his good looks, intelligence and obvious suitability as a father. He was already step-dad to my son from my first marriage and I hoped that both his blue eyes and good values would be passed on to children we had together.
Final news of his infertility was a shock despite the writing having been on the wall for sometime. For nine months before deciding to go ahead with sperm donation I researched alternative ways of becoming parents and although we didn’t talk much about it, each of us knew the other was going through their own losses and sadness.
Infertility is now recognised as a grief…not quite like someone having died, but a loss so visceral, yet so intangible that it shakes you to the core. It takes time to accept this loss before being ready to move on to have the child it is possible to have and DCN now encourages everyone contemplating parenthood with help from a donor, to take the time – and the period will be different for each couple – to feel the sadness and devastation of not being able to have the child of a loved partner. Both men and women can feel that they have let their partners down and indeed that they are no longer worthy of being loved. Walter and I were very lucky that our grieving period was pretty uneventful and that Walter did not feel shamed or stigmatised by his infertility.
It is now recognised that potential parent’s adjustment to the reality of their situation, their emotional maturity and understanding of the responsibilities that come with having a child by donor conception – ie. understanding that it is their child’s needs and not theirs that have to come first – are the keys to confident and comfortable parenting, which in turn is what makes it possible for parents to take on the main challenge to DC parenting…that of being open.
DC Network was founded on the principle that openness with children and others about donor conception creates a healthy environment in which to raise children. No secrets between those who should have trust and honesty as the basis of their family bond. Experience has shown that, like our own children, children whose story is started before they are five grow up never knowing a time when they didn’t know about the help parents had to conceive them. They accept this information easily as young children and with the story on the family agenda, ask questions as and when they arise as they get older. Others who need to know are close family, as the child may talk with them, doctors, and teachers who can support a child if he or she chooses to talk about DC at school. Close friends usually feel privileged to be included in those who know…and then forget about it.
Are there circumstances where it is in the child’s interest not to be told? This is controversial, but I do wonder about children with profound learning or developmental difficulties. If information is half-understood for instance, could it have the potential to be worrying? I also have considerable sympathy for couples whose faith or culture disapproves of donor conception but also values fecundity so highly that a woman who does not produce a child could be stigmatised or cast out because she does not become pregnant.
And last of all I was asked to talk about desired donor characteristics. This is not a topic I want to dwell on because it has the potential to be trivialised but In DCN’s experience couples are keen to make as close a physical match as possible to the infertile partner so that a child does not stand out within the family grouping. After that, they are looking for evidence that the donor is a ‘good person’ so that they can feel comfortable that they donated for positive reasons. Many hope that their child will inherit ‘the altruistic spirit’ if you like.
Walter’s and my family are living evidence that ‘matching’ does not necessarily work out the way you expect. Tall men are often seen as highly desirable donors, but in our case we were told our donors matched Walter’s height of 5ft 8in. Walter is the smallest person in our family with a daughter of 6ft and son of 6ft 2’, step-son of 6ft 1in. No doubt they’d make sought after donors themselves!