Relative Strangers: what grandparents think about donor conception

Friday found me in Manchester at the launch of research into information sharing about donor conception in heterosexual couple and lesbian families carried out by Carol Smart and Petra Nordqvist of the Morgan Centre for the Study of Relationships and Personal Life at the University of Manchester.  The event took the form of an interdisciplinary conference entitled Genetic Identities, Personal Lives and Assisted Donor Conception.  Sadly it was not as well attended as it should have been, probably because of the appalling weather, but it was definitely worth the journey from London.

The morning was shared between two speakers, one of whom was thoroughly worthwhile and the other rather a waste of space.  The first was Jeanette Edwards, Professor of Anthropology at Manchester and also a member of the Nuffield Bio-Ethics Committee that have been looking into information sharing into donor conception.  Their report will be published in the second half of April.  The second speaker was John Harris, who is apparently a very eminent professor of many things, but, rolling in off the red eye from Chicago felt it was acceptable to regale us with anecdotes and re-hashings of tired old opinions on the theme of anything goes when it comes to reproductive choice.  I will say no more.

Jeanette Edwards talk was peppered with intriguing and rather magical sounding language like, ‘the fluidity of kinship’ and ‘the choreography between kinship and biology’.  Many times I wanted her to stop and unpack the densely worded sentences so that I could understand better,  but she ploughed on.  It was fascinating to hear about a study of Norwegian families adopting children from abroad and how they became ‘kinned’ into Norwegian society through the food they were given (endless herring I imagined), the icy terrain and playing Norwegian games…and yet of course remained in their visible identities children from elsewhere.  Also to know that in Israel gentile sperm is preferred to Jewish for donor insemination because of the prohibition on masturbation in Jewish law.  In this matrilineal society becoming a Jew is of course passed through the female line.  Extraordinarily enough children in different families conceived with help from the same donor are apparently not considered to be half-siblings because the semen that brought them into being is not considered substantive.

There was much fascinating talk around ways in which people may be ‘kinned’ or ‘de-kinned’, the role of food (nurture) in making a child ones own (kin) and the potential impact of epigenetics on thinking around kinship and identity.  Apparently this talk will be published in a book later this year but until then Professor Edwards was unable to share the written text with us.  I can’t wait.

The afternoon was devoted to the research findings of the study I had come to hear about, called Relative Strangers.  Carol Smart took the first slot to talk about pathways to donor conception in the context of wider kin relationships.  She noted the considerable shock of infertility felt by couples, the sense of failure, of not being ‘normal’ and then the long road to donor conception, paved often with many unsuccessful treatments, hiatuses when couples took time out and long waiting times for appointments and on donor waiting lists.  This often meant that women were right on the edge of their fertility declining significantly when they had treatment.  Men unable to provide a child for their partner grieved significantly, often finding donor conception very difficult to adjust to.  Women, on the other hand, could more easily find consolation in donation as they would be able to go through pregnancy and breast feed in the same way as any other pregnancy.

In relation to grandparents, parents of heterosexual couples had always had expectations of having grandchildren so had often gone through a rollercoaster of emotions with regard to the infertility of their adult child and the move to donor conception.  Parents of lesbians had no such expectations and pregnancy announcements were often received with a resounding, ‘Bloody hell, how did that happen’.  These grandparents were often delighted but aware that the wider world might not celebrate in the same way.  If they were the parents of the non-birth mother they sometimes worried about what would happen to their relationship to the child if the couple should split up.  Whilst grandparents of children in lesbian families realised that there may be difficult times ahead, grandparents of heterosexual couples were keen to ‘get back to normal’ once a child was born, not wanting to acknowledge that there maybe on-going issues with regard to donor conception for the family.

Petra Nordqvist, delightfully pregnant herself, talked about openness or disclosure in families and it was sobering to hear her account of how many families struggled with sharing information with both their children and family and friends.  All the families interviewed in this research intended to be open with their children but some seemed to feel that it might be possible to do this without telling others.  There were several instances where unresolved feelings in one or other partner in heterosexual couples seemed to be getting in the way of starting to tell children, which was acknowledged as a process rather than a one-off event.  Although DC Network’s story books for children were clearly in use by some families, it was sad to hear Petra talk about there being no social script for parents for parents to follow as this is exactly what DCN’s Telling and Talking booklets are about.  It is very easy to think that all parents of donor conceived children must have heard of DCN, but this is clearly not true.  There is much more to do to reach everyone.

Intergenerational clashes also seemed very common in the families researched with many grandparents wondering why a child needed to be ‘told’ and why indeed anyone would want to talk about donor conception at all…”We love him to bits,why do we need to talk about it”.  One grandmother insisted on believing that her grandson could be her son’s child, even when faced with absolute evidence that he couldn’t be.  As Petra said, sharing information is a relational process.  It unfolds along the lines of established family biographies.  In other words people behave in ways that you would expect from their previous history of responding to challenging issues and it is clear that ‘difference’ can create strains in some families.

The research was presented in a wonderfully non-academic way through the stories of the families, with information about methodology etc. available in written form in our packs. Much of the findings felt very familiar to me, but it did bring into much sharper focus the ripples throughout extended families that both the experience of infertility and having a child by donor conception brings about.  This was not entirely comfortable but certainly means that I will be returning to the booklets I am writing on Talking with Friends and Family with a critical eye and a view to incorporating some of the insights from this important piece of work.  Hopefully, this will make them even more valuable for families and it’s why I delayed finishing them until I heard what Carol and Petra had to say. Great stuff.



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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8 Responses to Relative Strangers: what grandparents think about donor conception

  1. Kriss Fearon says:

    It was a really good event, wasn’t it.

    re John Harris: say what you mean, why don’t you! I am trying to find the words to explain to a friend who’s doing a PhD in bioethics exactly what I found wrong with his talk. Mostly like you I felt there was a lot of unsubstantiated opinion and not enough in the way of evidence or a clear line of argument to defend his point of view. Very much not what I expected of someone so eminent.

    And that story about the grandmother who wouldn’t accept it wasn’t her son’s child really stuck in my mind too. I guess she was at the ‘denial’ stage of grieving, but how heartbreaking to her son and daughter in law to have to constantly remind her that he was infertile.

  2. Tracey Sainsbury says:

    I was previously looking forward to the conference in June – but am now even more eager with anticipation – thank you for sharing

  3. Nicola Dawson says:

    Sounds like fascinating stuff! Our experience with grandparents has been variable on the different sides of the family, but overall positive. But I had a lovely moment 2 weeks ago as I sat watching my Mum read the girls “our story” photobook (based on the words from your DE/DS book – thank you!) to them and answering all their questions, when it definitely hit home how lucky I am with the total acceptance, openness and unconditional love that my parents have for our gorgeous little girls!

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