Tell me a story…

We went to see a wonderful film the other night, Stories We Tell by Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley.  It had been recommended by friends who know how two of our children were conceived but they failed to mention the genetic disconnect at the heart of this story.  Although it feels like a fictional account, the film is really a documentary about the director’s family.  Polley was the last child of a British actor and his Canadian actor/TV personality wife.  She was conceived whilst her mother was away from home for a few months working, but her father did visit during this time and the couple rediscovered a passion for each other that had been missing from the marriage for a while.  Tragically Polley’s mother died of cancer when she was 11 and her mother in her early fifties.  Sarah was the only child left at home and she and her father became very close in the years after her mother’s death.  During this time there were many lighthearted comments going round in the family about how Sarah didn’t look anything like her father and one or two people mentioned the name of an actor Polley’s mother had worked with and with whom she may have had an affair.  Sarah eventually confronts the actor about this, only to meet with a denial, although she is sure he is holding something back.  She then goes to see another man who was a friend of her mother during this time to ask if he knows anything about someone her mother might have been having an affair with.  She discovers that it is him…and he knows that Sarah was conceived at this time.  Much to the annoyance of this man Polley decides she wants to try and make sense of her memory of her mother and her own beginnings by interviewing all members of the family as well as friends of her mother – some of whom knew about the affair and the conception of a child.  The man her mother had the affair with believes that his relationship with Polley’s mother and the circumstances surrounding her conception are his story alone.  Nevertheless he co-operates with Polley’s film which consists of a melange of real home videos, faux Super 8 footage from the past with actors taking the roles of family and friends when younger and contemporary interviews.  Polley’s voice is heard asking questions but she contributes nothing.  We see her only sitting impassively in her Director role, sometimes asking people to repeat what they have said.  Her father, that is the man she grew up with, acts as narrator of the story he wrote following the revelation of the genetic disconnect.  He too needs to make sense of his wife’s memory.

And this is what we all do.  We make sense of our lives through the telling of stories.  Whether those stories are ‘the truth’ or not is something else entirely.  It may be agreed that an event happened…a birth, a death, a birthday or even a visit to the seaside, but the memory of it will be seen through the filter of the expectations and experiences of those who were there.  I recall my brother being horrified by the memories my sister and I had of our parents after they had died.  But we were different people, each had our place in the family and we experienced family life in our different ways.  What seems important is that whatever we remember it is something that we can make sense of…we can reflect and understand why things were the way they were.

Where is this post going you may be wondering.   Well the film of course made me think about donor conception families and how important it is to be truthful with children from a young age.  Early in the life of DC Network we compared the differences between adopted and donor conceived children’s lives and experiences.  We learned from the adoption experience how important early ‘telling’ is.

Studies have looked at why some adopted young people struggle in their adult lives with the factors around their adoption, whilst others seem freer to enjoy their lives, even though there may be large gaps in their histories, and those histories may be of grief and loss. The conclusion is that ‘it is not what happens to you that matters, it is the way you make sense of it that counts in the end‘.

There is no doubt that stable and supportive family relationships are a very important protective factor, but also, that there is something powerful in how people come to see their stories and make sense of their experiences. Adoptive parents who told coherent (plausible, objective, as complete as possible) stories of the young person’s history tended to have very good relationships with their children. Our stories show how we understand our past and how we use this to make sense of present and future.

It is easy to see how this might fit with donor conceived children. If parents have made peace with their need to use donated eggs or sperm then they are free to be able to tell a very positive family story to their child, thus helping them begin to create their own story.  Parents may not be able to fill in all the gaps in their children’s stories, but the heartening view is that this does not seem to matter as much as how they are able to help their children make sense of what they can tell them.

The children’s books that DC Network went on to write and publish are called ‘My Story’ and ‘Our Story’ and the film featuring donor conceived young people entitled “A Different Story’.  it has this title because one of the young people featured said she had a different story to tell.

It is important of course that once children (young people, adults) begin to develop their own narrative about their lives that parents do not insist that their version is the ‘correct’ one.  We all have our own stories but if the one we have grown up with seems to make sense I think we are more likely to build on it rather than try to reconstruct it.

Do go and see the film if you can, it’s really worthwhile.  And the actor?  He was holding something back but I’m not going to tell you what it was.



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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12 Responses to Tell me a story…

  1. marilynn says:

    One of the reasons why adopted people are able to make peace with the fact that they are not raised by their parents is that generally their adopted parents are innocent in their being separated from their parents, their records, their true identities and of course their relatives. Surrogacy where step parent adoptions occur are of course an exception to that general rule because the adoptive parent presumably wanted the relinquishing parent to relinquish and be out of the picture. There are cases where adoptive parents paid expenses for parents during the mother’s pregnancy or were otherwise present and hopeful that the parents would abandon the child leaving them available for adoption. In those cases of course the person who winds up adopted is going to feel differently about their adoptive parents than had they simply stumbled upon them as an abandoned baby.

    Ideally non-genetic parents want to come along after a person is abandoned and should have had nothing at all to do with encouraging the abandonment. Parents of donor offspring have a special challenge in that telling donor offspring they were wanted makes them secretly furious. So telling the truth is great because at least they are not being lied to, but logic tells you that they have lost something and the people raising them wanted them to experience that loss and actually instigated and influenced the absence of one or both parents.

    • Sam Gregory says:

      Hi, donor conceived person here. I know I’m late to the party, but had to add my comments in. Marilynn, your hysteria comes across as more than a little odd. Donor conceived people like myself, who have been told the truth their entire lives, are simply grateful to the donor for providing one half of the biological basis that gave them life.

      We don’t feel like we’ve been “separated from our parents” because we don’t see donors as parents. They’re not parents, by any widely accepted definition of the word. You say that “Parents of donor offspring have a special challenge in that telling donor offspring they were wanted makes them secretly furious.” Do you have any evidence of this at all, apart from these mysterious donor-conceived people you know who conveniently do not want to go ‘on the record’ with their comments?

      Anyway, I’m glad you have a portal into our minds, and can read the thoughts of all donor offspring. Yes, being told by my parents that they love me makes me apoplectic with rage and anger on a daily basis. Seriously though, do you actually have any research to back up that completely unsupported assertion?

      The vast majority of actual DC-people (unlike people like you who seem to think they know what DC-people think) simply see their mum and dad (or mum and mum, or just mum, or etc etc) as their parents and the donor as a donor. They are grateful for their kind act many years ago, and that’s that. So for you to throw around ridiculous words and phrases like “absence of one or both parents”, “encouraging the abandonment” and “relinquishing parent” is offensive and most importantly, completely ill-informed.

  2. oliviasview says:

    “So telling the truth is great because at least they are not being lied to, but logic tells you that they have lost something and the people raising them wanted them to experience that loss and actually instigated and influenced the absence of one or both parents.”
    This is almost funny Marilynn it is so outrageous.

  3. marilynn says:

    Can you explain why it is so outrageous? That is how it was explained to me by people who are donor offspring. It makes sense. If adopted parents had nothing to do with why the child was separated from their family it is possible for the child to separate their feelings about not being raised by their bio parents from being raised by their adoptive parents. What part of that is illogical to you?

  4. marilynn says:

    Your whole goal of getting people to tell is to help them overcome their fear of telling. What are they afraid of then if it is not that the child will be traumatized by being removed from half their family? Or rejected by one of their parents? The fear cant be entirely self focused like they are not so focused on them not making a bio child together? Is that their only fear that people will know that the child is not biologically related to them? That is the big fear? Not that the child will feel rejected by the absent parent? Even in the telling of the story like the person gave a gift still why would one parent want to give them away?

    I don’t see how you would find it odd that I would say that knowing that your whole program is to get people over the fear of telling and part of that fear is grounded in exactly what I said. Part of that fear is that they would somehow be resented for having caused the child to separate from their family. You know that is part of the fear or people would be telling more easily.

  5. oliviasview says:

    Marilynn – Everything you say is based on the premise that a donor is a parent. As you know this is a notion I reject. Donors do not intend to be parents and neither are they. They are certainly genetically connected but in my version of the world they are not parents. Thus it flows that the fears parents (and I’m not referring to donors here) have are nothing to do with anxiety that “the child will be traumatised by being removed from half their family”. Parent’s fears range from exposing their own infertility, through being judged by others for having their family in a different way, to their child being rejected by their family because of the genetic disconnect to the child rejecting them because of the genetic disconnect. As you are likely to have read in previous blog postings, these fears are very rarely realised. I have only come across one case in the UK of a donor offspring rejecting their parents and this happened after they were told very late and had much more to do with parental deceit rather than donor conception per se.

    I think it would help you to understand where I am coming from to listen to what very thoughtful parents by donor conception have to say. In return I would be very interested in hearing directly from the donor offspring you are in contact with and seem to be the basis for your perspective. It is otherwise very difficult to engage in any constructive debate because of the very different places we start from.

    • marilynn says:

      OK OK thank you for clarifying let me see if I get this straight. They don’t want to tell because they don’t want to be rejected by the donor offspring they are raising and because they want the child they are raising to fit in with their own family and that might be harder if everyone knew the child was not related to one or both of them. So they are not worried about hurting the child’s feelings they are worried about the child hurting their feelings or they are worried about their family hurting their feelings and rejecting them and the donor offspring they are raising. So they are super concerned about their family possibly rejecting the child for being donor offspring because they say that might hurt the feelings of donor offspring.

      I know we go round about whether the donor is or is not a parent….they are a parent biologically you’ll admit that and so the donor’s mother is the grandmother of the donor’s offspring. Grandmothers don’t have to do anything to become grandmothers. Sometimes people become grandmothers after they are already dead so there needent be a personal social relationship to have it work.

      • oliviasview says:

        Yes, that’s about the size of it, although a rather long-winded way of putting it if I may say. BUT, these are anxieties that are rarely realised. Most people are on the receiving end of interest and warmth tinged with some curiosity when they tell family and friends about the use of donor conception. And most importantly of all, donor conceived children are received with warmth into the extended family.
        I only use the term ‘parent’ to refer to a socially and emotionally based relationship, not one that is genetically connected alone. Parents ‘do’ parenting – the everyday business of caring for their children. (Most) donors do not take part in this activity. Modern sociologists and anthropologists also take this perspective on family relationships.

  6. marilynn says:

    Ok so how do you explain why one bio parent wants to raise the child while the other does not? 1 out of 2 bio parents is a loss. How do you acknowledge and adress the loss of one bio parents attention the fact that they don’t want to do the things that you say makes a person a parent yet the other bio parent does want to do them. That is all I’m ever getting at Olivia. I think you have been very successful in changing the world so that donor offspring are no longer lied to and I greatly admire that. I am just trying to understand what happens once they are not lied to anymore how are you preparing people to answer those basic math questions where one is subtracted from two. This is reported to me as being overlooked in the telling and talking monologue. It’s like you should have a part 2 in the works. Ask your kids or other donor offspring to write the next book for tellers – on issues that might come up for people told early and often,

    • oliviasview says:

      “Ok so how do you explain why one bio parent wants to raise the child while the other does not? 1 out of 2 bio parents is a loss” – quote from above.

      Because the other ‘bio parent’ (your language not mine) is a donor and gave (or sold) their sperm or eggs so that someone else could have a family. They had no intention of raising any resulting child themselves. It is a gift to others. These two people are not a couple, there is no emotional relationship between them. They did not want or intend to create children together. The people who have the emotional relationship are the parents – the raising couple. They are the people who have the intention to be parents and the emotional resources to do so.
      Your perspective puts a huge amount of emphasis on genetic connection and the importance of genes in linking people together. My perspective does not dismiss yours, genetic inheritance does of course play its part, but puts more emphasis on social and emotional relationships as a basis for building strong and resilient people and families. These relationships would have to include honesty as a foundation for trust. My theoretical basis for this understanding is Attachment Theory.

      I don’t think my kids would write any different to this – but I could be wrong – but it is a good idea for other offspring to write about what they feel is missing. I for one would welcome that.

  7. marilynn says:

    You know them or the most vocal ones you know Karen and Stephanie and you Know Alana and Kathleen and Olivia and Damian and Lindsay and on and on and on and on and many you’ll never know because they cannot be vocal some of them have parents that are actually counselors in this niche field or doctors. Or have family members whose entire financial livelihood is wrapped dup in the donor dog and pony show. They’ll never be able to speak freely without being told that they are blaming their problems on having a donor parent instead of taking personal inventory or some demeaning thing like tat. Which is stupid I wish they did not feel like talking would cost them love its lame and tedious.

  8. oliviasview says:

    You are right, I have had contact with all these people and had the pleasure of meeting some personally. I respect them all and feel sad if they feel they cannot speak freely without losing love in their families. I am quite clear that if our children began to say that they felt they had a missing ‘bio parent’ that we would listen with love and understanding. I cannot think of a situation in which our love for either of them would change. It would be uncomfortable of course but I think both Walter and I are grown-up enough to deal with that.

    You may have read my most recent blog post about ‘being wanted’ where I have re-posted something Damian wrote on a Facebook group. I particularly appreciate his attention to balance, not claiming that all DC adults feel the same way. That is the way to move the conversation forwards and get DC parents listening.

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