It took three hours to stop-start our way up the M1 to Nottingham on Friday afternoon and exactly two hours to whiz back early Saturday evening. We stayed Friday night at the Belfry Hotel – surprisingly good for somewhere situated on the edge of a business park, close to the motorway and on the outskirts of a city – where we met up with Ken Daniels and Nina, the DC Network office manager. We had an excellent meal but I know both Nina and I felt that this was just the calm before the storm, the next day being the national conference to be held in an untested location with all sorts of possibilities for disaster.
To our enormous surprise this turned out to be one of the calmest conferences ever…given little hiccups like the tech man who thought he was only booked till 10am when we needed him all day and Nina having realised on the train that we didn’t have anyone to serve refreshments. To our delight the Ellis Guilford School and Sports College proved an excellent venue, with a light, airy modern refectory, vast hall and many classrooms for small breakout groups and a creche for up to 7 year olds. The potential for things to be much less convivial than they were was the fact that all these facilities were separated from each other by a lot of open space, but as the sun shone all day this provided exercise rather than a soaking and was not a problem. As we are often caught not being ready for the first people who often turn up an hour before the start of proceedings, I was slightly worried that we had forgotten something when refreshments, registration table, notices and the library/bookstall were all in place by 9.45am. We even had two volunteers to serve teas and coffees!
Ken Daniels started his much anticipated talk by talking about his own family. He and his wife adopted twin daughters when they were just about ten days old. They are now in their early forties. At some point one of the twins decided she wanted to trace her birth parents. The other one did not. Ken and his wife were supportive of each of their daughter’s wishes but it has clearly been very tricky in the family to manage the needs of these two women and relationships with the birth mother and father and extended genetic family once the contact had been made. The point Ken was making was that in adoption, as in donor conception (and life in general) it is all about relationships and these are rarely straightforward. We are all different and these differences have to be managed with integrity, balancing the needs of all those involved. This requires, at a minimum, good communication (listening to feelings as well as words before responding as well as giving clear information) and putting in place appropriate boundaries.
Echoing something Walter and I often say to parents about mixed feelings, Ken stressed the need for donor conception families to be able to hold apparently conflicting views at the same time: caring and loving has no connection with genetics (we love our partners but we are not genetically connected to them) but that genetics are important because of health histories, traits and physical features that have been transmitted that way. Donor conceived people tend to put emphasis on each of these different aspects of genetics, depending on which they feel are most important to them. Parents need to be able to manage these two things if they are to be the ‘good stewards’, as a man in one of my small groups put it, of their child’s donor conception story up until the time when the child is old enough understand and take it on for themselves. Infertility and the treatment/conception story belongs to the adults concerned, not to the child. Adults need to be able to manage and work through all the complex feelings associated with not being able to contribute to the conception of a child so that these issues do not end up being a festering sore that eats away at relationships in the family. Preparation for donor conception parenthood is key to this process of ‘working through’ or adjustment taking place successfully. Communication between parents is of course crucial. Ken pointed out the number of families where topic avoidance is practised and noted how important it is for parents to be pro-active rather than simply reactive when it comes to ‘telling’. A statistic that had a great impact on our conference audience was that in some research conducted by the Donor Sibling Registry only 29 per cent of sperm donor conceived adults had told their father that they were making contact with their donor. Next week Ken will be in Belgium talking with donor conceived adults about how to talk with their parents! This group has requested that Ken should come and talk with them whilst he is in their country because they are having such difficulty in getting their parents to talk openly about donor conception. Of course, we could all rationalise these difficulties by saying that these parents are from another era when secrecy prevailed and they have had no opportunity to address their feelings, but I wonder how many modern donor conception parents can really put their hands on their hearts and truthfully say that they feel comfortable about their children searching for their donor? Ken’s strong message is that parents must address and manage issues rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist if they are truly to put their children’s welfare first. The earlier they are able to do this, the better they will be able to provide the open environment in which it may be possible for parents and offspring to talk honestly with each other about their feelings.
On the question of donors, Ken is clear that there is increasing evidence that some donors are realising later in their lives the long-term implications of donating sperm. Although Ken’s talk did not address issues specific to egg donation my sense is that egg donors, particularly in the UK, are more aware, partly because of the more recent history of this procedure and partly because they have so much more contact with the clinic. Donors are understanding, perhaps partly as a result of having children of their own, that donor conceived people may want to know more about them. Donors rarely consider themselves to be parents and do not want to be seen as such but they do have a vital role in the formation of a family. They do not, however, have a role in the development of that family. This role belongs to those people whose intention it is to become parents. This is another example of the separation of relationships and genetics and the requirement for all parties to be able to hold these perspectives together as part of a rounded whole. It is of course only a ‘whole’ if donor conceived people have the possibility of finding information about and potentially contact with their genetic progenitor(s) and Ken had little to say of comfort to those who, for a variety of reasons, have chosen in modern times to use an anonymous, non-identifiable donor. DC Network of course is committed to supporting all donor conception families, no matter where their children were conceived.
When it comes to offspring linking – a term Ken suggests we use instead of donor-linking – he believes parents should stay in the background, supporting their teenage or adult child, but not taking the lead by searching for information or contact before the donor conceived person has indicated that this is what they would like to do. It is their story, their business and they should take the lead.
I’m going to leave an account of Petra Nordqvist’s talk until another occasion because I just want to say what a joyful occasion these meetings are. There were around 100 adults attending the talks and small groups, representing most types of DC family, and around 30 children being looked after in the creche. These out-of-London meetings feel almost small and intimate after the crowds at the London meetings and are all the better for that. Easier to talk with people, find others in the same situation and not have to queue for ages for refreshments. Wonderful to see so many babies, particularly when you have seen the parents attending meetings over the years looking drawn (and over-drawn) and anxious…now radiant, if tired, with a babe in arms. If ever DCN staff, including me, are feeling over-stretched and frazzled in the office, just recalling the pleasure on the faces of people making connections at these meetings, is enough to remind us that it is all infinitely worth while.