We owe it to our kids to deal with our stuff first

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.

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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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11 Responses to We owe it to our kids to deal with our stuff first

  1. Silver says:

    Your title is pretty much what I said in response to Ben Saer’s article in Bionews. I fear that the “money” side of donor conception (alongside the stresses and pressures of infertility) sometimes rushes people into decisions that they are not ready to take. I don’t think that prospective parents are always counselled well about the realities of their future as donor conception parents. We are the same as all other parents, in that our children should come first – our own insecurities and traumas about what has led us to consider donor gametes need to be processed as far as possible before going ahead and certainly need to be secondary to the needs of any resulting child. This is especially tricky in the area of anonymity – we are in danger of creating a “them and us” situation between those conceived through UK donors and those conceived abroad since the new rules came into place in the UK. How does one explain to a child that one *could* have used a anonymous-but-contactable-in-the-future donor but instead chose to use one who can never be traced?!

    • oliviasview says:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree about the danger of a ‘them and us’ situation. This is something DC Network staff talk to people about when they ‘phone or email the office and say they are thinking about or planning to go abroad for egg donation. The differences between treatment overseas and in the UK are explained very clearly, but at the end of the day, once a child has been born, DCN is completely non-judgementally supportive of all families, no matter where children were conceived. DCN can only warn (through setting out the facts) and then watch and wait for what happens in the future.

  2. marilynn says:

    As a person who helps donor offspring locate their relatives and who helps parents locate the kids they gave up in gamete donation agreements, I think you are wise to offer offspring help in talking to the people who raised them about searching. Only one of my friends was told late, the rest were told early and often per your mantra. All have good relationships with the people who raised them and everything is supposed to be all open and honest and cozy but the ones who say something are the already rebellious ones that have mildly adversarial relationships with people raising them already so saying something that might upset them is not out of character for them. I think the ones who supposedly have these great open loving relationships are afraid to screw that up by saying that they feel like they should not have been put in a compromised position and that the donor and his family are their family too and they are searching for them for a variety of reasons and don’t want to have to manage anyone’s feelings or expectations but their own. I think my friends that are vocal radicle types just don’t give a flying f about managing expectations anymore so they are cool to be open about it. Who knows how long it took them to come to that point. I’m sure they did not just wake up one day and say “I’m going to not care if this hurts anyone else’s feelings”. They must have a realization that their feelings were not exactly taken into account when the losses were orchestrated everyone figured that the parent child relationship could weather the kid’s loss maybe they feel it can weather a gain back. Good that you are thinking of helping people open up about their searching. I don’t like the secrets it takes much joy out of it if I’m successful for them.

  3. marilynn says:

    What is donor linking and what is offspring linking? Do you mean reunions with relatives? It’s a reunion cause they’ve been family all along and were separated so I think the term reunite is fine or meet for the first time. They may not socially be family but they are in the traditional medical, scientific kinship way so it is true to say that they are family.

    Do you mean something else by donor link? Like obtaining records or something? Family trees?

  4. marilynn says:

    I was thinking Olivia about how lots of people are moving to the adoption model of openness and many people even say that they would have liked the opportunity to have had a willing to be known donor but none were available to them. I think that shows a lot of maturity that they would like to prevent their child from not having that critical information and that they would opt not to put their kid in that position now if they had the choice not to. It got me thinking about how there is a much better alternative now to couples or singles who would be looking at willing to be known donors out of respect for their child’s rights.

    They have websites now where the people who sign up to be donors actually want to be parents to their own offspring and they don’t care if you are married to someone else, they will collaborate with you as the other parent in the child’s best interest so that not only don’t they loose information about the other half of the family – they don’t loose the other half of the family at all. Both bio parents want them, both raise them they set up joint custody and the kid is a full fledged legal member of both their own families and plus a legal member of whatever step families they might be part of as well if their parents are married to other people. It really is ideal for someone who has an infertile or sterile spouse because they get the benefit of the whole donor thing without the any of the losses experienced by traditional donor offspring. You never have to say well the donor did not intend to be a parent who raises his kids because he does want to raise his kids collaboratively the way millions of other separated parents do when they are married to other people. If folks are looking to model parenthood of donor offspring off of something it should be collaborative joint custody arrangements where kids get all that they deserve from both bio parents rather than modeling it after adoption where there is obviously a loss to be suffered. In adoption the loss has already occurred and there is nothing the adoptive parents can do to lessen that loss but in donor conception they are orchestrating the situation so why not orchestrate it cooperatively with someone who does want to be a parent rather than choosing someone who won’t want to include the child within their family as the child certainly has the right to be included.

    So I think if people looking to have children with a donor are hoping to find one willing to be known anyway, they should go the extra mile and find one that wants to be around for the long haul and heavy lifting of parenthood to give the child all that they truly deserve. They’ll never have to deal with all this foolish searching because they’ll already be full fledged members of both families. They’ll never wonder if there are unknown siblings out there some where and there won’t be anymore kids with 100 or more siblings because people that take care of all their own kids don’t have hundreds of them, they have usually no more than 10 on the outside these days.

    Do you think people are emotionally mature enough to put their antiquated ideas about their marriages aside for the benefit of the children they are bringing into the world? Do you think the shift to an adoption type model could just as easily be made to a joint custody model? I don’t see any drawbacks at all for anyone do you? I can see where people would be like “well we want to raise our kid alone just the two of us”, but like so do millions of other parents that are not married to one another and they have to suck it up and cooperate and ultimately that is better for the kids. I think parents and step parents would find they loose nothing and gain a happy kid without any loss of legal rights. Then the kids won’t have to learn how to talk to anyone about searching.

  5. oliviasview says:

    Marilynn, as you are talking about adult behaviours here I think it is time for me to step in again.
    You say, “Do you think people are emotionally mature enough to put their antiquated ideas about their marriages aside for the benefit of the children they are bringing into the world?”
    I say, What antiquated ideas about marriage? Marriage is about commitment to one other person, making and raising a family with them. Your scenarios sound very ‘Californian’ to me. Very, very few heterosexual couples would be willing to include a donor as an equal partner in raising a child. You can call this immature if you like but I just call it normal human frailty. Most of us want the security of a partnership with one other person. It’s often difficult enough to maintain this relationship, less alone having to consult another person all the time about child raising. How is the non-genetic parent supposed to feel about this? I also think it is highly unlikely that many donors would want a situation like this either. If they wanted to have a child to love and care for they would create a family of their own. I suspect it’s only the odd-balls of this world who would choose a set-up where they would be on the periphery of a couple relationship. Your perspective is totally unrealistic….in fact so impractical that I can only imagine it is part of an agenda to to undermine the practise of donor conception altogether. Except that of course it is never going to go away. People will always find a way of having children, but if they were forced to do so in the sort of arrangements you are suggesting the whole practice would simply go underground. I am an ethical pragmatist and this leads me to support regulation of donor conception practices to rule out completely anonymous donors (as we have in the UK) and to support parents in putting their children’s interests first by becoming confident and comfortable with DC and the responsibilities that go with that…including being able to manage their own and their children’s feelings about making connections with donors and half-siblings. As Ken Daniels says (and I assume you are familiar with his work – Google if not) donors have a vital role in family formation but they are not mums or dads and they do not have a role in the development of the family. End of story.

    • marilynn says:

      I don’t know that they are odd balls they just have not met the right person but still want to have children. It’s called coparenting on the websites that offer it. I think co parenting is a stupid term though because nothing about being a parent or a set of parents implies that you are married to one another anyway so I think the term is redundant since co means two and there are always two parents and what they do is raise their children together either under the same roof or not.

      I’m being serious Olivia. If people are starting to look for willing to be known donors for the good of the child then why wait 18 years – it would be better for the good of the child to start knowing them right away.

    • Kriss Fearon says:

      I agree. Even with open adoptions people can find it very difficult to manage and balance everyone’s needs.

      It’s hard enough taking on board the opinions of your family and the wider world about your parenting.

  6. Sarah Betts says:

    Hi Olivia, I’m not going to respond to the comments from Marilynn.

    What I would like to say is thank you for the conference in Nottingham. We have been members of DCN for a few years, but until now have not ventured to a conference. As you were very close to us we decided to go for it. Our children, 6yr old twins, were a little nervous at the thought of having childcare for the day. We explained to them what the day was for and that they would play and maybe make friends with other children. Our son liked the idea more than our daughter. We too were a little apprehensive, not sure what to expect, but equally liked the idea of listening to your speakers and the workshops.

    We all had a great time!!!! Our children have raved about the childcare, and the children that they met, the picnic at lunch time. We also got a lot out of the day, and certainly had some things to think over and maybe change our mind on a couple of issues. One being sharing information about half-siblings sooner rather than later, and for future managing expectations around contact with our donor should our children wish to make contact. One thing that was confirmed for us, is that being open and honest is best, although we did come away feeling we are maybe more open with family and friends than most.

    It was great to meet other parents of donor conceived children, and to share the vast range of experience, thoughts and ideas.

    Thank you for a wonderful day, and a special thank you to Walter – he mentioned that the next conference would be in London, to which our children responded ‘we want to go’, so maybe we shall see you there.

    Sarah x

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