Catching up on Saturday’s newspapers, having been in Nottingham that day, I have found myself inspired, once again, by an article in the Guardian Family Section. The headline, The Truth Won’t Hurt, although written about parents trying to protect their children from distressing realities such as divorce or illness, applies in exactly the same way to donor conception. I recall in Limerick last weekend one mother saying that her husband was adamant that he was not going to tell his daughter about being conceived by egg donation because his duty as a dad was to protect his little girl. This raises several questions. The first for me is if egg donation is such a terrible truth, then how come they went ahead with it? What were they doing creating a child in a way that they were not prepared to talk with her about? The Limerick family are not unique in any way. Many people seem to find it possible to shut the complicated feelings they have about donation into a box whilst they conceive a child in any way possible, and then to project those feelings on to the child, who has to be protected from them, whilst failing to address them for themselves. This is why the preparation for donor conception parenthood, so strongly advocated by Ken Daniels in the previous blog, is so vital and why DC Network has been running workshops to help parents face their feelings before conceiving. The difficulties belong to the parents, not to the child who comes into the world innocent of any thoughts or feelings about donor conception.
The author of the Guardian article Meg Rosoff was the mother of a seven year old daughter when she developed breast cancer, a disease that had recently killed her younger sister. In order to try and protect their daughter from the seriousness of the diagnosis both Meg and her husband were jolly and casual at home about the illness, but at the same time the girl was on the receiving end of shocked questions from teachers and parents of friends and observing her mum post surgery with a drain, stitches, bloody bandages etc. What was she to think other than her mother was dying. As Rosoff says, “My husband and I did not set out to lie, but we certainly didn’t tell the whole truth. We didn’t tell because she didn’t ask. She didn’t ask because she sensed that it was a difficult subject. Yet ‘protecting her’ from what was going on turned out to be a gross underestimation of our child’s ability to measure atmosphere, to absorb pain and doubt and worry and convert it into a perfectly reasonable (but wrong) explanation. Over the next decade I learned that lies of omission can have consequences as devastating as ‘real’ lies, the ones where you decide not to tell a child he’s adopted (or donor conceived) or that her sister really is her mother. During those years my bold confident daughter became fearful, had night terrors and became afraid of the dark.”
Rosoff believes that lies, direct or by omission, lead to more lies (the tangled webs we weave). The child who senses that the parent can’t cope with her vulnerability will hide the truth about her feelings. Which leads to a situation in which communication shuts down altogether.
Donor conceived children who have not been told about their beginnings pick up the signals around them. Parents who change the subject or turn away when the question of likenesses in the family come up, the parent who talks about ‘you being so special’ but doesn’t explain why, the parent who becomes diffident or embarrassed when asked about their age at conceiving, or sadly the dad or mum who find it difficult to risk being close to their child. What is a child to make of this? As Rogoff says, “If you don’t talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone.” Every parent owes it to their child to find the words to talk to them in an age appropriate way about things (donor conception included) that they themselves find difficult. The more confident and comfortable parents genuinely are, the better the chance that the child will find a way to adjust to the reality. To paraphrase Rogoff’s last sentence, give a child the truth (no matter how unpalatable in the case of death or divorce) and she will figure out a way to process it. But ‘protect’ her and the ghosts will whisper in her ear.