Let’s set the scene: a trendy bistro in London’s Angel Islington district. Two long tables of mostly thirty and forty somethings laughing and chatting whilst they drink their wine and eat their food. They are tired but at ease with each other. It’s been a long day. Amongst them sit, one at each table, an older man and woman. This couple are Walter and me. The others are eighteen people who until 11 o’clock on Saturday morning had never met before, except for two of them. Who are this pleasant looking but unremarkable group who fit right in amongst the other diners? A bunch of old friends? Some sort of reunion? They are in fact eight couples who are contemplating using donor conception, some egg, some sperm, who are consolidating the relationships that they have been building with each other during the first day of a DC Network Preparation for Donor Conception Parenthood workshop. The two who know each other, but are not a couple, are the facilitators, both parents of donor conceived children. As we chat I discover that one couple already have a child but need help from an egg donor to add to their family. Another pair had a terrible experience at a fertility clinic but have now found another that treats them like human beings and they have regained hope for having a family. Unusually they are all having their treatment in the UK, although several are importing sperm from abroad. A common thread amongst all those I speak to is the importance of the relationship they have built with their clinic counsellor…this also being the person who told them about DC Network and the workshops. What incredibly important people these counsellors are, raising, as one of the women said, all sorts of issues she and her partner would never have thought about themselves, but never directing their responses. This couple were particularly lucky in having NHS funded treatment with free access to as many counselling sessions as they chose to take up. This is rarely so for the many people forced into using private clinics because of the iniquitous post-code lottery of funding for fertility treatment in the UK.
As we part outside the restaurant many couples say what an emotional but wonderful day they have had. I had learned from the facilitators that sadly one couple did not manage to stay beyond the introductory session. The man was upset and it turned out that there had been a bereavement in his family and the emotions stirred by being asked to talk about why he and his partner were at the workshop, were too much for him. There were very tender feelings for this guy (and his partner) from all the others. But a workshop like this is bound to be emotional and the facilitators are very good at helping people feel safe.
These workshops are held regularly but Walter and I don’t usually go to the meal that takes place at the end of Day 1. Our reason for being at this one was because I was booked to do a session, loosely called the Social and Emotional one, on the Sunday morning. This is often run by Marilyn Crawshaw who brings all her wisdom and experience from working with donor conception families for many years and, as a social work academic, is better at recalling the research (such as it is) than I am. My qualifications come more from being a parent in a donor conception family for thirty years and having had the privilege of talking with many hundreds of parents and donor conceived adults since the start of DCN. One of the things Marilyn and I share, however, is an understanding that some knowledge of child development is valuable for parents by donor conception. The first and possibly the most important application of this is to counter the anxiety that many people have that their child at some point (some fear on telling, others worry about later) rejecting them in favour of the donor. That somehow genetics will trump relationships. Attachments, however, between parents and children come about through proximity, the feeding, changing, getting up at night, taking swimming, teaching to ride a bike, slaving over homework everydayness of parenting. Attachments do not always go well. Children can be as attached to a neglectful parent as they are of a careful and caring one (albeit with different outcomes) but as modern and open parents by donor conception tend to be older, hugely motivated and much more thoughtful about their parenting than most, healthy attachments are much more likely. These then result in relationships where children can thrive and develop without anxiety about who loves them and who is in charge. With eighteen years – or even five – of relationships of this quality, why would a donor conceived person prefer someone who is genetically related but with whom they do not have an emotional relationship. And even if the donor becomes known, or is known to the family from the beginning, the attachment of everyday relationships will be the dominant one. Curiosity is of course different. Not all, but most donor conceived people will be curious about their donor and/or half-siblings and some wonderful relationships have resulted from connections made between people, but only in cases where the original family is dysfunctional in some way, do these relationships become more important than the raising family.
The other occasions when it is helpful to understand a little about child development is knowing that at around age eight – can be earlier or a little later – children’s brains develop the capacity to think in more complex ways and it is at this time that the realisation about the genetic disconnect in the family is truly absorbed. For some children this can be a time of sadness as they realise that they do not have a ‘blood’ connection to a much loved parent. And later, in pre-teen and early teenage years when young people are experimenting with who they are, there can be seemingly paradoxical occurrences of using different and sometimes challenging (for parents) words to describe the donor and not wanting to talk about DC at all because they don’t want to be different from their friends. All entirely normal for this stage of development. Parents need to listen, acknowledge feelings and basically hang in there. Things change.
So we watched the film A Different Story and talked about language, how some words carry more power than others, about difference, how to talk to their parents, whether using the same donor for a second child was a good idea or not, whether Walter’s and my children got on well together as they grew up (they didn’t!), how much donor conception impacts on day to day parenting, the responsibilities of becoming a parent in this way and a myriad of other things. Without exception these were thoughtful, wonderful people who are in the process – and using the workshop well to enhance this – of moving from thinking about themselves to thinking about the children they hope to bring into the world with the help of donors. As always I felt privileged to be in their company. DCN has to find a way of these workshops being available and accessible to more potential parents.