Over the last couple of days I have been writing up the talks that Ken Daniels and Petra Nordquist gave at DCN’s national meeting in Nottingham in September. Because of their very different styles of presenting I had failed, until now, to see the very clear links between them, albeit that Ken’s perspective is probably a bit more optimistic than that of Petra.
Ken’s big theme is that donor conception families need to manage issues to do with ‘telling’ and offspring wanting more information about and connection with their donor and/or half-siblings, rather than pushing these questions under the carpet. Petra found in her Relative Strangers research that many parents wanted to be open with their children and families but found this enormously difficult because it took them into the uncharted territory of trying to have conversations about intimate aspects of their life and feelings when this went against the prevailing culture of their family. Parents struggled with this and wanted to get it right but often found that relatives, particularly but not inevitably from the older generation, did not want to talk about it.
Ken was advocating preparation for donor conception parenthood workshops as a forum where parents could, together and with professionals and other parents, understand the need to be able to manage the balance between relationships and genetics in the families they would be creating. It was clear from Petra’s research, however, that no matter how comfortable parents became with using donor conception, they could not necessarily influence the ways in which their own parents and other relatives viewed it. Which is where confidence is important. If parents are comfortable and confident with the decisions they have taken then it is easier for them to be able to continue on their own path and ‘manage’ the denials, evasions and sometimes downright ignorant comments from relatives. It can also help if they are able to see donor conception information from their relatives point of view. One woman I interviewed for the Telling and Talking with Family and Friends booklet was upset at first when her mother said that she would not be the ‘real’ grandmother to the child her daughter was expecting by egg donation. Then she thought, but that’s just what I felt at first…I felt that this would not be my real child. She realised that she had been through a process of adjusting to using donor conception to create her family and needed to allow her mother time to adjust as well. As was said to me by the very wise founder of the only non-profit sperm bank in the US, ‘parents need to become educators’, and that’s why I gave this title to a chapter in my booklet. It can feel unfair to many that those of us needing to use donor conception should have to shoulder the responsibility for thinking of others and educating them about what donor conception means for the whole family. But if we don’t do it, who will? Until DC becomes, like IVF, simply one of the many ways in which the modern family is founded then I believe that those of us who create or add to our family this way have something of a duty to educate those around us…not the whole world, everyone has their limits and needs their privacy, but those who are important to us and our children. In doing so we are of course helping to normalise the DC family and create a culture in which DC becomes unremarkable.
And just how do parents ‘manage’ the rellies who don’t want to talk about it? Well, Walter and I decided to allow his parents to know and yet ‘not know’ about donor conception. We told them when I was pregnant but they never ever spoke about it again, despite us mentioning it in conversations in front of them. What felt most important to us was that they took a great interest in the pregnancy and welcomed our son warmly into the family. Sadly they both died before he was old enough to understand and talk about ‘his story’. If they had lived we would have had to talk with them again about the importance of responding well should our son have mentioned ‘the nice man who gave mummy some sperm to help make me’.
Petra Nordquist quotes two families who made different decisions about how to handle responses from relatives. In a lesbian family, the two mothers decided that they would (unwillingly) go along with the wish of one woman’s sister to brush the fact of donor conception under the carpet because, “we are all old enough to know that if we ever did bring it up that would be another relationship that would be scuppered, so I would rather keep that ten per cent of it away in order to have the ninety percent of the whole family knowing each other and our children having the cousins and that support”.
In a second, this time heterosexual couple family but also with a child by sperm donation, the man’s mother kept trying to insist that her grand-son could be related genetically despite being told in many different ways that he couldn’t possibly be. The couple are adamant that they are not going to let her get away with this and persist is trying to get her to acknowledge the fact of donor conception, “…and it’s constantly having to tell her that that’s not what we’re doing. Our son is being told, even from now, where he’s from, so he grows up much more relaxed.”
There is of course no one right way to handle these things. All families are different and we all need to find a way to deal with the reality of the families we have to live with. Managing the differences, however, is likely to be better for everyone concerned rather than pretending they don’t exist; keeping up the communication in order to preserve relationships wherever possible but putting in place the boundaries, that for you and your family, feel like lines that cannot be crossed. Confidence is the key.