My preferred reading over the long Christmas and New Year break was Scandinavian noir but my attention was diverted from time to time by a fascinating doctoral thesis written by Astrid Indekeu, the clinical psychologist who brought together the new group of Belgian donor conception families. Her subject is Parenthood by Donor Conception: Exploring (Intended) Parents’ Experiences of Disclosure Behaviour. Typically, I have failed to read the whole thing but have cherry picked the parts that looked most interesting. One finding that really struck me was how potential and actual parents managed the re-negotiation of the meaning of family when having a child by donor conception and how different perspectives manifested in ‘telling’ or non-telling behaviour. It seems that those who were able to integrate the ‘difference’ of using donated gametes into a new narrative about their family BEFORE they actually conceived a child, were more likely to ‘tell’. They were also able to benefit from the confidence that actual parenting brings when acknowledging differences in looks or interests between themselves and their children. Those who found difficulty in acknowledging the ‘difference’ of using donated gametes prior to conception and/or saw it as a ‘medical procedure’ that was simply helping them conceive, went into parenthood without recognising any special responsibilities with regard to ‘telling’ but experienced insecurity with regard to their child’s physical traits, fearing that they could reveal them as being donor conceived. Nineteen couples with children by donor sperm took part in this study which followed couples over their transition to parenthood and into the first two years of their child’s life. The conclusion was drawn that this finding has profound implications for counselling in both the pre-birth period and throughout parenthood. I could not agree more.
It is undoubtedly one of the aims of the Preparation for Donor Conception Parenthood workshops run by DC Network to help couples and individuals attending to think about the ‘difference’ in creating a family by donor conception. Those who ‘get it’ immediately feel reassured and comforted that donor conception is the right way forward for them. Those that don’t go away with a lot to think about and facilitators occasionally (privately) hope that they will make the decision not to go ahead. For those who do ‘get it’, it is almost as if by focusing on and accepting this ‘difference’ early on and recognising the on-going responsibilities of openness, it is possible in the everyday whirlwind of parenting to mostly forget about it. Physical or any other dissimilarities between parent and child are not a problem because everyone knows about donor conception and there are no awkward silences or exchanged looks when there is talk of family habits or traits. Family life proceeds as normal with the occasional raising of the issue in an age appropriate way as children progress through their stages and start asking questions and thinking for themselves.
Using donor conception to help with family creation is not the right solution to infertility for everyone. Even people who understand the differences and responsibilities straight away, have anxieties about how they are going to go about ‘telling’ and sometimes about the responses they are going to receive from some family members or friends. This is normal. It is a big thing to do (actually becoming any sort of parent is about the biggest challenge anyone ever takes on in their life) and to be without any sort of fear would be odd. But for those who continue to feel personally threatened or deeply undermined by the idea of having a child without a genetic link, it would seem best for everyone concerned that they find some other way of having a family or fulfilling their nurturing side. What is so difficult is when it is just one half of a couple that feels this way. It is usually the person who has the fertility difficulty, but not inevitably. Sadly, sometimes the fertile partner will put pressure on their other half to go ahead with treatment. Men will often do anything for a quiet life and to save a relationship but I can only see a situation like this as storing up trouble for the future…and mostly for the offspring in having a parent (probably a dad) who is distant and/or troubled and a secret that sits like a timebomb in the heart of the family.
Selection of those suitable to be parents by donor conception has never seriously happened anywhere. In the UK we have a Welfare of the Child clause in the HFE Act, but it has no teeth and rules out only current hard drug users, paedophiles or the criminally insane. Things will only change if clinics shift their focus from high-tech baby making to an understanding that it is families that are being created and that confidence around the decision to use donor conception and openness with children and others are essential ingredients of functional relationships in donor conception families. I stop short of saying that those who don’t have or can’t manage these qualities should be banned from using donor conception. But I do think that counsellors, clinics and those of us involved in helping prepare people for parenthood by this method should be very honest with potential parents about the responsibilities they need to be prepared take on, and help them think of alternative routes to parenthood if the ‘difference’ of donor conception does not sit comfortably with them. All children deserve the best start in life. Starting with parents who want to keep secret something as fundamental as donor conception is far from ideal.