Last week The Guardian gave some Comment is Free space on their website to an opinion piece by Elizabeth Howard, a donor conceived adult. It took the film Delivery Man as a starting point (she didn’t like it) but then moved on to talk about her own story. She was conceived at a Harley Street clinic in 1971 and found out, by chance, age 15 that she and her two siblings were born as a result of donor conception. Around the same time the man she had called father for all those years was imprisoned for indecent assault on a child. She says, “I did not know, until I lost it, how much my sense of identity was rooted in my knowledge of who my parents were.” When her youngest daughter was diagnosed with cancer at the age of one she could not help wondering “if this was yet another un-thought of consequence of the casual trade in donor gametes 40 years ago”.
The sense of loss throughout the article is profound. Elizabeth believes that the man who donated sperm was her ‘father’ and that his relatives are her family, but that she has been kept from them all. She repeats several times, “I do not have a father…”.
I can only imagine that losing the man she knew as dad to a crime as despicable as child abuse whilst at the same time feeling both relief that she was not genetically connected to him and dealing with the knowledge that all she knew as true about one part of her heritage was not real, was too much to handle for a young teenager. Damage resulted from it undoubtedly. It would be all too easy, as in the Comments in the newspaper following the article and on the Donor Sibling Registry’s Yahoo group suggest, to attribute the lack of sense of identity she speaks about to these events. But what if at least some of the pain she feels really is triggered by the separation from genetically connected relatives? I have never had the slightest interest in my family history but I know for some people it is very meaningful. I met some people last weekend (also on a Masterclass at The Guardian) who were tracing relatives in the military. When I asked if this was about genetic or social history one woman looked at me as if I was mad and said, ‘Blood relatives of course.’
There has been a very interesting set of posts on the Yahoo group I mentioned above. Most are from parents who are hopeful that being open and honest with their children, choosing an open identity donor and generally being there for their kids is going to be enough to keep them from feeling like EH in the future. Many are either sad or impatient with her apparent need to continue to define her life by her losses and suggest that counselling would be a good path for her to take. But two donor conceived adults tell a different story. One, Vicki, a DC adult now in her 70s who met a half-sibling in his 80s only last year, I always find particularly worth listening to. She understands Elizabeth’s feelings and has shared some of them. It is interesting but not particularly comfortable to read that she would not have dreamed of sharing her wish to search for her biological father with her dad whilst he was alive. She somehow needed to protect him from that knowledge, but her search started as soon as he died.
Children do indeed have a very strong instinct to protect their parents from their most difficult feelings. Just because our children do not tell us that they are feeling hurt in some way, does not mean that they are not. It doesn’t mean that they are either. But it may mean that it is important that we as parents let our children know that they are not upsetting us by their wish to know about their biological heritage and that it’s OK to feel sad or missing a piece or whatever it is. We can take it. And it is important that we can.
In support of the perspective the two DC adults were bringing, Wendy Kramer wrote the following post addressed to them. I have a lot of sympathy with what it says.
“I have tried for a long time, to also understand why, in this situation, it seems so hard for some (not all) parents to imagine that being donor conceived (and growing up in a supportive, loving family) can still cause some to feel anger about the way they were conceived.
I think what sounds like bitterness to you is more likely fear. Fear from parents they may, in some way, have caused the same harm to their children. Many of us parents, while having delightful, happy, well adjusted children, can be startled when we hear from donor conceived people who are suffering, struggling and angry. And in large part, they blame their angst on the very same process we used to have our children. That’s scary, as none of know what the future holds for our kids, and we hope they don’t someday suffer like that. For some of us, it’s unimaginable that we could have caused harm or hurt to the children we love so deeply.
I think all of us need to dig a little deeper. What is behind our response, as parents, when we hear from an angry donor conceived person? Do we want toalways think it’s because they were lied to and didn’t find out later in life? Do we want to think that this only occurs in families without loving and supportive parents? Is this a fear-based response? If we accept that some donor-conceived people are suffering, what does that mean about our children- that we have potentially set them up for the same types of feelings and emotions that will show up some time later in life? Surely, we do not know when they are 5, 7 or 11, if they will too feel this type of anger when they are 15, 25 or 40 years old. This can be a scary notion to hold.
Over the years I have come to know many donor-conceived people. I have also conducted many research studies and published papers on this group of individuals. (I have also raised a donor-conceived child who is now 23.) So I feel comfortable in saying that the very large majority of them are not angry. And I do think that being told later in life, and having unsupportive parents does play into it- quite heavily. But the feelings and emotions of those who suffer because of the way they were donor-conceived should not be dismissed or negated, just because they are the minority. Actually, I do see that many of these feelings and emotions are also shared by many donor conceived people who express them more as frustration, or a longing to know that “invisible” side of them selves. Same struggle: different way of expressing the emotions.
We as parents should show compassion, not react with knee-jerk fear, defensiveness or dismissal. This type of response has on this board, and on other public forums, over the years has seemed to only create more resentment and defensiveness between parents and donor conceived adults. I feel that behind anger is always fear or hurt, so I would love to continue to hear more about these true feelings, so that we might better understand and have compassion and empathy for each other.”
And where do I stand in this? I do believe that things are significantly different these days. Relationships in families are warmer and more open. Parents and children are generally closer, dads more hands-on, controversial topics are spoken about largely without reserve. Vicki and her dad talked about artificial insemination in horses but never about the way Vicki had been conceived. If parents have grieved the child that could not be and have been able to embrace with confidence a different way of having children then the scene is set for family life where parents and children can relate in an untroubled way, acknowledging and managing feelings as they arise. Close and truthful family relationships are mostly protective of lasting trauma. But as Vicki said in her post, everyone is different. Genetic connections will have great meaning for some people and very much less for others. The problem for would-be parents is that we may know how we feel on this topic but we cannot know what our child’s take on the matter will be. That is why it is so vital that good decisions are taken BEFORE conception -leaving as many doors as possible open for our children to be able to make their choices, instead of being hobbled by ours. Love may not be enough.