When love may not be enough

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.



About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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18 Responses to When love may not be enough

  1. gsmwc02 says:

    The question I have is are parents who aren’t truthful about a DC person’s conception and whose insecurities about their lack of genetic connection to the child really loving and supportive parents? I don’t believe they are. Love and support goes beyond being affectionate and providing for a child. True support means you don’t reject someone’s feelings and you don’t let your insecurities impact your parenting.

    From the stories I’ve read from DC people, not having full parental support and being rejected in some way is even more damaging to them than telling them about their conception later in life.

    • marilynn says:

      Greg but how do you envision that the people raising a child in that situation would be able to do about the actual losses they were suffering – it’s easier for an adoptive parent to offer care and support and understanding about the feelings of loss the child they raise feels because their bio parent and bio relatives are absent because they did not cause or encourage the bio parents absence. Anyone raising donor offspring has a healthy hand not in creating the child per se, but in separating the child from their bio parent and bio family possibly paying a fee to an agency that has the bio parent sign an agreement to be absent and relinquish their parental responsibilities, also in aiding in the falsification of identifying records for the donor’s offspring to maintain legal separation from the donor’s side of the family. For a donor’s offspring it must be like receiving a hug and comfort for being robbed by one of the posse that held up your stage coach. Kick the dog and pat its head

      • gsmwc02 says:

        None of your response is relevant to my post regarding what loving and supporting a child means to me. So I am not going to respond to any of it.

      • marilynn says:

        There are unique challenges for people raising donor offspring compared to someone raising an adopted child since their bio parent is absent specifically as a service to the person who is raising them. People raising donor offspring often paid a fee for the bio parents absence and silence on the matter of positive paternity, they are absent in specific response to the request of the person who is raising the child. This is unique. How do you propose someone can tell the truth without garnering any resentment for having aided or orchestrated the absence of the child’s bio parent rather than the bio parent being found incompetent in court or something. It is a totally relevant question/comment.
        Telling the truth is harder for people raising donor offspring than it is for people raising adopted children because they know they are the motivating factor in the child’s loss of kinship in their bio family. It’s not that they are worried other people will treat their hild differently they are worried that the child they are raising might feel like they paid their bio parent to go away. They are worried that the kid will feel so wanted they’ll feel purchased. I do understand why people would be more afraid to tell about this situation than adoption because they are feeling like they took something from the kid and don’t have a way to give it back. Adoptive parents would generally in an ethical adoption not be dealing with guilt as a side effect of telling the truth. That’s not to say that telling the truth is not appropriate its just harder because it seems to be effective at telling the truth to donor offspring and get to have a good open relationship with them one would have to take the approach like Sue Hurst who I adore. I think she is great

  2. I’m a DC parent and also part of the yahoo group and participated in this discussion. I think that no matter how loving and truthful I am, it is still very possible that my kids will be curious about their donor. I expect that they might express anger at some point during their lives. In fact, I will actually be surprised if they don’t. Where I disagree with some in this discussion (and I could be perceiving their point incorrectly) is that I’m not simply going to leave my children to wallow in despair, pity, or even depression for the sake of “letting them feel how they wish” or “let them express their anger.” In other words, find solutions. That might mean searching for their donor (glad ours didn’t close the door to future contact), building relationships with half-siblings, learning how to handle fatherlessness from friends and relatives, changing how we frame the discussion to more “life-affirming” language. The latter doesn’t mean that they ever have to embrace donor conception contrary to popular belief. In other words, if my child ever said, “It’s better *not to exist* than *to exist* due to donor conception” I’m going to discourage that because it’s not healthy. Instead I would encourage, “I’m happy to be alive but I wish my donor were not anonymous” Or “I’d rather my biological father were a part of my life instead of simply being a sperm donor.” You can be grateful for life and stay positive even if you don’t embrace *how* you got here.

    • marilynn says:

      I like what you say very much. Especially “I’d rather my biological father were a part of my life instead of simply being a sperm donor.” As I think that is as close to a clear statement as you can get. I like it better than saying “You can be grateful for life and stay positive even if you don’t embrace *how* you got here.” Because honestly what a person would be upset about is not how they were conceived but rather any number of a host of unfair experiences that occur after they are born like being abandoned by one of their bio parents. Yes they may have agreed to do it before they were even conceived but they had to wait until their offspring was born to actually not show up and take care of them the way they’d promised months earlier when they signed their donor agreement. The really harsh part happens once the offspring are alive so it has nothing to do with how they were conceived but how, on many fronts, they simply are not reated fairly or equally after they are born. But I do like your candid and open acceptance of their actual experiences much better than many folks raising donor offspring

      • Thanks and I may not agree with everything said by those conceived via donors but I do feel that their perspective is crucial in this discussion. I was going to say that I wish more parents that “don’t care” would read these articles but they probably are. It’s only going to be real to them if and when their children express the same anger and resentment…

    • marilynn says:

      “I expect that they might express anger at some point during their lives. In fact, I will actually be surprised if they don’t. Where I disagree with some in this discussion (and I could be perceiving their point incorrectly) is that I’m not simply going to leave my children to wallow in despair, pity, or even depression for the sake of “letting them feel how they wish” or “let them express their anger.” In other words, find solutions.”

      Yes. Olivia take a look at what she says. I’m very blunt and that can be off putting I guess. What I have been trying to ask you about is where your guide books deal with the after math of telling the truth its loose and vague. You do lots of encouraging them to express their feelings and explore their emotions but that is not the hard factual specific kind of hand holding you do on breaking the ice and telling the truth right? So the Mom above says she is not going to just listen empathetic ally with no response no action. Maybe she could write the second half of the conversation. You were responding to my question earlier by saying that the questions I pose just never come up. But you acknowledge that they come up in a very broad and non specific way of curiosity about biological heritage and honestly that would encompass the very specific kinds of questions I probed you on. The Mom above is saying the specifics are going to need something more than freedom to explore their emotions. She said it really well actually. That is the thing I was expressing. What to do about the specifics like you specifically handled spitting out the truth. Good show. But they are exploring their emotions and exploring their “biological heritage” often in seclusion from their rearing parents because nobody got specific like the Mom above. Lots of these people in this experience are my personal friends and I came to know them because of their desire for specific answers and tools.

  3. oliviasview says:

    I would absolutely support what Lorraine says. DC Network would give that sort of advice, BUT I’m not going to write guidelines about this until I have some evidence that it is needed for anyone but late tellers. As there are so few of them in DCN we tend to deal with them very personally and we would support them in taking any action that could help their offspring. Walter and I sometimes see parents of DC adults in their twenties and thirties who have yet to be ‘told’. We support these families closely and individually.

    • marilynn says:


      • marilynn says:

        “BUT I’m not going to write guidelines about this until I have some evidence that it is needed for anyone but late tellers.”
        OK told late or raised by a single mom or raised in a non heterosexual family.

        “I have never heard or heard of any early-told DC adult thinking this way. If raised in a heterosexual couple family”

        “Why would they be looking for another parent anyway? Curious about the person, YES, curious about why they didn’t want to raise them, NO.”

        Your dialogue on telling sort of came from observing the good that came from telling adopted people the truth correct? Telling the person the reason is a pretty critical second to telling them the truth right? Your literature gives a nod to the reason by saying they wanted to help other people start a family but I’m suggesting that when that is the answer it is too vague and only generates more questions like why would someone want to do that and again how would they decide which kids to keep? You answered that by saying in your recent response to me that they keep the ones they have with women they are in love with. I think you should consider how that looks in print. In a telling and talking part two for those special instances where a kid might be asking “but why”

      • gsmwc02 says:

        You’re inventing something that doesn’t exist looking for trouble when it is not there.

  4. oliviasview says:

    Reasons are very important in adoption. A child will have started off in a different family and needs to know why and how they came to be adopted into another family. There are often issues of abandonment. Donor conceived children start and stay in the same family. They have not been abandoned by the people who wanted to be their parents. It’s different.

    • marilynn says:

      You think adopted people have abandonment issues because they were abandoned by bio parents who wanted to be their bio parents? No they have abandonment issues because their bio parents seemingly did not want to raise them. Of course the people who wanted to be their parents did not abandon them, they adopted them. There is no difference for donor offspring. Obviously the people who wanted them did not abandon them. Abandonment issues come from being unwanted by one of your bio parents.

      They sign agreements that say the abandon or relinquish their parental responsibilities upon the birth of their offspring so its kind of hard to say they did not give up their kids. Of course its identical. The only difference is that your telling them they should not feel abandoned and are not validating their loss that is all

      • marilynn says:

        being relinquished by a bio parent who wanted to raise them is a much better experience. When adopted people I’ve reunited find out that their parents thought of them on their birthdays and longed to be with them, when they find out that their mothers were tricked into signing the papers they love that

    • marilynn says:

      So a kid born to a single mom whose dad ditched out before they were even born has no abandonment issues cause their dad was never there and did not want to be their parent? You cannot be serious?

      • marilynn says:

        You don’t think they’ll feel abandoned because he had sex with her but sperm donors don’t have sex so its different do you? Who cares how he got their mom pregnant, what matters is that he does not want to take care of them he does not want to be their parent. How he got her pregnant does not matter when it comes to abandonment issues. That is their relationship not the kids relationship

  5. oliviasview says:

    I really can’t continue with this Marilynn. Let me reiterate, IF we had evidence that donor conceived offspring from any sort of family had issues to do with not being raised by a donor, or abandoned by a bio parent, then DC Network would be there with guidelines, booklets, meetings…you name it. We have no evidence of this. Full stop.

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