For many years, those of us in DC Network who speak and write about donor conception matters have talked about the mixed feelings we parents have about needing to use donated eggs or sperm to create our families and the meaning of genetic and non-genetic connections. We often say ‘genes matter hugely and they don’t matter at all’. It sounds mad to anyone not involved in the donor conception world but makes complete sense to those of us who have been there. Now at last Petra Nordqvist and Carol Smart in their Relative Strangers research have unpicked these apparently contradictory feelings, given them some fresh language, and validated our struggle to make sense of the paradoxes of genetic kinship.
It is very hard to do justice to the wonderful chapter that ends the Relative Strangers book. I kept shouting YES and scrawling so many sentences with yellow highlighter it looked like a plague had broken out. The heart of the matter seems to be the competing discourses used to try and describe the way people are related to each other. The language of the medics where eggs and sperm are referred to as gametes or cells (that would otherwise be discarded through menstruation or non-reproductive ejaculation) can lead intending parents to think that they are just using a tiny scrap of tissue that has no meaning and that it is their nurturing body and care that will turn it into a human being. Acknowledging half-siblings as sharing genetic material or the donor as having contributed something of fundamental worth (as framed by genetic thinking) can come as a shock to both those who have been influenced by the medical model and to those who had convinced themselves that they were just creating their own family (as framed by kinship thinking). The truth is that ALL these ethically and culturally complex positions are adopted by most ‘telling’ parents some of the time. Because the situation we find ourselves in is so relatively new there are few guidelines about how we can explain what we mean when we say that ‘Of course these are our children, but of course we understand that they have genetic connections to other people who are not part of our family’. As Nordvist and Smart acknowledge, the thinking of those parents who choose not to ‘tell’ is not represented in their book. One can only assume that these are the people who find it most difficult to manage the complex tripartite discourse that is a ‘telling’ parents everyday balancing act.
On an everyday basis, kinship and genetic thinking combine to make a reasonably coherent whole, but because of the newness of the situation many parents and grandparents find themselves rehearsing their thinking out loud, and this is particularly so when it comes to explaining something like temper tantrums, difficulties at school or a particular talent shown by a child. They feel they need to find justifications and explanations for things that the majority of families can take for granted. “Parents who know (or think they know) that their children are genetic kin can shrug off many questions or doubts as to why a child is behaving in a particular way. They may not have adequate answers but they are likely to feel that the source of such behaviour could be traced to – or put down to – a known family background. With donor conceived children there is an apparent mystery, a kind of black hole made all the more significant by the modern emphasis on the foundational nature of genes.”
Walter and I have certainly experienced this sort of insecurity when our two donor conceived children have gone through difficult times – as all children do. Could this be to do with being donor conceived (per se) or behaviour, temperament or personality that was being influenced by something inherited from their donor? Now they are adults we can only say that we have no idea and that actually it isn’t necessarily helpful to even think about it this way. As a parent you need to be ready to tune in to and respond to whoever your child turns out to be and worrying about links to unknown antecedents only adds to the anxiety of a probably already stressful situation.
All parents want to protect their children from the adversities of the world. But having achieved their family in a slightly different way to most other people, parents struggle to create a sense of normality whilst at the same time acknowledging that their child has a ‘bit of difference’ to those children conceived without donor help. This is the central paradox that Nordqvist and Smart have identified. “It is paradoxical because it seems that where genetic links may be seen to be slightly attenuated, kinship links do not diminish but can strengthen to counterbalance the possible perceived detriment…..As part of the sometime chaos that is kinship we found that grandparents,parents and siblings can ignore difference, even forget that their are differences, or can embrace difference positively, thus making a virtue of it. How donor conception works depends very significantly on how existing networks of kinship are already working in a given family.”
I cannot emphasise enough how important that last sentence is. Donor conception works well in families that already have good relationships, communication skills, respect for each other and flexible approaches to life. These are the families that can manage the mixed feelings and the mixed discourses. This knowledge has, I would argue, enormous implications for those who are in a position to be supporting those who are making decisions about using donor conception. Just read the book.
Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception
Petra Nordqvist and Carol Smart