Here’s a snapshot: The venue – a huge ultra-modern secondary school (high school in US equivalent) situated in a mixed residential area in inner North London. The people – 250 parents and potential parents of donor conceived children; 70 under 12s in the creche and 20 8 – 12s taking part in two workshops for this age group run by psychologists; a team of (non-DC) teenagers running a refreshment stall; DCN volunteers (all parents) running a lending library and book sales shop; huge team of child-care staff from a local mobile creche outfit that has looked after our children for years; DCN staff and volunteers welcoming people as they arrive looking expectant, nervous, excited, reluctant – old friends meet up, new people are helped to make connections – swift toilet directions for those having travelled long distances, then grab a coffee, settle children in the creche, greet a familiar face and move into the auditorium for the first session. And what a session. Six 9 to 13 year olds chaired by the wonderful 18 year old Peter spent an hour answering questions and telling us just what life as a DC child is like for them. Pretty straightforward for some, but less easy for others – the girl who feels she doesn’t fit in and whose religious education teacher at school told her that her conception was unethical; another girl who felt very confused when a friend she was trying to explain about DC to didn’t understand; more amusingly the friend of a boy conceived by embryo donation who thought he should be 15 rather than 11 because ‘he’ had spent four years in a freezer. Also fascinating to see the differences in understanding between the 9 year old and those two years older. Just a reminder that parents really do need to take into account their child’s (developmental) age when talking with them and recognising where they are in their understanding. What was very clear from the accounts all the children gave is that schools must start to include assisted and donor conception as part of their curriculum wherever and whenever issues of family creation come up. This can be in Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), biology, religion and ethics or even in English lessons. A couple of the panellists had given talks to their class about donor conception but felt that because the topic had not been covered as a factual part of the curriculum this made it more difficult for their classmates to get their heads around the concept. Despite two or three of the children saying they enjoyed being the centre of attention, all clearly found having to take on the role of educator burdensome. None gave instances of being bullied about donor conception in or out of school, although one friend did ask a panellist if he was a robot, but all found that friends, up to the age of about 9 or 10 could not grasp what DC was about at all and the DC kids found this frustrating. One of the questions was about who you include on a ‘family tree’ and did half-siblings and the donor belong there. Four of the children felt that the donor and half-sibs were not part of the family and did not belong on the tree but two thought that they definitely did – one was the only child of a solo mum and the other from an opposite sex couple family with adopted siblings at home. One of the 11 year olds, a lively and articulate boy who almost certainly has a future on the stage, summed up his feelings, clearly shared by others, that family were the people who loved you. My sentiments entirely.
The next hour was spent in small pre-arranged and facilitated groups distributed around the many classrooms of the school with an agenda to make introductions and then talk about the topics and issues that had been raised by the children’s panel. These are lovely intimate sessions where people usually feel safe and comfortable enough to share difficult and complex thoughts and feelings and yesterday’s session was no different. A privilege to be part of.
Lunchtime brought organised chaos with parents and children finding places in the refectory and an outside courtyard to share picnics brought with them. It is often a time for members to catch up with old friends and discover new ones…often people from the small group they had just been part of whom they found shared a situation or a particular perspective. Walter and I grabbed sandwich, but there was hardly time to eat with so many people to talk to…particularly giving congratulations to the young people who had spoken so thoughtfully and articulately earlier.
Back in the auditorium it was time to see the little film DCN made last year to celebrate the 20th anniversary (this can be viewed from the front page of DCN website dcnetwork.org) and for Walter to conduct a whirlwind AGM, breaking the world record for the giving out of boring statistics and re-election of Trustees and Steering Group members. Caroline, our Chair for the day, then introduced Kate Bourne from VARTA in Melbourne who introduced the Etiquette of Donor Linking, Australian style. I felt that Kate’s most important message was to very gently introduce parents to the idea that the donor was not an enemy and that they had nothing to fear from their children making contact. Very helpful, very valuable.
Then on to the afternoon groups, this time themed according to people’s interests and situations. I facilitated a group of people who wanted to talk about sharing donor conception information with family and friends. All were intending or had already started to talk with their children but found it much more difficult to start a conversation with their own parents (in two couples), close friends (one person), work colleagues (one couple) and everyone (two couples). One couple had four year old twins whom they had started to tell but they had not yet told their own parents and knew they had to get on with it before the children started talking to their grandparents. Another couple were each from different cultural and ethnic groups but both living in the UK and theirs was probably the most complex situation. I had great admiration for them for wanting to be open with their child as in their particular situation secrecy would be the much easier option. We talked in both general and specific terms about who needed to know and why and the when and how of actually doing it. One woman asked if I could come and hold her hand next time friends came round!
4pm came too soon but there was still half an hour to have a cup of tea and a biscuit, exchange email addresses and phone numbers, buy or borrow books and chuck a donation (money!) into the red buckets by the door. Faces that had looked tense at the beginning of the day were now weary but relaxed and happy. A DCN meeting had worked it’s magic once again. So proud of what we helped start 21 years ago.
Unless anything extraordinary comes up tomorrow, this will be my last blog before going to New York on Wednesday. Back next week. Happy chatting in the meantime.