One of the many exciting things going on at DC Network at the moment is the organisation of the autumn conference which is focusing on the impact donor conception has on the wider family. It is very easy (well actually not very easy) for a couple – straight or gay – or an individual woman to think about what having a child by donor conception might mean to them. and even to think about what it might mean for a child, but how other members of the family – particularly their own parents – might manage both the information and the reality, is rarely addressed in research and literature around donor conception. The big exception to this is the Relative Strangers project carried out at the University of Manchester by Carol Smart and Petra Nordquivst. In a short video available on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLvRUyisSeWeCwAbMXQBr9GwIyElKLTVro Carol talks about the massively important support role that grandparents often play with their children when they are going through treatment for infertility. But it is often with one hand tied behind their back, so to speak. That is, they receive partial second hand information from their children without knowing where to go to verify or add to it and they almost all obey the unspoken rule for grandparents of not asking questions, commenting or criticising, even if they find the actions of their child upsetting or confusing. Most grandparents do not feel they can talk to any of their children about their feelings and do not wish to talk to friends for fear of being disloyal to their adult child or worrying that their friends would not understand. Smart puts the case for a neutral place where grandparents (siblings, cousins etc.) can go to for information and support and I would like to think DC Network can fulfil that role.
In the booklet I wrote last year called Our Family (intended to be given to wider family and friends to explain about donor conception) I first of all acknowledged the very mixed feelings that other family members, particularly grandparents, may have when they first hear about the need for/use of donor conception. Most will not have come across it before or perhaps have read newspaper or magazine articles but thought it would never have anything to do with their family. One woman who needed egg donation was shocked when her mother said that any child produced this way would not be her ‘real’ grandchild, but then went on to realise that at first she had thought this way too. It had taken time for her to understand that it was not genetics that make a family but love, commitment and a strong intention to parent well.
Older generations are sometimes, but not inevitably, more inclined towards keeping ‘difference’ under wraps. Feelings used not to be talked about so freely and infertility was considered something to be kept private, if not actually shameful in itself. Some parents and grandparents of donor recipients find themselves feeling embarrassed by what they are being told and whilst happy to be supportive, do not actually want to know the details. Others would be glad to know and understand more but feel they have to wait until they are told and cannot ask questions.
People going through ‘the system’ gain an enormous amount of knowledge along the way. They are also travelling on a journey where their thoughts and feelings change over time, as with the woman needing egg donation quoted above. Unless a relative or friend has been a close confidant since the fertility problem was first discovered, they are not going to share that knowledge and understanding and need to be brought up to speed. Being prepared to be an educator and tolerant of ignorant remarks that may be made initially by others, is part and parcel of what donor recipients need to take on…not so easy at such a vulnerable time of their life. The booklet Our Family can help by giving relatives and friends a guide to what is helpful to say and not say plus some clear information about facts, practicalities and the law surrounding donor conception in the UK and how things differ if a child is conceived abroad or in a private donor arrangement.
What remains true is that most adults, no matter how old they are, long for the support of their parents when contemplating donor conception. The older generation has an enormously important part to play in this new family coming into being, but they have needs themselves that cannot be met by their adult children who are pre-occupied with their own worries. My own parents were dead by the time Walter and I found that we would need donor help to add to our family, but on thinking about it now I’m not sure I could have put myself in my parents shoes in understanding what information and support they might need in order to help me…we were so bound up in our own feelings and decision making. Walter’s parents were amazing in their acceptance of it all but we had to respect their (unspoken but very clear) wish not to mention donor conception again. They would behave as if the words had not been spoken if we said anything, but as they clearly loved our baby son to bits we didn’t push matters beyond this. As one of the grandparents in the Relative Strangers research said…Love comes with the baby.
Our Family A guide for the relatives and friends of those contemplating donor conception, undergoing treatment or parenting young donor conceived children
Telling and Talking with family and friends about donor conception: A Guide for Parents
both booklets available to buy in printed form or download as a pdf from http://www.dcnetwork.org/catalog/books-and-pdfs
Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception by Petra Nordqvist and Carol Smart published by Palgrave Macmillan