Two lovely DC Network (DCN) events over the weekend, both close to where I live in N. London as it happens. On Saturday, one of the hottest days of the year, there was a workshop for donor conceived children age 8 – 12, the first to be held outside of a DCN conference. Thirteen children from different family and donation types were brought by their parents from all over the country to a well-known community theatre venue where Sharon Pettle and two experienced colleagues encouraged this lively group to think about what being donor conceived means to them, using games, stories, drawing and role play. Sharon, who is a senior psychologist and family therapist, always talks to parents on the ‘phone beforehand, making sure that their children are ready to participate in such a group. Sometimes parents are keen for children to take part before a child really has any interest in ‘the donor conception thing’ as children often refer to it, and occasionally it is clear that parents are looking to the group as a place for their child to learn about aspects that parents are uncomfortable to talk about themselves, like half-siblings. Rightly, in my view, Sharon feels that no child should learn something for the first time in the group so she supports parents in talking with their child about the different sorts of families where donor conception might be used, how children feel about their donor and the language used to refer to him or her and, importantly, about half-siblings.
These very popular workshops – and this one was run because so many children could not get places on the workshops run at the Spring conference – are not intended for children who are having particular difficulties (although some are dealing with challenges like the death of a parent), but for all DC children who want to explore what being donor conceived means to them and spend time with others who share this way of coming into being. Around eight is an age when significant brain development takes place and it is not surprising that it is at this time that children can start to ask significant questions about donor conception (and everything else as well). Between eight and twelve they start to think for themselves, sometimes changing the language that has been used to refer to the donor, sometimes questioning who is a ‘real’ parent, occasionally feeling sadness or anger that a much loved parent is not related ‘by blood’. The DCN workshops give them a safe space, amongst their peers, to talk about such things.
On Saturday it was also realised that workshops held outside the conference have the significant benefit of giving parents of similar aged children an opportunity to talk with and support each other. At conferences they get to talk to lots of other people but not necessarily the parents of other children attending the workshops. Nina, the new Director of DCN came along at the beginning of afternoon to welcome the parents and I attended at the end to round up the day. It was a great pleasure to have difficulty in getting the parents to leave because they were having such a good time chatting and exchanging phone numbers and email addresses…and this was in an airless room as hot and sticky as a sauna!
Earlier in the day I had been re-reading parts of Professor Graham Music’s book Nurturing Natures: Attachment and Children’s Emotional, Sociocultural and Brain Development, towards writing something with a colleague about resilience and identity. I was struck by Music’s reference to these qualities being promoted by being part of social groups…”participating actively in social networks and having a sense of group identity has been shown to help health outcomes and reduce the risk of an array of potential difficulties”…and thought how well this describes exactly what DC Network is about. There was more evidence for this on Sunday afternoon when Walter and I attended a picnic held by the N/NW London DCN group in a local park. There was something hugely heartwarming about the large group of families sprawled under the trees on rugs and surrounded by buggies, balls, picnic baskets, children of all ages up to about 13, some old friends, some new, all coming together simply because their families were created with the help of a donor. And it was very moving to hear what DCN means to them…it has broken their isolation, made them feel normal, listened to their feelings and supported them through the most difficult of times. As one woman, mother to three egg donation children said, “It is a safety net, I cannot imagine what we would do if it wasn’t there”. It’s been and remains a privilege to have been in on the beginning of this very special organisation.