Despite having disfigured my face in a fall on the previous Friday, I took part on Sunday in one of DC Network’s Preparation for Donor Conception Parenthood workshops as the specialist speaker on psycho-social issues. I am really a stand-in for Marilyn Crawshaw in this role, but I enjoy taking her place when required and bringing over 30 years of personal experience and 21 years of DC Network, instead of Marilyn’s better knowledge of research and profound insights from her work with donor conceived adults. I was amazed to learn that four of the nine couples attending came from outside the UK, but all were seeking egg or embryo donation in the UK and none had access to anything like these workshops – or in most cases support of any sort – in their own country. It is humbling that they are prepared to travel so far and a tribute to the reputation of the workshop as being the very best (as well as the only place outside of individual counselling) where intending parents can bring their questions, hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties, before making the decision to go ahead with donor conception, and talk about them in a safe space.
I found myself saying a lot about the importance of parents becoming confident and comfortable with the decisions they have taken and talking with their children in a low-key matter of fact way, thereby encouraging a mixture of comfort, confidence and pride about being donor conceived. Stressing the ability of parents to find this place in themselves and then being able to pass on these feelings to their children feels important, but as my wise colleague Peter (one of the two facilitators) gently reminded me at a break, talking this way can give the impression of an expectation of perfection, and that is not helpful for anyone. Many of the people who come on these workshops are already trying to make a perfect 100 per cent sure decision when this state is highly unlikely to be reached. Ambivalence is bound to remain an element in the decision making, as is most often the case with one or other or both members of a couple when embarking on parenthood without help…or finding yourself pregnant unexpectedly. Research, fact finding, talking things over, being counselled – even attending these workshops – can only take couples (and in other workshops single women and lesbians) so far. They are very important components of decision making but there comes a time when a leap into the unknown has to be taken and no-one can help people take that final step, forwards or backwards.
The search for perfection can also encompass trying to find the perfect donor, the one who will magically recreate all the non-genetic partner’s features and talents. I worry when intending parents put great emphasis on finding this elusive perfect match. They almost certainly need more time to grieve the child that cannot be before being able to accept the child that they can have – were meant to have, some people have said. And of course with the perfect donor comes the expectation of being a perfect parent to a perfect child…and that road can only lead to disappointment. There is of course no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect child. The eminent paediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott first used the term, Good Enough Parent to defend the ordinary mother and father against what he saw as the growing threat of intrusion into the family from professional expertise. I was first introduced to Winnicot’s theories in earlier trainings but for the purposes of this blog I turned to Wikipedia and found the following explanation which resonated for me very closely with the role that parents need to take in the lives of their donor conceived children.
“A key function of good enough parenting is to provide the essential background to allow for the growing child’s disillusionment with the parents and the world, without destroying their appetite for life and ability to accept (external and internal) reality. By surviving the child’s anger and frustration with the necessary disillusionments of life, the good enough parents would enable it to relate to them on an ongoing and more realistic basis. As Winnicott put it, it is “the good-enough environmental provision” which makes it possible for the offspring to “cope with the immense shock of loss of omnipotence”. Failing such provision, family interactions may be based on a fantasy bond, in a retreat from genuine relating that fosters the false self and undercuts the ongoing ability to use the parents to foster continuing emotional growth offered by the good enough parents.”
As I interpret it, children come into the world believing that they are at the centre of all interest and all action, ie. omnipotent. Good enough parents meet enough of their child’s needs for them to feel secure and loved, but their failure to be ‘perfect’ and fulfil every desire plays an important part in the child’s realisation that they are not all powerful after all and that the needs of others have to be taken into account. By frustrating some of their child’s wishes and desires they are preparing the way for a child to be able to accept both the positive and negative aspects of the life before them and have relationships based on reality rather than fantasy. In this way donor conceived children are prepared to take on board the reality of their particular story, told in age appropriate ways over time, and to manage it without damage to their ‘appetite for life’.
It is actually not helpful for children to have ‘perfect’ parents and it is certainly not helpful for the child to have parents who expect perfection from them. Our children are possibly the most loved and wanted on the planet but if we behave in anything other than a ‘good enough’ way with them, we are not honouring or respecting them as the unique and wonderful human beings that they are.