The ‘good enough’ parent of donor conceived children

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.[5] 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.[6] 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”.[7] Failing such provision, family interactions may be based on a fantasy bond,[8] 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.[9]”

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.

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About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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15 Responses to The ‘good enough’ parent of donor conceived children

  1. Catherine Duff says:

    Hi k Any chance you could print this

  2. oliviasview says:

    Sorry Catherine, are you addressing me or someone else? You can certainly copy and print, preferably acknowledging the source.

  3. My parent's donor is my father says:

    No one is debating or questioning “love” (whether that is legal “parent” or other):

    • oliviasview says:

      Thanks for posting the film. I could not agree more. Complexity is everything. Everyone should be able to talk about their real feelings and have people listen to them.

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        Adelaide-born artist Kim Buck’s search for donor father number 12

        “Art imitating life
        Ms Buck said it did not originally occur to her that this struggle could be playing out in her artwork, which often features restless figures.
        “It’s something somebody mentioned maybe seven or eight years ago once they found out about this donor conception part of who I am.
        “They inferred that perhaps subconsciously that’s what’s being processed through the art, and it’s in all likelihood true.”
        In her detailed charcoal drawings she rarely depicts faces and a feeling of isolation and struggle pervades her art.
        “There’s a sense through pretty much all the work that these anonymous figures are kind of struggling against something, whether it’s forces or fear or the unknown or gravity.
        “Looking at it through this particular lens of not knowing that big chunk of my personal history, it makes perfect sense.”
        Continuing to face this mystery, Ms Buck is comforted by a recent increase in conversation and around the issue of donor conception and the rights of those involved.
        “People are talking and being open about it, sharing resources in a way. We’ve all got completely different stories but can help each other.”

        http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-21/kim-bucks-ivf-donor-father-mystery/5907402

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        Yes, agreed. But the complex issues of the existing offspring should be considered by the ‘good enough’, not yet parent(s), prior to possible future conception. Highlighting the ‘happy talk’ is not only misleading, it’s a disservice to these people, it’s a failure to inform (informed consent), it’s a failure to educate and it’s unethical. People often only want to hear the stories that support their choice. That is natural and understandable. But what they need to hear are the stories and experiences that don’t support their choice even if they still chose to follow through. There is nothing bad that comes from that.

        • oliviasview says:

          DC Network never avoids the more difficult stuff. In addition, most intending parents by donor conception search the internet and come across Anonymous Us or other sites that focus on the stories of donor conceived people who are not happy with the way they were conceived.

      • Liz says:

        Complexity is everything. People need to hear a diversity of opinions and experience.

        Australia aired this show October 2013 regarding donor conception: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/insight/tvepisode/sperm-donation

        What I find interesting are the diversity of reactions of adults who were conceived via donor.

        Ross Hunter has an opinion. Amy Corderoy has a different opinion. Alexis Rosenberg has her own opinion.

        They are all donor-conceived. And they all have their own opinions. They are all unique individuals with their own points of view.

        Future parents have the intellectual and logical capacity to watch such a show, take in different opinions, and come to their _own_ conclusions about parenting.

        That’s not “happy talk” or misinformation. It’s disagreement based on research and analysis.

  4. Liz says:

    “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.”

    This seems essential for healthy parenting! 🙂

    Some people are terrified that they must be perfect parents. And perfectionists expect everyone else to be perfect too, including their children.

    It’s not healthy for parents to expect perfection, either from themselves or from children!

  5. Liz says:

    “People often only want to hear the stories that support their choice. That is natural and understandable. But what they need to hear are the stories and experiences that don’t support their choice even if they still chose to follow through. There is nothing bad that comes from that.”

    The donor conception network works to help parents tell. Fearful arguments promote secrecy.

    The desire to parent is overwhelming, obsessive, and natural.

    If you convince future parents that donor-conception will scar the children, the result will be _secrecy_ for the great majority of people.

    This fear is the reason the great majority of parents did not tell in the past. Fear of hurting the child is the reason some people do not tell in the present.

    Scared parents don’t tell. Calm and confident parents tell.

    • My parent's donor is my father says:

      Olivia, question for you – as a percentage, how many people approach the DCN before they make the decision to conceive via ‘donor’? I would assume that it’s mostly people who reach out to you after conception but maybe I’m wrong. If the larger percentage of your support network are parents who have already conceived via ‘donor’, then I fully agree that promoting ways to encourage honesty and openness is best. But those who are still in the process of deciding whether or not ‘donor’ conception is right for them, might benefit more from exploring ALL the different perspectives.

    • Liz says:

      “But those who are still in the process of deciding whether or not ‘donor’ conception is right for them, might benefit more from exploring ALL the different perspectives.”

      Infertility seems to be uniquely difficult for many people to grasp in an experiential way. It is difficult to guess what people are likely to do, if one cannot comprehend, or accurately guess, the likely response.

      —-
      Fear-based rhetoric is not effective for the following reasons:

      1) Many people who consider donor gametes or donor embryos have already pursued infertility treatment. The ability to tolerate medical treatment self-selects for a subset of the population with specific characteristics. This population is hopeful and persistent beyond the statistical average.

      2) This group has already demonstrated that they have the ability to hope they will “beat the odds.” Many medical procedures that often have less then a 35% chance of success.

      3) They have decided they will beat the averages. They are optimistic. People in this population push forward despite the odds.

      4) They are optimistic their child will be happy. But they can be convinced that information about their conception will be dangerous to their child’s mental health.

      Parents who can be convinced that donor-conception is dangerous to their child’s mental health will look for ways to protect their child. Fear will convince future parents that secrecy is necessary for their child’s mental health.

      5) Fear-based rhetoric encourages people to HIDE the situation from their future or unborn children. They will gamble they can keep it a secret. They will gamble that they will be successful at keeping that secret.

      —-
      I’ve been confused by the fear-based strategy and tactics because it’s obvious to me that it encourages secrecy. The greater the fear — the deeper the secret.

      And…fear-based tactics push potential parents to leave the UK, go overseas, and chose an anonymous, untraceable donor.

  6. oliviasview says:

    To answer your question MPDisMYF, I would say that a larger percentage of people contact DC Network before having gamete donation than do those who already have children. The Preparation for Donor Conception Parenthood workshops are exclusively for these people. They cannot come on one if they are already pregnant or a parent. The idea is help potential parents think through the responsibilities that come with being a parent by donor conception. We absolutely do not avoid questions about how children/adults may feel in the future – and we talk through all the ‘What if’ questions. We want people to make their decision with their eyes open, not closed (deciding NOT to go ahead is considered one of the positive outcomes as having children this way is not for everyone), but the fundamental aim is to instil in them the confidence to be open and proud about a decision to go ahead, if that is what they choose to do. As Liz says, fear only leads to secrecy. For those who have over-come all the hurdles of previous fertility treatment and are determined to become parents, fear is not going to put them off proceeding, it would only drive them down the path of secrecy…not where any of us want them to go.

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