“We have won the war” I heard someone say the other day. She was referring to the debate about whether or not children should be told about their beginnings by donor conception. It is true, the default position in the UK these days is that it is in the best interests of child and family that the child has the information made available to them in bite sized chunks from an early age so that they can never remember a time when they didn’t know. ‘Telling’ or openness is advocated by counsellors, psychologists and anyone who has any understanding of how families work best. It is legislated for in the form of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Clinics have to prove to the HFEA that they are letting recipients of donor gametes know that sharing information with their children is in the best interests of all the family and where that family can find materials to help and support them with this small but vital part of parenting donor conceived children.
With all this in place it is easy to forget how frightened so many parents are of the actual act (or preferably process) of telling, and that includes the ones who are convinced that it is the right thing to do. And this is not surprising. Battered over the years by the losses and disappointments of attempts to conceive, first of all without help and then with increasing amounts of technical assistance, new parents of donor conceived children can be reluctant to acknowledge ‘difference’ and start a process that, in the eyes of some, might potentially undermine the very family relationships they have fought so hard to achieve. Fear of being rejected, now or in the future, and/or fear of being judged harshly for infertility or use of donated gametes lurks in the minds of most heterosexual couples parenting by donor conception at one point or another and a large number of solo mums and lesbian/gay parents as well.
DC Network decided that Telling and Talking booklets for parents were needed because they were hearing from so many families who had bought an Our Story book for their child but just didn’t have the courage – or an appropriate set of ‘tools’ – to start using it. These booklets have proved enormously popular, giving emotional support and practical help to people starting to ‘tell’ at different ages and continuing the story as children grow and change. But they still don’t seem to be enough.
So what does it take to actually start ‘telling’ and keep it up? Wendy Kramer (of the Donor Sibling Registry) commented on a blog by Ellen Glazer last June that parents either took the love or the fear path in donor conception. Those who chose love put their children’s needs first, understanding that it is their child’s right to know about their beginnings and that their needs as parents have to come second. I think there is a lot in this but it is also a little harsh. Parents who are full of fear also love their children but their outlook on life may be more pessimistic. They want to protect their children from feeling different in any way, seeing being donor conceived as something to be denied or hidden – always ‘bad news’. Petra Nordqvist and Carol Smart recognised these parents in their book Relative Strangers as those who always saw a glass as half-empty rather than half-full. But what is interesting about the parents interviewed is that they all intended to ‘tell’ their children but those with the ‘half-empty’ approach found starting much harder. I suspect, although I don’t know, that simply the act of taking part in that research, being able to talk about their fears without being judged, may have released some parents from the grip of their anxieties to the point where they could start the ‘telling’ process. Fears always build up when they are un-articulated and unacknowledged. They go round and round in our heads until they feel totally overwhelming and unmanageable. Talking with someone who listens without judging can break that cycle and make other thoughts possible. That is why counselling can be such a relief for so many. DC Network has always welcomed those who are unclear about whether ‘telling’ is right for them and works on a regular basis with parents who are finding starting the process harder than they ever imagined. The Preparation for DC Parenthood workshops run by DCN also provide that ‘breath-out’ moment for intending parents as they encounter others in a similar position to themselves and full of all the same fears. Just being given the opportunity to talk with others in a safe space allows men and women to explore their worries and fantasies and ask questions of the experienced parents of donor conceived children who facilitate the sessions. Confidence gained on these workshops is rarely lost when it comes to ‘telling’, even for those with the highest anxiety levels.
And keeping going with the ‘telling’ as children grow up…well, mostly it just comes up very naturally in the family as you always have something to build on. Mostly children will start to ask their own questions from 6, 7, 8 or so, but if they don’t then reminders from time to time (not too often) will give them the opportunity to ask whatever it is they need to know. “Remember when we talked about how mummy’s eggs (daddy’s sperm) weren’t working so well and we needed another lady/man to help make you, well, I was wondering how you were feeling about that now…
I do remember how I felt when four year old Will asked where babies come from and I thought, ‘Oh well, here we go’ and how confident I thought I was but how I stuttered when it came to telling the school about donor conception. I knew it was the right thing to do – our now adult children absolutely confirm that it was and that they can’t remember not knowing – but I do sympathise with that hollow feeling inside when it comes to starting.
There are no guarantees to anything in life. I believe that we all have to take risks sometimes to have a life worth living. Facing our fears and telling our children of their beginnings has been one of the most worthwhile and important things that Walter and I have done. We have been through many difficult times with our children but none has had donor conception at the root and the trust established though being open has bound us closely together. It really is worth getting your head round…and getting on with it.