Having emerged from the fog of a sinus infection I am now ready to write about the three books that have been absorbing me over the last month or so.
The first book is my favourite but the one with a sub-title that is less than friendly to the general reader. Don’t be put off. It is is definitely worth reading. Donor Conception for Life: Psychoanalytic Reflections on New Ways of Conceiving the Family is edited by DC Network member Katherine Fine and published by Karnac (a specialist publisher in the psychoanalytic world). Kate sets the scene in her introductory chapter by emphasising that this not a book just about procreation – the acquisition of someone else’s gametes in order to make a child – but about the making and raising of a family. More controversially she acknowledges that in the making of this family, the genetic and psychological legacy of the gamete donor’s family becomes part of the reality of the (new) family for life. In order to illustrate a very contemporary experience of being part of a donor conception family Kate reports on her conversation with two 15 year old girls who discovered at age 12 that they shared a sperm donor. Both are only children, one being raised in a solo mum family and the other growing up with two mums. Linda and Susie call each other sisters “because it’s easier”. Because her mum has been involved with the Donor Conception Network for a long time, Susie has a higher level of awareness about the existence of her donor and the possibility of half-siblings, but both girls have found that their curiosity about their donor is less since they have found each other. It is a fascinating and I hope for parents worried about making half-sibling connections, a reassuring glimpse at the richness that such relationships can bring, although it remains unclear how important the shared genetics from the donor are. Possibly two only children of the same age and sex would have hit it off anyway. Who knows.
The book is then divided into four parts with contributions from a range of authors who have all spent much time thinking about the emotional impact of donor conception for many years. Some chapters are already published articles and others were specially written for this book. The former are by Americans who, in my opinion, are particularly good at putting over complex thoughts and concepts in everyday words. A knowledge of some psychoanalytic language is helpful for one or two of them but I managed with a background in counselling and parenting education, so they are certainly not beyond the broadly educated reader. Diane Ehrensaft’s chapter is particularly insightful about the way some parents seek to almost entirely delete the donor as a person from the process of conception by shrinking their contribution to a mere cell or a donor number. It is easy to see how it is entirely possible following this ‘immaculate deception’ for a parent to fail to see how telling a child about their conception might be important. Ehrensaft goes on to explain how through family story telling, family group experience, and the attachment experience of each individual, the three tasks of donor conceived people – difference (the traditional birth story does not belong to them), belongingness (exactly who are their family) and identity (who am I given my beginnings), are worked through. Amy Schofield’s compassionate chapter on male infertility offers a rare picture of what the road to donor conception parenthood is like for men, how they experience counselling in the clinic as an examination to test their suitability to ‘go ahead’ and how, after all the pain, humiliation and fears of rejection they are so immensely grateful to be able to experience the normal highs and lows of being a dad. Ken Daniels focuses on Understanding and Managing Relationships in Donor Assisted Families emphasising the importance of communication and boundaries in an age of openness, Kate and her colleague Tamsin Mitchell write about the Preparation for Donor Conception workshops run by DCN and I have a chapter on the family affair of Telling and Talking. But my contribution has nothing to do with my recommendation. This is a hugely rich book full of good things. Don’t let the sub-title put you off.
The next book is the latest by Professor Susan Golombok of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms makes for easier reading than the third title (and costs a lot less too). Golombok identifies new family forms as those that have come into being in the relatively recent past. Step-families and women on their own with children where a man has left the relationship are non-traditional family forms that have existed for ever and have been identified as sources of potential poor outcomes for children. On the other hand lesbian and gay families, those with a single mother by choice at the head and heterosexual couples who have used donor conception and/or surrogacy are all new family forms or ones that were hidden from society until very recently. This book is a very useful summary of the research to date on the outcomes for the children of these new families. The limitations of many of the studies are acknowledged – often small sample sizes, volunteers rather than randomly selected families, the inability to talk to older children who have not been told they are donor conceived, but the general message is hugely positive…it is the quality of the relationships in the family and the wider social environment that impacts on a child’s well-being, not the family form in which he or she is being raised.
The third is a book that sadly, because it is so expensive, only likely to be read by an elite few academics whose institutions will put it in their libraries. It deserves a wider audience and is highly recommended for all those who have the interests of donor conceived families at heart. Relatedness in Assisted Reproduction: Families, Origins and Identities, is edited by Tabitha Freeman, Susanna Graham, Fatemeh Ebtehaj and Martin Richards and published by Cambridge University Press. The focus, in the words of Tabitha Freeman is, “the nature and meaning of relatedness between parents, children and others who may be involved in the conception, gestation and care of a child as well as their family members.” The book brings together different disciplinary perspectives to shed light on how relatedness is shaped by people’s experiences and also the wider cultural, legal and policy landscape. It challenges many taken-for-granted assumptions made by clinic staff, policymakers and lawyers and introduces the reader to the often contradictory meanings placed on biological and non-biological connectedness by those who are personally involved in the creation of a family by donor conception. I found some of the chapters hard going but ultimately revealing of some important and often overlooked aspects of the donor conception experience for all parties. It rewards persistence. If you would like to read more about the contents before shelling out the large amount required I recommend the review by Anthony Blackburn-Starza in the February 9th edition of Bio-News http://www.bionews.org.uk/page_476250.asp
Susie and Linda can be viewed talking to each other about their donor, their families and how they talk with friends about being donor conceived on the DVD A Different Story…Revisited available from DC Network http://www.dcnetwork.org/catalog/dvdsvideos
The two films on this DVD feature ten other donor conceived children and young people talking about their thoughts and feelings on being donor conceived.