What do genes and genetics mean to you?

Being the sort of organisation that does not avoid difficult questions, the topic for the main session at DC Network’s family conference this coming Saturday is What do genes and genetic connections mean to me?   The panel of speakers are a mum in a sperm donation created family, a dad in an egg donation family and a donor conceived young adult, along with his SMC mum.  They are all thoughtful people and I suspect are likely to bring some fresh thinking to a topic that is often avoided but is at the heart of all donor conception families.

A difficult truth is that certainly all heterosexual couples set out on their journey to parenthood wishing to have a child who will be a combination of them both…ideally the best of each of them.  For most couples this will be expressed in terms of… his blue eyes, her curly hair, his funny toes, her long, slender fingers rather than talk about genes per se, but that’s what they mean.  But if a child is sought in an intentional way it is also about something else.  It is to do with a celebration of the couple’s relationship, their wish to have another being come 0ut of their love for each other and to demonstrate the strength of their commitment to being together.  When time and unsuccessful attempts at pregnancy eventually prove that creating a child with their own gametes is not going to be possible then the loss of that ideal has to be mourned.   However, once that important process has been worked through, it is still possible to become parents together.   I talked this morning with a man who, with his wife, chose adoption over donor conception because of the equality of genetic disconnect for each of them with a child.   For others, going through the pregnancy together and for a woman, the experience of pregnancy and birth, feel essential to a sense of becoming parents.  The fact that a donor conceived child will (usually) be genetically connected to one parent is a bonus, but not necessarily the main reason for choosing donor conception over adoption.  Walter and I found the experience of pregnancy increased our sense of closeness as a couple, perhaps particularly because we had had to face the sadness of his infertility together.  We never considered our child-to-be as ‘second best’ or anything other than ‘our baby’ even though we always acknowledged, and talked with others about, the conception with the help of a donor.  The baby was ‘ours’ because he (and then she) came out of our wish to create lives we felt we had something to contribute to, values that were worth having and, yes, a legacy that was worth passing on.  Obviously Walter has not been able to pass on his genetic heritage but I think our kids would say that he has given them so much more as a dad.

Have our children missed out on not knowing about half their genetic background, knowing who their donor is and having contact or even a relationship with their donors and half-siblings?  For a minority of donor conceived adults not having these connections seems to feel like a bereavement that can somehow never be recovered from.  A sense of loss that lives with them everyday, although most live good lives full of relationships and worthwhile activities.  They, and others who may not feel quite as strongly, get angry that parents get to choose to have a genetic connection but that they are denied knowledge of one of the people who contributed to their conception.  I understand that.  It is a double standard.  Donors should always be identifiable so that children/young people/adults have a choice about knowing who these people are.  I suspect the wish of one DC adult I know to be able to have a relationship with her donor and his family alongside an equal relationship with her raising parents (whom she loves dearly) is asking more of human relationships than most people are able to tolerate, but it is a lovely idea.  Our own two, now 32 and 29, remain very much as they always have been.  The eldest is disinterested and Zannah, the youngest,  is curious and interested in genetic connections if they come her way but feels that who she is has been shaped by relationships, education and life experience.  She acknowledges that she may well have inherited many characteristics from her donor and his family but she does not have a strong need to pin these down or any unfulfilled need to have a relationship with them.

What do genes and genetic connections mean to me personally?  Well, I don’t think very much but I may be kidding myself.  I do find myself looking for evidence of family likenesses in our grand-daughter but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the reason I love her to bits.  My father was Italian and there are probably family members still alive in Italy but I don’t feel a need to track them down.  Would I feel a connection to them if I did?  I have no idea.  Probably if I developed a relationship then I would but I have no drive to discover them in order to find out.  It is certainly not important to my sense of identity.   Outside of our immediate family, in which I include my brother and sister, the people I care about are those I share interests and values with.  You mostly can’t count on that with genetic relatives.

This blog is to do with how we feel about genes.  Of course there is the science as well but I am not qualified to write about that and anyway in the end it is down to how we as individuals perceive what it is the scientists are saying.  Those who believe genetics are all will hear one thing, those whose world view sees relationships and nurture as having more influence will hear another.  I suspect a complex mix of the two is most likely.

Saturday will be fascinating but I doubt somehow that we will get beyond something along the lines of …genes mean absolutely everything and nothing at all.  This, I believe, is the paradox that potential parents by donor conception have to master in order to successfully manage raising children by donation.  That, and the importance of choosing an identifiable donor and always keeping an open mind.   None of us can ever know how our children are going to feel.

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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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42 Responses to What do genes and genetics mean to you?

  1. Olvia wrote: ” I suspect the wish of one DC adult I know to be able to have a relationship with her donor and his family alongside an equal relationship with her raising parents (whom she loves dearly) is asking more of human relationships than most people are able to tolerate, but it is a lovely idea. ”

    (***That would her father not her “donor” – there is no such thing as a “donor” in relation to any offspring (“donor” only applies to the commissioning intended parent(s)***)

    That being said, You are probably right, after the fact it can be difficult to have this rainbow and unicorn scenario but I don’t think this person is in the minority when they wish for this lovely idea but at the same time hold a realistic expectation.

    Do genes matter? This article reflects another opinion:

    “The special responsibility that biological parents have for their children is non-transferable because only biological parents can give to their children the benefit of their parental love. The relationship between children and their biological parents is intimate, permanent, and identity-constituting. It defines the biological aspect of the child’s identity—for if the child had different biological parents, he would not be the same person; indeed he would not exist at all. Children do not miss being loved by those with whom they have no intimate relationship; the unique, irreplaceable intimacy of the parent-child relationship manifests itself in the fact that a child can miss the specific love and care of an absent biological parent, even when he is well-loved by (say) adoptive parents.”

    http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/10/15409/

    • gsmwc02 says:

      This whole piece dismisses the concept of non biological bonds and non biological family. It’s a closed minded piece that is outdated in modern society.

  2. And how exactly can you say for certain that this person is a “minority”? Based on what exactly? People who contact you? How many of them are social parents? How many of them are dependent children of those social parents? What motivates them to contact an organization like yours? What “studies” exactly? How are those “studies” conducted, by whom, what were the questions asked? You really can’t say that this person is in the minority, especially when these serious questions often only come out once those children become adults and have children of their own. Better to be more neutral on that.

    • gsmwc02 says:

      How many of the outspoken people are people who were either told later in their lives as you were or had a non biological parent who rejected them?

  3. oliviasview says:

    Hi Whosedaughter, I haven’t quoted or spoken about any ‘studies’. I come across DC adults in many different contexts, probably more on blogs, forums and Facebook pages than through DC Network…although I don’t see why the thoughts and feelings of the offspring of Network members should be discounted. It is my opinion, and mine alone, that those DC adults who wish for a relationship with their donor are in a minority. We shall see as the years pass.

    • Thank you for clarifying. Opinion yes, fact no. Not all speak on the forums you follow or the ones I follow. These are nuanced and not straight forward issues. I have no problem with that. Only when opinions are used to influenced politics and public policy.

      • “I I don’t see why the thoughts and feelings of the offspring of Network members should be discounted.” Do you/Can you see the double standard here? I could say those ppl on DC Network are agenda driven and because they speak louder than others they should be discounted and diminished as a ‘small vocal minority’. But that’s not what I’m saying, I’m saying there is a MUCH bigger picture here. All good food for thought.

  4. oliviasview says:

    I wonder if you would explain a bit more. I’m not sure of your point here. Agree about everything being food for thought.

  5. Dismissing this person as being “a minority”. No context. No authority to say this.

  6. oliviasview says:

    I don’t think I was dismissing her perspective. Just saying, I suppose, that in my opinion it is idealised and unlikely to be possible in the real world. It doesn’t mean to say that I think her feelings are invalid in any way. No-one’s feelings are invalid.

    • marilynn says:

      Olivia said:
      “I suspect the wish of one DC adult I know to be able to have a relationship with her donor and his family alongside an equal relationship with her raising parents (whom she loves dearly) is asking more of human relationships than most people are able to tolerate, but it is a lovely idea. ””
      No Olivia, most people would and will and do tolerate shared custody orders with the individuals they have children with when they are not in an intimate relationship living under one roof with them. It’s the law that parental obligation to offspring exists whether or not your married to the other biological parent of your child. The fact that people are able to circumvent that law by concealing the identity of the other biological parent and possibly pretending to have had that child with another person should not have to be tolerated. There is a legal framework in existence for getting to have both your parents and their families in your life along with their respective partners and plenty of people tolerate it because it’s the right and fair thing to do for their children whether they are comfortable with it or not. They tolerate it even when they never wanted to become parents because they have children and by virtue of that have to put what they want second to what their child needs.

      What is sad is that the relationships these absent parents have with their children won’t legally ever be what it should be.

      • oliviasview says:

        This is when the original parents started out in a relationship with each other and then separate or divorce. There is no relationship between a donor and a recipient. Neither party wants there to be one, unless a known donor (that is, someone actually known to the recipient) is used. The intention is that the donor wishes to help someone else, couple or individual, become a parent. They do not wish to become a parent themselves. This is VERY different to people who started out together.

        • marilynn says:

          Olivia if in ten years you got an email from a grandchild you did not know come to find out your son had been donating to “give back” and bond emotionally with his “donor” but he rejected contact from her and there in your email was a photo of the prettiest girl looked just like you as a teen ager and she’s hoping you and your daughter would care about her and you see your face and your daughter’s face would she matter to you even though she did not matter to him? Is her worth as your granddaughter dependent upon him having acted responsibly and taken care of her? Would you only love her if he loved her mother? He was never married to her mother, never divorced, she’s illigitimate are you ashamed of her? Would the grand children he raised be more worthy of your love than the one he rejected?

          Same scenario only it’s your daughter’s daughter and your daughter decided not to have any kids of her own and raise them but she donated her eggs to some lady at her office and it was a semi open arrangement that shut down after the child was born and your daughter never had any other kids and your grandkid comes knocking on the car hoping you love her back.

          You have written about grieving the genetic child you don’t get to have, but you did get to have your own biological children. You have not grieved the absence of a hypothetical biological child. You’ve thought it was absurd for me to say that donor offspring grieve the loss of their real life parents and family at least as much as anyone grieves a child that never even existed. You thought it was absurd because the are born into the family that raises them so there is nothing to miss no parent was lost to them. Well these hypothetical situations above would put you in the position of actually grieving the loss of real live relatives, grandchildren not the children you drempt about but could not have but your actual family lost to you as their father’s and relatives are lost to them. I just which you’d empathize in a way that did not try to make it OK to keep separating families. Make an agency that gets people to do the rainbow unicorn thing with gamete donors. Everyone else has to share custody when they are not married to their kid’s other parent and nobody gives a hot GC if they feel like being parents or not or if they are in love or married or not. When you have kids they come first and what you want takes a back seat to that. Same rules the rest of us go by.

          Why would people raising donor offspring consider their marriages so much more delicate and fragile than everyone else’s relationships but they power through shared custody cause the alternative to raising your kid with someone you are not in love with is to what walk away give up the kid if you can’t go it alone or pretend your partner is the other parent? If they changed the law tomorrow and people could donate but there would be no exemption from parental aresponsibility; nobody would call it fertility treatment anymore. Would all the people raising donor offspring stomp their feet and say if they can’t have the kid totally to themselves they don’t want them? I’d like to believe they’d love the kid so much that of course they’d figure it out and cooperate the way the rest of the world does. I don’t think people raising donor offspring are monsters I’m sure they love the kid’s they are raising. They just have not had to behave like the rest of the adult population they get to put their relationships first in front of their kid’s needs and so their kid’s don’t have the same rights well that’s stupid. People raising donor offspring can do it, they can find the strength to cooperate in the best interest of their kid once the uncomfortable conceiving with someone other than their partner part is over. You could help with that start an agency get people thinking positive about that true truth telling. Building up one family should never tear down another. Use your powers for good. Your kids would be super happy about it. They might even tell you stuff they never told you before.

          • oliviasview says:

            Marilynn
            a. In the very hypothetical situations you pose I would like to think I would be open to any donor conceived young person making contact with me as a genetic relative.
            b. In the rainbow/unicorn situation you seem to want me to have a hand in starting, virtually no-one would donate because shared parenting is not what donors want.
            c. Why is it that only couples who by circumstance of a malfunction of their bodies are unable to create a child with their own gametes should have to share parenting with someone else when those who conceive without help would never choose to be in this situation. A similar situation occurs when unthinking people suggest that those of us who are infertile should ‘just adopt’. Anyone could choose to adopt but mostly people don’t.
            d. Once again you seem to assume that my own children must be holding something back from me. Sorry to disappoint you, we have a very honest relationship and it certainly would have come up before now if they had any sense of abandonment from their donor or wished that my husband and I had co-parented them with the donor and his family. If anything I can imagine they would have resented this as making them stand out from all the other families where children just had one set of parents.

            • To know, be known by, love and be loved by, from day one, (know with certainty/feel/experience that you are truly fully and completely embraced, accept and ALL are proud of you and support you) Is an ideal well worth working towards and fighting for. (even if it is a ‘rainbows and unicorns’ reach…because it’s really not if it’s set up correctly before conception.) This most likely cannnot be done through government regulation or clinic programs however. It’s a grassroots effort.

  7. “Discounted” is a better word perhaps that “dismissed”.

    I in turn could say that in my opinion it is idealized (delusional) and simply impossible that a genetic father can only be reduced to a “sperm donor” simply by intention. Feelings I could say – sure they are valid – but that mindset (and practice) is not at all a product of reality, – only social/legal manipulations driven by agendas.

    I of course am not at all discounting yours or others with similar mindsets. Not at all.

  8. oliviasview says:

    I’m intrigued by your reference, more than once, to ‘agendas’. Grateful if you could explain please.

    • You run a ‘support’ network (seeking more ‘regulation’ and ‘control’, encourage ‘open donors’ in order to make intended parents proud of the story they tell their children).

      These are good things but…

      I would like to see it only take place within the context of loving meaningful (and manageable) relationships (ie genetic & social without conflict). Rainbows and unicorns.

      Are they compatible with each other?

      My concern with the regulation and normalization effort is that it creates more demand. Which will require more efforts to recruit which will be very difficult to do by encouraging loving/meaningful/manageable relationships between all parties.

      Someone once said this is like trying to solve the problems in the Middle East.

      • “I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are
        (still) together.”
        ― Warsan Shire

      • gsmwc02 says:

        What is normal? The reality of life is that there is no such thing as normal. Life is diverse, unpredictable and brings unexpected twists and turns. The thing regulation in this case it will allow for more open mindness as to what families are.

      • To know, be known by, love and be loved by, from day one, (know with certainty/feel/experience that you are truly fully and completely embraced, accept and ALL are proud of you and support you) Is an ideal well worth working towards and fighting for. (even if it is a ‘rainbows and unicorns’ reach…because it’s really not if it’s set up correctly before conception.) This most likely cannnot be done through government regulation or clinic programs however. It’s a grassroots effort.

  9. gsmwc02 says:

    I know I’m not donor conceived so take my opinion with a grain of salt. Genetics do have an importance to me. Sharing certain traits and personality characteristics that blood relatives have/had do mean something to me. However, since I learned that my blood line will end with me they mean less. I never really had a strong interest in genealogy and its non existent now. I’ve learned to value my non biological bonds just as much and in some cases more than my biological ones. I guess it’s similar to the way some donor conceived and adopted adults opinions on the topic change when they have their own kids.

    But that’s just me.

    • Mac says:

      I don’t know the answer to this. I personally don’t give much regard to genetics. Yes, I am who I am because of my upbringing with my “genetic” parents and genetic sister but Its the quality of my parents relationship that has shaped me and challenged me – not blood.

      I do feel as humans we are wired to want something more. I love my family dearly but I don’t always fit in – despite being 100% their daughter, sister, cousin, niece or grandaughter, I still feel something is missing.

      My husband who has a genetic condition ironically has no interest in genetics. That said we do know where we come from.

      We plan to build our family with the help of an open identity donor. We plan to be open and hones. Hoping that if our child won’t have to re think their identity things will be easier and if they want a relationship with the donor, well we’re open to that.

      I feel strongly the it is the quality of realtionships that shape us more. Why else do we put so much work and emphasis on relationships, marriage and building a family with a genetic stranger?

      • gsmwc02 says:

        Great points. I definitely agree about humans desiring wanting more. Could be in some cases there are those who want genetic connections to be more than they really are.

      • I agree the quality of the relationships are critical. But that ‘genetic stranger’ to you is not a ‘genetic stranger’ to any children you might bring into the world using the gametes of this man. He will be their genetic father and he will connect them to their genetic family. He will indirectly forever be a part of your family and even your marriage. If your children someday contact him, will you and your partner allow them to build a quality relationship if they all desire this?

  10. oliviasview says:

    Thanks for your comments Mac. I tend to agree with you. It has certainly worked out that way in my family.

  11. This will be interesting to follow:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3267859/Queen-demands-DNA-test-court-settle-dispute-330-year-old-baronet-title-ruling-mean-Utah-Mormon-king.html

    “This could have huge implications for the whole of the British aristocracy – and possibly even the Royal Family itself – if it means ‘pretenders’ emerge with genetic evidence to prove their right of succession.
    Experts say the case will be difficult for the judges to decide, as it will be pitting the modern science of genetics against hundreds of years of tradition.”

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