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.