Someone posted a blog on my Facebook page the other day from a mum to egg donation conceived twins about her ambivalence around ‘telling’ them about their beginnings. It reminded me how very difficult most parents find starting the story…in fact how normal it is for there to be anxiety and mixed feelings around this task. I don’t know anyone, including myself, who has not had a dry-mouth, stomach lurching moment when first sharing the information about donor conception either with a child or with someone else.
I think what may lay behind this nervousness is how we feel about ‘difference’ and a concern about just how ‘different’ the person hearing the information may perceive it to be. Of course if a child is very young and has no knowledge at all about how babies are made, then having some help from a ‘nice man or nice lady’ constitutes no contrast to anything else. In fact many donor conceived children get to six or seven assuming that everyone was made the same way as them. But having the rational knowledge that your child won’t know any better rarely stops parents from feeling anxious about speaking the first words to start telling the story. And this is because, in the words of a donor conceived young adult I know, there is a ‘different story to tell’ and all of us will have had experiences of what ‘difference’ means for us.
I am writing this blog just a day after the death of David Bowie and have been blown away by the outpourings of grief from so very many people around the world. It has been suggested that at the root of some of this strong reaction has been Bowie’s iconic status as someone who dared to be different…who helped people give themselves permission to be different, and I think there is something in this. We are all brought up to have a sense of what is ‘normal’. What constitutes this peculiar state will vary depending on the expectations we have taken in from our parents and education and the cultural, socio-economic and faith backgrounds in which we were raised. Some sorts of ‘normal’ will be more rigid than other sorts. Apart from those people, like Bowie, who have challenged the very concept of what ‘normal’ might be, most of us like to be somewhere on the ‘normal’ spectrum. And until very recently that has meant that mum and dad would inevitably be (except in cases of infidelity) genetically related to their children.
On the forum Fertility Friends you come across people saying that they definitely will not be telling their children about being donor conceived because ‘they just want to be a normal family’. I have a lot of sympathy for this point of view. Mostly, we all want to be seen as more or less ‘normal’. But I also believe that an important part of integrating the fact of donor conception into the lives of a family, is the process of coming to understand that creating a family in this way IS ‘different’. Acknowledgement of this means taking on board the responsibility of sharing the information with children because it is wrong to let them assume that genetic connections are what they would expect them to be, when they are not. Not telling puts dishonesty at the heart of the family when trust between parents and children should be the basis of that life-long relationship.
So would-be and actual parents of donor conceived children need to find a way to accept and integrate the fact of this ‘difference’ into their lives and to understand that being ‘different’ is likely to mean different things to their children at different times.
I wrote the following paragraph back in 2011 but it seemed to fit so well here – and the issues have not changed one jot – so I am repeating it.
When children notice ‘difference’ they take their meaning of it from those around them. If parents are not flustered, defensive or over-protective their children can learn through simple, age-appropriate language and concepts about their particular family. They can then be told how all families are different and see how the one they are growing up in fits into this ‘coat of many colours’ modern world. This applies to all donor conception families, not just those in solo mum, lesbian or gay families. It is easier in a large city, but also entirely possible in smaller communities if parents are open and matter-of-fact about their situation but don’t seek to push their difference into others faces. Difference can be many things. Some people find it threatening, but it can be exciting or liberating too…or neutral…something that just is. The challenge for those of us with ‘different’ families is to understand what difference means to us as adults. If we find it scary and something to be shied away from, then maybe some time needs to be taken to address these feelings as conveying this notion to children will not be helpful. Children need their parents to be comfortable with the decisions they have made, their sexuality and their lifestyles. Children may choose to make other choices when they are adults but deserve parents who accept who they are and who can help their children be confident of their place in the world.
The final message comes in the title of this piece. If you are contemplating using a donor to create your family or are already a parent who has yet to ‘tell’, take time to notice how you are feeling about being open. If you are fearful, seek support from others through DC Network, which welcomes those who are exploring ‘telling’ as much as those who are convinced but anxious. Give yourself permission to be ‘different’ – actually it is a great place to be. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.