I have just finished updating the Telling and Talking booklet for parents of 8 – 11 year olds for DC Network. I wrote the first one in 2006, updated it in 2013 and, because it has been so popular it needed reprinting, I have just done it again. It is fascinating what has changed in these last ten years.
In 2006 anonymity for donors had just ended in the UK. Everyone reading the booklet at that time would have used anonymous donors. If parents were contemplating another child they had a dilemma. They were able to choose to use the same donor (there were exceptions to the identifiable rule for children within the same family) so that their children were full genetic siblings without rights to identifiable information or they could choose a different donor, giving the second child different rights to their first. Those who had not reserved sperm for a second or often third child by then, found themselves without an option and agonised over this. 2023, when the first children conceived post-2005 would be able to exercise their right to identifiable information about their donor felt light years away. Parents, on the whole, did not want to think about donors as real people and half-siblings were only beginning to be acknowledged as existing. People had only just started going abroad for egg donation in the previous couple of years.
The situation today could not be more different. Every child between 8 and 11 conceived by donated gametes or embryos in the UK will have identifiable donor(s). But there are also a considerable but completely unknown number who have been conceived outside the UK using anonymous donor(s). These two groups of children have completely different rights. As the first post-2005 children become teenagers, 2023 feels much closer. Although many parents still feel very anxious about acknowledging the donor as a person who could potentially enter their lives, DC Network is (gently) leading them towards this recognition and DCN members at least are beginning to get their heads round it. There are very many more solo mums than ten years ago and some of those who chose to import donor sperm from the States are busy making contacts with half-siblings via the Donor Sibling Registry. These families are leading the way in demonstrating that contact with half-siblings and potentially the donor can bring a rich dimension into the lives of DC families, rather than the disruption and undermining of relationships that has been feared for so long. Heterosexual couples still have a lot of catching up to do here.
The years between 8 and 11 are important ones for every child and family. It is a time for consolidation of relationships between parent and child before the potential upheavals of hormone-fuelled teenage years. For donor conception families these years offer the last window of opportunity to tell a child about their beginnings without too much shock or upset, but hopefully most parents will have started to tell the story of how their children came into the family long before this time. As part of the updating of the booklet I have been talking to some parents with children in this age group. All of them started ‘telling’ from a very early age and their children would have been able to ‘parrot’ their story from 5 or 6. However, most parents felt that real understanding of the genetic disconnect did not begin to happen until between ages 8 and 9 and became deeper in the following years. This fits exactly with a change in brain development that allows for a more sophisticated comprehension of concepts that occurs around the age of 8. It often starts with a rather linear perspective along the lines of…if the egg or sperm that made me came from someone else then maybe they are my ‘real’ mother or father. Tom age 9, one of embryo donation twins said something along these lines to his mum whilst they were at the GP surgery the other week. His mum is used to her children asking upfront and direct questions and was not upset. She suggested to Tom that he have a think about what he had said and that they would talk about it on the way home. Later in the car Tom said, “I have thought about it and I think you ARE my real mum.” Max age 11 was conceived with help from a known egg donor whom he meets from time to time but with whom he does not have an emotional relationship. He told his mum Ann recently that he thinks about his donor quite and lot and is grateful to her but that, “I’m glad I can grow up with you. If I grew up in her family I would be a different person.” Max, at two years older than Tom, is showing how his thinking has become more complex over time.
The above are just two examples of parents who understand that their children have a natural curiosity about their conception and what it might mean for them now and as they grow older. They are committed to answering their children’s questions as they arise and discussing with them how they feel about being donor conceived. There are of course no guarantees about how Tom and Max will feel when they are adults but it is likely that their parent’s openness from an early age and willingness to hear and talk about their feelings will stand them in good stead in the future.
So how does the new 8 – 11 booklet differ from the previous versions? Well to start with there are many more examples and quotes from egg and embryo donation conceived families. Back in 2006, sperm donation still dominated. The issue of questions about half-siblings and donors, and the differential access to information and contact for people conceived abroad and in the UK, are covered fully. Questions about resemblance can come to the fore in the 8 – 11 years as children become more self-conscious and friends comment on how they do or don’t look like parents or siblings. Lastly, managing information at school gets a large section as children in this age group are likely to mention DC at school but often find that their peers ‘don’t get it’. The ‘Daddy question’ for solo mums is addressed in it’s own section and in the one about school where support from teachers can help normalise a child’s ‘difference’ without pointing the finger at them. Full of quotes from parents and children themselves, hopefully the booklet will be a good companion for parents of this mostly delightful age group of children.
The new edition should be available by the end of February/beginning March and can be bought in printed or pdf form from http://www.dcnetwork.org/catalog/books-and-pdfs