I had hoped that last week’s conference on Assisted Reproduction: Emotional and Identity Implications for Parents and Children would be more enlightening than I found it actually was. It was clear that the organisers had only recently stumbled on the issue and whilst I am delighted that they have, the psychoanalytic community have as yet little to say that is helpful. Wonderings and meandering thoughts about the impact of having been a frozen embryo are not necessarily helpful to parents, offspring or indeed mental health professionals who may encounter families going through difficulties. However, some things did resonate with me. I’ll summarise them here.
It was good to be reminded of the enormous pain of infertility and need to grieve for lost fertility/sense of manliness or womanliness as well as the child it is not possible to have, BEFORE moving on to ART with or without donated gametes. Loss is the central theme and therapy and counselling undoubtedly offer a lifeline at this stage for many people. I would say a period of grief and personal reflection are essential before contemplating egg, sperm or embryo donation. Joan Rafael Leff was interesting in designating all babies as a ‘stranger’, going on to suggest that many people find it very difficult to accept that every baby is ‘unknown’ or ‘other’. So not just babies created with the gametes of an unknown person or persons, but every baby comes into the world as a unique being in their own right who has to become ‘known’ to his or her parents.
Of greater pertinence to those at the stage of contemplating using donated gametes or with children conceived this way was Susan Golombok’s research finding that higher levels of well-being are found in 14 year olds who are ‘told’ about their beginnings before the age of 7. Surprise, surprise, it was the quality of the relationships in the family – the sense of belonging and connectedness these young people felt – that seemed to account for their levels of adjustment. Interestingly, securely attached adolescents were more interested in exploring their donor conception origins than those who were insecurely attached. Although Golombok did not say this, I assume this means that those teenagers who felt comfortable about their beginnings and where the topic was an open one in the family, felt able to ask questions and explore their donor conception without any concern about hurting their parents. We know from other research that many donor conceived adults who have found out about beginnings in teenage or adult years fear sharing their interest in their donor and half-sibs because they think their parents will be upset and hurt by this. Thus they may search but they will not share this fact within the family.
Another interesting research result from Susan Golombok was that children conceived via surrogacy show at age 7 the same levels of problems/anxieties as internationally adopted children. In other words they are dealing with issues of identity earlier than most other children. However, longitudinal studies have shown that both groups return to ‘normal’ by age 10. In the study carried out by Golombok’s team 60 per cent of surrogacy families remained in touch with their surrogate ten years later. Where the surrogate was also the genetic mother they were more likely to lose contact.
Katherine Fine’s presentation was just lovely – extending and exploring the theme of her book Donor Conception for Life, which is that families formed by donor conception need to recognise and include in their understanding of family, both the genetic and psychological history of the donor. As far as those of us from DC Network were concerned, this talk was pitched just right – the importance of acknowledging the donor as a real person making a contribution to individual offspring and their families, but keeping it real by using quotes from a pair of half-siblings and others who had contributed to the book. I was sad that members of the audience asked her few questions and made no reference to her presentation later – quite possibly because they felt it was not analytic in its focus – although she is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.
In contrast to Saturday, Sunday’s DCN conference was a warm and friendly swirl of donor conception parents and children and those pregnant or still contemplating. Just over 200 adults and about 80 children gathered at a N.London school for presentations on genes and genealogy where myths like DNA being passed from mother to child when the child has been conceived by egg donation, were busted, and we were all introduced to the concept of there being no such thing as an anonymous donor any more because of the huge increase in use of DNA based genealogy websites. In the afternoon a solo mum of nine year old twins by double donation told us about the range of funny, sad and poignant things her children say about being donor conceived, their interest in their Spanish donors and their wish for a dad.
It was a great day, full of chat and laughter as adults and children met up with old friends and made new relationships. It felt very real and could not have been a greater contrast to Saturday.