‘Telling’ late about donor conception not so bad after all?

I am currently working towards updating the DC Network publication, Telling and Talking 17+.  This is the only book in the series that focuses exclusively on first time telling of older teenagers and adults, the earlier ones including ‘continuing to tell’ as well as guidance around telling for the first time.  In the ten years since I wrote the original edition, some things, like the potential for finding genetic relatives through DNA testing, have changed enormously, whilst others have stayed the same.

Received wisdom has it that divulging the information about beginnings by donor conception to an adult is likely to result not only in shock but psychological damage as the person discovers that everything they assumed they knew about their connection to one side of their family , is found to be false.  A few voices denying that they have felt traumatised have come through, but mostly, like the myth that the ending of anonymity for donors must mean that it is virtually impossible to recruit donors, the media and indeed many in the donor conception community, continue to assume and believe that late ‘telling’ is inevitably damaging.

For some years now my husband Walter and I have worked with parents of DC adults who have changed their view over the years and come to the point of wanting, or needing because of circumstances, to tell their offspring about their beginnings.  As part of my preparation for updating the T & T book I have reconnected with some of these families and talked with both the parents and their adult children.  Some were told as long as five or six years ago and one had the circumstances of her conception revealed to her in June of this year.  Their ages on being told ranged from nineteen to thirty-seven years.

We are only talking small numbers here, five women and one man so far, so I am not claiming this as statistically significant research of any sort, but I have yet to come across someone who feels that the information about being donor conceived has affected their life adversely.  All were initially shocked and disbelieving – can this really be true – but instead of anger and distress at having had a secret kept from them for such a long time, the overwhelming emotion was for their parents and what they had suffered over the years, first with infertility and then holding the secret.  For those DC adults who had known the truth the longest, this feeling had persisted to the present.  None of them could imagine what it would have been like to have been given the information when they were children, some feeling that they may have used it against their parents as teenagers, and all believing that the age they had been told at (whatever that was) was the perfect time.  Some, particularly the woman who was told six months ago, recognise that they are protecting their parents but feel that this is something they want to do, family togetherness and solidarity being very important for them.  They do not feel they are denying their own feelings or impulse to search by doing this.  In fact the only person I interviewed who said she would definitely look for genetic relatives when her very elderly and frail father dies, is an only child and she is fascinated with the idea of half-siblings.  She was relieved to find she had not inherited the illnesses that run in her father’s family and saw the prospect of finding people she was related to as the opening up of an exciting new landscape, but the revelation of DC had not changed her feelings about her parents in any way.

We know from the many accounts on the internet and in the small amount of research on DC adults that the responses I have described above are not shared by all.  For some, the news turns their lives completely upside down and becomes a dominant feature rather than something that it is possible to integrate into the life they are leading.  Very tentatively, I wonder if at least some of the explanation for the difference  lies in the fact that all the DC adults I spoke to were raised in warm, loving, secure and intact families.  In particular, the dads (the non-genetic parent) were loving, affectionate and involved in their children’s lives.  Another difference to many other parents is the fact that they sought help and support in preparing to tell their children and wanted to do it in the best possible way, recognising that holding the secret was no longer the best advice (as had been told them by their clinic).  One of the parents was stimulated into ‘telling’ by the threat that her daughter was being encouraged to take a DNA test by a relative (as it happens a genetically connected one) for genealogical purposes.  She is SO relieved she was able to find support before taking the plunge.

The youngest of the offspring I talked to was nineteen when she was told.  She had just returned from a gap year abroad and was preparing to go off to university in the autumn. Her life felt in a good place but she believes that any earlier in her teenage years would not have been the right time to be told.  The others all felt that having established identities through relationships, their education and work, finding out about being donor conceived was something that took it’s place proportionately in their lives, along with many other things.

As I said at the beginning, I am not claiming the conversations I have had as ‘research’ but I do think that the role of preparation for parents of ‘untold’ DC adults has not been acknowledged before and maybe a significant factor in alleviating long-term distress and damage for the whole family.

One of the conclusions that some might want to draw from the above is that it’s fine to ‘tell’ late.  I don’t think so.  The anxiety that all of the mothers and some of the fathers suffered over the years and the energy that was taken up in the family by doing this, took it’s toll.  And of course no-one can know how their ‘child’ is going to respond.  Having a warm and loving upbringing is as protective in DC families as it is in any other, but we know from accounts of some DC adults that unresolved feelings about infertility and other stresses in families, like holding a secret, sometimes drives parents apart and that can only lead to complicated feelings all round.  Early ‘telling’ is undoubtedly the right and respectful thing to do, but it might just be that if the story is not started before the age of puberty, then waiting until full adulthood – unless there are pressing reasons to do otherwise – may bring about better outcomes.


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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4 Responses to ‘Telling’ late about donor conception not so bad after all?

  1. TAO says:

    Olivia, although obviously different than adoption in many ways, similarities abound between DC and adoptees. One of them, specifically, is the intersection of the loyalty factor that seems at times to put DC and adoptees between a rock and hard place when it comes to any feelings about their circumstances or desires. No one would willingly want to hurt their parents, or fears something would hurt their parents and that loyalty makes it hard, you are the rope being pulled in different directions. That premise flows through unnoticed by those who aren’t part of the DC or adoptee collective, yet it is obvious to us. You noted one above, the decision to wait until her parent had passed, putting his need above her own, despite the reality that decision could cost her finding a grave, that’s the loyalty factor. The other is more subtle, the acceptance, the defense mechanism to protect the familial unit, that everything is fine, and, indeed, it likely is fine, now, it may always be fine for some until one day it’s not, and then they have the words to use to name what those feelings really are. It’s complicated and you never know how you will feel down the road when a lived experience triggers deeper feelings about who you are, and why.

    • oliviasview says:

      You are right, it is very complicated and feelings can change from one year to the next. In the case of the woman who is waiting until her father dies to search, she is unlikely to have to wait very long as he is in his mid-nineties and very frail. She is genuinely happy to wait those few months or years and to be honest I don’t think it would worry her too much if she did find out that her donor was dead. But I do absolutely agree that feelings can and do change for some people. I have seen it happen with our own daughter so I have personal experience of this too.

  2. TJ says:

    “I wonder if at least some of the explanation for the difference lies in the fact that all the DC adults I spoke to were raised in warm, loving, secure and intact families. In particular, the dads (the non-genetic parent) were loving, affectionate and involved in their children’s lives. Another difference to many other parents is the fact that they sought help and support in preparing to tell their children and wanted to do it in the best possible way, recognising that holding the secret was no longer the best advice (as had been told them by their clinic). ”

    “‘Telling’ late about donor conception not so bad after all?”

    How I wish you’d chosen a different title, donor conception is not adoption but for parents not comfortable with how their child was conceived or who believe the donor is a legitimate parent, donor Dad, genetic mother, bio Mum… then that is what is modelled and projected to their children. No abuse or abandonment in donor conception, but there is loss and research that shows those children who found out later or badly about donor conception…whose parents weren’t comfortable and so possibly weren’t the ones who sought support in telling were the ones not able to accept, to process to experience unconditional love and support from parents who were comfortable and accepting of their conception decisions.

    Sadly your post shared on social media… it’s the not comfy parents and people planning to conceive who will cheer that now you’re agreeing it’s OK not to tell … as the will see the title, ignore the ‘?’ and possibly not read the post.


    • oliviasview says:

      Hi TJ; I’m sorry you feel the title could be taken as an encouragement not to ‘tell’ early. Of course I am well aware of the research that shows that those offspring who found out later in an unplanned or even abusive way are likely to be those who are traumatised, sometimes to the point of actual damage. But as I point out, not all ‘late telling’ works out that way and as someone who believes in nuance and shades of grey. rather than Daily Mail style black and white, I thought it important to write about those DC adults who are not distressed as well as acknowledging those who are. Hopefully most people will read the blog and understand the difference and the value of early telling for the whole family.

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