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.