Genetics as we live them

It is a reflection of how full life is at the moment that I have not blogged since the beginning of the month and that it has taken me until Thursday to draw to your attention to the thought provoking article by Alice Jolly on the front page of last Saturday’s family section of the Guardian

Alice, a DC Network member, has a daughter Hope, by egg donation and surrogacy.  She is a writer and in some ways the article could be seen as publicity for her book Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, but in fact it is much, much more than that.  Alice was prompted into thinking about what genetic connections in families meant to her and might mean to her daughter, by a comment from a friend who also has a child by egg donation.  The friend had met with the mother of a *dibling of her daughter and this meeting had been a success, so she asked Alice if she intended to seek out diblings for Hope as well.  Alice and her husband feel more cautious about making these connections but the question set off a train of thought in Alice’s head.  When their surrogate was pregnant with Hope, Alice thought about and researched genetic connections.  It wasn’t the science that interested her but, as she puts it, “genetics as we live it.”  She went on to say, “What soon became clear is that genetics matter less than what we think about genetics.”  As a writer Alice immediately saw this as a narrative.  She is useless at maths because her mother is useless at maths, but, as Jolly goes on to say, in physical appearance and just about everything else she is completely different to her mother.  We use these comparisons as markers of familial connection but they might equally be the result of environmental influences or coincidence.  We give them the meaning that fits with the story we want to tell ourselves.

Alice is swift to say that just because lived genetics are nothing more than narrative does not mean that they are of no importance and goes on to quote an adopted friend who spent years in therapy as a result of feeling she was missing the first pages of her life.  Alice and her husband have made sure that Hope will be able to know both her egg donor and surrogate mother in the future if this proves important to her, but it may also be that she is like a like a second adopted person quoted who, when offered his adoption papers by his mother, chucked them on the fire saying he really didn’t want to know.

Jolly herself has always felt like a cuckoo in the nest in her family but had her sense of displacement put to rest by discovering, in a big house move from urban Brussels to rural Gloucestershire, that she could be whoever she wanted to be and this was very freeing.  She poses the question that the current obsession, as a nation and as individuals, with “who we really are” is something of a toxic dead-end.  As she says, we are never just one thing or another.  “The unpleasant fact is that obsession with identity is finally self-indulgent… is never a good idea to drive using only the rear-view mirror.”

“Focusing on identity can limit and constrain.  Who cares what we are?  Is is not more interesting to consider what we might become?”

I think she’s on to something.  Do read the full article.

*Diblings are genetic half-siblings raised in a different family or children in the family of the donor.


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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40 Responses to Genetics as we live them

  1. polly says:

    The feelings/actions of the male adoptee quoted in the Guardian article (supporting the myth that his loss of family origins is inconsequential); assuring his elderly a/mother that he has no interest in knowing his pre-adoptive history by throwing his adoption records into a fire..requires a deeper understanding. He feels abandoned by his kin and in response…is .rejecting of them. Undoubtedly many DC persons experience similar feelings towards their genealogical kin. I suggest that to better understand these complex feelings in adoptees (& DC persons) there is no better way to do so than by reading THE PRIMAL WOUND, LEGACY OF THE ADOPTED CHILD by Nancy Verrier who is a psychotherapist/adoptive mother. It’s an illuminating and important read.

    • oliviasview says:

      Whilst you may be right about this and other adoptee’s feelings and thank you for the recommendation of the book, it may also be that his feelings are entirely genuine and should be taken at face value. I don’t think we should ever assume we can know the feelings and state of mind of other people.

  2. My parents donor is my father says:

    More ‘new words’ that reflect biases/manipulations/feelings/intent rather than (genetic) facts. Just another layer to add to the confusion. Fact: a sperm ‘donor’ is a genetic father. Fact: a ‘dibling’ is a genetic half sibling. Of course its up to everyone to decide for themselves what to call each other based on their feelings but facts are facts, not feelings.

    • oliviasview says:

      Would not disagree that these are facts.

    • Liz says:

      A sperm donor is a genetic progenitor. The identity of the “father” is defined by social and legal relationships.

      Cultural and historical understandings have informed these social and legal relationships. If this were not true, no one would feel the need to assert otherwise. The fact people feel the need to assert varying view underlies the social malleability and instability of the identity.

      • My parents donor is my father says:

        Everyone has 2 genetic progenitors of an xx (female/mother) and xy (male/father) source. The identity of “father” is not only defined by social/legal relationships it is also used as an identity of the xy genetic progenitor source.

        • Liz says:

          This is not a constant throughout history and societies.

          In certain matrilineal societies where the maternal uncle was the “father.” In medieval Europe at certain points a child born of an unmarried mother could have no recognized father or mother.

          As an idea, it must be upheld socially, culturally, legally in order to exist. It’s quite a fragile concept to need all of those supports in order to exist.

          • My parents donor is my father says:

            In this culture and by dictionary definition (one of many) and by DNA testing, “father” is used to identify the xy genetic progenitor source regardless of the role he plays in his offspring’s life or the method of conception.

            • Liz says:

              That definition is fragile and needs legal, social and cultural support to exist.

              It’s not the only definition of “father” in 20th/21st century western societies. These definitions are in transition and widely accepted competing definitions presently circulate in society.

              • My parents donor is my father says:

                I didn’t say it was the only definition of “father”, it’s more of a noun vs. verb debate. However, I do doubt that the word “father” will ever be fully replaced with something like “genetic xy progenitor” (or “sperm donor”). If you have ever done a DNA test along with your genetic father, full genetic sibling or half sibling, the test results will say, father, full sibling, half sibling. It does not discriminate with intention, conception method or social relationships. That makes sense.

  3. wmdoran says:

    Diblings…get real. Cute rhetoric but extremely lacking empathy for siblings kinship bonds. Brothers/Sisters…that’s it…to us offspring this isn’t cute it’s hurtful and demeaning.

  4. My parents donor is my father says:

    I’ll start with factual definitions. Every single human being on this planet (with the exception of a very rare few) have one genetic mother and one genetic father. There is no such thing as a sperm or egg ‘donor’ in relation to any child/offspring/adult. The term sperm/egg ‘donor’ only relate to the commissioning/intended parent(s). Many people use the term ‘sperm donor’ and even ‘egg donor’ to label an intentionally disconnected (or a ‘dead beat’ father/mother) parent. This is a feeling, not a fact. ‘Dibling’ is just an extension on those feelings.

    • oliviasview says:

      As you already know, this is not a perspective I agree with. I’m sorry you see donors as ‘dead-beat’ mothers or fathers. Couldn’t be further from my own thinking but you are of course entitled to your view.

      • My parents donor is my father says:

        I didn’t say I saw them this way, I said many people see them this way regardless of the method of conception. There is no universal definition of “sperm donor”.

  5. sacredwisdomtravel says:

    My only question is: How much did the “Infertility industry” pay you to write this nonsense?

    Must be comfortable preaching from up on your high horse that “obsession with identity is self-indulgence” without ever having to experience the pain of “genetic bewilderment” or being a donor-conceived person denied access to your own ancestry and family medical history yourself.

    If you have any empathy for the causes of ending “donor anonymity” and “intentional genetic deception”, if you truly want to advocate for the rights of the donor-conceived community then you will print an article presenting this all more accurately.


    Nicholas Isel

    • oliviasview says:

      No money involved Nicholas and the words you object to are not mine but those of the author of the article.

    • Liz says:

      I wish people would respond the article and what the author wrote.

      The author’s discussion of identity was referring to her own preoccupation with feeling as if she never belonged — which changed when she moved from Belgium to a small seaside town in England.

      In her article, the author discussed how she intentionally found two women who would be known to her daughter. Her daughter will be able to have knowledge of both her egg donor and her surrogate. There is no secrecy or anonymity in this situation.

      The author found a known egg donor and a known surrogate because she was aware of adopted friends who had entered therapy to deal with the “missing pages” from the early sections of their lives.

  6. what an absolute load of bollocks. The author is simply justifying her role as baby trader: the clean slate theory went out the window with eugenics – babies love their gestational mother and removing them is extremely cruel. Surrogacy is immoral. The author just lives in la la land. The perfect adoptee who never searches is an anachronism – we no longer have to play the adoption game – we wanted our gestational mothers, and knowing your genetic ancestry enriches your life beyond measure. Its ok the author wants to live in la la land but that she expects her daughter – whom she cruelly removed from both her genetic AND gestational ancestry – is just a human rights violation.

    • oliviasview says:

      I have allowed your rather abusive comment because I dislike censorship. I am not going to engage with the content as I suspect we would never agree. You are of course completely entitled to your personal view.

      • Sorry! I didn’t mean it to sound abusive! Thank you for publishing. I’m just very passionate about the fundamental and profound symbiotic relationships neonate mammals have with their gestational mother. Once removed, the baby will cry, and cry, and cry until he or she comes to the understanding that the mother will not return (is dead). I’m not sure at which stage the DNA mother receives the child but judging from hospital records the crying rages last the first few days after removal. Then he or she will move in to the next stage of grief: withdrawal acquiescence, depression. These feelings of abandonment, loss, rage and despair will resurface later in life. By then Im sure there will be a great “healing” industry to deal with the emotional and psychological problems of adults who were conceived and removed under surrogacy contracts.

        • oliviasview says:

          I am not an expert in this but my understanding of attachment theory is that if a baby is cared for with love, warmth and attunement to their needs then the person that does this does not need to be the gestational mother. I also understand that if changes of caregiver take place within about six months then the trauma to the child is greatly reduced. This is not to say that it is right to deny information about or access to the gestational mother, but if surrogacy situations are managed with the needs of the child in mind then it is my understanding that long-term damage is less likely.
          As I think Liz has pointed out, Alice, the woman who wrote the article in my original post, specifically chose a surrogate and an egg donor who would be available to her daughter so that her history (genetic and otherwise)and heritage could be known.

  7. Liz says:

    Her article was compelling. As a writer, she has interesting insight into the role of narrative in creating identities. Her love of seaside towns sounds lovely.

    I was fascinated by the middle-aged man who threw the papers into the fire. It made me think about past discussions on this blog about how men may be less interested in genealogy and kinship nurturing.

    Perhaps men are generally less interested in researching “family” ties who are not relevant and immediately present in their lives? My husband’s uncle was quite disinterested in reuniting with his mother’s family. There was a family break after her death when he was a teenager. But my mother-in-law was quite interested in meeting cousins from that side of the family as an adult.

    • oliviasview says:

      My experience Liz is that on the whole men are less interested in researching family ties, with some notable exceptions in the donor conception community and elsewhere I am sure.

  8. Liz says:

    After reading her text on “genetics as narrative” I ran across this article about bi-racial fraternal twins.

    Our “narratives” about genetics don’t account for everything genetics can do. It’s fascinating how different the two girls appear to look, but they are twins and sisters. Their mother is caucasian and their father is African-American.

  9. Hannah Spanswick says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how ‘parents’ be they adoptive, those who commission surrogates or donor recipients of all descriptions can find the language to rationalize their actions and attitudes. When will people understand that unlike bricks and mortar or sexy looking motor cars, children and not commodities. Unlike the inanimate, children are born into this world not only with their genetics but with a whole range of emotions and sensations which cannot be ignored. How many more breaches of the Universal Rights of the Child will take place before these unethical practices touted by the fertility industry, will be challenged and brought to a halt?

    • oliviasview says:

      Children are absolutely not commodities. However, the wish to become a parent is an enormously strong one and people will find a way, one way or another. I am an ethical pragmatist in that I believe that donor conception is always going to happen and as this is so, I would prefer to see it occur under the best possible circumstances, i.e.. regulated as it is in the UK with all donors being identifiable. In this way, the needs of the children are kept central stage. Parents should be educated to be open with their children from the beginning and to support and encourage their children when interest is shown in genetic heritage. We are slowly getting there in the UK. Not perfect, but getting there. Unfortunately the US still has a long way to go.

  10. Liz says:

    I was curious why the author went to the American midwest for the surrogacy and egg donor.

    Do you happen to know if it was because the egg donor could be known from the child’s birth instead of waiting until she was an adult? Or, possibly, did it have to do with surrogacy laws in the UK?

    • oliviasview says:

      I don’t know the answer to this Liz, except to say that anonymity for donors ended in 2005 and Alice’s daughter must have been born around 2011/12 so would have had an identifiable egg donor here. Commercial surrogacy is banned in the UK, so the very few agencies cannot advertise. Expenses can be paid but nothing beyond that. Surrogacy UK is a very good organisation where surrogates actually pick the people they want to work with, rather than the other way round. Because of the uncertainty of this situation people sometimes go abroad if they have the money to do so.

  11. pollt says:

    Can’t help but respond to last post where it is said that “Surrogacy UK is a very good organisation where surrogates actually pick the people they want to work with……..”.!!!

    Yes, it is true that surrogates/gestational ‘carriers’ are “working” for others but how will the child born through surrogacy feel (later in life when the surrogacy ‘script’ told in childhood is reconsidered)…and live with this tragic reality??

    • oliviasview says:

      I wonder why it should be tragic Polly? Surrogacy UK surrogates stay in touch with the family, being available to the child at any time. Just what is so sacrosanct about being the gestational woman under these circumstances? Children thrive when they are loved and the more people who love them the better. If families and surrogates have open access to each other, then surely this cannot be considered tragic? I agree that these are not the circumstances of many surrogacy situations, but shouldn’t we be encouraging more of these open arrangements within a regulated context rather than dismissing all surrogacy as totally unacceptable? My ethical pragmatism coming through again.

  12. polly says:

    Read THE PRIMAL WOUND and you will better understand why many adult adoptees oppose surrogacy.

    The best interests of babies are not met when their first human relationship (ie. with their mother) is fragmented…..Hope (in this article) has THREE women whose role in her life she must one day integrate into her sense of self and identity. None of these women is a ‘whole’ mother; Hope’s genetic and gestational mothers are absent from her childhood. This loss has occurred not through death or other traumatic life circumstance but as the carefully contrived terms of her creation.

    • oliviasview says:

      I will read it Polly. I would like to try and understand more why you (and others) seem to feel that the gestational mother or someone being a ‘whole mother’ is so important. I wonder if you can acknowledge that Hope may be absolutely fine about the circumstances of her conception and birth.

  13. Jo says:

    Hi Olivia, I read Alice Jolly’s article in the Guardian some weeks ago.

    As a donor conceived child myself, (and you know my story) I must admit I had two reactions: firstly I found myself pretty upset and outraged at the opinions she was (as she had every right to do), expressing. The second was a weary…. “Here we go again”.

    The thing is, when we find out that we are donor conceived we do NOT go through a tick box of “Well I’m going to choose to have this reaction to this news but not that.”

    My personal reaction was an absolutely immediate instantaneous agonising beyond words, loss of identity. Literally: one moment I had a clear sense of who I was, and within seconds, I did not. In my opinion, it does matter, it absolutely DOES matter where we come from. The instinctive reaction of so many (though of course not all) DC people to immediately go searching for their half siblings and or families tells that story without words. The anguish we go through should not be belittled and for those of us who have that need to find our roots that need should not be belittled or dismissed either.

    It’s so easy, SO easy for someone who isn’t donor conceived themselves…whether that’s Alice, or the man on the moon for that matter to say that finding our roots is an obsession. For me… donor conception would not have become so incredibly common if it were not for the fact that people want to have a child that is, in some way… of them… roots.

    You are quite right. Alice’s article does deserve a response in the Guardian. I am thinking about whether I am brave enough to put my head above the parapet and write it… and prepare myself for the vicious condemnation I will bring down on myself by those who use donor conception. I don’t know if I am.

    This is a HORRIBLE world to find myself a part of.

    • oliviasview says:

      Thank you for your contribution Jo. I would encourage you to write a response for the Guardian but am very sorry that you believe it would be received with “vicious condemnation by those who use donor conception”. These are not people I know. In the work I do I encourage those contemplating using donor conception or those already with children to listen to all views and perspectives on the subject and understand that we can never know how our children will respond to knowing they are donor conceived. I know that your very late discovery of your conception has led to much pain.

      • Jo says:

        Olivia, I’m afraid to say that the vicious condemnation has already happened to me at the hands of more than one person who has used a donor to conceive a child – which is why I now have a visceral fear of being character assassinated when I am already incredibly fragile as a result of all this and why I chose to deliberately use those words… it’s real, not a possibility. 😦

  14. oliviasview says:

    Message for Nicholas: I am always happy to publish the perspectives of people who have opinions completely different to mine. I will not, however, publish sarcasm and rants from people like you who seem to think it is OK to metaphorically shout at those whom they feel are challenging their own views. If you wish to contribute to the debate on this site, please temper your language and the way you express yourself.

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