Via Carole Leiber-Wilkins on Facebook I recently came across a podcast on the site of a platform called Death, Sex and Money. These topics are often thought of as ones to be avoided in polite conversation for fear of offending others, so this set-up has deliberately taken on the taboo and puts out thought provoking broadcasts on the topics we actually all want to hear about. Cue donor conception and the story of Amy who innocently took a DNA test and discovered the identity of her biological father…the sperm donor her parents had used to conceive her over forty years ago. I won’t spoil the story completely as the podcast absolutely deserves listening to all the way through (although there is a very annoying commercial break half-way for the company to let us know who they are and advertise forthcoming podcasts) but it ends with Amy and her sister, also DC but with different donor, making very individual choices about the way forward. After having contact with a half-sibling who had been in touch with their donor, Amy decides that these people have nothing in common with her – and there is a very up to date context about this decision – and not to have anything further to do with them, at least for the time being. She also partly wishes that she could go back to a time when she didn’t know about being donor conceived. Amy’s sister, on the other hand, is enjoying being in touch with a large number of half-siblings.
Amy’s raising father is now dead but she had a very close relationship with him. She is shocked that he never revealed the truth to her but she is also immensely loyal to the very fond memories she has of him. Her mother is elderly now and only spoke the truth about her daughter’s conceptions when they asked her directly about them…but the two women were careful to approach their mother kindly. They had been raised with care and love.
What should we make of Amy’s reluctance to have a relationship with her biological father and half-siblings? The current orthodoxy is that donor conceived people who discover their origins late and without being told in a planned way, are likely to feel deceived and that trust has been undermined in the family. They are portrayed as always having a real need to search for biological relatives in order to try and understand the recently discovered other side of themselves and it is considered a bonus if they find these people are open to having a relationship with them. More controversially it is sometimes said by some DC adults that those of their peers who shy away from searching through loyalty to their raising parents, are denying their real needs and feelings to have contact with bio relatives. But what if, like Amy, they have had an opportunity to learn about the donor and some half-siblings and really don’t like what they see. And although we rarely encounter them on-line, there must be DC people who find relatives after deliberate searching, and also discover that they do not instantly like them or recognise similarities and after a short exchange of information do not pursue the relationship any further. And we all know how bio relatives we are forced to see regularly because of ‘duty’ relationships are often people we would not necessarily choose to be in our lives.
My own sense is that Amy is at one end of a very broad spectrum of responses to discovering that you are donor conceived. There is absolutely no one size fits all. It is also interesting that she was raised in a family where there was love, warmth and security available from both parents. Not honesty about the donor conception but it is important to recognise the era in which the conception took place…late sixties if I recall rightly, when no-one thought that openness was right for anyone. Even though Amy discovered her origins via ‘innocent’ DNA testing rather than being told by her parents, I can’t help wondering if she was protected from the most extreme of responses by the fact that her upbringing provided her with the ingredients of resilience. My own small scale informal research with people who have had their method of conception revealed to them as adults has shown that being told in a planned way by both parents, who were willing to keep talking afterwards and were responsive to their needs, resulted in family relationships remaining intact and even improving as a result of the secret (often a source of great distress to the parents) having been removed. Professor Ken Daniels from New Zealand has had similar findings.
These are thoughts rather than conclusions. Have a listen to the podcast and see what you think.