New findings shed light on when children really understand about donor conception

Perhaps because I was one of the speakers at the DC Network London conference held at the end of April, I haven’t blogged about the event, but it was a wonderful day.  The title of my presentation was Are the Children Alright? and in hindsight actually all of the presentations turned out to have this question as a theme running through them.  I was struck by many things throughout the day but for now I want to concentrate on the presentation by Dr Vasanti Jadva from the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University.  Vasanti was with us to talk about the latest findings from the longitudinal study the Centre have been doing for eighteen years now with families created through egg and sperm donation, including surrogacy in a few cases.  Children whose parents were being open with them about their conception were asked at ages 7, 10 and now 14 how they felt about being DC and their responses showed clearly how understanding of what being donor conceived means (fundamentally a genetic disconnect between at least one parent and child) comes about only very slowly.  Jadva reported that whilst children of seven often seemed very positive about their donor conception and/or surrogacy, they found it very difficult to explain anything about it.  By age ten they had a rudimentary understanding but it was only by age fourteen that they fully understood what it meant.  The young people who took part in the research are now eighteen and the Cambridge team are about to re-interview them.  I suspect that it will only be by this age (or older) that the participants will be able to say what being conceived this way means for them, as opposed to simply understanding about the lack of genetic connection.

I think there are a number of implications of these findings.  Firstly, and probably most significantly, it is important for parents and others to know that just because children can parrot language they have heard from parents or books about donor conception and seem to be unconcerned about it, that we can assume they fully understand what being donor conceived means.  That they are comfortable and open about it is wonderful and a good foundation but it is only a snapshot in time.  We cannot assume anything for the future based on the evidence of a seven or ten year old’s indifference to being donor conceived.  Things can and do change over time. Not necessarily for the worse, but definitely demonstrating much more nuance and sometimes ambivalence.

The realisation that children still only have a rudimentary understanding of donor conception at 10 also means that those parents who do not tell significant others about a child’s beginnings because they say it is the child’s story to tell, are missing an important opportunity to provide community support for their child during the years in which a child’s comprehension is minimal but growing.  It is unfair for a child with incomplete understanding to be expected to carry the burden of telling others when all they have is language provided by their parents and not a true realisation of the implications of the information for themselves.  In my opinion it is the parents’ responsibility to let those who need to know (including close family, carers, teachers and doctors) in their child’s interest until the child is old enough to take on that responsibility for themselves, possibly in tandem with parent(s) for a while.  Not sharing the information could well lead to a child being upset at not being able to tell their story properly and also puzzling over why Auntie Tracey or Grandma didn’t know.  Does this mean that there is something shameful about being donor conceived/something wrong with me?

These findings could at first sight appear to undermine the current orthodoxy of openness about donor conception with children from a very young age, but I think that would be to misunderstand it.  Sharing information from under five not only allows parents to practice and get comfortable with the language but also encourages a ‘small steps at a time” approach with a child, building up the information over the years.  In this way there is no moment of shock and the story of how the family came into being can be amongst the normal and everyday topics the family chats (and laughs) about.

Getting back to the Cambridge research, the numbers are small – only 44 out of 56 ‘told’ adolescents agreed to discuss their conception – but this may reflect the awkwardness of being 14.  It also only looks at heterosexual couple families.  However, it is the only longitudinal study of DC people that has ever been carried out and it is exclusively British, many of the other surveys or studies being mostly American.  It is definitely a good start and I for one can’t wait to know what the eighteen year olds have to say.

The perspectives of adolescents conceived using surrogacy, egg or sperm donation, S.Zadeh, E.C.llioi, V.Jadva and S. Golombok,  Human Reproduction, Vol.33, No6 pp.1099-1106, 2018


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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