It is not by chance that DC Network’s book(s) for young children are called Our Story. Stories are central to how we see ourselves and make sense of our world. These books help children to begin to understand the story of their family and how they came to be part of it. What they don’t do at this stage is explain that genetically they are connected to one and sometimes two other families and that these people will have contributed to the looks, talents and personality that are part of who they are. But now, thanks to donor numbers in the States and DNA testing worldwide, groups of children (sometimes adults) whose parents have all used the same donor, are making connections and noticing familial similarities and differences. For those donor conceived people who have known from early on about their beginnings, contact with half-siblings and potentially biological parents, can bring exciting additions to their story. For those who did not know about their conception with the aid of a third person until later in life, it can feel as if their story has been taken away from them, with all the loss and devastation that can bring.
At a recent ESHRE workshop in Leuven, Belgium, DCN’s Jane Ellis led her talk about her counselling work with recently told donor conceived adults with a quote from the environmentalist George Monbiot – “You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one.” The searching that often takes place following such a revelation is as much towards the rebuilding of a story, as it is a search for the people involved.
I have long had an interest in attachment theory, although I am very far from being an expert in its application, but I do wonder about the attachment implications for donor conceived people of learning of their origins late and also about how the attachment style of the family they have been raised in influences the way they respond to learning about their conception and the deception that has been practised by their parents. The ability to tell a coherent life story is made much of in the Adult Attachment Interview. The impact of having the life story rug pulled from under one’s feet, plus I suspect the WAY in which in happened or was responded to by both parents and DC person themselves, is likely to be influenced by the attachment status of the people concerned. Research could provide some helpful insights.
Not only are individuals making contact with others conceived from the same donor/bio parent but networks of donor conceived people are coming together and some research into their relationships is beginning to emerge. It was this, plus a recognition of the need for support/care and counselling of donor conceived people – and indeed potential parents – at different stages of their journey that was behind the ESHRE workshop entitled – Moving On From Individual Connections to Networks: New Challenges in Donor Conception.
We heard from academics, mostly excellent communicators, some practitioners and one donor conceived adult, Maaike, a woman of 30 from The Netherlands who has 72 half-siblings. They are just one of 23 large groups in this small country. Luckily The Netherlands has a wonderful organisation FIOM that can act as an intermediary between offspring and donors and donor conceived people. It was only in 2013 that a law regulating the number of children per donor came into force in this country. This was fixed at 25 (probably much greater than UK’s 10 families) and 16 is the age at which DC people can ask for identifying information about their donor. Maaike, told the audience that the sibling group is too large but on a day to day basis it is managed by members of the group, including her, who run Facebook and Whats App groups and facilitate social gatherings. One or two new ‘halfjes’ join most months and Maaike tells them that “Within this family group you can choose your own friends” sensibly recognising that it is impossible to be close to so many people and that in any family you are bound to get along better with some people than others. She was very pragmatic about people joining and leaving the group for different reasons. Meeting half-siblings and her donor has meant a lot to Maaike. She no longer doubts her roots and enjoys the social contact. The bridesmaids at her wedding were ‘halfjes’. In answer to a question from the audience she said that she would not consider using a donor if she and her husband found themselves infertile.
FIOM’s Sophie Bolt spoke about the need for understanding of the dynamics and management of groups; how it was helpful to understand group process as in the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing theory. As someone who has learned about group process myself I absolutely value this sort of knowledge but I also thought that Maaike’s friendly and pragmatic approach was refreshing and probably good enough most of the time.
There were many really excellent and fascinating presentations and I’m going to stick with my theme of stories in trying to give you a flavour of some of them.
Rosanna Hertz, author of the excellent book Random Families: Genetic Strangers, Sperm Donor Siblings and the Creation of New Kin, spoke about her research with single women using embryo donation. She referred to them becoming adept in the artistry of being bricoleurs (Bricolage being a term coined by the social anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to embody the bringing together of elements from diverse locations). Their motherhood narrative emphasises discrimination and determination, changing the conventional narrative in two ways – Firstly, emphasising the importance of their nurturance and their social belonging over genetic ties and secondly, they ‘do’ kinship by talking and behaving as though nurture outweighs nature, whilst paradoxically invoking the importance of genetic relatives as a resource in shaping their children’s identities. Half of the women interviewed by Hertz were unsure if the use of an egg donor would be disclosed to their children, even if friends and family know. Telling a story that involves two donors seems particularly difficult for single women.
Hertz also spoke about work that she has done with donor connected communities across the US, mostly with parents of young children, largely solo mums, leading the way. The use of the internet for connection and communication was the subject of the talk, with the meaning and experience for donor sibling networks varying depending on when they were born and how possible linking with others was at that time. Before 2003 parents did not know that siblings existed (children now in their late teens) but as use of the internet boomed and registries began to be set up, parents increasingly did know about the existence of siblings and some chose to connect, even before their child was born in some cases. Early, pre age five, connection is becoming more and more common in the US. Being in touch at this age means that a child’s life story becomes inextricably linked with that of their siblings, both as individuals and with the group as a whole. In some cases the donor has been traced, or made himself known, but his place within these communities seemed tenuous. It was the women themselves who were benefitting from a safe place to share thoughts and feelings about DC as well as childhood milestones etc. and children seemed to gain validation and trust from the network.
Petra Nordqvist from the University of Manchester brought to the meeting her research into donors and their relationships with their own families and recipients, particularly in this instance known sperm donors and the women who use their services. I found this presentation rather uncomfortable and on thinking about it I realised that it was because, unusually for research around donor conception, it did not focus on the needs of recipients or children but on the donors themselves and a group of donors often thought of as being a bit on the sleazy side. Petra was quite clear, however, that whilst some sperm donors advertising their services did seem to be seeking sex, there are others who are altruistic in their intent and that the best arrangements were made when both donor and recipient felt an affinity with each other which she described as a kind of spark or charge of connection. I was however dismayed when in answer to a question from the audience Petra said that known donor arrangements could lead to a situation of great satisfaction for all concerned but sometimes ended in disaster. This absolutely echoes what I know of these arrangements and when things go wrong it is the children who suffer. A conclusion that could have been drawn is that stories that adults choose to tell themselves may not necessarily take into account the needs of the people who result from the choices made.
Astrid Indeku from Belgium but now working for FIOM, used as her connecting theme, the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden (known as The Bridge in the Scandi noir TV series of that name), identifying graphically the need for there to be a care pathway available to all on the donor conception journey at any stage. Her straightforward and well set out slides led us through the current Dutch system, its provisions and its gaps, allowing us to see clearly that many opportunities for support are currently being missed and many people who may need to ask questions or seek support, like parents or grandparents of recipients and donors, have nothing offered to them at the moment. Like the analogy of a stone being thrown into water, it is an ever expanding number of people who need to include the fact of donor conception into their stories and guidance in how to do it. What is needed, concluded Indeku, is continuity of services, co-operation between and within services and quality of care which only comes about through the employment of experienced and empathetic staff and high quality training.
Although there were several more presentations I am going to finish with that of Marilyn Crawshaw, Fellow of the University of York, who is probably the wisest woman I know and certainly one of the most knowledgeable people with regard to the well being of donor conceived people and their families. Her talk was titled Circles of Influence: what are they in counselling with donors and recipients. As is usual with Marilyn it was oceanic in depth and dense with meaning. I particularly liked the following slide reproduced here in full –
Secrets have sociological importance, ‘not because they reveal a simple ‘truth’ about family life, but because these secrets are a route into understanding the complex relationship between power, the personal, the cultural and the social.’ (Carol Smart 2011:539)
There is usually a difference between our actual family (the family we live with) and the idealised family of our imagination (the family we live by).
‘Secrets are not simply missing ‘factual accounts’about the family. They are stories created that distort the ‘facts’ in order to provide an account, a display of family that reflects what is perceived to be important in this family (and social) environment’ (Lucy Frith et al 2017:8).
Carol Smart’s quotation rings particularly true. Infertility brings with it a huge loss of power and control as men and women enter the ‘treatment’ circus, are expected to share the most intimate details of their personal lives and to take on the medically focused culture of ‘fixing it’, often leaving behind their own culture and the social context in which all this takes place. No wonder it is hard to construct true and positive stories around their experiences. No wonder that they sometimes pass on to their children the “stories that distort the facts” of the Lucy Frith quote. We all struggle with the family we live with and the family we might like to be. What is needed for all those involved in the donor conception extended family is access to counselling (as part of a pathway of care) that addresses and listens to both ‘the here and now adult’ and ‘the parent to be’ (Crawshaw). This is why DC Network’s Preparation for Donor Conception Parenthood workshops deal with people’s sadness and loss first, then their need to talk about their feelings about using donor conception BEFORE asking them to think about the child they might one day have and how the fact of that child’s beginnings can become part of both the adults’ and the child’s story.
Stories are so powerful. People deserve the best support and care in making and being able to own the truth of stories that are true for both themselves and their children.