Openness about donor conception – easy or not? Should I tell my children that they are conceived using donated gametes? How should I tell they were conceived via egg donation? This sounds like an irresolvable matter for many donor conception families. Watch the webinar with Nina Barnsley, Director of the Donor Conception Network, on honesty about donor conception and communicating it to your children.
According to Nina Barnsley, it is advisable to take into account a few questions that are closely related to the idea of donor conception itself. For many people, donor conception is simply not their plan A and that’s why it often involves time to grieve for what cannot be. There is a crucial process of letting go of what can’t happen in order to make space for what can happen. Nina admits that only then it is possible to think of donor conception as a legitimate way of creating a family. Additionally, one has to decide how they feel about ‘difference’ and whether genetic connections are important to them or not. It is also good to consider what our parenthood journey is for – if the idea of being a parent is more important than passing our genes on and having a mini version of ourselves or our partner. If being a parent is more than just having a ‘mini-me’, then that is surely going to frame the question around donor conception differently.
Nina has no doubts that at the start of the donor conception route, realising the responsibility of openness should always play an important role. However, if it brings up a lot of anxiety and concerns, then it might be worth not rushing into it. At this point, pausing and spending some time on building confidence in what you’re doing and the choices that you’re making is far more beneficial than hurrying with a decision. The latter should always be made in a conscious and responsible way.
Undoubtedly, conceiving using an egg/sperm donor is just another way of becoming a parent. In order to set the scene with donor conception, one has to get the balance between recognising that genes are not everything and – at the same time – remembering that they are not nothing either. Nina Barnsley gives an example of friends who we are not genetically related to but who we feel very close to and, on the other hand, family members who we don’t get on with at all – despite having very close genetic relations. Nevertheless, letting go off the genetic connection with a future child may be very difficult for some people. And this is the reason why openness in this matter can be so hard for them. That’s why Nina highlights the necessity of acknowledging one’s grief and sadness in order to be able to move further and welcome a child that’s going to come in – even though it may not be the child that you’d originally envisaged.
It is also good to realise that children’s feelings can differ from those of their parents. Although at the beginning it is not easy to imagine that a tiny baby is going to grow up into an adult one day, parents have to remember that those individuals will have their own experiences and their own thoughts on their origins. You cannot ignore the fact that the donor is a key person in the creation of your family and could be one of key people for the child in their understanding of who they are.
The disclosure of the donor conception to the children has always been one of the most discussed issues. Nina says that many parents feel tempted not to go into such a difficult territory and just pretend that it never happened. In her opinion, it is much more helpful to start a family unit with a foundation of honesty. It is simply a way of respecting your child as they grow up – it is the information that they have a right to know. What is more, finding out the truth in teenage or adult years can bring feelings of betrayal and mistrust. And the latter are surely the things that can rock the foundations of a family.
According to Nina, parents of donor conceived children should make benefit of the fact that they are in charge of the telling the truth of their children origin. It means they can frame the story the right way and, using the information they have, present a donor as a part of the whole family story. In this way, the idea of being donor conceived is embedded in the child’s sense of who they are. Nina reminds us that actually it is far harder to keep a secret than people might think. It is obvious that as children grow up, they ask more and more questions about resemblance and theirs and their parents’ same interests or talents. Additionally, there is medical history that does not correlate and may resurface during doctor’s visits or in case of emergency medical situations. The research that has been done shows that telling young children is a good and helpful model of behaving – partly because of the fact that young children can take the information on and absorb it perfectly. Unlike adults, children do not have assumptions about donor conception. For them, it is just a part of their story. So instead of assuming that your child will receive the truth of donor conception as bad news, be optimistic and talk about it in a comfortable and confident way. Your child will pick up on that and it naturally becomes how they understand their own story.
Nina understands that many parents who used anonymous donors might wonder what is the point in telling children the truth – when, in fact, they will not be able to meet the donor or have information about them. But in such a case, the starting point is still the same: secrecy is an insecure basis for a family life. If you are not open about donor conception, you will have to, among others, give an inaccurate picture of your child’s medical history and that could cause problems if they have health issues and doctors are unable to do a proper diagnosis or treatment. Besides, being honest about the way your child was conceived helps to explain differences in looks, temperament and talents – and children do get curious about it when they grow up.
Apart from all that was mentioned, Nina also points our attention to the recent popularity of home DNA testing. Today, millions of people do DNA tests and can put it online – and in this way, they find their genetic history. In case your donor conceived child decides to do it, they may get confused as the result will not make sense with what they understand about their family connections. And they will come to you with questions. What is more, they may connect with their genetic half sibling, cousin or aunt and that will be a revelation you probably do not want them to experience in such a way. That’s why, according to Nina, it is best when the knowledge of donor conception is embedded in the family history and is a part of a proud story of your child’s childhood.
It is good to remember that historically, donors were all anonymous and parents were advised not to tell their kids about their origin. That may partly explain the general attitude towards openness about donor conception. Nina says that Donor Conception Network was found 27 years ago to, among others, challenge this notion. The aim was to show that the information about donor conception doesn’t have to be a secret and that the telling can be done well and in a beneficial way. However, it still feels very hard for most people, even though the social context has changed and the donation in the UK is non-anonymous now.
It can be explained by the fact that building confidence in this matter is a long process and the feelings, views and issues that affect you, change over time. Nina says that one of the reasons of this state of things is a real sense of embarrassment or shame around infertility or having used donor conception. Many people also feel it is private family information and they do not see any need to share it with others. They are afraid that family and friends may judge them and they often do not find words or willingness to explain it. Last but not least, they see no point in being open if they used anonymous donors – they know their kids won’t have any information about their donors and they just do not want to disappoint them.
However, such a view may change after a baby is born and parents have to deal with all the comments around looks and family resemblances as well as going to doctor’s appointments. Nina admits there is no single ‘right’ method of telling the donor conception truth and everyone has to find their own way. What she can advise is to start early and separate out the two components of the story: the fact that genetic material from someone outside the immediate family was used and the information about who that person was. While the former is the so-called ‘core’ information, the latter may differ dependently on the type of a donor that was used (known donor, ID-release donor or anonymous one).
In Nina’s opinion, the most important element of the telling process is finding a right way to do that – meaning the right language and vocabulary that you can be confident in. And this is where Donor Conception Network and their resources may help. They have produced a range of books for children to understand the donor conception subject better and for parents – to help them build confidence and learn how other people dealt with the same concerns and challenges. Nina also advises to attend DCN “Telling and Talking” workshops that are a perfect way to really explore the subject of openness and find out how you would like to tell the truth, when you would like to do it, what kind of reaction you expect, what is it that’s making you feel anxious, etc. It is advisable to go to the Donor Conception Network website for lots of resources and support. According to Nina, one of the best benefits of membership of the network is the ability to meet other families and speak with other people who are further down the journey. Learning about different ways that different families have chosen to go about the donor conception concerns, can really help individuals to work out what’s going to work for them and to do that in an environment where there isn’t pressure and false expectations.
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