Openness and donor conception – the importance of telling children

Nina Barnsley
Director at Donor Conception Network, Donor Conception Network

Category:
Emotions and Support

Openness when using donor conception – telling your children about their conception
From this video you will find out:
  • If donor conception is right for you
  • Why letting go of having a genetically related child is a necessary but tough process
  • Why it is harder to keep a secret than you think
  • How teenage/adult children may feel once they find out the truth
  • Why telling the truth about donor conception is important even if the donor is anonymous
  • How to help oneself in passing that information on to your child and other people
 

Being open to children about their donor conception

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.

Donor conception – what it means for you

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.

The role of genetics

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.

Reasons to be open

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.

Anonymous donors and the truth

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.

Donor conception in a broader context

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).

The help you can get

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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Being open to children about their donor conception - Questions and Answers

Can you suggest any literature that can assist with telling the child that they were conceived through a donor?

If you go to the shop on our website, it shows our books that could be useful. We also have a small selection of other people’s books that we recommend and sell. I would suggest the “Telling and Talking” series for parents to help them build confidence and really understand why they’re doing it. Then there are also “Our Story” books – they are just very child-friendly, they use a very simple and positive language and they’re telling the positive story of how the child was conceived. So I would put those two together. But as I said, there are other books and I’m sure if you google them or go to Amazon, other books will come up as well.

At what age would you start telling children about donor conception and in what way?

First of all, I have to say there isn’t a right and a wrong answer here. We tend to recommend to parents that they should start talking before the child gets to about 7 and ideally – as soon as possible. And that, in fact, isn’t really for the child. If you’re going to be talking to a baby, a 1-year-old, a 2-year-old or even a 3-year-old – they’re not probably going to understand much of what you’re saying. But it is more for you as a parent and it is much easier to talk to a child that doesn’t understand. In this way, you’re building your confidence in what you’re saying and you’re working out the story. Saying it out loud can sometimes be enormously emotional. It can bring back all sorts of histories of your journey, your fertility treatments or their desire for a child that you never got. So it might be good to try and get all of that out of the way before you’re sitting down with a child that really understands what you’re explaining to them. So that’s one side of why you should start telling them early. The other side is that although children don’t really understand what you’re saying, the benefit is that they sort of absorb it and they don’t remember the so-called ‘a sit down moment’. You know, when their mum said: “Right, today is your e.g. 10th birthday and we have something very important to tell you.” We should be trying to avoid that moment of revelation and everything changing. You want it to be embedded in your children’s sense of who they are from an early age. A lot of our families start very early, they continue nudging the story gently and what they sometimes find is that when they sit down with their 7-year-old, who they’ve been talking to for many years and telling the story again and again, the 7-year-old understands much more. Of course, it didn’t all fit into place at the time either but over time, the child starts to understand more and more and when he is, let’s say 15, he is able to put the pieces of the jigsaw together . But it only happens when you’re having it as a continuous conversation that started early. The other thing I’d say is there are booklets and our workshops called “Telling and Talking”. It means there is a telling moment, meaning the first time that you share this information but actually, the important bit is the talking. The conversation just starts at that point and what you want is to create a nice open environment in the family where this topic is clearly not a taboo. This is not anything to be uncomfortable about and children should feel happy and free to ask questions ad express their thoughts and feelings on it. That’s the talking part that carries on so when it comes to the age to start telling, I would just say: as soon as you feel comfortable. The earlier is better but you’ve got to work out what that means for you and then be ready to carry on the conversation.

When does it stop being my story and start being the child’s story? I’m not sure on who to tell when the child is young.

I think there is no straightforward answer here. It can be very helpful to imagine the situation in which your child says something out loud, such as: “My mummy needed an egg donor/ egg lady to help her have me” and think who would be there by your child to respond in a confirmative and and positive way. Imagine who would say: “Yes, that’s right. Isn’t that amazing?” rather than saying: “Don’t be silly! What on earth are you talking about?” So it might be helpful to just think about other close adults that you trust and those people might be included in the sort of your inner circle. I would definitely think of it as the family story rather than any individual’s story. I think as children grow up, and certainly by the time they’re going to a secondary school, they might want to be more involved in the conversation about who gets told and how. I think it’s worth building the key adults around your child having the knowledge so that they can support the child in that story rather than feeling that the child has to be protected from the story and other people. I know it’s a difficult question and different people will navigate differently. It’s certainly something that we do a lot of work on in the network while helping people to work out who should know and who shouldn’t know.

Why are you attaching such importance to donors when, in fact, the recipient is the biological mother who is also shaping the child’s whole education plus what is called ‘epigenetics?

I would say it’s just the opposite. If you’re very secretive about the donor or never mention the donor, that gives them a more important role. It turns them into something that people can feel anxious about or frightened about – whereas being open, bringing them into the family story and giving them their role (which is not insignificant!), doesn’t make them more important. I think it actually helps parents to really own their parenting role and acknowledge their crucial role in having created the child, raising the child and all of that input. So I don’t think we do put such importance on the donors. I think we just don’t want to erase them from the story. It feels wrong and it feels unhelpful and it’s not honest in that way. So I would say we’re not attaching importance to them – that’s the importance they have and it’s just including them and putting them into context of the bigger family.

I was thinking about having a photo frame with ‘Thank you’ and pictures of the donor in my child’s room but isn’t it too much? Does it encourage them to fantasise about a father figure?

I don’t want to be prescriptive and it’s individual’s choice on how they want to manage things. But I think a donor is not a family member in that way. Donors are important and the family can be very grateful for the important thing that they did when they helped to create this child – but they’re not a parent. So I would be very cautious about doing something like this. I think you could acknowledge them in some way occasionally, if it felt appropriate – but you definitely don’t want your child to think about this person as a father figure. That’s not what the donor has signed up for. The donor has signed up to contribute his sperm and to help someone else have a family – but they’re not signing up to be a dad. So you definitely don’t want to create that idea in a child’s head. We have lots of solo moms in our network and speaking with some of them might be helpful to see how they’ve managed that.

What is epigenetics and what part does it play in donor conception?

I’m not a geneticist or scientist so I’m speaking very much as a layperson. As far as I understand, epigenetics is the idea that we all have our genetic makeup and those genes can be encouraged to express or discouraged from expressing, depending on our environment. The environment contributes to how we manifest as individuals and how our genetics plays out – and that starts in the womb as pregnancy progresses. Everything that a mum is doing will be influencing the embryo that’s growing in her. That won’t be changing baby’s genes of course but rather helping some genes to become stronger and minimising others. That is true for all pregnancies and all humans that our environment is influencing us and the same is in donor conception. And if a woman is using egg donation and she’s growing the baby but she didn’t use her own eggs to create that baby, it can be very empowering for her to feel that she’s still influencing that growing baby by what she’s doing, what she’s eating or by how she lives her life. The fact that from the very early stage, you’re sort of taking them in as yours and you’re really taking ownership of this family, can be very positive.

I know a few people who have used double donor as single women and found it harder to explain about the egg donor because they’ve carried the child. Any advice on how to think about such aspect?

I think that’s very common and we see it with a lot of single women who’ve used double donation that the sperm donation is what they have to acknowledge first of all – the same with lesbian couples because obviously there isn’t a man there. But they don’t have to acknowledge the egg donor part as that theoretically could be hidden. However, it so goes back to what I was saying earlier on in the presentation: it can be very difficult to acknowledge that genetic link has been lost. So probably my starting point would be to just get people to think a little bit more about themselves: how they feel about that and why it’s so hard. It’s good to think what feelings it brings up in people and to really acknowledge those and to explore those a little bit. They’re very real and it’s understandable that people would feel a sense of loss and maybe a sense of grief or shame. They could feel that people are going to judge them or judge their child more. And it’s important to have time to express those things to work through them. I still think that it is important that children do know that they are double donor conceived because of all the things that I spoke about before. You don’t want to get in a situation where you’re in a medical context and you’re giving misinformation or that they do a DNA test later on and discover it – or when it comes out by accident in some other way. So it’s worth thinking about how you might explain that. We know women who’ve told about the sperm donation part quite early on as it was sort of more obvious and actually they didn’t look at the egg donor part till quite a bit later. Some of them had very good reasons to do that, they wanted to make sure that they had the foundations of the family really solid before they broached that. They thought the child might not understand so much and that it might be very confusing. So as long as you’re still doing it while the child is young, you’re finding a way to do it where you feel ready, you’ve got confidence to do it and you’ve worked out a language for yourself – I think that it needs to be done. But you can separate out those two aspects if you want to. We have a book for double donation children so we can provide the language of how you can explain it if women want to do it right from the get-go.

How much information about the donor would you share? I use a UK donor so not anonymous but I have limited information.

This is a great question but a really tough one. Again I think there’s no right or wrong answer here. It probably depends on how old your child is. Young children don’t really need much information unless they ask for it. So you could be led by the child – if the child’s asking for information and you have that information, then it probably means that they’re ready to hear it. But I think young children don’t necessarily need this. You may feel differently, you may feel that they do need it, in which case that’s perfectly valid. I suppose it perhaps goes back to just one of the earlier questions about why we place so much importance on the donor. We definitely don’t want to place too much importance on the donor – they’re not parents and they’re not going to have that family role in the child’s life. So it depends on what kind of information you’ve got and it depends on the age of the child and the context that you want to share the information in. I don’t know the context here but some single women, if they have an only child and they know that their donor has had several other children, want to introduce the idea to their own child that there are half-siblings out there and that potentially, they might be able to meet up. And they want to plant that seed quite early on. Other people want to wait with that information and they want to make sure that their family is really solid before they start introducing other unknown variables into the conversation. I think it’s a very difficult question to answer without more information and without having actually a proper conversation with the individual. So maybe just email our office and we can do it more personally.

If you’re using an open donor and the child knows from a young age that they will be able to contact the donor at 18, how do you manage their expectations about what that encounter/relationship may or may not be?

It’s a great unknown- and how do you manage unknowns? It’s not easy and I think honesty is probably a good starting point as to just not overplay what may be out there. You don’t know for sure whether, when the information becomes available, the donor will actually be contactable. You know they should be but it’s possible that they’ve moved so many times or they’ve gone abroad somewhere that they’re not easy to trace. They may of course be deceased or their situation may have changed dramatically so you can’t be sure about that. We don’t know what their situation will be, we don’t know what their life will be like and who they will be as an individual and where they’ll be situated in terms of meeting their donor offspring. So I think the most important is keeping the expectations low and not over emphasising the aspects you can’t control. Maybe it’s worth just following the child’s lead – so if the child isn’t that interested, just let them know that it is available and that there is such a possibility. Let them lead the conversation and if they are incredibly curious and want more information, just try to manage that and help them understand that what they want, they may not get. I think like with most things in life, navigating unknown and unpredictable scenarios is really difficult.

How should one deal with friends or family potentially disapproving when we decide to tell them?

First of all, I would say: share this information with people that you trust and who are going to have at least a neutral response – and ideally if you know that they are going to have a positive response. If there are people that need to know and you know they’re going to be disapproving, I would just spend a bit more time building up your own confidence in it. What I mean is: try to put it into a different context. Imagine you’re going to buy a car. I’m not saying this is the same as buying a car but imagine you go to buy a car and you’re choosing the style, the model and the colour. Then you’re telling your closest friends and you know that the car that you’ve chosen is a colour that they hate. They think you’ve done it all wrong but you love your car, you’re happy with it so you would share it anyway, knowing that they’re probably going to criticise your decision. But you don’t care because you’ve made the choice that was right for you and you’re happy with the result. And you also know that in the long run, it’s not going to break your friendship and actually, as your friends get to know the car, they might quite like. They certainly will not mind it if you’re going give them a lift home, they’re not going to complain. So maybe try to approach it in that spirit. I’m not trying to make it trivial but just think of the right approach to it. This is your decision and it’s your child and not every decision you make is going to suit all of your friends and family. They’re going to be critical of some of the choices that you’ve made but just don’t care because you’ve made the choice that was right for you and you’re happy with the result. That’s life and as long as you feel confident that you’ve made the right decision for you, you can share that confidently and openly with other people. And really – who cares what other people think? And just one last thing: remember that sometimes people are playing a catch-up game. Parents often spent hundreds of hours thinking about coming to terms with it, working it out for themselves, resolving things in their heart, finding the resources to support them talking with people about it. So when they share it with a friend or a family member, it’s maybe too much to expect that the person’s going to come up to speed literally as soon as you share the information. They may have a little bit of a catch-up to play so it might be that their first response is not very helpful. They could be saying unhelpful or even disparaging things because they’re just responding in the moment – they haven’t had the time to really think about it more sensitively and in a more nuanced way. So it’s understandable that they would respond like that. Maybe just give them a bit of space and don’t take it too personally. Of course, be cautious about who you share the information with . You don’t need to make the first person you share this with the most challenging person you know in the family. Pick your closest person first to build that confidence up. But ultimately, who cares what anyone else thinks? Do what you feel is right for you!

What word is best to use to call the donor? Is ‘donor’ relatable enough for children?

Another great question. I think you’re absolutely right that ‘donor’ is not a word that children are familiar with. So what we tend to do is we suggest is that the word ‘donor’ is a default and neutral word. When you’re explaining what the donor is, you might want to humanise them a little bit more. It’s clear that this is a person – so maybe use the terms like: the donor man or the donor lady, the egg donor lady or the seed donor man. And then follow the child’s lead. If the child wants to call them something else, just do it – as long as it isn’t a family term like ‘dad’ or ‘mom’. You don’t want to blur those boundaries so, for example, ‘egg donor lady’ might be a way that a child prefers to express it. Some children won’t like to talk about this at all and the word won’t even come up. Other children will be comfortable with ‘donor’ and some children will want to soften it and find a word that their friends can perhaps relate to more because the word ‘donor’ is not a common word for children. You could have the conversation if you’ve got a child that’s old enough and you think they might want to actually share this information with others. You could offer them some alternatives. We have a pack called “Primary Schools Resources” which is aimed at children or parents of children aged 4-12. It has a whole lot of information and guidance on how to manage that period of a child’s life when they become more independent. It means when they’re out of your control more – they’re either at school or nursery or at their friends’. Little ones tend to be with parents all the time but once they get a bit older, they tend to be out and be navigating those conversations on their own. So we developed those materials and we have some suggestions of other language that children might find more comfortable when talking with friends because their friends might not know what the word ‘donor’ means.

Would you recommend to tell it only to family members (and the child of course) or also to friends? I mean is there any advice on who to tell and who not to tell?

There are people who would be perfectly comfortable talking about this and probably every other intimate personal detail of their lives with literally anybody: the man on the bus, the woman at the bus stop, colleagues at work, etc. There are other people who would rather not talk about anything – not even with their closest friends and husband or wife. Most of us probably sit somewhere in between and I think you need to work out who you feel would be important to your kid in your circle. That might be partly related to who you feel comfortable with and who you want your child to feel that comfortableness and openness with as well. And the other thing: remember that once you have told people, you can’t untell them. So we would always advise caution and going slowly – so choose who you want to tell and start with the people that are really closest to you and that you trust the most and that have to know for some reason. And then work your way out of the circle from there – but only as you feel comfortable and ready. So it’s very personal who you choose to tell and who not to tell. That’s also a great reason for joining our network, for having contact with other families and for coming on our workshops. The opportunities for those conversations can really help people work out who and when needs to know.

What if we the child wants to find a genetic parent when they become adolescent? To be honest, I wouldn’t want to have a third person in my child’s life. That could be confusing for some children.

There are two things to say: first of all, you need to be clear on who’s inside this family circle and make that information clear to your child – so that they know who their mom is, or mum and dad, or mum and mum, dad and dad, etc. Yes, there’s this other person, the donor, who has helped to create them but they’re in a different category. They’re sort of on the boundary of the family – if they’re in the family at all. And that just creates clarity for the child that there’s this unit which is the family and there’s this person who helped to make them – but that person is not in the family. As the child grows up, they become really curious and they would like to meet or have contact with their donor and potentially also other genetic relatives, such as half siblings, through that link. And that is their journey and their choice. In our experience, young people, adolescents or young adults are not looking for more parents – they’re often not even looking for more family in the way that we might think of a family. They’re just curious about their heritage, about where they came from and about who these other people are. They just want to find the information so it’s not as threatening as it might sound. Having said that, I must admit there are some donor conceived people who do very much see these other people as their family. They see their half siblings as their sisters and brothers – and I think, ultimately, that is part of the choice that’s made when you choose donor conception to create your child. You are bringing in this other person and your child does have some ownership over that. They have to go on their own journey with it and, as a parent, I guess the role is to support them in what they need. I wouldn’t see it as having a third person in your child’s life, it’s not a third parent. It’s a person that has some significance to your child but that has a very different role for them than yours as a parent.

How would you deal with the situation where the donor is anonymous and therefore the child has no information about the egg or sperm donor?

I think that you should just be honest about that. I’ve tried to explain it in one of my earlier slides. There are two elements of the story for a child who’s donor conceived. The first element is that for one reason or another, another person was needed from outside of the family, whether that’s an egg or sperm or a tummy to grow in (if you’ve used surrogacy) – or perhaps two or more of those those ingredients were needed. So that’s an important factor. Separately, there’s the information on who those people are. For some children, the egg donor will be auntie Claire because somebody’s sister donated an egg. But equally, it might be that we don’t have any information about the egg donor. For example, a clinic in Spain found her for us and we’re just very grateful that she decided to do this kind thing and donate one of her eggs so that we could have our family. If a child is upset about that or wants more information and we can’t give the information – that’s a slightly different question. Not all children will necessarily be curious about their donor at all. I think you just have to manage that at the time. I mean, it’s the situation where you might want to come to DC Network for support . We certainly have lots of families who have been to Spain and got anonymous donors. So I think it would depend on what the problem was. Is it how you explain it to the child who’s not happy about that or is it that you’re uncomfortable about it, etc.? Any of those situations would need a slightly different response. We certainly have huge amount of experience in the subject and lots of our families have used donor conception with egg or sperm donors. So maybe email us with a more specific question and we can help.

I have a genetic child and wish so much to have a second child but I can’t so I’m considering a donor. I’m afraid the difference between siblings might be difficult. Will they see each other differently? I’m planning to tell but still not sure how to manage with my first child.

This is not an uncommon situation and again, lots of our members are in this situation. We have a book specifically for what we call ‘mixed families’. In our definition, a mixed family would be a family where they have a donor conceived child or thinking about the donor conceived child and they have another child who isn’t donor conceived – but has been conceived naturally, through IVF with an egg and sperm from the couple or from a previous relationship. So I would get a copy of our book “Mixed blessings” which goes through this in a lot of detail. I think – like with most things – it’s all about preparation. It’s finding some time and space to work out how you’re going to explain this in a way that is true and honest but also positive for both children and parents. It should recognise the family unit in its complexity. There are definitely ways to do that really successfully. I think siblings can often not get on, feel very different and struggle regardless of how they come to be. I’m sure you’ve got examples in your own life that people can be fully genetically related to their sisters and brothers and still not get on at all or feel hugely resentful about how their parents do this or did that. So it’s not a unique scenario. I think a huge part of it comes from parental confidence. You will be setting the scene in whether this information is hugely important or not that important: whether kids’ different origins mean that they need to be treated completely differently or whether they are actually both fully part of the family. Whether you celebrate the fact that one needed an egg donor and the other didn’t. That will be down to you and how you present this. So spend some time really working out what you want to say and how you want to say it. I would get a copy of our book, contact the network or join the network and speak to other mixed families so that you can find a way that feels right both for you and for your children.

What are the experiences in last 25 years? Did children from donor conception have problems with identity as there was no genetic link, even though there is emotional one? Did that information do some damage on their sense of self? And how to avoid that?

I think there is certainly evidence that in case of donor conceived adults, who were not told as children and who discovered by accident in different circumstances that they were not the genetic child of their parent, that did cause problems with the sense of identity. It’s because everything they thought was one way, actually was not that way. I think the unexpected disclosure can really cause problems. Sometimes children, even though they’ve been told from very early age, can still have some problems and questions about it or feel uncomfortable about it. They go through stages where they feel uncomfortable about it or they find it challenging to think what it means for them and who they are, who their real parents are, etc. Those can be phases that children go through – it’s unusual but it’s not unheard of. I don’t know whether you can avoid that but you can surely minimise the risk. I think being open and building that confidence in the family story from the start is really important. The second thing you can do is to make sure that if a problem does come up and they do start to struggle, you as a parent are open and strong enough to support them with that – rather than it being a trigger that brings up all of your emotional baggage that you’ve seemed to suppress and pretend it wasn’t there all of that time. If you make sure that you’ve done the work on yourself, you’ll feel ready and able to manage anything that comes your way. And then, if your child is struggling, you’re strong enough to deal with it. So I’d say those would be the two things: openness from the start and building those foundations. Just make sure you do whatever you need to do to become a strong and confident parent that can manage whatever storms to come. What’s interesting and what we observe is that for donor conception families, the storms probably won’t be conceptually related. You’ll be so focused on making sure that you got all that bit right but then it’ll be something completely different that a child starts complaining about and having problems with. And it comes as a surprise because it wasn’t what you were expecting.

With DNA testing and registry, would you recommend taking the baby’s test as early as possible to allow more time to gather information which can later be shared with your child/children? This is our consideration as we are having anonymous embryo domination.

I think this is a really big question. I’ll give some thoughts rather than an answer. I think it needs a more sensitive response. First of all, donors are anonymous and they’re not expecting at this stage to have these connections made. Remember there are so many players in this, whose needs need to be respected – so you might just want to pause to think about that. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do it but obviously, those individuals also have their own lives and their own wishes and intentions. Secondly, it’s difficult to decide where the parents should take that responsibility or whether they should leave it for the child to decide whether they want to go down that road. If parents have got a very strong feeling that they want to take charge of this particular part of their child’s life, then I would spend some time thinking about why and what you’re hoping for. Think where there might be some downsides and where there might be some benefits and make sure that you weigh all of those up. Decide if you feel like you’re confident to make decision that’s right for you. For some people, it’ll be the decision to leave it and let their child be old enough to have a meaningful conversation about the implications of doing a test and trying to make those connections. Remember that what you want to find at a DNA testing site, may not be there. Instead, there may be other things that you weren’t expecting to find. We’ve seen people who’ve gone on to DNA testing sites to find their donor and they haven’t found their donor but they’ve found half-siblings in other donor conception families or they’ve found an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent. Going on to a DNA testing site opens you up to all genetic family connections – so think carefully what it means and who you are hoping to find. What if you don’t find the person you’re hoping to find but you find a whole lot of other people that you didn’t want to find? So it’s quite a lot to think about. And you’re doing it on behalf of your child who may decide that they don’t want any of this information. So I’ll leave it by just saying it’s really complicated.

Are there any potential problems for the child if you decide to be very open and tell openly to all? I feel very comfortable about the decision but could my openness affect the child later on?

Yes, it could. There are parents who are very open, chatty and happy to share all sorts of details and children who feel uncomfortable about that. It can be true for donor conception families and all other families, too. It can be also true the other way round: you can have parents who are very introverted and don’t really want to talk about things and children who don’t understand them and want to talk to everybody about all sorts of family issues – and then the parents feel uncomfortable. Dealing with humans who have different needs and interests and ways of expressing themselves is always a bit complicated. So yes, there are potential problems if you’re a very open person and you decide to tell lots of people and your child decides that actually they’d rather not so many people knew. So what do you do about that? Up to a point, you can be sensitive about that and if your child says: “Can you please stop talking about this?”, you might think: “Okay, I’ll stop talking about this.” But ultimately, it’s a sort of a negotiation between two people. You need to do what you feel comfortable with as a parent and then you will get feedback from your child whether that’s working for them. And if it isn’t, then maybe you need to adjust your behaviour to some degree. But that’s probably true for all families and all interactions in families.

In case of lesbian couples, the fact of donor conception is quite obvious. Is it a problem to be too open about this with people?

I would say: no, it’s not. What we tend to hear from our lesbian couples is sort of the opposite: they just find it exhausting that they have to constantly out themselves. For example, they’ll be at work and they’ll be talking about their children and then their colleague goes like: “Oh, I didn’t know you had a husband!” or “What’s your husband’s name?”. There’ll be the assumption that you have a male partner and then you’ll suddenly have to not only explain the fact that you have children but also out yourself as being a part of a lesbian couple. So actually, if you’re feeling okay with all of that and you’re not worried about being open in that way, then I don’t think there is any problem of being ‘too open’. And again, a bit like with the previous question, it is more about your child’s feelings. You know, maybe your child will suddenly be acutely embarrassed about you as their parent – as often children are – and will want you not to keep talking about this all the time. They can ask: “Can you please not tell everybody all about family business?” In which case, just respond to that as you feel is right. But I think that sounds like you’re in a great situation and really: go for it!

Authors
Nina Barnsley

Nina Barnsley

Nina Barnsley is Director of the Donor Conception Network. The DC Network is a charity founded 25yrs ago to help break the isolation felt by so many people using donor assisted conception methods. We support people considering donor conception, offering help with the emotional aspects of the often complex decisions they are making. We provide a space to share hopes and fears as well as experiences of talking to children, and relatives and friends, about how the family came into being. We provide resources and support for the long-term as children grow up and the questions and family  dynamics change and develop.   The charity was founded on the principles of openness and honesty and most of what we offer is centred around helping parents build the confidence to be open with their children and others and managing the implications of that decision. The charity is there to support all donor conception families whether they are having (or have had) treatment in the UK or abroad and whatever kind of donor(s) they are using. Our members may have used sperm, egg, double or embryo donation, with or without surrogacy, and include single women and men, heterosexual and same sex couples as well as donor conceived adults.
Event Moderator
Caroline Kulczycka

Caroline Kulczycka

Caroline Kulczycka is an International Patient Coordinator who has been supporting IVF patients for over 2 years. Always eager to help and provide comprehensive information based on her thorough knowledge and experience whether you are just starting or are in the middle of your IVF journey. She’s a customer care specialist with +10 years of experience, worked also in the tourism industry, and dealt with international customers on a daily basis, including working abroad. When she’s not taking care of her customers and patients, you’ll find her traveling, biking, learning new things, or spending time outdoors.

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