Donor conception is often the last resort for many patients on their journey to parenthood. Pragmatically speaking, using donor gametes has nothing but advantages – there is a higher chance of pregnancy, less chances of miscarriage or implantation failure, it works well even for older patients and the list goes on. Many patients however are still wary of the procedure.
Those considering undergoing a donation treatment express various concerns. To help address the five most common questions about donor conception, we invited Jana M. Rupnow, psychotherapist and author of “Three Makes Baby”, a guide to raising children conceived through donor gametes. Through her own experience with infertility, she has helped countless patients struggling with their own reproductive issues.
As a counsellor, Jana understands the importance of the journey each patient goes through; over countless hours of consultations and listening to people’s stories, she has developed deep respect for anyone who embarks on the journey to parenthood despite all of the obstacles and troubles. She also learned what the most common concerns expressed by patients undergoing donor conception treatments are.
A lot of the expressed doubts and uncertainties had to do with emotions – questions such as “will my child be upset when they learn the truth” or “will I feel like the real mum or dad” are common, as are feelings of confusion. Jana likens this to “genetic bewilderment”, a term used in adoption to describe the feeling of confusion stemming from the realisation of what it means to be genetically different from your child. In donation conception families, it is common for parents who are not genetically related to their children to feel this sense of bewilderment. Understanding this is what led Jana to learn more about the concerns, anxieties and uncertainties expressed by donor conception families.
What she came to understand was that some concerns tend to pop up more than others. Five particular uncertainties seemed to appear more often than others:
These rather broad categories describe the most common sources of confusion and fear in donor parents-to-be. Each category has different strategies and coping methods associated with it; the only trick is to understand which category you fit in.
Emotional distress describes every anxiety related to the emotional and mental aspects of donor conception. Fears over your child being upset when they realise their origin, worries about potential challenges they may face, uncertainty over your own feelings towards a donor conceived child – all of these neatly fit into this category.
Infertility and the process of treating it are emotionally intense; it is a struggle which asks a lot from us – both physically, as well as mentally. It is no wonder, then, that the emotional centre of the brain works overtime during the infertility process. We become chronically emotional and as we fall deeper into our own heads, the feelings we experience become more and more intense. We begin to worry that our child will experience the same emotions.
One of the strongest emotions felt during the infertility process is grief. Treating infertility works the first time only in a very small minority of cases; for most patients, it is a long struggle full of loss – from failed attempts, to negative pregnancy tests, to miscarriages – small wonder, then, that grief appears so frequently. It becomes paramount then, that you take care of yourself mentally; figure out your feelings and deal with them before taking on even more challenges. Jana’s book contains strategies and coping mechanisms for dealing with grief on your own terms, as well as methods for distinguishing your feelings from those of your own child.
Worries over parent legitimacy are common in donation scenarios. It is very common to wonder if you’re going to feel like the actual parent to your child if the two of you don’t share a genetic bond. Parents who express that concern also worry that they might treat their child differently due to their origin, or that the child may wonder about the identity of their donor.
Parenting, however, is not so much about biologic or genetic links, as much as it is about attachment and bonding. The child’s origin doesn’t matter; we have a natural capacity for bonding which only requires us to spend enough time together. These worries stem from a lack of experience with non-biological families; the common assumption is that family is biology – which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sometimes our worries stem from social differences – infertility is still a taboo topic for a lot of people. Being open about infertility can be perceived as an admission of weakness or defeat by our family and friends. It’s natural, then, to not want to bring any attention to the topic. After all, we can’t know for sure how those close to us may react to the news, or how they would treat us after learning about our condition. Many people undergoing fertility treatments don’t talk about their experiences simply because they want to be treated and feel like other, “normal” families.
As Jana writes in her book, the correct approach is to establish your own feelings before worrying about others. How much weight do you place on “fitting in”? While embracing your differences may require a small period of adjustment at first, it’s no different to the process of acclimation into a different culture. Although it feels like a bit of a challenge at first, over time it only gets easier.
Cultural differences are a related category of anxieties. If you come from a more traditional culture, it’s very common to worry about your family rejecting your child based on some deeply-held beliefs. This is a legitimate concern – there are many places, cultures, and families that will have a hard time understanding your circumstances. These challenges are perhaps some of the most difficult you can face, but they aren’t impossible to overcome.
The way many people in these cultures deal with such issues is through secrecy. This, however, is not a healthy approach. A secret is very hard to keep; doubly so if it has medical implications. What if your child’s doctor asks a question you can’t answer? What if your child figures out the truth on their own? Secrecy is not the way forward – but privacy is. The line between secrecy and privacy is a fine one, but it can be managed. Simply put, do not hide the truth from your child, but maintain your family’s privacy. The rule of thumb is simple – secrecy is when we keep information from people that need to know, privacy is when we keep personal information to ourselves.
The last concern is perhaps the easiest one to tackle – the lack of know-how. How and when should we talk to our child about their origin? What words should we use? How do we give our child the tools to help with any challenges they might face?
The way you talk to your child will obviously depend on their age. Jana’s book contains various strategies and phrases you can use when breaking the news to your child. It’s also important to consider the child’s perspective – children are inquisitive by nature, and much cleverer than we’d like to admit. If their parents are avoiding a certain topic, the child will pick up on it and start to wonder. The responsibility of establishing an open environment in which this topic can be raised falls to you; the child won’t raise the topic on their own.- Questions and Answers