A couple of years ago I attended a workshop on donor conception delivered by Olivia Montushi and Walter Merricks, founders of the Donor Conception Network in the U.K. and parents of two donor-conceived children.
As a psychologist specialising in fertility, I was interested to hear their recommendations regarding telling donor-conceived children about their origins. I was aware of a number of would-be parents going through egg and sperm donation who did not plan on telling their child that they had used a donor and, to be honest, it worried me.
Under-documented and under-reported
Pregnancy through donor-conception has traditionally been under-documented and under-reported in Ireland for a variety of social and legal reasons that are a whole other story. In April 2015, the new Children & Family Relationships legislation made provisions for a National Donor-Conceived Person Register. This means that Irish fertility clinics must now supply names and identifying details of children born in Ireland through donor conception to the register. Clinics must also provide details of the donor and parent. Once the donor-conceived child turns 18, they can request contact with the donor. The legislation is similar to laws that are already in place in many other parts of Europe.
In the UK, any person born through donation (after April 2005) can request and receive their donor’s name and last known address from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, once they turn 18. A donor-conceived person who, for example, is planning to marry can contact the Authority to see if they are genetically related to their future spouse. But, the reality is that a large number of Irish couples and individuals seek treatment in fertility clinics abroad, meaning that they can (and do) still opt for anonymous donation. So, we have no means of providing information about the genetic parent to donor-conceived people.
Secrets are damaging
Of course, in order for a donor-conceived person to seek more information, they have to know the truth in the first place. Many don’t as their parents choose not to tell them. I knew from working with adult adoptees that secrets, even with the best of parental intentions and coming from a place of love, are inevitably damaging. The longer a secret is kept, the more harm it inflicts on everyone tied to it. I was relieved when Olivia and Walter validated my gut reaction that donor-conceived children should be told of their origins, and told right from the start.
In an open letter that Olivia penned to would-be parents about telling their children she says:
“Twenty-three years ago my husband and I discovered that the only way we would be able to have a child was by using donated sperm or adopting. After nine months of quietly grieving the child we could not have together, we decided that donor insemination was the best way forward for us. I was lucky enough to conceive the first time and our son was born nine months later. It subsequently took five inseminations to conceive our daughter. Both our children have known about their DI origins since they were very little. It is now common practice to be open with children about their origins but back in those days our clinic was very surprised when we said we were going to tell them. We made this decision because we couldn’t imagine living with a lie about something so important, and we have never regretted this decision. Talking about DI to a child can feel very burdensome to parents, but if you begin early, they accept the facts very easily. In fact they are often more interested in who is coming to play or what they are having for tea. The trick is to keep the language simple and in line with their stage of development and build up the information in small building blocks.”
Olivia admits that many parents, particularly men, worry that a child might reject them if they know the truth but says these concerns (like those of adoptive parents) are unfounded:
“… our daughter and son are very clear that their Dad is their father, even if they don’t have a genetic connection with him. As young people now, each of our children has a different perspective on their DI origins. The eldest, a boy, is not interested in his donor but says that it is very important to him that he has been told the truth. Our daughter is curious about her donor and would like to thank him for giving her life, but despite the fact that she will almost certainly never have this opportunity, she is adamant that we were right to share the information with her. Telling children about their origins when they are young is likely to be in their best interests, although it can feel very difficult for parents. It can be tempting to think that you can just have the treatment and go home and forget about it. But ignoring or denying the truth does not make it go away. In fact these things have a tendency to fester and cause much more trouble later, if they are not thought about early on.”
Olivia and Walter both warn that would-be parents need to think very carefully about the consequences of pretending that they did not need help from a donor to make their family. These are just some of the reasons they say ‘telling’ is important:
- It is respectful of each child, young person, and adult as a unique individual.
- It is their right to have this information.
- Keeping secrets takes up energy which is better spent on close family relationships.
- Relationships in families can be threatened by the secret if– ANYONE else at all knows (and usually someone does).
- Unanswered questions or evasive answers, glances between couples or awkward silences create an atmosphere which is felt by the child and others.
- The child may feel ‘different’ in some way but having no explanation for this, blames him or herself.
- Research has shown that disclosure or finding out about origins in adolescence or adulthood can be damaging to present and future relationships. It is hard to re-establish trust when a person realises they have been lied to for a long time.
- In an information age, where DNA testing kits are available through the internet and many column inches and TV hours are devoted to stories about human genetics, young people who become suspicious about their parentage have many ways of finding out if their genetic connections are as they have been led to believe.
Olivia ends her open letter by saying:
“Deciding to go ahead with using donor insemination to build our family was our first good decision. The second one was deciding to be open with our children, family and friends. We have never regretted either decision and our children are now old enough to let us know very clearly that these decisions were good ones. They are glad to be alive and have parents who respected them enough to tell them the truth.”
If would-be parents are struggling with ‘how’ to tell she advises that they should:
- Keep in mind that good outcomes for the future depend on starting to work through the difficult feelings now. Try to avoid putting these issues on the ‘too difficult’ shelf.
- Remember that what is important to young children is having a loving mum and dad, not who is genetically related to who. Close relationships built in the early years make a solid foundation for the future.
- Try to look ahead and think how you would like the relationship between you and your child to be when they are in school, as teenagers, as young adults. Are secrets going to help or get in the way?
- Being ‘open’ is a state of mind and a process. Start early, take your time, don’t worry if you stumble over the words to start with.
- Answer their questions (rather than what you as an adult think they might be asking) using simple children’s language.
But it is Olivia’s final piece of advice that is the most important of all in my opinion:
“Enjoy your children. They love you.”
Have you had experience of donor conception? What do you think about ‘telling’?
Email Alison.Bough@HerFamily.ie or let us know your thoughts in the Facebook comments.