When my daughter was seven years old, she looked me straight in the eye, tilted her head just a little to the right so I knew something big was coming, and said, “I would never use a donor, Mum”. Now Lola* is a pretty sensitive kind of kid, so I knew she’d given this statement due consideration, so I looked straight back at her, took a deep breath and said, “Ok, tell me more about that”.
In the ensuing two years, Lola has also informed me she thinks “the ID Release rule at eighteen is stupid, because eighteen years is a lifetime”, that she wishes she had a daddy and that she’ll look for all of her siblings until she dies (given there is over one hundred of them, this is no mean feat).
These kinds of conversations were not how I’d foreseen matters when I skipped eagerly past the Dark Star orchids at the front door of my fertility clinic ten years ago, preparing to undergo donor conception and receive an embryo created with a perfect stranger.
Now don’t get me wrong: my daughter is a happy, empathetic, self-aware little being. These are not conversations we share every day, every week or even every month. But, she knows she can have them with me whenever she wants to, and that, more importantly, I will hear her.
So how then, did we arrive at this place of openness about my daughter’s conception and her life as a donor-conceived person? Well, firstly, I need to assure you that I’m by no means that ‘perfect parent’ who is thrust upon us from multiple platforms, and secondly, that there’s been some hard work put in.
1. Tell your child: they’ll get it
I started talking to Lola about her conception before she was born, but one day in the supermarket when she was two years old, trailing behind me in the sweets section, she called out, ‘Daddy!’ I turned to look at her smiling face, threw a second block of Lindt Dark Chocolate Orange Intense in the trolley, and said, “Let’s go!”
It was time to up the ante. If I knew then what I know now (after six years of research), I wouldn’t have been so perturbed, but back then, I was a little shaken.
So, what do I know now?
What I know is that kids get it. If you tell your child they’ve got three parents, one of whom doesn’t live with them, three sets of grandparents, one brother that lives with them, and fifteen siblings that don’t, they’ll take that in and say, “Okay”. Pause. “What’s for lunch?”
What I also know is that it’s us adults who make things complicated. So, try not to project your fears and misgivings onto your children, just give them the details in simple, age-appropriate language, and go make their lunch.
2. Tell it like it is
A couple of years ago I went to a seminar here in Melbourne about donor conception, and a visiting ‘professional’ from another country got up and said, “When we discuss donor-conceived siblings, we like to use the term, ‘associates’.” I sat there looking at her for quite some time, perplexed and slightly agitated, processing that word. ‘Associates?’ I couldn’t get past it, and missed the rest of her speech.
Arguments abound on social media pertaining to language: what’s offensive, triggering, what’s not, which terms make people uncomfortable. It’s fascinating. So, I asked a whole lot of donor-conceived adults what they think, and heard the same thing over and over: ‘Just name things what they are’ (you know, like back in the day when we were told to just go with penis and vagina). In other words, if your donor-conceived child has some genetically related siblings out there, just call them siblings. And if you’ve used a donor – here’s the really hard one – just call them by their first name, or even biological parent, bio-dad, bio-mum or other non-binary term.
If this is triggering you, it’s worth some reflection. Stay with me.
And if you’re trying to work out what kind of relationship you’re going to have with all of these people, and you think it might look like a cousin or uncle/aunty kind of connection, that’s fine, but don’t actually call them that. Because they’re not.
3. Take the lead – connect your child with their siblings
Recently – before lockdown – we were at Lola’s siblings’ house. Like I mentioned earlier, they’re in the triple figure range, but these two live down the road so we catch up regularly. Lola is an only child, but when the kids meet up, they go straight into sibling mode. Lola is the big sister and she herds them around, feels responsible for them; they wind her up and give her hell. But they absolutely adore one another; it’s delightful to watch. And the bonus element is that their mother and I have developed a beautiful friendship.
We have met several other siblings who live interstate and whose parents’ I also consider friends, and we have a private Facebook group where thirty-five or so other families share stories and experiences about Lola’s siblings. One day, when we can, we’ll all meet up.
Why do we do this? Two reasons: one is because I had a natural curiosity about the other children that are genetically related to Lola, and the second is because Lola now has a choice. Like all families, there is going to be people she doesn’t connect with, and people she does. When she works that out for herself (like I’ve done with a handful of family members), she can choose to step away. And donor-conceived adults say repeatedly that it’s often really awkward to meet siblings when they’re adults, and subsequently very sad when they reflect on the years, decades that they’ve missed not knowing each other.
But the message I really got was this: Lola can’t step away from something – or someone – she doesn’t know exists. Children don’t know what they don’t know. So, if you are thinking of leaving the decision to your child to meet their siblings when they’re ready, you are actually making a decision for them.
4. Photos on the internet
Some years ago, a friend of mine experienced a break-in to her house that resulted in almost all of her child’s photos being stolen—and she hadn’t backed them up. “Fortunately, I’m an over-sharer”, she said. “So, it’s ok; I’ll get them back via Facebook!”
Now, this made me think a lot about Lola and the photos I’ve posted of her. How would she feel about those photos as a teenager? Would she scroll on down my Facebook page and find amusement in the images of herself, nappy pendulous and strangling the cat, or the time I stuck her in a flowerpot and wrapped a garland round her head? And more importantly, what of my posts about donor conception: will she want the world to know she’s donor-conceived when she’s fifteen and overwrought with hormones and helplessness?
The answer is, I don’t know, and nor does Lola.
I’ve explained to Lola that once things are on the internet, they’re there forever. She gets it. So, Lola permits me to post non-identifying photos of her—but she has to review them first.
Lola gets the last word. (And sometimes baby photos in flowerpots are okay).
5. Your child will own their story one day
When Lola was eight, she started at a new school. This, of course, meant new friends, new relationships and yes, explaining things all over again. Now, I’ve always been open with absolutely everyone about Lola’s status as a donor-conceived person, and this is what donor-conceived adults generally recommend when our children are young. After all, why should we hide it? Why should Lola feel that her conception is something to be embarrassed or ashamed about?
So, when she had her first play date and the other child’s mother stood there and asked, “Are you a single parent?”, I looked at Lola, Lola looked back at me, and then she nodded.
“Lola is donor-conceived”, I replied.
A day will come when your child owns their story, when you don’t just get to share their conception carte blanche with whomever you meet.
You’ll know the moment when permission is required. Look out for it.
6. It’s okay to say sorry
I don’t believe anyone intentionally sets out to cause harm to their children, especially when we love them beyond measure, but sometimes it happens. It happened to me. So, you need to know that sometimes our children experience pain about their conception story; about being donor-conceived.
When I realised the enormity of what I’d dropped Lola into – particularly the bit where she will look for her siblings until she dies – I wanted to acknowledge her pain and say sorry. I took this burden with me to my therapist and we threw it about and turned it upside down for a good hour. “You can’t tell your child you’re sorry she exists”, he said. “You need to be careful”. “Right!” I said. “Great point. Of course, I’m so glad she exists. And I don’t want to cause more harm. So, what do I say!”
This is what I said.
“I just want to acknowledge that using a donor who is not known to you has caused you pain. I want you to know that you can share with me anything you want, any time you like. There might be times when you feel angry at me, and that’s okay too. I will hear you, and I am here for you.”
And this is what happened.
Lola gave me her beautiful smile and said, “I forgive you, Mum”.
There are many donor-conceived people who have told me they never heard this from their parents, that their pain was never acknowledged. The ones who did have told me it made a world of difference.
And so what happened next?
Our relationship is stronger. We’re good.
7. Initiate the conversations yourself
When Lola was a couple of weeks old and I went to the obstetrician for a follow-up appointment, he said to me, “You know your child better than anyone else in the world”. Of course, I glowed with pleasure (which was no doubt his intention), but the point is, it’s true. And what I know about Lola is that she’s a sensitive little soul. And what I understand now from donor-conceived adults – many of whom experience feelings that parallel adoptees’ feelings – is that many children, especially those who are sensitive, will choose silence when the alternative may hurt their parents.
So, when you look at your precious little cherubs and think, “Look how happy and well-adjusted they are!”, this may well be true, but you might be missing the undisclosed addendum.
What can you do?
Take the lead, and initiate the conversations yourself, because if you don’t, you run the risk of your teenage/adult child exploring their genetics covertly.
8. Feelings evolve
Like most things in life, emotions and feelings evolve over time. What’s not on the radar one day, may appear front and centre the next. Did I think I would ever have to apologise to my donor-conceived child about the pain I have caused her? Of course not. Will you? Who knows?
Many donor-conceived people tell me they had little, or no, interest in their conception story for years, until one day something happened: they were contacted by a sibling, completed a DNA test, had their own child, became unwell, and so on. How we feel about certain aspects of our lives can be fluid.
Lola’s interest in her biological parent and siblings ebbs and flows, but I’m always on the lookout, aware of subtleties, imperceptible changes. And I check in. I’m prepared for the aches; there when she needs to be held.
And I talk to donor-conceived people. I listen.
Because I’m raising one myself.
Note: This article has been reviewed and approved by Lola.
Fertility Help Hub
This article was originally published on Fertility Help Hub, a UK network run by donor recipient parent, Eloise Edington. Fertility Help Hub provides fertility expert tips, nutritional advice, helpful resources, regular blogs and podcasts, emotional support and much, much more!
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