* All names have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.
When I found out my sperm donor had conceived children in the triple-figure range, I was asked repeatedly by friends, family, acquaintances, “If you had to do it all again, would you do anything differently?”
At first, I didn’t really know how to answer this question because right in front of me stood my beautiful daughter; a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, healthy little miracle. How could I possibly change her in any way (with the exception, perhaps, of her listening skills)?
But now I realise that the question has never been about my daughter’s existence or the joy she brings me – for this is unquestionable – but more about the life I have dropped her into. For instance, how is she going to feel when she fully understands the magnitude of her sibling numbers, that she will never be able to find them all (given the sperm bank hasn’t got a clue either), and that her ID Release donor is, in all likelihood, not going to want to meet her because it would simply be too overwhelming given the numbers? And so on.
So I decided to ask some other parents with donor-conceived children (and some that are trying to conceive) about what they might do differently when using a donor. Here’s what they came up with…
I Wouldn’t Change a Thing
Not surprisingly, there were some parents who said they wouldn’t change a thing. Some were even slightly offended at the suggestion. And I get it, I really do. But as I explained, that’s not what it’s about.
Carrie used a known egg donor and explains: “I wouldn’t change any of my decisions. I knew from the beginning that using an anonymous donor was not going to be something I could sign up for. We have a great relationship and her family is very supportive.”
Given the current global noise about ending donor anonymity, it’s also not surprising that many people expressed regret over choosing an anonymous donor. (Note: anonymity is banned in Australia, however many people travel overseas to use anonymous donors, primarily due to a shortage of egg donors in Australia.)
“I wouldn’t have used an anonymous sperm donor,” explains Celeste, “because ultimately I made a decision that my child will pay for, of maybe not feeling complete.” Celeste feels she was selfish choosing an anonymous donor and will regret that decision forever. “However, with that said, I’m blessed beyond measure with the donor I received. The clinic I used was not honest and at times unethical. But now eighteen years later, in the end, I brought a beautiful child into this world.”
2. Using a Known Donor
Many donor-conceived adults advocate for known donors (on the understanding the donor is a responsible adult and not, for example, a ‘populate-the-planet’ style donor) because this can enable the child to have a connection with their biological parent early on, and prevent the possibility of grief and trauma later on. Many of the donor recipients I asked agreed with this sentiment. “I would select a known donor that was interested to be part of my child’s life, like an aunt or a family friend,” says Harriet. Donor recipient, Marnie, agrees: “I would have selected a known donor. Though we have contact with the donors now, I feel like time was lost in the beginning.”
Joanna and her spouse used a known donor and are really happy with their decision. “A decade into parenting our donor-conceived kids and our donor parenting his own kids, we both have independently articulated that it’s been such a great and ongoing source of joy to both our families to have this connection.” Joanna believes that fertility clinics and sperm or egg banks hold a lot of appeal because recipients can distance themselves from the perceived threat to their family unit’s integrity. “Ultimately, once you’re in the trenches of parenting, you are the parent, and it feels totally not scary for our kid also to have a relationship with their genetic relatives too. I have so much in common with my kid and I am completely and totally his mom. The donor being in the picture in no way threatens that.”
3. Age of Conception and the Possibility of More Children
The rapid adjournment of the fertility window is one of those common stories you hear about when using a donor (mine included). Evangeline wasted 10 years in a relationship hoping her partner would change his mind about having children. “My only regret is that I didn’t understand early in life how difficult it is to conceive,” explains Evangeline, “and that I thought I had so much more time than I had to find the man to form a family with. I would have loved to have more children of my own. In the end I am happy that he [my child] still has siblings, even though they are not mine.”
Sachi and her partner are now trying to conceive with a donor from a sperm bank, and wishes she’d considered her options earlier: “I would have befriended more cis gay men in my twenties so we had more known donors to ask in my thirties.”
Athena expresses a similar sentiment; “I would have done it 10-15 years earlier! I was married but never had kids. We kept putting it off because of (insert excuse!). Got divorced and still [had] no kids.”
4. Openness with Donor’s Family
Does your donor’s family know about you? Has she shared with her parents the news they are about to become grandparents? Has he told his own children they are about to be blessed with half-siblings? (And while, as a donor recipient, you may wish to spurn these traditional naming concepts, many people – both donor-conceived and donor’s family members – describe their relationships with the donor’s family like this).
Joanna and her spouse chose a known sperm donor and they put together a written agreement about important elements of the relationship. The donor gained agreement from his wife, but he didn’t initially tell his conservative, religious parents. “Knowing what she knows now, Joanna might have done things a bit differently. “I would have specified in our donation contract more about how we were going to handle being out to extended family. I think we hadn’t really thought through that his parents and siblings would also have their genetics involved, whoops. We got to a place of openness for them eventually, but I feel terrible that they ended up having such a huge shock in finding out all at once, several kids in.”
5. Mental Health Details
In the donor screening process, all of the donors’ medical histories are self-reported. This means that unless your donor is honest, has a good knowledge of his or her family’s medical history and is old enough for any inherited disease or disorder to have manifested, then anything can happen.
Gemma’s son was two years old when he was diagnosed with severe anxiety that manifested as self-harm. “It’s heartbreaking as his mother to see him suffering, and at such a young age.” Despite this, Gemma wouldn’t have chosen a different donor. “No. That wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker for me (although it could be for some, and they deserve to know this type of information). I would have appreciated having that information, though, so I could have been more prepared for this.”
6. Using a Donor With a High IQ
In some countries, and in some sperm and egg banks, potential donors are required to undergo an IQ test. This is because ‘intelligent’ donors are in high demand. Many people place this in the highly offensive, ‘designer baby’ category, but whatever your opinion, does having a high IQ actually equate to happiness? According to some studies, highly intelligent people are more inclined to suffer mood and anxiety disorders, be harder on themselves, and find it difficult to fit in with age-peers.
Gemma’s son’s IQ places in him in the Mensa category, and she feels that giftedness is both a blessing and a curse. “It’s challenging. He is incredibly intense for his age and overly emotional. He’s also a perfectionist. He cries inconsolably when he makes tiny mistakes. There’s no reasoning with him. Prospective recipients should be cautious about choosing donors based on high IQs.”
7. Non-Biological Parent
If you are a couple using a donor(s), pre-conception counselling for the non-biological parent is vital, and any painful feelings need to be worked through. Many donor-conceived people speak of not feeling loved, of feeling ‘less’ than their siblings, or their non-biological parent leaving and never being seen or heard from again.
“I separated from my husband,” explains Vanessa, “because, despite the fact he said he wanted children, he made it very clear he didn’t really have much interest in them. I feel really sad for our children, but I don’t want him around anymore. It was damaging for them and for me. In hindsight we should’ve talked more about his issues with being the non-biological parent beforehand, and maybe had some more counselling.”
8. Full Siblings
When you select a donor, it’s important to consider how many children you intend to have, and whether the donor can fulfil your expectations. For instance, if you use two different donors and one of your children has 15 siblings and a loving connection with her donor, while the other child has no siblings and a donor who refuses to even exchange email addresses, this may create challenges. Of course, there may be no issues at all, or alternatively, the situation may be beyond your control.
“Our donor, as it turns out, has been pulled because it turns out he was a mosaic carrier for a genetic condition,” explains Athena. “I wish the center gave us the option of knowing this… if we wanted more kids with him or not. I know a few of us [other parents who used the same donor] wanted full genetic siblings. And I wish I had thought to do this earlier in life because I definitely wanted more kids.”
9. Sibling Registry
While the fertility industry has a long way to go in terms of change, many clinics and banks are getting a little better at helping siblings – and donors – connect with each other, if they wish to do so. “I also chose the [sperm] bank specifically because they had a sibling registry,” explains Athena. “All these kids have a built in support network. And they [her children’s half’-siblings] are all within a few years of each other.”
If you intend to use a known donor and facilitate a connection between your donor and your child from an early age (highly recommended by many donor-conceived people), then the donor’s geographical location might be something you want to consider.
“I suppose the only thing I’d change is living nearer to them [Belinda’s embryo donors], because it’s hard living a 12 hour drive apart and only seeing each other once or twice a year,” explains Belinda. “But technology means that our boys can ‘see’ each other via face time with just the push of a button.”
So while it’s important to note that this article is not an official research piece and there’s no causal hypothesis, affective measures and cluster analysis going on here, I believe opinions matter, especially where there’s lived experience. And I truly believe that you can’t do too much homework.
And if you do nothing else, the one thing you can do at each stage of your conception journey is ask yourself, “How will this decision affect my donor-conceived child?”
Where are you placed on your donor conception journey? Are you considering the option of using a donor? Have you already discovered something you’d do differently next time?
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Have you had an experience you’d like to share? What were the outcomes?