’You’re not my father/mother anyway'

Olivia Montuschi offers some supportive insights into the fear that haunts parents of donor conceived children.... Anxieties about rejection by our children, particularly as they become teenagers, are very common, but understanding these fears in the context of developmental stages and needs of both children and parents can help.

Those of us who have used donor conception (DC) to create our families as well as those who have made the decision to do so, have faced considerable disappointment and loss. Loss of our dreams as well as the children we might have conceived in a loving act with our partner. Unless we have information to the contrary, we all assume that having children is something we can do when we choose and we are all influenced by our own pasts, circumstances and cultures when imagining the child we may have. Infertility brings loss of control and a severe modification of expectations. Conceiving is no longer something you do with love in bed, but something that happens in a consulting room or a laboratory. Our fantasies need now to adapt to include a stranger, someone who does not share our bed or our past but will, in their own way, be part of our future.

No matter how well we grieve for the children we cannot have, accommodate these huge losses, embrace the donor and welcome into the world the children we can have, it is unsurprising that for many of us there remains the fear of further loss. Do I dare to love completely when this child may reject me for his real father/mother, may be an unspoken question for some, perhaps more for DI dads than egg donation mums.

The good news is in understanding the developmental needs of our children. What is known about the needs of young children shows that these have nothing whatsoever to do with genetics.

Babies and young children love and make strong emotional bonds with the people who on a daily basis love and take care of them. They do not care about who is genetically related to them. They do care about being fed, loved, praised, appreciated and given appropriate guidelines and boundaries for behaviour. In a secure and loving household where these things are present there is also likely to be trust and respect and relationships based on honesty - hence openness about donor conception. By the time children are around 7 or 8, they are old enough to begin to understand that being donor conceived means that they do not share their dad's or mum's genes. The relationship between parent and child has also become firmly established and there is a strong emotional connection that is reinforced by everyday family life. Questioning the non-genetic parent's right to be their parent is highly unlikely, unless it is undertaken in a spirit of testing out how the parent feels about it (pushing buttons) or in anger or sadness at the realisation that they are not the genetic child of someone they love very much (see Ted Baldwin's story). Although we are often worried that a child will see the donor as a 'real' or rival parent, in fact children age 7 or 8 who are securely attached to their mum and dad, are easily able to separate donor and parent in their minds.

Parents, in the meanwhile, are usually feeling much more comfortable once DC children have reached this age. They are likely to be confident in their parenting which puts them in a good position to be ready for the leap in brain development that occurs in children of 8+ and which may trigger a round of questions, including perhaps curiosity about their donor. The amount and intensity of questions at this age varies hugely from child to child, according to their personality, temperament and the way the issue is handled in the family.

The stage that is dreaded by most parents, and not just those with DC children, is adolescence. But for parents of DC young people there may be an added tension. There seem to be two main fears. One is that the young person, in the context of an argument, is going to challenge the authority of their non-genetic parent by accusing them of not being their 'real' mother or father and the second is that they may blame their parents for having conceived them by DC, thus blighting their lives in a range of ways .

Again it is helpful to think about what is going on for both young people and parents at this life stage. And loss comes to the forefront once more. Giving up being a child and moving towards being an adult is at various times a very painful process for children and also for parents. The easy, carefree and close relationship you have had with your ten or eleven year old changes, intermittently at first, to one that may be characterised by argument, challenge and retreat behind closed doors. Young people feel at a loss about what is happening to them and parents feel they are losing the child they knew. In this time of turmoil and searching for identity as an individual, it is not surprising that some donor conceived young people will challenge their non-genetic parent's authority as a 'real' parent. It is part of a normal range of behaviours at this stage.

What is also normal in late childhood and early adolescence is that a percentage of DC young people will refer, if asked, to their donor as their 'real' father or mother . Some parents on first viewing the Network's video A Different Story (also available as a DVD), have found themselves shocked by the use of this term. But as I have said before in the article The Issue of Language (Autumn 2003 Newsletter) each child or young person needs to be able to make sense of their situation in their own way and this exploration may include at least a flirtation with the idea of the donor as their 'real' father. Boys in particular at this age think in very uncomplicated logical ways so it is not surprising that on learning about the science of genetics, perhaps in the context of a school biology lesson, a young person would put 2 and 2 together and come up with the answer that as they have inherited genes from their donor then the right way to describe this person must be as their 'real' mother or father. This is unlikely, however, to have any connection in their mind with the loving relationship that they have with the man or woman who has brought them up and whom they would not dream of rejecting, disowning or abandoning in favour of their donor. A child or young person is unlikely to be contrasting 'real' with unreal, substitute or fake. They are simply doing the best they can to make sense of and find language for the differences between biological and social father or motherhood.

What matters is how parents respond to this.

The role of parents in adolescence is generally to be able to withstand challenges, to remain in authority ( without being harsh or unnecessarily disciplinarian) to provide a framework of simple rules around things like safety, to provide clear expectations about behaviour and to make sure that lines of communication are kept open. Applied to DC issues, this means neither becoming angry nor crumbling with hurt if your offspring challenges your authority as a parent. It means staying calm and responding according to the context. This might mean acknowledging the feelings behind the words - "I can hear that you're really angry with me" but then reinforcing your role and authority by saying something like, " but I'm the only dad/mum you've got and I'm saying that you have to catch the last bus and be in at 11". Strangely enough, it is this very drawing of the boundary that will reinforce the security of the relationship with you. Children and young people (and adults too) like to know where they stand and where the boundaries are. Don't expect, however, to be Mr. or Ms Popular. Parents of teenagers have to get used to being unpopular sometimes and this includes mums and dads with DC offspring. It can be easy to forget that adolescence is a very difficult time for them too!

If a young person is securely emotionally attached within the family (and challenges such as those illustrated above do not indicate that they are not) then blaming parents for having been conceived by DI is unlikely to occur or simply be a passing phase of testing to see what response they get. The reason why blaming is unlikely to happen is explained by Attachment Theory, a helpful and influential tool used by family workers and psychologists for assessing and interpreting family relationships.

Attachment Theory tells us that if a baby's basic needs for food, comfort, warmth and security are met in a consistent way then the baby and growing child will develop a sense of trust that their future needs can be met and that other people will be there for them in the future. Children treated in this way are likely to have high self-esteem and a strong sense of self-efficacy. This positive approach to life means that difficulties are faced with an assumption that they can be overcome and that good times are likely to follow hard ones. Recent advances in brain imaging studies have shown that these expectations of life become hard wired into children's brains and that the emotional climate in which children are raised has a profound influence on how they expect to be treated and how they expect to treat others in life. Those children whose care has been continuously inconsistent or even worse, chaotic, are likely to have a poor view of themselves as people deserving to be treated well. Their experience has shown them that they always have to look out for themselves as others cannot be trusted to do so. They also find it very difficult to take responsibility for their own lives (they have certainly been let down by the parenting given to them), so they tend to blame others - parents, organisations, the government - for their misfortunes.

Parents in families created through donor conception are much more likely to provide good or what is often referred to as 'good enough' parenting for their children because they have had to go through so much and have thought about parenting much more than those who conceive easily. It is, therefore, much less likely that a DC young person, particularly one who has been brought up in an open household where qualities of trust and respect have been nurtured, would blame parents for their method of conception or bringing them into the world at all. They are much more likely to want to make the best of their lives, whatever the circumstances of their beginning.

Good parenting does not and should not prevent normal curiosity and interest in genetic inheritance, but it is highly unlikely that your child will ever think of their donor as a mother or father. Despite the challenging language, our video A Different Story, and research on some of our families by Professor Eric Blyth confirms this. And as far as blame is concerned, there are many things that your children will blame you for throughout their lives and as adolescents they will find many faults with your clothes, hairstyles, taste in music and attitudes (as you will with theirs!). But if they have been brought up in openness with honesty, trust, respect and love as consistent values in their lives, then it is highly unlikely that their method of conception will feature in this list.

Olivia Montuschi
Counsellor:
Parenting Educator and Trainer
Mother of two DC adults
March 2005

Personal story category: