The issue of language

Olivia Montuschi, one of the founders of DCN ponders the tricky question of language around donor conception

Everyone knows words can be powerful and they can be dangerous. Free speech is one of the first things to go in a repressive society. The language we use is also one of the many ways in which we can be categorised by others. Is she one of us? Does he use the 'right' terminology? The pitfalls are many.

How then should we refer to people conceived with the assistance of donated gametes?
How do they refer to themselves? DI or egg donation child/adult? Offspring? Donor conceived person? DI Adoptee?
What do they call the person who donated the sperm or egg that helped to give them life? My donor? Real mother/father? Genetic father/mother? Biological parent?
And what meaning(s), if any, should we attach to the language that is used?

Although donor insemination has been practised in this country consistently since the end of World War Two, it is only fairly recently that donor assisted conception has become a matter for public discussion. However, the language of this discourse is in its infancy and it's not surprising that the media often refers to 'DI children'. Understandably, adults conceived in this way are fed up with being referred to as children.

The terminology can be seen as a way of avoiding taking the issues they bring seriously, but it is more likely to be that DC adults (if that is what we may call them) have never before been recognised as a group. Use of language also changes.

As a passionate listener to Michael Rosen's Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth, I am fascinated at the evidence of how the use and meaning of words subtly, and not so subtly, shifts over the years. Think about how you and your children use the word 'wicked'. Children's understanding and subsequent use of language also changes as they grow and develop. We read them Our Story from early on and talk about 'nice men and women who give their sperm or eggs' but by eight or so they need straightforward answers to questions about their donor, genetic inheritance and sex and reproduction. Each child will make their own sense of this information.

We as parents can use the language we feel is appropriate when we talk with our children, but we can have only minimal influence on how they process this as they progress through their development. The words they use to describe themselves and the person who contributed towards their creation are likely to change over time. For instance, 'Donor' may change to 'real father/mother' as they encounter information about genetic inheritance and then perhaps shift again, to genetic or biological mother/father or even back to Donor, as they ponder the nature of relationships and struggle, as we all do, with what exactly the word 'real' means. It will be different for each one

Hearing a child speak about her 'real father' (or mother) may be rather shocking for parents who have put a lot of effort into not using this terminology. But the meaning of this term is very likely to be significantly different for a child than for an emotionally involved and more sophisticated adult. A child is unlikely to be contrasting real with unreal or substitute or fake. Like every child, she has only limited vocabulary at her disposal to express complex concepts and is doing the best s/he can to make sense of the differences between biological and social father/mother. Children and young people experiment with language in the same way as they experiment with life. The words they use may have huge significance, be a flirtation with a new idea or concept which may or may not be adopted, or a test to see how others will respond. A teenager may accuse parents of 'not being my real mother/father' in order to score points or wound in the heat of an argument, but the underlying belief is likely to be completely different if fundamental relationships in the family are good. Our (never easy) role as parents is to listen and learn from them and be there to support and answer questions as they arise.

Questioning in teenage years is, after all, a healthy part of their development into adults with independent thoughts and feelings. My sense is that we can best help them accomplish this task by responding to their questions and their sometimes 'shocking' language by keeping calm instead of becoming defensive because we feel so threatened. Not always an easy thing to do. If questioning is, however, accompanied by real distress, then we may want to seek outside support in helping our child to process difficult feelings.

What is true is that the English language does not appear to have sufficient flexibility to describe the range of relationships that currently contribute to the myriad family forms in the UK today. There is also the issue of political correctness (PC) which has often led to the use of euphemisms and the stifling of expression in the sensitive areas of gender, race and disability.

It might be helpful if we could develop some new words that could help us escape the restrictions of current language, but even if we do they will take some time to embed into common use. In the meantime it feels important to me that we do not get entangled in the PC world and that we accept and respect the words our children use to describe their situation as being the right ones for them at that particular time.

I wonder if other people feel as fascinated (and confused) about this issue as I do?
 

Personal story category: