Here Natasha shares the unique blessings and challenges of having what we refer to as a 'mixed' family - one of her children was conceived without the need for a donor thanks to surgical sperm retrieval but they decided to use sperm donation for their younger daughter. It's particularly interesting to see how the difference in origins plays out in the sibling relationship, and the importance of staying open and adaptable throughout the telling and talking process.
As our daughters (2 & 8) clamoured to hear their own versions of 'The Pea that was Me' and some jealousy erupted ("why isn't my story as special as hers?"), I was struck by how unprepared we had once been for our eldest daughter's feelings about her younger sister's donor conception story.
Of course, when we embarked on our assisted conception journey many years ago we were quickly presented with sperm donation as an option, and the counselling we underwent filled us with confidence that we would know how best to approach the donor conception story if we needed to use a donor (how wrong we were!). Back then we naively believed we would only tell our child, as it was their story to choose whether to tell to others (what a burden that would have been for them to carry alone!).
We selected a donor to provide 'back-up sperm' if the surgical sperm retrieval was unsuccessful. We joined the DCN and we read up on how best to prepare to raise a donor conceived child. The retrieval was successful, two embryos were returned and we were lucky to be expecting twins. Oddly I felt a little bereft that we would not be welcoming a donor conceived child into the world when that's what we had prepared for!
Sadly, the twin pregnancy was complicated by growth restrictions for our little boy and when our twins were born 8 weeks premature he was stillborn. But our little boy's death inadvertently helped us - more than any of our prior reading - to know how to raise his donor conceived sister five years into the future. We wanted to tell his twin sister all about him from the first time we saw her in the NICU as we flitted between the stillbirth suite, his nest and her incubator down in the NICU. It just felt right. Natural. And so she has always known she is a twin. She talks openly about him to family and friends (and often did to strangers when little). Only today, at 8 years old, she asked to look at his photos again.
Fast forward to four and a half years after the birth of our twins and we knew we wanted to add to our family. Successful SSR (sperm retrieval) was highly unlikely and very costly without NHS funding this time, so we returned to the DCN to explore mixed families. We sought reassurance that this type of family could work... that our daughter would 'cope' with the perceived differences between herself and a donor conceived sibling. We were ready for the potential teenage quip of "you're not my real dad" but what about "he's not your real dad?". Was that scenario a possibility that we could prepare for?
But once you have a family you realise that it is an ever-evolving dynamic because children change and develop rapidly, and while you can read up and prepare, you also need to balance that with 'learning on the job' and learning through experience. The latter is where the DCN has been essential to us, especially the local support groups. Meeting up with other DC families normalises donor conception for our daughters while also giving us the chance to learn from more experienced DC families. On our recent meet up we ended up talking about how to tell our children's schools, and these discussions, along with the friendships made, have been invaluable.
So, returning to that bath time, I listened to my husband read 'The Pea that was Me' and the animated explanations our youngest was being provided with by our eldest and I realised that somehow, over the past 3 years, we had figured out ways to start preparing our daughters to accept their mixed blessings, through storytelling, friendships and an openness about all aspects of family life. If they are curious, we welcome their curiosity with age-appropriate responses and lots of stories! Every day we learn something new about how to raise our daughters and so we know that we'll continue to figure out how best to support them as their understanding of our mixed family changes.