Parenting Children Conceived Using Donated Eggs or Sperm: Is it different?

Olivia Montuschi, one of the founders of the Network made this presentation to a national meeting in 2000

I'd like to introduce myself first as the mother of two children, a boy and a girl, now teenagers who were conceived using donated sperm from different donors. I'm half a partnership in this enterprise: Walter is the other half. I'm also the mother of another son, now 28 years old, conceived naturally in my first marriage, and to whom Walter has been a stepfather for 24 years. This personal experience of parenting forms the basis for my talking to you today. But I also have two others roles which bring additional dimensions.

As a member of the Steering Group of DCN and one of the three people on the end of the Contact Line, I have had the privilege of speaking to many people about their hopes, fears and experiences of conceiving and raising children in this way, and I have sought the specific views of some members with older children with this presentation in mind. I also have a professional role where I get to put awkward questions to people like health visitors to try to encourage them to see their role as supporting parents strengths rather than pointing out weaknesses.

Let's tackle this question head on. Is parenting a child conceived using donated eggs or sperm different from raising children where both parents are genetically related to the child?.. Did you really think there would be a straight forward answer to this question? Well no, of course there isn't. On the one hand it's just the same, requires the same conditions, understandings, skills and information as any other parent. At the other end of the scale, it's fundamentally different. As parents, or potential parents we have had to face making decisions which will have an impact - little or large - not just on us or our children, but over generations. The uncomfortable truth is that very few of us would have chosen to have a child in this way. We would have preferred to have the child of the person we love and live with. The delight and joy at being pregnant/giving birth/raising the child is likely to be tempered at one time or another by sadness that this is not the child of the person we love: for me - not the child I had in my mind when I imagined what OUR child would be like. For some people using DI or egg donation, this acknowledgement of difference happens when the child is quite young -the complete lack of physical resemblance to the non-genetic parent, the emergence of traits which seem to come from no-where. For me it happened slightly later. Our first DI child had been a difficult baby and a hyper-sensitive toddler and child. When he was seven or eight I went through a period of finding it very difficult to relate to him. It was only when I realised that it was because he wasn't living up to my fantasy of what I wanted our child to be like - he wasn't displaying the qualities and talents I had wanted a child to inherit from Walter - that I was able to mourn the child we couldn't have together and accept our son for the truly lovely person he really is. I could not feel closer to him now.

Of course, fantasies, imaginings, wishes and unrealistic expectations are part of every parent's repertoire - no matter how their child has been conceived. But perhaps for those of us using donated eggs or sperm, there is an extra dimension which has both plusses and minuses. On the minus side, we have to accommodate the lack of hope that a child might develop something of his father or mother's looks and talents: accept that we can never make a family connection on the non-genetic side - and it's amazing how much extended family conversation in particular revolves around who looks like who and where various talents (or horrible habits) might have come from. On the plus side, however, we have the real opportunity to put aside all those unfulfilled ambitions of our own that we secretly want our children to take on, and to accept each child for the person that they are. By using standard good parenting skills to stimulate the child's curiosity in the world around them, nurturing interests and talents as they emerge - and most important of all, providing a balance of warmth and nurturing with clear boundary setting, our children have the best chance of feeling secure and having high self-esteem. A child who feels good about his or herself in this way is not going to let anyone bully them about being a DI child - viz our daughter at age of nine when an attempt to do this by someone at school fell at the first post because it didn't press any 'shame' or 'hurt' buttons for her. I am not, however, talking about being 'a perfect parent'. This is an elephant trap we can easily fall into, because our children are so wanted. We are not elephants but human beings, and should remember this when we feel guilty at being infuriated, yet again, by our much sought after children.

I'm very aware that I have been speaking largely from the perspective of having children within the context of a heterosexual couple relationship. Some of what I have said applies to single parents by choice and lesbian couples, but not all. These family groupings have their own challenges and advantages. They will both have to deal with the little friend who says, "So where's Jimmy's Dad then?" This is only likely to come in a direct form from a child, but the question will be around in many unsaid forms from adults. I suspect open lesbian relationships find this easier than single parents. There are two of them to work it out and face the world for a start. Single parents need to work out very early what form of words they want to use in order to give a positive message to their own child as well as the questioner. 'We don't have a Dad in our family" conveys a very different feeling from 'He doesn't have a Dad'. Women who are single not through their own choice face the biggest challenges, particularly if the social father chooses not to remain in touch. A single parent by choice I talked to prior to writing this said she thought the biggest issue she faces is taking sole responsibility for having purposefully chosen to have her children by DI, with all the day to day and longer term ramifications which flow from that decision.

Let's face it, what ever your situation, being a parent is the toughest job anyone is likely to take on in a life-time - and in this age of uncertainty it is the only job for life! The challenges and rewards of parenting stretch your emotional range in a way that is unimaginable for the non-parent - particularly if your child is two or thirteen, when they have a tendency to behave in very similar ways, although parental responses need to be different. And that's it really isn't it - the main challenge of parenting is keeping up with your child's development and the necessity to change responses to match their needs. For parents of children conceived through egg and sperm donation, the challenges are the same but with the additional task of helping our children live with the conseqences of a vital decision they could not have been party to. It's not just children that go through stages of development of course. Parents do too - largely, though not completely, led (screaming by the hair) by their children's developmental needs. Here is a very brief run through of the main stages and some of the implications for our families.

Before birth, when those with normal conceptions will be going through the usual range of excitement, doubts, fears and fantasies, DI and egg donation families have already faced potential childlessness and the range of questions and emotions which will have eventually led to the decision to use donated gametes. And it's worth saying here that men and women approach and handle these questions and feelings very differently. It's a real test for relationships. What it does give us is a wonderful opportunity to really think about what we are doing and this alone makes us very different from the majority of the population. The very normal fears and fantasies both prior to and during pregnancy however, may be greatly exaggerated. I remember vivid dreams of growing a monster inside me before I became pregnant. For me the dreams stopped as soon as I conceived, but for others they carry on. After the birth, as well as all the usual adjustments, which are hard enough, we have to face the endless round of questions about who the baby looks like. Even if you have shared the information with close family and friends, neighbours, workmen, etc. will all want to know. Even more difficult may be the range of feelings towards the baby. It is quite normal for any woman to take time to 'fall in love' with her baby, but the pressure to do so may feel quite intense for a family who have gone to such lengths to conceive.

As small compliant babies grow into demanding two year olds, parents need to be prepared to take on 'being in charge' being the one who can say 'no' in a friendly but firm way, but at same time encourage safe exploration of surroundings. The small amount of research on DI Families - non-telling ones - shows that there is a tendency to indulge and over-protect children who have been conceived after years of infertility and/or using donated gametes. From talking to several families about this issue, I suspect many 'telling' families also find it difficult to give their children appropriate independence, although 'saying no' doesn't seem so difficult!

Moving outside the home into nursery and then primary school is an anxious time for any parent and a real time of transition for the whole family. I remember much hovering around windows and difficulty for myself, let alone the children, in letting go. In addition we have the added anxiety of wondering if our children will mention the 'nice man who gave mummy some sperm to make me' and what on earth the teacher and other children will make of this. I remember making an appointment to see the first teacher to tell them about DI. I thought I felt very confident and comfortable about it, but found myself stumbling and stuttering in a most unusual way, revealing hidden fears of stigma and rejection. It got easier over the years and came to fruition on the day our nine year old daughter said during a discussion on inheritance of ear lobe sizes, "What about me, I'm a DI child?' and the teacher handled it brilliantly. Teenage years bring their own anxieties. From ten onwards, particularly for girls, you can expect the nicest of children to start behaving - intermittently - in the most awful of ways. As the natural process of separation leading to individual identity formation starts, how can we tell if our children's 'lippy' backtalk, wish for privacy, rejection of our values etc., is part of this most ordinary of processes or something to do with heightened sensitivity about their origins? Walt and I have found that the most important role for parents of teenagers is to, 'be around and be prepared to listen'. Don't constantly ask questions, don't interrupt and don't make suggestions unless they ask for them. Ignore as much poor behaviour as possible and take every genuine opportunity to support and praise. This way, whatever is on their minds will come out, if it is important enough, sooner or later. How they handle the origins stuff will be up to their by now very individual temperaments and personalities, shaped in part by our example. Our sixteen year old son chooses to keep the information away from his friends, and never brings the subject up spontaneously. As part of a relaxed conversation recently I asked if he had any curiosity about his donor and he said he didn't. On the other hand, our 13 year old daughter is very open with her friends and told me only this week that in a biology class on reproduction recently she reminded the teacher to cover donor insemination. She is proud of being different - 'different special', rather than 'different weird'. She is also very curious about her donor and asks from time to time about our quest to find out if records of both children's donors exist. What of the future? Walt and I assume that at some point both our children will go through a range of feelings about their inability to know more about one half of their genetic inheritance. These feelings may range from sadness to real anger at having this information denied them. It is our guess that this may not happen until they are quite a bit older, possibly contemplating having children themselves and/or doing a mid-life stock-take, making family connections etc. Although they will be autonomous adults by then, what they will be going through will be the result of a decision Walter and I took many years before, so I think we have a duty to be there for them, emotionally at least, for the duration. I don't think it would help to feel guilty (as I know at least one adult offspring's mother does). Nevertheless we have to accept responsibility for the decision, and support our children whatever way we can, although we cannot be ultimately responsible for their happiness or success in life.

To sum up - our families are both the same as, and different from, those where children are genetically related to both parents; and different again from families formed in other ways. Avoiding that fundamental difference is I think avoiding facing a real truth and in the end, denial like secrecy, can only get in the way of relationships. But we also have to be kind to ourselves. Many of us carry baggage from our own upbringing which make us shy about acknowledging, even to ourselves, the implications of conceiving and raising the children of egg or sperm donation. Adult DI offspring, however, are very clear that straightforward and honest relationships in their childhoods would have helped them grow up more confident human beings. So for our childrens sakes we need to be able to manage the mixed feelings - acknowledging and accepting the sameness and the difference - and relate to our children and others in ways which will give our children the security and self-esteem to feel comfortable and confident about their place in the world.

Editor's note at 2014:  Walter and Olivia's 'children' are now 30 and 27.  They have essentially the same views about being donor conceived as they did back in 2000.

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