If you’re reading this blog post as someone wishing to support a loved one who is (or has) needed to use a donor to grow their family – thank you. Thank you for taking the time to better understand and support them in this huge decision, one that will require love, collaboration and understanding as a family (and beyond) to best support not only your loved one, but also their future children.
For many it can be difficult to find the words to properly describe their emotions and everything that has led to their decision, even with those who are close to them. Both infertility and donor conception are often shrouded in secrecy and shame, which is why it is rarely talked about, with little awareness unless you’ve had the misfortune of experiencing it yourself.
In this first of a series of blog posts I want to ‘set the scene’, to try and paint a picture using my own experience and perspective to allow better understanding and empathy towards those who are facing this now and looking for support. Please note that this is based on my own personal experience, I am no expert, and others will feel varying levels of emotion.
What emotions might my loved one have experienced?
Your friend or family member has most likely experienced trauma and grief leading to a decision to use a donor, whether it be over several years of failed treatment and loss, or a sudden devastating diagnosis which means using a donor might be the only way they can build a family, aside from adoption. However they have come to this point, it can form what is described as a ‘core grief’, something significant, but hard to put into words because nothing visible or tangible is lost.
When I was first diagnosed with early menopause and told that my chances of having a genetic child were very low, the best way to describe the magnitude of this news was that it was the potential loss of a lifelong dream. In that moment I had to process that I may never be a mum. The one thing I was sure I would always be. The path I’d expected my life to take. What society expected of me. What I desperately wanted to give to my husband and my family. Frustratingly, what everyone else seemed to have so easily. Since I was a little girl I’d ‘mothered’. My dolls, my pets, I’d talked about when I’d have babies of my own and fantasised about which parts of me they’d share. In short – infertility can be finding out the dream you’ve always had, may not be possible.
I write about this because the impact the journey can have on an individual is often misunderstood, with a significant effect on emotional and mental health. People (well-meaningly) can try to help those struggling with infertility to see the ‘positives’ in life, trying to give perspective by suggesting that ‘it could be worse’. An example from my own experience was comparing it to a life threatening illness, “at least you’ve not got cancer”. In saying this, what they were (unknowingly) doing was diminishing and devaluing my valid feelings of grief. For me, my diagnosis wasn’t life-threatening and I was grateful for my health, but it was life-limiting and impacted every element of the future I’d always planned. There was no ‘at least’ about it.
How might they have felt learning about the need for a donor?
It most certainly wasn’t an easy concept to process. We learned that donor conception could still make my dream possible, just in a way that I’d never envisaged, whilst I’d need to accept the loss of the chance to pass on my genetics.
Looking back, I remember the moment I was first told that my best chance of having a child was to use an egg donor, it hit me like a sledge-hammer, seeming like such an alien concept. I never even knew people donated eggs, never-mind that some women could use those eggs to carry, grow and have babies when otherwise they wouldn’t be able to. Honestly, my initial reaction was of confusion and sheer horror; the thought of mixing my husband’s sperm with another woman’s eggs felt so foreign and hard to comprehend. You may feel this initial reaction about donor conception too, it’s not unusual and totally understandable – it might well be why you’re reading this blog, to try and understand more.
Our decision came after numerous failed attempts at IVF, including a devastating miscarriage – the only pregnancy I’ve ever had with my own eggs. We had to face the facts that our odds were low, financially we were stretched, emotionally I felt broken and I still desperately wanted to be a mum. We had a 5% chance of success with my own eggs vs. a 50% chance of success with using a donor. Our heads told us that the best option was to go with using a donor, but that in no way made it an easy decision. In reality, consumed with grief, my heart wrestled with my head, making the decision even harder. “What if?” questions whirled around my mind with so much unknown.
I share this to show the complexity of the conversations we had to have that led us to this choice. I had to grieve and accept the loss of a genetic link to my future child, which brought along with it so many fears and worries, many of which your friend or family member will likely be experiencing themselves.
Would I feel like the ‘real’ parent?
Would it be obvious to everyone that I’m not their genetic parent?
Would I feel the same connection and attachment with my child?
How will our future child feel about our decision?
Will others be accepting of our decision? Most importantly you, our close friends and family?
You may even have perfectly valid questions yourself such as – will I feel like the ‘real’ Grandparent?
There is no easy or quick answer to these questions at the time, all of which I’m pleased to say for me couldn’t be further from my mind, with the exception of how our future child might feel. All I can say from experience is that it’s a process, which takes different amounts of time for each individual, whilst for some using a donor may never feel like the right option.
Personally, my own feelings changed significantly over time after each failed cycle. One of the biggest turning points being when I listened to other stories of success, seeing other people’s ‘realities’ and what might be possible. It changed my focus to what I could gain, rather than what I would be losing in not using my own eggs. I was grateful for the advances in medical science, allowing us an opportunity to still have a family, even though it wasn’t the way we’d originally envisaged. I started to re-define in my mind what it means to be a mum, and realised that there’s so much more in the act of mothering than simply sharing genetics.
What can help my loved one navigate this process?
I’ll talk in a later blog post about how you can support them specifically, but my advice for anyone who is looking to make this decision (and equally for anyone else who wants to come to terms with this alternative route to parenthood) is that these three things can significantly help.
Firstly – communication. Talking about these fears out-loud and spending time with a counsellor really helped me, but the most important thing was that I could share these emotions with loved ones who understood and allowed me to talk openly, without judgement.
Secondly – reading, learning and listening to those who have walked this path and now have their family. ‘Hope’ is a fundamental part of facing infertility, something I wish to give to others – not simply through ‘rose tinted spectacles’, but with a realistic perspective on life as a mum to three precious, donor conceived girls. I’m starting to share more guest blogs to add different voices and perspectives with the same aim of giving hope, support and inspiration to others. You may also find comfort in reading these, as they’re a great way to bring to life other families that are being built with the help donor conception.
Lastly, it’s about finding others who are also on the journey towards making these decisions. I believe strongly in ‘finding your tribe’, whether it be those who are still yet to use a donor, or those who already have children through donation, so much validation and mutual understanding can be found within each other. Through my Instagram page I am constantly trying to connect people with others who can help, both anonymously or openly. Building a community and support networks is something I feel incredibly passionate about.
As someone close to them, why it is so important that I’m involved?
It’s important because, not only is it a significant decision for them to make right now, it is one that will inevitably be a part of their future child. I’m an advocate for telling the child about their conception from early on, so that it’s all they’ve ever known. Having an understanding and supportive circle of family and friends means that our children are able to talk openly about it, without being met with upsetting reactions of confusion or resentment from those closest to them. We all play an important role in supporting them and answering questions as they learn about how they came to be, in what will become an incredibly special story. I’ll share more in one of my next blog posts about how you can help with this, along with how my own family felt and embraced our girls, despite not sharing genetics.
I share all of this as another way to encourage understanding, change perceptions and ultimately give hope. This is an incredibly difficult journey in itself without having to worry about what those who are close to us are thinking and saying, which is why I’ve tried to give context behind our decision. If your friend or family member has made the decision to use a donor, or already has a donor conceived child, know that they haven’t made this decision lightly. Please be kind and show empathy, it will be the result of lots of difficult conversations, often many tears, leading to a path of hope, to give them that lifelong dream and to bring a much-loved child into the world.
Ultimately, through DefiningMum I try to show others that there is so much more to building a family than simply DNA – it’s about the bonds that we share, the time spent together, the lifelong memories we make and the importance of nurturing. Now that I have my three girls, I wouldn’t change them or how I came to have them for the world. They’re wonderfully unique, loved beyond measure and have brought so much joy to us and our wider family. The journey has taught me a lot about gratitude and relationships and given a much deeper level of connection as a family, just through having to consider and support each other with these complexities that we otherwise wouldn’t have consciously faced.
I love to hear from those who follow my blog solely to support someone they love, it shows just how much you care and how important it is to open these conversations. Please do get in touch if you have any questions or comments, I’d love to respond to these as I write my next blog post, which will also be written for friends and family of current and future donor recipient parents.
Love, Becky x