I listened to BBC Woman’s Hour last week which featured The Donor Conception Network and The HFEA talking about donor conception in the UK and how, since the law changed back in 2005, this year is the first year that donor conceived individuals turning 18 will be able to request information about the donor and their genetic origins. It seems many are waiting to see what happens and how many come forward, as it’s only now that this law really comes into play, even though Open ID no longer seems like a new concept in the UK.
Someone asked me recently to talk more about my reflections on what I have shared as my only regret in using an egg donor, that we used an anonymous donor from abroad. This means our girls won’t have the same opportunity that was talked about on BBC Radio Four, to use official channels to identify who our egg donor is. It’s a complex one for me as there are so many layers to this, without this decision I wouldn’t have them and so I ask myself, how can I feel any kind of regret? But as is often the case, emotions can co-exist and in this scenario there are many at play. In many ways I’ve evolved over time in my feelings surrounding this decision, as I’ve learned more and processed my grief.
As I listened to them explain how the law was changed in 2005 to give donor-conceived people the right to know their genetic origins, it brought tears to my eyes, knowing that our decision may have potentially denied our children that right. Although DNA testing offers us a potential future option, it is by no means guaranteed, although my hope is that advancements over the next 10 years will keep up with the previous decade and may provide more chances, should they want to know more.
I’ve questioned myself many times as to why I didn’t think about this in more depth at the time and have put myself through all of the self-criticisms – does this make me a bad person / selfish / a bad parent for not considering this? When I went through a phase of overreading Facebook forums, my feelings of guilt became especially dominant and not at all healthy, which I realise now was no use to anyone if it was resulting in me focusing on the past and being much less present with my kids.
After verbalising my feelings and speaking to my good friend Julianne Boutaleb, a Perinatal Psychologist from Parenthood in Mind and regular speaker on my support platform, Path to Parenthub, I can look back and apply some compassion to myself, which I encourage others in a similar position to do as well. I realise that I did the best I could with the information I had at the time, in the emotional state I was in at the time – which was a key factor.
I know I’m not alone in these feelings of guilt, late last year I hosted a Paths to Parenthub connection group for those parenting after anonymous donation with another brilliant counsellor, Gerry McCluskey. It was one of my most attended live sessions and was so comforting to chat with others, as we verbalised and recognised all of our emotions, past and present, in a judgement free environment, with the focus being on how we can now best parent our children in the situation we find ourselves in. I remember one lady describing her many insecurities at the time of making the decision, with so much uncertainty, following so many disappointments, losses, so much grief, whilst feeling so very vulnerable and, to put it frankly, desperate to be a mum.
I could relate so much to her description, remembering the time we made our decision over 7 years ago when donor conception wasn’t discussed anywhere publicly and so all I had to go on was the experience of a friend who I met online, without having any specific counselling to talk through my fears as we made the decision. It was a leap of faith. I had to trust that my fears around bonding, about potentially being replaced as a mum someday by the donor and not feeling like a ‘real’ parent to my children would be unfounded. Although in the end these particular fears have disappeared over time, at the beginning they were very real.
It wasn’t just these fears I was facing. Pressures were also financial, after spending so much on our many failed IVF cycles, whilst emotionally I was on the brink of falling apart and leaving my job, with little reserves left to address these questions. Time felt like a constant influence, having had our lives on hold for so long waiting for our baby, I look back now and know that I didn’t take the time I really needed to consider the long-term implications.
For some this may seem like a list of ‘excuses’, but they were so very real at the time and I know they are for so many who walk this path. I also genuinely believed that we would be able to give our children everything that they’d ever need, without realising that they may need to know more about themselves. I look back now through a compassionate lens and realise that it’s not fair or fruitful to continue placing blame on myself, that I’m only human and that, if our girls ever question this decision, that I am able to speak honestly about what we chose and how I recognise the impact it *may* have on them.
*I say ‘may’ because I have no idea what the future holds, but I’d rather assume that they will be interested and be prepared for the hardest questions, than hope that they won’t ever come.
I wish I could have known that my fears were ‘normal’ and I wish I could have given myself the time and space emotionally to allow myself to project forward a few years, to actually imagine finally having a child and how I might have these conversations with them. Again, it seems silly now to have not done so at the time, but fertility trauma can create the inability to believe that it might finally happen and so another way I protected myself was to try not to think too far ahead, not wanting to create too much hope, for fear of it coming crashing down again.
Speaking with Julianne always helps me to bring clarity, in this case as to why I found this this so difficult to do. She describes the huge leap that needs to be made whilst often in a vulnerable and emotional state, as we must
“make big decisions whilst trying to hold in our minds the implications of what may be for a yet-to-be-born child. It means going from finding it hard to even imagine holding a baby in your arms, to having to imagine your child developmentally, aged 10, 14 and then a young adult at 18 as they possibly ask ‘why did you do it in this way?’”
There’s no playbook or script for making decisions that we never imagined having to take, and so often we are left finding our way alone, navigating through a darkness of sorts to come to these important decisions. As Julianne put to me so perfectly,
“In what other circumstances are we having to imagine our future children so distinctly, acutely and specifically, across all of these development stages?”
This is why I’m so keen on opening up these conversations, even though it’s not easy with such an emotive topic. That’s why I’ve wanted to create the conversations and compassionate space for learning that I needed at the start of my journey within my support platform, Paths to Parenthub.
This year, I’m building on existing webinars designed to support parenting after donor conception with a series focusing specifically on childhood development at different ages (3-6, 7-12 and the teenage years). Led by Child Psychologist Dr Avital Pearlman of Parenthood in Mind, we will explore how these developmental phases might relate to donor conception and how we are parents can understand our children’s needs and support them.
I think about our children growing up with curiosity and how different that experience could be depending on how we as parents react to it. Within an environment that stifles curiosity, ignores it, dismisses it and is upset by it, as opposed to one that embraces curiosity, is prepared for it, empathises with it and supports it wholeheartedly. Thinking about this I realise that, even though there are a lot of things outside of my control, there are also many things that are within my control.
As I’ve learned more about my children’s needs both online and whilst parenting, I’ve learned even more about my own needs too. I’ve been surprised at my own capacity to continue learning, to grow as a parent and as a person. One learning being that I can never be a ‘perfect’ parent, but that I am deserving and can be a more-than-good-enough parent, one that is entirely open to my children and wherever they may want to go with their story, knowing that all our stories continue to grow, and that we will all grow with them.
As a parent there’s always space to learn, writing this blog today has allowed me to look back and realise just how far I’ve come over the past four years as I’ve shared our story. I’ve rewritten this piece many times in my mind and now on paper, as I wanted to share my reflections not only to help those who walk this path in the future, but also to recognise those who are already some-way down the path, like me.
When I first wrote about this decision a few years ago, I was still in the process of learning and formulating my reflections, but as we come into a new year and having listened to an open conversation on national radio, I felt it was the right time to open the conversation again. This year, with these issues already being raised on BBC Radio Four and in The Guardian, there’s no doubt conversations will accelerate across the media and in different forums. It’s an opportunity for us to talk about these issues and open up dialogue, but I also recognise that with an increased focus, opinion and scrutiny of donor conception, there’s likely to be an increase in triggers and emotions too, which is another reason I wanted to write this piece.
Maybe you’re reading this not having yet made the decision. What I wished I’d have known may spark important questions within you, whilst also reassuring you that your fears are very normal and, in my experience, may well turn out to be unfounded.
Maybe you’re reading this in a similar position to me as a parent after donor conception. I hope that some of my words resonate and help you feel less alone in your experience.
Maybe you’re reading this as a donor conceived person. I hope that it provides some insight into the context within which some of these decisions are made, it’s thanks to hearing your voices that I’ve been able to consider this perspective in much more depth.
And maybe our girls are reading this in the future (if I decide to keep it out there!) and can know that this isn’t about me now, it’s about each of them. That I’ll be there to support them, listen to them however they may feel and that I love them more than I could have ever imagined or even now describe. We can’t change the past, for which I’m pleased about as I wouldn’t have them, but what we can do is be compassionate with ourselves, present in the moment and there for each other.
PS. I know it’s been a very long time since I last shared a blog (over a year in fact!) but it’s one of my new year intentions to write more!
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