I’m continuing to share experiences from those who are donor conceived themselves, a vital perspective for us to understand and learn from as parents through donor conception.
I’ve found it much more difficult to find voices of those conceived through egg donation, most likely because it’s more recent and less common than sperm donation, but I am very grateful to two egg donor conceived ladies who have very kindly taken the time to share their experiences with us. I asked my Instagram followers what they would like to know and, with so many questions received, I’ve condensed them down into key themes. Last week I shared the experience of Chloe* and today I’m sharing the thoughts and feelings of Martha*, a UK born egg donor conceived individual.
As I did before, I want to acknowledge that some of the experiences and viewpoints in this Q&A series might not be easy for us as parents to hear, especially where elements of their conception have ultimately caused distress to them as individuals. As a parent who used an anonymous donor, I found Martha’s story difficult to read and I know some of you will do too. I think it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean our children will feel the same, but I believe that listening to these views is a big part of preparing ourselves as parents for how our child might feel in the future, whilst also holding onto the perspective that (as Martha acknowledges herself) there can be such a wide spectrum of responses. Martha’s story gives us a particular insight into the impact that donor anonymity has had on her throughout her teenage years, after learning about her conception at the age of 12.
I want to say thank you to Martha for so bravely opening up about something that has clearly been very difficult for her, whilst using her experience to educate us as parents.
How did you find out that you are donor conceived?
When my parents divorced (I think I was about 12 years old at the time), I received a letter from my Dad informing me that both my twin brother and I were egg donor conceived. Apparently my Mum had never wanted me to know so I would not otherwise have been told.
2. How did it make you feel?
It was a shock. My Mum is an amazing person and up until that point in my life I pretty much thought that she had no flaws whatsoever. So, when I found out that I was egg DC and that my Mum had wanted to keep such an important thing about myself secret from me forever purely because doing so made her feel more comfortable, it was especially upsetting, because that action did not tally at all with the sort of person who I thought that she was.
However, I also felt very sad for what my Mum must have gone through. The first thing that I did after finding out was to go and give my Mum a hug and tell her that I loved her. And, as time went on and I processed my feelings, I did come to understand and accept why she had acted as she did.
There was also, from the moment that I found out that I was DC, the strong feeling that I had to find out who my genetic mother is. This feeling still persists over 10 years later and I have struggled a lot with the fact that my parents used an anonymous donor.
3. How would you have preferred to find out?
I would have preferred for there never to have been one pivotal moment of ‘finding out’, but just to have been raised always knowing that this was the case. My aunt and uncle used a traditional surrogate (i.e. with the surrogate’s own eggs) to have my cousin, who has always known about her conception and been in touch with her biological mother and siblings throughout her life. This dynamic seems to have worked a lot better for all involved.
4. Did you feel any differently growing up?
I am not sure whether this question is asking whether, when growing up, I felt differently than I do now about being DC or if, growing up, I felt different from other people because I was DC. So, I’ll answer both.
Growing up, after I found out that I was DC, I felt pretty much the same way as I do now. The most important thing to me then was to discover the identity of my donor parent. That has not changed.
As for whether being DC made me feel any different from other people: not really. I definitely felt jealous that my friends all knew exactly who both of their biological parents were. Also, it did prompt me to be especially observant of how my friends resembled their mothers. I would often look at myself and try to figure out how my genetic mother might look.
5. Often parents can worry about who to tell, how do you feel about it being your story / a family story and would you prefer to control who knows about your conception?
I personally think it’s better if everyone in the family knows. Then it just seems normal to the child and not like some big secret which they have to choose to tell or not tell everyone else.
6. How did/do you feel towards your parents? Have your opinions evolved over time?
My Mum is the person that I am closest to in the world, I love her a lot. My opinions/feelings towards her have not changed. I have not seen my Dad since my parents divorced ten years ago, but that has nothing to do with the fact that I am DC.
7. Do you feel closer to your Dad as your genetic parent?
I haven’t seen my Dad since my parents divorced about ten years ago so no, I am not closer to him. I have a really close relationship with my Mum and genetics don’t come into that.
Even before I discovered that I was egg donor conceived, I noticed that personality-wise I was completely unlike my Mum and much more like my Dad. Regardless of whether genetics have anything to do with that, I wouldn’t say that our differences have caused problems in my relationship with my Mum. I think I was always closer to her than my Dad actually, even before my parents divorced.
8. Do you feel like your mum is your mum?
Yes, definitely. She may not be my genetic mother, but she’s 100% my Mum.
9. Do you wish to find the donor / genetic parent? If so, what do you hope for in finding them? Would you like to meet them?
Yes! This is the main (to be honest probably only) issue that I have with being donor conceived. I have no idea who my genetic mother is and that’s a question that I feel a deep need to answer before I die, just for my own sense of identity if for nothing else. I need to know where half of me comes from.
I have DNA tested on all of the commercial DNA testing sites but have not had any matches high enough to enable me to find her. I will not stop looking until I do find her, but it is extremely upsetting and frustrating that it has to be this way.
If I do ever find the donor, I will be respectful of her wishes when it comes to how much contact we have. Although I would love to meet her at least once, I realise that she may not be comfortable with this. At the very least I would like to know who she is and what she looks like, a bit about her family history, her personality, whether she has any children, why she chose to donate.
I think it’s important to note here that I am not looking for a mother-daughter relationship with this woman. I already have a Mum! I am not sure that I would even want any sort of ongoing relationship, but I desperately need to know who she is and I would love to have certain bits of information about her.
10. Are your parents supportive of you seeking out the egg donor?
My Mum used to hate the idea that I wanted to find my genetic mother. I found that hard because I wanted someone to talk to about my feelings, but whenever I tried to talk to her, she would either get angry and it would lead to an argument or she would give me the silent treatment. This went on for most of the past decade. I don’t know what changed, but over the past few months she has become supportive of the fact that I am looking and will have a proper conversation with me about it and say encouraging things. I am so grateful for this!
11. If your donor is anonymous, do you resent your parents for that choice?
My parents used an anonymous donor. I really struggle with that and am doing everything that I can to try and find out who she is, but I don’t resent my parents for this. When I was conceived, all donor conception in the UK was anonymous so they didn’t have a choice. If I resent anybody, it’s whoever was responsible for the laws surrounding donor anonymity in the UK at the time that I was conceived.
After I found out that I was egg donor conceived and that the donor was anonymous, for some time I felt very out of touch with my identity and myself, which I believe partly lead to me struggling with an eating disorder throughout my teenage years. Of course there were other factors which contributed to my mental health but I feel that if I had been able to learn who my genetic mother was, I wouldn’t have struggled with the identity issues. This is why believe it is so important that we have access to information about where half of our DNA comes from.
It’s worth bearing in mind that not all anonymously conceived DC people do struggle. Many DC people don’t have the same amount of curiosity as others do. My brother isn’t so interested in who our genetic mother is and has been mostly ok and that’s fine. But just because some DC people are ok with not knowing who their donor parent is, I don’t think that licenses us to remove the right of all DC people to know. It’s like saying ok some women don’t want to vote, so let’s not give any of them the right to do it!
12. Have you looked for and found any half siblings?
The HFEA has told me that I do not have any DC siblings. The donor had no children at the time of donation but I do not know whether she has since had children of her own or not. I would guess that probably she has. I am on all of the commercial DNA testing sites looking for the donor and have not found any half siblings but I’d be happy to find any.
13. Would you like your parents to support you with this?
Yes. My Mum’s support in my search means so much to me. It helps me to feel that I am not doing anything wrong or that I should be guilty about, and in general it’s just nice to have the people closest to you be supportive of the things which matter most to you.
14. Have you ever experienced comments about you looking like / not looking like your mum? How did it make you feel?
I look absolutely nothing like my Mum and I remember as a child feeling a bit confused about this, but so far as I can remember nobody has ever remarked on it although plenty of people have said that I look like my Dad.
15. Have you ever had any bad experiences / comments from friends and family who knows?
I don’t talk about this with family or friends because when it comes to donor conceived people wanting to find their donor parent, people can be extremely judgmental and lacking in empathy. So no, I have not personally had any bad experiences/comments from family and friends.
16. What advice would you give to recipient parents?
I understand that it must be really hard to be going through fertility problems, sometimes it can be forgotten that when you’re desperate for a child of course anonymity isn’t necessarily going to be the first thing on your mind, but my number one piece of advice would be not to use an anonymous donor. Known from birth would be a best case scenario (I personally desperately wanted to know who my genetic mother was long before I turned 18), but I know that that isn’t always possible or realistic. Open ID at 18 is in my opinion also a positive thing, certainly much better than forever anonymous.
Although I would always encourage parents to try and go for a known/open ID route if possible, I realise that sometimes that isn’t possible e.g. for financial reasons people may have to go abroad for fertility treatment where it is all completely anonymous. I think what would be great would be if fully anonymous donation was banned everywhere, but that’s on the fertility industry, not recipient parents, or perhaps rather it’s the responsibility of governments in different countries to sort out the issue with anonymity and bring in more appropriate regulations with respect to that.
Very often, I hear recipient parents assume that the main source of negative feelings from donor conceived people is that the details of their conception was kept a secret from them and that, if they are up front and honest with their children from the start, using an anonymous donor won’t be a problem. In my personal experience, this is not the case. What I have struggled with most is actually the fact that my donor parent is anonymous, not the fact that the truth was kept from me for 12 years. Being honest from the start is definitely important but that doesn’t mean that the issue of anonymity is not important at all. Being honest won’t ‘cancel out’ a child’s desire to know their genetic origins. Donor conceived people who have always known that they were donor conceived can still be very upset about the fact that their donor parent is anonymous.
Another misconception that I frequently hear goes along the following lines “It doesn’t matter if you use an anonymous donor, because commercial DNA testing means that no donors can ever be truly anonymous anymore.” Whilst a lot of DC people have been able to find their donor parent using commercial DNA tests, it is not a guaranteed thing. I personally am on all of the commercial DNA testing sites and have had numerous people who are very experienced in tracking biological family via DNA try to help me, but with no luck. My matches are just far too low. Commercial DNA testing is very new still and who knows how popular it might be in ten years time. It might take a long time but it’s very likely that eventually someone close enough will test so that if your daughters wanted to they could find the donor via DNA sites. I hope that happens in my case anyway!
I think especially since you (Becky) are so supportive of your children, there’s every chance that your daughters will not be upset by it. It’s such a spectrum. I just think it’s important for people to have the right to find the donor but at the same time there are people, like my twin brother, who aren’t so interested in it.
17. Do you feel like your parents understand how you feel about being donor conceived?
Since I am not in contact with my Dad, I will answer with regards to my Mum. I don’t think that she fully understands how I feel when it comes to my desire to identify the donor, but she is trying and I appreciate that.
18. Is there anything you wish they would understand more?
I would of course love my Mum to understand completely why I want to find the donor. But, in general, I think it is really hard for someone who is not in this situation to understand how it feels. Before I discovered that I was DC, I was definitely guilty of not understanding why adopted people would want to know who their biological parents were, or why my aunt felt it so important for my cousin to know her biological mother (my cousin was conceived using a traditional surrogate with the surrogate’s own eggs).
So, I appreciate that since my Mum lacks the first hand experience that I now have, she’s not going to be able to grasp precisely why or how it is important to me to find the donor. Given that, I don’t think it would be fair of me to expect more of her.
19. What have you found to be the most difficult part of being donor conceived?
The fact that the donor is anonymous. Actually, that’s pretty much the only part of being DC which I struggle with. I will not get closure until I find out where half of myself comes from, but the searching and the uncertainty of when or if I will get the answers that I so desperately want and need is emotionally exhausting.
20. What have you found to be the best part of being donor conceived?
I suppose the fact that I exist at all! And also the fact that I got to have my Mum as my mother.
*The name Martha has been used to protect anonymity.
If you want to learn more about the support, connection and resources on offer through my platform Paths to Parenthub do follow the link below. There are already many recorded resources to support you on your donor conception journey, including conversations with experts about talking to our children, examining our common fears and chats with other recipient parents and donor conceived individuals themselves. There’s also a private community, away from social media, for members to join and connect with each other for support. I would love to welcome you there! www.pathstoparenthub.com