Over recent years there’s been much-needed talk about what not to say to someone facing infertility, but what about donor conception? Inspired by the amazing Alice Rose and her ‘Think, What Not to Say” campaign about fertility, I wanted to provide some similar advice in the context of using a donor. There’s a whole new level of complexity and insufficient awareness of this route to parenthood, which can bring about even more misconceptions and confusion for those who don’t understand, leading to unintentional but potentially hurtful comments for those who are making this huge decision.
I’ve been writing to help friends and family best support those needing to use a donor to conceive a child, with this particular blog post looking at some of the things that are often said (or sometimes unsaid) that can make us feel uncomfortable. I caveat this with an acknowledgement that some of these comments are well-meaning, but by sharing I hope to show how they can actually be perceived and how they can make us feel. I also want it to be a way of educating others, to help them feel more comfortable when speaking, not only to us, but also to our children in the future. My hope is that others will feel able to respond to questions and hold conversations with our children, so that they too aren’t left feeling uncomfortable from triggering remarks about their conception – something which they themselves had no say in.
The last thing I want to do in this piece is to scare anyone into feeling like they can’t say anything or that they’re walking on eggs shells, so I’ve included some advice about how I think it’s best to approach the topic. I’m no expert, just a donor recipient mum who has personal experience and has listened to the experiences of many others. These are views of my own and won’t apply to everyone, but I’m hoping it captures the essence of where things can become hurtful and help avoid some of those more awkward moments in the future.
I’ll start by giving some examples with some of the more ‘shocking’ comments I heard from my Instagram community:
“Think of all the bad genes you won’t pass on”
“Are you the real mother?”
“Referring to the donor as the ‘Dad’ rather than my husband”
“Oh, so you’re a surrogate”
“Maybe you’ll have your own kids one day”
“But it wouldn’t be your child!”
“You never know you might just get pregnant naturally after, you’ll be just like a step-mum”
“Why would you tell the child?”
“So you’re not the real Mum?“
Many comments centre around terminology and an inference that the parent who doesn’t share genetics isn’t a ‘real’ parent, or that our children aren’t ‘ours’ because we don’t share DNA. It’s hugely sensitive because how we feel as a parent and our legitimacy as one can be one of the biggest fears and emotional challenges we face when choosing this route. After grieving the loss of our genetics we’ve had to think much more consciously and deeply, re-evaluating our understanding of what it means to be a mum or dad.
Parenting is a process. It’s time spent supporting the emotional, physical, social and intellectual development of a child. It’s an act, what we do every single day, the important role that we play which we recognise within our family as ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’. Everything I do for our girls every single day, every decision I make with them in mind, every emotion I feel in relation to them is ‘mothering’ – there’s nothing more real than that. It’s not denying that there is another genetic parent, but it’s recognising the important nurturing roles within our family, in the context of how it was built.
Often when the word ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ is used to describe the donor it’s unintentional, a slip of the tongue, but it can really touch a nerve when it comes to the relationship between the non-genetic parent and the child. I’ve had this one myself where someone asked if Mila’s curls were from the ‘real mum’. It hurts because it awakens one of our deepest fears, about being seen as the legitimate parent. Mostly it’s not because people don’t actually see us as the legitimate parent, but more because they don’t know what words to use, which can be understandable when you’ve never considered donor conception yourself.
This is where understanding about the terminology we as a family choose to use is important. If you’re not sure, just ask us – a good starting point is asking how we refer to the donor. In our family we are completely open, we all acknowledge the important role that our donor played and share complete gratitude for her, but in conversation she will always be referred to as ‘the egg donor’ or, for my children at their current ages, ‘the lady who did a kind thing by giving us some of her eggs’. This language may evolve over time as our children grow and it becomes more age appropriate.
Simply put, it’s being open to learn about how we as a family intend to talk about things, which will allow you to be able to support us in doing the same. It’s a message I want to be clear and consistent for our girls as they grow up in helping them to understand how they came to be and how our family was built.
“It’s no biggie, genetics don’t matter”
It’s hard to explain this one, especially because I myself have uttered the words many times – “genetics don’t matter”. In the context of how much I love my girls this is completely true, but it doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel grief and sadness over the loss of my genetics, and that our girls won’t feel similar about their missing genetic link.
Dismissing the importance of genetics can be a throwaway comment, often made to try to make us feel better, to reassure us that it doesn’t matter to them and that they see us the same as any other family. It happens when people want to try to give the impression that it’s “no big deal”, trying to demonstrate that they are fine with the concept, without realising what they are failing to acknowledge – that genetics can still be important to parents and their children. Saying it’s no big deal can dismiss the complex considerations and importance of grieving the loss of genetics. Not only to us as parents, but these comments can potentially be dismissive to a child as well. Should our girls have perfectly normal curiosity about their genetics I want them to feel like it can be something that is important to them, without trivialising their feelings. Please don’t try to tell anyone they’re overthinking it, the importance of genetic connection can vary greatly to each individual – there is no right or wrong way to respond.
My advice would be, rather than dismissing the topic, acknowledge that this must have been a hard decision for them, which gives them the opportunity to share more if they wish. If not, you’ve acknowledged and validated the process they’ve had to go through, which is all that is needed. It’s accepting that it might matter (or have mattered) to us and potentially to our future children.
“At least you won’t be passing on your bad genes!”
When it comes to sharing humour or making light of the situation, always let this be led by the person involved. Saying they’re lucky not to be passing on “bad genes” can be incredibly hurtful and minimises what for many is a core loss. It’s the loss of the ability to see themselves in their child and pass on their family genes, their legacy if you like.
I vividly remember one of the first people I saw speak about using an egg donor at a clinic information evening. She made light of her situation with her explanation for being “quite happy” to have been told she needed to use an egg donor being because her child wouldn’t have to have her nose and that “she didn’t really like her genetic family anyway”. Whilst she used humour, I most certainly wasn’t in the same frame of mind, finding the light-heartedness hard to listen to when I was feeling immense grief at not being able to pass on my genetics. I think it demonstrates how there can be a real spectrum of responses to being told you need to use a donor, there’s no right or wrong way to react. Please don’t assume that it’s ok to make humour or ‘at least you’ comments without understanding how they truly feel themselves and also having respect for the future child whose conception certainly is no joke.
Uncomfortable Silences (and other remarks)
Many told me that some of the most awkward moments are when nothing is said, for example the glossing over of who a baby looks like (for fear of upsetting us) rather than just saying “she looks like your husband”. Changing of the subject can actually be more uncomfortable and upsetting than simply asking a question. Showing curiosity is fine and something I’d encourage, unless you’re explicitly asked not to.
Then there’s total silence and complete avoidance of the subject, something I’ve experienced a few times, and it seems many others have too. It’s understandable that people might feel uncomfortable with such a personal topic they know nothing about. It’s is why I’m raising awareness of this route to parenthood, to normalise the conversation and the feelings surrounding it. But please remember that it’s ok to ask questions, I encourage you to show curiosity whilst being open-minded and non-judgemental. One person said to me, “friends who do it well talk openly like me, have the same gratitude towards the donor, understand our viewpoints, and call out if they actually see a resemblance”. It’s about learning to talk about it ‘normally’, being comfortable to ask appropriate questions, judge the response and respect our family wishes.
What can be hurtful are the comments that suggest an underlying sense of judgement such as “I don’t know how I feel about that” and “I know I couldn’t do it”. We’re not asking you to comment on whether or not you’d do the same thing, no one can truly say unless they’re in that position and have experienced the emotions and challenges of the complex decisions we have to make. It may not be intentional, but it suggests that we’ve done something you’re not comfortable with or don’t approve of, making it about you, rather than how you can best support your friend or family member.
“Why would you tell the child?“
Please don’t be tempted to give advice on how to tell (or not to tell) our story. I’ve even had a hairdresser I’d just met ask me “Why would you tell the child? There’s no need.”
It might sound like a trivial question for some – on the surface why would there be any need to tell them? I carried them, gave birth to them and have been their mum from day one. Without much deeper thought this can genuinely be the initial reaction of some people, which actually reflects historic advice that was given by the medical profession years ago. What this doesn’t take into account is our children. By keeping it a secret what does this say to them? How would they feel if they grew up thinking they were genetically related to me, and then for an unknown medical reason or through an ancestry test find out otherwise? It’s information I believe a child should have from the very beginning – it’s part of who they are and forms their story of how they came to be.
It’s their own family story, so please don’t force assumptions or views about how they should tell it, it is completely up to them and something they will have given great thought to. What they need is support and understanding from those around them. Instead, it’s better to ask how they intend to talk about it with their child, what language they will use and how you can help over the years.
How can I best support?
Talking whilst the child is still young allows parents to practice, get used to saying things out-loud and become more comfortable in doing so, with the same applying to wider family and friends too. My overarching piece of advice is to think about what it is you’re saying and the impact that it might have. Instead of avoiding the topic completely, show curiosity (without judgement), ask how you can best support them, understand the family building terminology they use and put them at ease by allowing it to flow into normal day to day conversation.
Realistically, there are always going to be people who don’t know about donor conception and ask innocent but triggering questions, especially when it comes to social situations with the inevitable question regarding family resemblances. As a person close to them you can actually help support these situations, with an example I heard recently from a fellow egg donor recipient parent. In an incredibly insightful episode of Three Makes Baby Podcast Sarah talks about a social scenario where in a group setting she was faced with questions about who her new baby looked most like. A good friend of hers actually recognised the difficulty she was facing in knowing how to answer and was able to support. She came up with what I think is the most perfect answer anyone could give to the question of who the child resembles, an answer that I might use myself, she simply said “he looks like himself”. Entirely true and respecting of him as a person, not just focusing on the societal expectations of resemblances but deflecting the question in a positive way and celebrating his uniqueness. I know that it’s all too easy to focus on resemblances, it’s what we as a society do, but it’s also important to remember that there is so much more to them, that they are their own person and that their differences are just as important.
I hope this is useful as a way to educate and raise awareness from a personal perspective. As always I encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences both as a recipient parent or a friend or family member. It’s by sharing these that we can make these conversations much more comfortable and accepting in the future, for us as parents but even more importantly for our children.
Love, Becky x