Timing is everything when it comes to telling your child their origin story, particularly if it’s a little unusual. By Linda Geddes.
Although she has two half-sisters from her dad’s previous marriage, there was nothing in Jess Pearce’s childhood to make her doubt her biological origins. She tanned, her father tanned; he was tall, so was she. Yet when she was 28, her mother dropped a bombshell. “She sat me down one Sunday afternoon and said she had something she wanted to tell me,” Jess recalls. “She looked quite upset, and I thought, ‘She’s going to die.’” Instead, her mother told her, “Your dad isn’t your real dad.”
Jess’s father had undergone a vasectomy after his first marriage. When he met her mother he tried to get it reversed, but the operation failed and they opted for sperm donation through the NHS. Jess was conceived on the third try at St George’s Hospital in Hyde Park Corner; all her parents knew about the donor was that he was from Middlesex.
The clinic advised Jess’s parents to keep the insemination a secret. “No one knew,” says Jess. “It was literally just my mum and my dad and two of their best friends.” This was the norm back then, says Olivia Montuschi, co-founder of the Donor Conception Network. “The vast majority of [parents] were told not to tell their children… They just thought it was in everybody’s best interest that the secret was kept – go home, make love, and who knows?”
Olivia herself has had two children through donor insemination because her husband is infertile. They had resolved to be honest with their kids from the outset. “I remember telling this to a nurse when she was inseminating me, and getting a very odd look as if to say, ‘Why would you do that?’” she says.
Reactions range from shock and horror to “That’s interesting; I thought there was something odd going on,” says Montuschi. “More often than not, you will find that there have been odd discrepancies in things that parents have said,” she says. “Or [the child] will wonder about the complete lack of physical likeness or [shared] interests with the non-genetic parent.”
Though some parents feel under pressure to tell their kids about their genetic heritage, many decide to keep the details of their child’s conception under lock and key. A 2003 survey by the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge found that 47 per cent of parents of kids conceived after egg donation had no intention of telling.
It’s not just the child’s feelings at stake. Even a genuine desire to tell can create tensions with grandparents or other family members who think it should remain a secret. Then there’s the wider taboo of where babies come from. “A lot of people find it really difficult to talk about, not necessarily because there is a genetic difference in the family, but because the discussion takes them into areas of parenthood where they wouldn’t normally have to go,” says Petra Nordqvist of the University of Manchester. “They’d have to say, ‘My sperm doesn’t work and we’ve had to undergo five years of IVF.’ Some people just hate having that kind of conversation with their families.”
Nordqvist runs the Relative Strangers project at the University of Manchester. She has interviewed many families of donor-conceived children. She says even though most parents find it easy to love and accept their child once it is born, the infertile partner may continue to harbour anger and insecurities.
“[We interviewed] one man who said he wanted to kill the donor,” Nordqvist says. “I think it was tied in with masculinity; with not having been able to get his partner pregnant. If someone has never been able to get over the fact that they couldn’t produce a child… the knowledge that they will have to tell this child that they are donor-conceived – that’s really opening up these wounds.” Women, on the other hand, seem to find it easier to come to terms with having a genetically unrelated child. “They sort of replace the egg with the idea of providing blood and a home for nine months,” says Nordqvist, adding that the pregnancy seems to act as a kind of “normalising process” for them.
So if your child has been conceived through unconventional means, when is the best time to break the news? At the Centre for Family Research, Susan Golombok is conducting research on how the age of disclosure about sperm donation affects family relationships. They’ve found that the offspring of lesbian and single mothers tend to be told about their origins earlier than children of heterosexual couples, for perhaps obvious reasons. Among those children of heterosexual couples who were told later on, children were more likely to feel angry at their mothers than their fathers – the most common feeling towards fathers was sympathy. But, says Golombok, “Our work suggests that if children are told when they’re young – pre-school age – they seem to accept it, and they’re not particularly interested in it.”
It’s not dissimilar to the situation faced by many adoptive parents, something Golombok herself has experience of. After several failed attempts at IVF, she and her husband opted to adopt a child, Jamie, from Peru. Golombok remembers the moment they first broached the subject, when Jamie was around three years old. “We were looking at a map of the world, and we just said, ‘That’s where you come from.’ We had been so worried about it, but he wasn’t particularly interested.”
Jess says she’s glad that her origins were kept quiet, but also that her parents eventually told her the truth. She says the privacy helped her to deal with the revelation. “I didn’t feel angry… because it wasn’t a secret that other people knew about and I didn’t – I’m just grateful that I know now.”