Talking to young adults about their conception
"Jane was 24 and Lauren was 21. It came completely out of the blue for them and was a real shock as they had no previous inkling" - Barbara
Barbara, after nearly quarter of a century of keeping it a secret, tells her daughters they are donor conceived. Lauren, who was 21 at the time, tells us her experience of being on the receiving end of this news.
Why did I tell them?
I had been fairly comfortable keeping the secret for the years of their growing up but as they got older it weighed on my mind more and more. It was very scary and I didn’t know how they would take it but just felt it was the proper time and that if I didn’t tell them when I did I never would, and would possibly live to regret it. I was undoubtedly influenced by the media campaign ‘Time to tell’, which stirred memories and prodded me to think about my obligations. However, the greatest motivation was an inner voice telling me it was something I had to do. I believe that a person has an absolute right to know of their biological origins and that now they were adults I had no good reason for keeping this information from them.
I thought about it for a long time before actually getting the courage to speak. I have always valued honesty and disliked secrecy but the issues here were momentous. One point that was a major influence was the fear that they would find out accidentally in the future. I had a horror of them, many years down the track, being involved with their father’s medical treatment and suddenly realising that his blood type or DNA was incompatible with their own and that they had been lied to their whole life. Also Jane was heading off to New Zealand for a working holiday and I realised that it might be the last time for a long time that the three of us would be together. If I was ever going to tell now was the time.
There were also good reasons to say nothing. One of the strongest arguments against was that I had no information at all about the donor. It seemed almost a sick joke to have to admit to my children that they were conceived by a stranger whom they would never know anything about. Also I am a very private person and none of my family or friends knew and I dreaded the embarrassment of them finding out.
But my strong instinct that this was something I had to do prevailed and once I had made up my mind I did some Internet searching, screwed up my courage and rang Leonie Hewitt in Sydney from the Donor Conception Support Group (DCSG). She was encouraging and just speaking to her was a breakthrough as for the first time I was putting into words things that I had never before articulated. Part of the problem, for me, of telling, was finding the right words and having a vocabulary with which to express myself. Even though she counselled against it I knew I was, at that point, not going to tell their father what I was proposing. We were divorced and he had moved to Queensland and made a new life for himself, though he had intermittent contact with the girls. The fact that he was effectively out of our lives definitely made it easier for me to take this step.
My reading and Leonie strongly suggested that before talking to Jane and Lauren I should speak to a friend so that I would have some support and a sounding board. After mulling things over I ‘came out’ to a very good friend. She was surprised but listened to me and reassured me that Jane and Lauren would be OK and would be able to handle this startling news. Reading stories about the sometimes traumatic reactions of people who found out they had been adopted made me anxious, though I knew the girls were well balanced and had a lot of common sense and I believed though they would be shocked they would also be OK.
One evening when we were all at home, shaking but determined, I sat them on the couch and haltingly told them the secret. The conversation was awkward and apart from asking a few questions they did not say much. In the days that followed they were quiet and though I tried to raise the issue a couple of times I got little response. I know now that it hit them like a thunderbolt and took a long time to absorb.
It turned out that telling them was the start of a long journey that we never could have anticipated. For three years, as I had feared, the lack of information about their donor created a huge gap in their lives resulting in sadness, anger and frustration, though outwardly things went on pretty much as normal. The girls took the news differently. Jane was more philosophical and prepared to accept that this was just how things were while it really bugged her younger sister. A breakthrough came when Lauren, deciding to take some control, got in touch with Tangled Webs and met and talked with other donor conceived people. Against long odds, thanks to her incredible efforts, including appearing on national television, writing articles, lobbying the state government, plus the work of the Infertility Treatment Authority (ITA), the luck of living in Victoria which has a donor register, and the help of some amazing people, she actually found her donor and has now contacted and met him. Sadly, with the current legal position on donor conception, for children born before 1988, this ‘happy ending’ is probably the exception rather than the rule. However, for those conceived with sperm donated after 1988 things are very different as, once the children turn 18, they have the right to apply for information.
So why did I tell when I did?
It was a combination of circumstances that came together which made it the right time. The girls had weathered the storms of adolescence, I believed they had enough life experience to cope with the news, the media campaign stirred my conscience, I strongly believed they had an absolute right to know about their genetic heritage and I would be cheating them if I did not have the courage to speak up, I feared them finding out accidentally in the future, perhaps when I was no longer around, and finally, our lives had reached a critical point where the family was heading off in different directions and if I did not speak up I would lose the opportunity.
There have been many benefits now that the secret is out. Their father has been told and has been fine and people generally have been very supportive. I no longer fear accidental disclosure, I am able to be more open with family and friends, it has drawn me closer to Lauren and has brought out qualities in her that I am sure have surprised even her. Best of all Jane and Lauren have found out about their genetic heritage and have been able to contact the donor and their half-siblings.
I found out my biological father was a vial of frozen sperm labelled ‘C11’ when I was 21. Finding out so late was a huge shock. With my childhood already behind me, the neural connections identifying my dad as my dad were cemented. Emotionally I could never think of him as anything other than my dad (and I still don’t), yet suddenly I was told we were genetic strangers. My identity had been splintered and the social and biological aspects of parenthood carved up. In the place where I inherited half my genes, all I could see was a vial of semen in cold storage. I mourned the human face behind that vial, somebody I had never and would never meet. A little bit like a mother might mourn the baby she could never have, I suppose.
I wonder what it would feel like to have been told earlier. Another donor conceived man I know, Damian, has always known his origins. Initially he accepted it. He even considered becoming a donor himself. On the day his daughter was born, as a father, he glimpsed the power of the biological link and what the loss of his paternal kin meant for him (and his daughter). I suppose the point I am making is that children do not have a static response to being donor conceived, it changes throughout their lives.
I couldn’t relate to my story. I am a human being, yet I was conceived with a technique that had its origins in animal husbandry. It also made me feel strange to think that my genes were spliced together from two people who were never in love, never danced together, had never even met one another.
My reaction was never to blame my parents. I wasn’t angry with them. In some ways I felt like my mother was a victim of telling me the truth that she needed me to comfort her and tell her that it was ok, I didn’t need to know who my donor was. I struggled to find the words to express my thoughts. The questions that I dared not ask, or even form in my head, because it seemed like a betrayal of my loyalty to my family and to society.
For three years I hardly talked about these confusing thoughts with anybody. Our family life continued pretty much as it was before. I reached a turning point when I met Narelle (a donor conceived woman).It was a huge relief to talk to someone else with a similar background, who shared my views. She helped me articulate the things that were bothering me. I also bonded with Pauline, an adopted woman in her 60s, who had seen it all before with the adoption debate and eventual reforms. Being donor conceived is like being ‘half adopted’ but with the added strangeness of being raised by a blend of both the adopted and the birth family.
I decided to try to find out more information about my donor. As I was conceived prior to legislation creating the Central Donor Register, I could not make a Central Register application. I got in touch with my mother’s treating doctor and asked him to send a letter to my donor, on my behalf, asking his consent to exchange of information and/or contact. The doctor was a highly decorated expert in donor conception. I was the first donor conceived person he had ever met. Three agonising months later he emailed me to say he had done it. After this, things moved really quickly. The very next week I received a call with big news. Firstly, I didn’t need to ever refer to my biological father as my donor. His name is Ben.
After exchanging letters and talking on the phone we arranged to meet. The day before, I discovered I would be meeting his children, my half-siblings. I was nervous, especially the night before and day of the meeting. As I approached the gate, Ben’s son called out “Lauren’s here!” in an excited voice and ran to greet me. Immediately I felt more at ease. I said hello to everyone and we sat down to lunch. I had a surreal moment as I looked around and realized I was surrounded by people who all looked like me. The clinics were wrong. We are family, at least in some sense of the word.
Finally I understand why people comment that my sister looks Swedish and why I am interested in flying and space. Ben and I share many interests, including reading, art, sports, napping, nature and the outdoors. After all my efforts in the media, law, and political lobbying, I was pleased to discover that my paternal grandfather was a somewhat notorious agitator of the establishment.
A few weeks later I met Ben’s eldest daughter. She gave me a card that read, “Dear Lauren, what a wonderful surprise it was to learn about your presence…one can never have enough family, lots of love, xoxo” I was blown away.
I feel very privileged to have been able to meet my donor, Ben and his children and saddened for those donor-conceived people who are still waiting to do so.
If you want more information or just want to chat, please contact VARTA on 03 8622 0500.