Noodle Granny tells it how it is… How does it feel to be the mother of an infertile man and grandmother to donor conceived children?
In a moving talk at a Birmingham DCN conference Jane D described how it has been for her.
I am aware that there are many, many different reasons for infertility and what I say today is my story of our family – some of you will resonate with it and some won’t. I apologise in advance if anyone feels hurt because it is a painful business and we can so easily hurt people without meaning to. There are no rights and wrongs in this situation and the other thing I want to say is that we often confuse logic with emotion – we have both sides in our natures and we sometimes seek to answer a logical question emotionally and vice versa and it doesn’t always work. We are also able to feel totally contradictory emotions at the same moment, so hold that in your mind as I tell you my story.
We found out that Matthew was almost certainly infertile by chance when he was just 16. We were told by the experts not to tell him because 16 isn’t a good time to tell a young man that he is infertile and I absolutely agree it's not a good time, but ….. is 17 any better?…. an 18th birthday present perhaps?……when he is first engaged? Yes it’s a bad time, but no other time was better as far as we were concerned. So we decided to tell him. Now it was partly because of that and partly because our family way of coping with things is to be upfront, we are honest with each other. I think when you want to tell somebody something it does depend a little bit on how your family operates. If you are always secret and introverted then it is difficult to make an exception for something else. Maybe it’s the dynamics of the family but for us it was right to tell Matthew and he coped brilliantly. I coped far less well and I think this says a lot. In some ways it is harder for the parent – I felt great pain and enormous guilt, had I done something wrong – was it my fault? I had actually had a miscarriage and gone on to conceive Matthew – nobody told me that I ought to wait. It was a difficult pregnancy and I very nearly died when I had him because the placenta wasn’t right. Whether that had any effect I don’t know. But I carry that guilt; I still carry it. Did I do something wrong, was it my fault?
Initially, it changed my perspective enormously and its one of the things about being a parent. We think that we care for them logically and lovingly but of course we don’t. We interact with their emotions and our emotions and as I became overprotective I think Matthew found it harder and we struggled, I think, coming to terms with things as he grew up – again he coped far better than I did.
Now this might have happened anyway because I don’t know. Quite often a pretty strong mum can have quite a difficult time with an equally strong young man as they go through later teens – that’s normal. I think I finally came to terms with it all because of my darling beloved daughter-in-law. She was the one who healed it for me. When we were talking when they were engaged and I mentioned children, I can always remember her looking at me and saying, 'But Matthew is the one I love, Matthew is the person I want to marry'. Now what does that say? She loved him not because of the genes he could give for her children but she loved him for himself. That helped me to look at Matthew with different eyes and that was brilliant , so thank you, that made a huge difference. So it's somebody outside who often helps us to look back and see things differently. I am not underestimating what it is to be infertile or to have a donor conceived child, but it is not the most important thing in life, it's a question of getting things in proportion. When Marilyn (who spoke earlier in the day) put up the list which showed that having a sense of humour is linked to resilience and having a sense of proportion, it all made a lot of sense. We all need a sense of proportion and though some things like infertility or being donor conceived are very important they are not the whole picture and we need to remember that. Well Matthew and Victoria have two lovely children – I now have 5 grandchildren. If somebody had said to me before, I think I would have had some reservations; in fact they did, because I had done some work in the sort of gene therapy and gene world about donor conception. But with all things when it is your beloved children you look at it quite differently. That’s what they wanted and I love them. They are my grandchildren as much as any of the others.
Do I feel differently about them? Well, yes and no. In the sense that, do I feel differently about them from the other children, no. Do I feel differently about each of them, yes, but this is because I feel differently about all my children and all my grandchildren because I have a different relationship with each of them and, therefore, I feel differently, but it is not to do with the donor conception. At this stage I think, so far, I have found it slightly easier with the boys because they are just straightforward and naughty. Both girls have tended to be a bit 'whingy' and I am not awfully good on the Moaning Minnie syndrome. My personality finds that slightly difficult but as they grow older the girls are actually coming through that and things will change. One has a unique relationship with each child. When we were babysitting overnight last year when Matthew and Victoria were away, my grand-daughter showed me with great pride the story she wanted at bedtime. She went to the bookcase and brought out My Story and I saw that she was very pleased that I should read this to her. Of course, at three years old the implications of it mean nothing whatsoever but it's there in her bookcase – how they tell her I think is the hard thing, how you do it without making it a great thing because it's just part of her story.
We didn’t actually tell anyone else about Matthew’s infertility because we felt at 16 it was his story and not ours. I found that extraordinarily difficult, I longed to be able to discuss it with others because that’s who I am. I wanted to share it with my sister. Then as Matthew gave me permission I was able to, but my husband and I felt that certainly at 16 it was his story and not for us to tell. I don’t know what I feel as a granny about the two children, how much friends should know…. some friends do already know, but in a sense though you don’t want a secret, the children have their story and their right to privacy. I think it is a difficult one, I don’t think there are any straightforward answers but you wonder if you just tell everybody, their teachers, everybody about them…. a child wants to be special but most young children also want to be the same. They don’t want to be different from anyone else, they want to be like their friends even if it's wearing the same hairstyle or whatever it is and to make them different. I'm not sure, it depends on your family and your personality but I think we have to balance openness with the respect for that person’s privacy and right to their story and who they wish to share it with. It’s a temptation sometimes with a child who is very ill or with a child who seems so precious because of all you have gone through, to make that child special because of that. All children are special because of what they are, not where they came from or how they came and it is that specialness, the uniqueness of the relationship that you build up which is important. Every child deserves that.
I am not good on rights. I think they sometimes take us down funny roads but a child’s best interests are served by having a relationship with each parent separately. You will feel differently about all your children, that does not mean that you love them less but you will feel differently. As I said, I do about all my children and all my grandchildren. They will probably relate better to one parent at one time and then the other ……sometimes there is a bond and sometimes there isn’t. I hope they will always build up a relationship with me.
I’m known in the family as noodle granny because I’m an idiot, chaotic. I had a beloved eccentric grandfather and I think in a sense every child should have somebody who is slightly dotty in the family. I think it helps them understand that life isn’t logical, it has a mad side to it that often doesn’t really work out. If you have somebody from the very earliest days who does things back to front and upside down, actually I think that’s a good preparation for life.
So I think they are very lucky to have me! I hope the children will build up a relationship with me as their granny. They may ask me things that they haven’t asked their parents and that’s always a difficult one. I think I’ve been asked throughout my life all sorts of things about family situations and I can only say, 'I believe this darling but mummy and daddy may think something different.' I think it’s the only way that I’m true to myself and they can see different opinions actually are again part of life, that we don’t all agree about everything. So, have fun with your children.
You are a generation where it may well be that your children may want to find the other bit of their lives – I may have to face this as a grandmother that they will find another granny. I think that won’t be easy but actually I hope I will keep saying to myself, as you do to yourselves as parents, ' I have a unique relationship with my child and nobody can take that away' - we are simply adding another piece of the jigsaw. Life isn’t always about either/or, it’s often about both/and.
The important thing to remember is that it may not be easy, it may still be painful, it may hurt like hell……… but actually every parent feels that. Over 20 years ago I wrote a book about being a parent before I knew anything about what was facing Matthew or us as parents. I was looking at it again last night and it still holds true. I wrote then that having children gives us a chance to face again our attitudes and re-think them.
We think that we shape children’s lives but of course they shape ours as much, it’s always a two way process. So have fun, enjoy your children and those that might come! [This article was transcribed and slightly edited for publication from an audio-tape of Jane's talk.]