The experience of infertility does not end with the birth of a donor conceived child. If anything, the challenges presented for an infertile person are intensified when an individual becomes the father or mother of a child that does not carry their genes.
This account draws on personal experience to highlight the journey of an infertile person from clinical diagnosis to parenthood. It reflects upon the role of the donor in the life of a family and draws some conclusions about the responsibilities that parents have towards their donor-conceived children. It is essentially a male viewpoint.
Fifteen years ago. I am standing, naked from the waist down. Kneeling in front of me is a young and attractive woman wearing a white coat. In one hand, she is holding a large bunch of yellow plastic testicles of different shapes and sizes. She is measuring me. ‘Are they normal?’ I enquire tentatively, looking down at the top of her head. She looks up briefly. ‘A bit on the small side, actually,’ she replies. On various occasions since, when I have had the opportunity, I have made discreet comparisons. And yes, she was right. They are in fact very small.
Formerly, I had been happily unaware that I was challenged in this way. In the past, those who had been in a position to judge had obviously been too polite to mention it - possibly they had not regarded it as important. But I did. And, more importantly, before this discovery, even though we were attending the fertility clinic for medical investigation, I hadn’t seriously considered that I might have a fertility problem. After all, I already had a thirteen year-old daughter, and the child that Cath and I wanted to have together would have been Cath’s first. But after our visit, I privately began to gnaw at the idea that something might be wrong with me. A month or so later, when we went back for the results, my newly awakened suspicions were confirmed. Though the sample I had provided was (I was pleased to note) normal in terms of volume, it contained less than a sixtieth of the normal number of sperm and those few sperm that I had produced were very poor swimmers, most of them possessing serious disabilities. Clinically, I was infertile.
The clinicians could not explain the reason for my loss of fertility, so I have had the luxury of inventing my own explanation. I believe I became infertile as a result of a urinary tract infection which I contracted in my late twenties but – and at the same time - I also believe that the size of my balls might have something to do with it. Whether or not this is the case doesn’t really matter, the connection is there in my mind. Cath and I were both judged to be infertile.
We suspected that the news was not going to be good when the top man came to tell us the results of the tests we had undergone. He was perfectly charming. Cath’s fallopian tubes were blocked, we learned, and this could perhaps be rectified with a couple of operations. I was untreatable, but if Cath’s operations were successful, she would be able to conceive with the assistance of donor sperm. It was a lot to take in all at once. We went away to think about it, but I don’t think either of us ever doubted that we were going to accept the clinic’s proposal.
We wanted a child and were naturally clutching at the straw of hope which the fertility specialists had offered us. At the earliest opportunity, we informed the clinic that we wanted to go ahead. In due course, the top man performed the surgery that Cath needed, and – joy – informed us that it had been successful. Cath was now able to conceive normally; with the assistance of a fertile man, that is. For a while, we discussed the possibility of asking one of our friends to help us, but we eventually rejected this idea. We were worried about the complications that might ensue. Having discarded the use of a known donor, we eventually found ourselves back in the clinic being ‘counselled’ about donor conception by our clinician, a woman with an exceptionally sympathetic and persuasive manner.
I emerged from this session with two strong beliefs. Firstly, that being open with our donor-conceived child about his or her genetic origins was a good thing. And secondly, that our child’s donor would always be anonymous and, well, that was also a good thing. Cath’s first two donor-conceived pregnancies ended in early miscarriages, resulting in two periods of sadness for us, followed in each case by renewed hope and a decision to continue with the treatment.
After some early worries, Cath’s third pregnancy went to full term and our son Adam was born in October 1993, some four years after our infertility diagnosis. The following year, Cath lost our second child in a late miscarriage at 20 weeks. We called him Jack, after Cath’s Dad. He had the same donor as Adam and would have been his full sibling. Our grief was intense and, for both of us, the sadness over this loss will always be there. We did try again, but this time it was much more difficult. After several months of unsuccessful treatment, Cath asked me what I thought we should do. There wasn’t any need for a long discussion. I was 44 and Cath was 41 and we had both reached the end of this particular road. “I think we should stop,” I said. And we did.
How did I feel, my clinician had asked me at our counselling session, about becoming the father of a child to whom I wasn’t genetically related? Did I think that I would be able to bond with it? Secretly, I had been worrying about this and her question had put me on the spot. I said the first thing that came into my head. It will be all right, I told her earnestly, because I’ve successfully bonded with a ginger cat. I don’t know what she made of this response because she skillfully steered the conversation onto safer ground. My strong suspicion is that she had already made up her mind to treat us. But, thinking about it now, it seems to me that my apparently facetious remark was in fact a precise reflection of the way I felt. I love cats, but they do not share my genes. I would love this child, but not in the same way as I could have loved a child that was genetically mine. We were going ahead, but I had not yet accepted the fact that I was infertile. The specialists had told us that it was extremely improbable that I could father a child, but they had not excluded the possibility completely.
So, maybe, I thought to myself each month, if the candlelit dinner was sufficiently romantic and the timing was exactly right, something extraordinary might happen and the use of a donor might prove to be unnecessary. Even after the treatment began, these thoughts continued. I imagined my defective sperm mingling with the rival sperm of the donor and somehow, against all the odds, achieving the much-wanted pregnancy. Right up until to the moment that he was born, I had thought that my feelings towards Adam would differ from my feelings towards my daughter Emily, who looks like me because she has inherited my genes. In the event, this proved not to be the case. I experienced the same joy at the moment of Adam’s birth as I had done at Emily’s.
During his first few months, I felt the same mixture of emotions: the same pride whenever I looked at him lying in his cot, the same thrill when his tiny hand gripped my finger, the same reluctance to leave the warm bed and go to him when he cried in the night, and the same slight feeling of redundancy when he cried for his mother and only his mother could comfort him. Then, when he began to distinguish me as a person who was separate from the rest of his world, I experienced the same pleasure in the unfolding of our relationship. There was no difference then and there never has been since. Like any parent, I have expectations of my child that I do not have of other children, I see virtues in him that other children do not appear to possess and I want to be there for him at the important moments in his life - be they triumph or disaster. Also, for the comparison applies to negatives as well as positives, I find him just as irritating and difficult as I used to find Emily. I even feel that he looks like me, though I know that he does not. Bonding is instinctive, I have discovered. If you allow it to happen, it happens.
We told everybody about our fertility problems. Whenever Cath took an extended lunch-hour to go for donor-conception treatment, her colleagues back at work knew where she was going and the purpose of her visit. I also told my work colleages. I found it easy enough to talk in a superficial way about my infertility, but many of my deeper thoughts and feelings on the subject, I kept to myself. It was enough that people knew. We also found ways to tell our friends and family, and the emphasis is on the word ‘tell’, for though we were open about our feelings on the matter, we did not ask for their opinions: we grieved our losses largely in private and we made the key treatment decisions between ourselves, without consulting anybody else. Nobody appeared to be shocked by our revelations. As we experienced it, the reaction of family, friends and work colleagues to our situation was universally supportive. Everybody just accepted the story of our infertility and what we were doing about it and by the time Adam was born, it had become just another topic of conversation. People concentrated on the baby, often forgetting the fact that he was donor-conceived, and easily slipping into potentially dangerous phrases such as, ‘He must take after you, Ted.’
Our clinician, while stressing that it was our decision, had talked about the need to tell donor-conceived children about their origins with a missionary zeal. She waved the ‘My Story’* book at us, then - I think - a very new publication, and gave us a leaflet on the Donor Conception Network, virtually insisting that we join. It was more guidance than counselling, but we will always have reason to thank her for the strong support that she gave us in this respect. When Adam was born, we joined the network and went to one of the meetings, where we met and talked with other people in a similar situation. It helped tremendously and we never looked back. We used the ‘My Story’ book with Adam from an early age. At each stage of his development, we found the necessary words. It wasn’t difficult. There was never a single moment when we ‘told’ and there was no agonizing about when to ‘tell’. He has grown up knowing. Challenges One night, about three years ago, I was reading Adam a bedtime story. I was tired and after I had got through two short chapters (perhaps in a rather hurried way), I shut the book decisively. He pleaded with me to carry on. I refused, said goodnight to him, and walked out of the room.
He shouted after me, “You’re not my father, anyway.” I went back in to him, “Oh no,” I said. “Who is then?” “I don’t know,” he muttered, “somebody else, somewhere else.” “Ok,” I said and walked out again. He immediately called me back, “I’m sorry Daddy,” he said, “I wish you were my sperm father.” I told him that it didn’t matter, hugged him, and went downstairs. On another, more recent, occasion, I had picked up Adam and two of his friends from the Wednesday night cub-scout meeting. They dawdled up the road in front me at an infuriatingly slow pace and I chivvied them along in the way that parents do. “He’s not my father, you know,” Adam remarked casually to his friends, without further explanation. It wasn’t the place to have a long discussion, we could do that at another time. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have to do what I tell you,” I told him in mock severity. Nothing else was said. I doubt that his friends took him seriously. My nerves were set quivering, but only mine.
While enjoying the pleasures of family life, it is easy to forget about all about the implications of having a child by donor-conception, and go for long periods without mentioning it at all. “You never talk to him about it,” Cath said to me one day. “It’s always me.” My immediate reaction was to deny this, but she was of course right. I made an effort and was rewarded by a new conversation with Adam. It is important for all of us that we keep the dialogue going. The process of ‘telling’ gives children an early insight into the mechanics of sex and reproduction and naturally questions follow. One Friday night, as we were driving to the local chip shop, my 8 year-old son suddenly said, “Daddy, how do you donate sperm?” I thought it was a reasonable question, so I told him. “Euugh!” he said. After this, it was hard to persuade him that for adult men this strange activity was more usually associated with a rather personal kind of enjoyment, for I tried to explain this as well. After all, it’s not a clinical procedure. Whose Information is it? Why do we tell? After a while, it can be just for the crack.
This was brought abruptly home to me by an incident last year. I was in the school playground, chatting with one of the other parents about the work I do for the British Infertility Counselling Association. I told him that Adam was donor-conceived. I didn’t need to do this. It’s my business why I do the work I do, it doesn’t need to be justified. Later, I mentioned the conversation to Adam. He was furious. “How could you?” He said, “And to Aidan’s Dad of all people.” I thought about it a bit and then I thought, well yes, he’s right. So, I apologized to him. These days, Cath and I don’t usually tell people. We’ve made it clear to Adam that it’s up to him whether he tells his friends. It’s your information, we say. In general, he doesn’t mention it. “Nobody knows,” he said the other day at breakfast, when I told him that I was writing this article. Except that they do. Up the road they know. Jennie, his friend’s mother said that Adam had told them one evening, when he was up there for tea. He must have forgotten about that. Or did I tell her, in the park that day - just for the crack? Or was it Aidan’s Dad, perhaps? He only lives a couple of doors away from Jennie and things do get around in our neighbourhood…
The Role of the Donor
Last summer, along with much of the rest of the country, we watched the England football team go out of the European Cup. “Could my donor be foreign?” Adam asked us, suddenly. “I think my donor is Dutch,” he told us. “I’m going to support Holland now.” And why not? Fantasies like this are a way for him to give his donor an identity, a way for him to fill a gap in his life. When I show Emily a photo of my father, who died more than forty years ago, I can say to her “That’s your grandfather.” But when I show Adam the same photo, I can only say to him, “That’s my father.” Genetic relationships are important. Just last month, I discovered that Emily was pregnant. My joy was immediate and it wasn’t long before I found myself thinking, ‘Will this child look like me? ‘Will this genetic grandchild of mine have my hair?’ (People have always said that I have nice hair). Which of Adam’s characteristics has he inherited from his genetic father? We can only speculate, because everything we were told about his donor is written on a ‘postit’ note which Cath always carries in her handbag. I think Adam has a right to know more than this. But whether or not he ever finds out any more, we can only celebrate the other genetic links that we have within our family, if we celebrate his link with his genetic father. None of this seemed important when our clinician told us that the donor would always remain anonymous and that this was a good thing, but it does now.
So what responsibilities do we parents have towards our donor-conceived children? Firstly, we have a responsibility to be open. Our children have a right to know that they are donor-conceived and they have a right to know as early as possible. I can see no exceptions to this. Secondly, we have a responsibility to listen. We must listen to our partners, if we have them, because neither parent will have all the answers and sometimes our partners have important things to say to us, things which we may not want to hear. We must also listen to our children because they are the ones who are most affected by our decision to have a family in this way and we must understand and respect their needs, needs which don’t necessarily match our own. And we must listen to ourselves, for what we think we should feel about infertility and donor-conception is not necessarily what we actually do feel about it, and it is important for us to recognize this. Thirdly, we have a responsibility to celebrate the genetic identity of our children and support their right to know the identity of their donors. It is this last responsibility that has been brought sharply into focus by the lifting of anonymity. It is perhaps the most challenging because it requires us to admit that our children are indeed different.
Ted Baldwin 18/10/04
The ‘My' and 'Our Story’ books are available from The Donor Conception Network.
This article appeared in the journal of the British Infertility Counselling Association - Autumn 2004, Volume 11 No 3.