Toby’s Story - Five Years On

About five years ago I wrote an article for the DCN Journal about becoming a solo mum by choice and my experience of the early years of parenting my son. Our family is now five years on from that time and my Toby is almost 10. It’s useful for me to reflect on how things have changed over the last five years - the second five years of my dear sons life - and how we have fallen into a wonderful relationship which has been so enlightening and empowering for me and has really played to the philosophical and ‘nurture over nature’ part of my personality. The experience has taught me many valuable lessons about what really matters in relationships and life.

I said in my previous article that you couldn’t have made my story up! After four years of trying for child number two (I already had a dear daughter conceived naturally and within my marriage) my ex decided he no longer wanted to keep trying - or indeed be married to me anymore! After a couple of weeks of blind panic, which turned into a short period of conscientious research (never one to give up me), I was on a plane to the Czech Republic to have treatment with donated embryos. As a single woman. Anonymously. Nine months later I gave birth to my son.

Five years later, and we have seriously relaxed into our version of the daily truth. The issue of using donor conception to add to my family has taken more of a ‘back seat’ and ordinary life has taken over - you know, the homework, play dates, days out cycling, “eat up your vegetables” type stuff and actually for 99% of the time this is the reality. It’s wonderful that this has happened. Maybe it’s because I have always been so utterly dogged about being open and honest with Toby about his origins. I have taken every opportunity possible to talk about donor conception - what it is, what it means - so that it’s just an assimilated part of our lives now; always there as a truth and a fact, and therefore as obvious as the sunrise.

One of the tools I use which has really helped to achieve this is as follows: at small social gatherings I ‘scan’ the room I’m in to see who’s in it - to establish if everyone ‘knows’ or not. It could be a family event or when we’re out with friends. Or it could be just me, Toby and Laura having supper. And what I do is casually drop in a reference to Donor Conception. Or perhaps adoption. Or the fact that so-and-so lives with his Grandma. Or that Tom Daley and his husband are having a baby. We talk about it all. Always with the idea of bringing Toby’s story into ordinary diverse life. At which point Toby will usually be heard sighing and saying “Oh here we go, another of Mum’s long chats!!” (lol)

We have had some very interesting and sometimes hilarious (sometimes not) experiences intermingling with our community and the world at large. I remember a couple of years ago on my local beach a woman passing us commented “I bet you’re a handful for your dad!” (Funny how people say that to boys and not to girls – but that’s another story…). Anyway to the woman concerned Toby clearly, confidently and nonchalantly replied “I don’t have a Dad” which sent the woman into strong overcompensatory mode spluttering ”Oh I’m sure you’re a lovely boy!!” and “Aren’t you…lovely!” (Well…yes, and sometimes not so lovely too). I did a little victory dance, marvelling at my son’s conviction about who he is and his acceptance of that.

On another occasion one of Toby’s schoolmates, who is very factual, stated that you need a man and a woman to make a baby, to which Toby, aged eight, replied “No you don’t, you just need an egg and a sperm!” This in front of the other child’s grandparents! I sometimes wonder what they thought of that comment as I chuckle to myself.

And then there was the time Toby recounted his ‘special story’, in full, apropos nothing, with a focus on exactly HOW he was BORN, to the AA man who was relaying us back home after a breakdown. All three of us riding up front in his rescue truck!! I just had to embrace it – there was nowhere else to go!!

On a more serious note I have told each of Toby’s school teachers since he started in reception class aged four that he is donor conceived and particularly, why he doesn’t have a Dad. It can be hard for some children to accept that fact, and I understand that. So when children question Toby’s situation – which they will and they do - the teacher can, in my absence act ‘in loco parentis’ and back Toby’s facts up, therefore helping to protect him against any possible negativity. Again it’s also really good for us to introduce the subject of donor conception to others, to bring it into other people’s ordinary consciousness. Let’s call it awareness raising. We have had nothing but support and acceptance from Toby’s school. Nowadays Toby tells the teachers himself with me there for support, which is awesome. Next year - in his final year at Primary School - Toby will be doing human reproduction and I am considering whether to work with his class teacher on including something about donor conception if Toby would like that. Perhaps Toby could lead this lesson at school - being the expert!

And related to all this I have realised that Toby’s special story is indeed more or less his special story now, and not so much mine. Currently he seems fine about it all – quite comfortable. It is what it is.

I have continued to ‘do the legwork’, to continue to assimilate donor conception onto our lives. To be honest it hasn’t always been easy – and I think it’s OK – actually its really important to acknowledge that. We are not always superwoman. We don’t live in a big diverse city but in a small coastal village in South Devon, where being very close to the ocean and the natural environment feeds my soul and makes me a happier parent. However it is a place where being the solo (read single) mum of a child of undisclosed origins can be a challenge for some people! It takes strength to lead a ‘different’ life here, and at times I have yearned for a big city.

Along with my ongoing desire to talk about donor conception and bring it into the lives of our family and friends, the Donor Conception Network has been absolutely key in helping us to get it as ‘right’ as we possibly can, again for Toby, but also for me and his sister. Toby recently started attending the Children’s Workshops which he has enjoyed and I know found useful. My joy was overwhelming when he emerged from the first one shouting excitedly “Mum, Mum there were two other kids who don’t have a dad!” There, right there, is the thing for him.

I have also recently set up a Devon and Cornwall Solo Mums group, to connect with others in my area. The response has been really positive and we have found other families who also ‘don’t have a Dad’, which seems as though it could also be useful for Toby. How wonderful for him and me to meet other children and families much more locally that we can keep in touch with and mutually support over the coming years.

Toby has come to me a couple of times and said “I wish I had a Dad”, which has been pretty hard to swallow, even though we’re rocking the solo Mum thing! I have responded by saying “I wish you had a Dad too” as I feel really strongly that it’s OK to acknowledge that fact - and to feel sad about it. It is what it is (as I have a habit of saying generally). However, children in secure and stable families (and we have that in bucketloads J) can hold some difficult feelings and it’s not useful to gloss over such statements with an immediate positive spin. We do of course also talk about all the wonderful people who are in our lives, and this is really useful too.

My own personal ‘work’ with donor conception more recently has been around accepting the existence of donor siblings. For a long time I couldn’t even use the term, let alone think about the fact that Toby undoubtedly has some full genetic siblings somewhere, and possibly (probably) some half siblings too. There has been a real resistance in me to the idea of this – a fear of it somehow ‘breaking up’ our family of me, Toby and his non DC sister (whom he shares no genes with) – his actual sister, at home. Over time and with more experience, more talking, more bedding in, more DCN groups and workshops, and more day to day life behind us, this fear has really lessened to the point where it’s not so much of an issue for me these days. It may or may not become important to Toby later; I’m pretty sure it will be relevant at some point. The DCN Children’s Workshops are helping to pave the way into that one and for that I am very grateful.

At the end of the day I always come back to one thing really – and that is the unfailing sense that if we can get the ‘truth’ right most things will just follow. Yes there will be ups and there will be downs. This is life. And I learnt many years ago that life is a series of decisions (some good, some tricky, some downright difficult), that we have to make. But we are warm and fed and loved and healthy, and we are really rather empowered, in many different ways.

And we have the truth - Toby’s truth. It really is what it is, and sometimes it feels like the acknowledgement and acceptance of that is really the only thing that matters.

(Oh and the small fact that I followed my dream………….and it came true).