For many couples coping with infertility, egg donation is their only chance of having a family. But how do you talk to your child about it and ensure they have a strong sense of identity? asks Helen O’Callaghan
WHEN Ellen* was handed her newborn twins, she hugged them, whispering the words she’d planned from their conception: “we want to thank the donor lady who lives far, far away, for helping Mammy and Daddy to have you,” she said.
For the Dublin mother, whose babies were conceived with her husband’s sperm and a Ukrainian donor’s egg, telling the babies their origins was symbolic.
“I told them literally from the first day of their life — they would always know,” she says.
Donor conception can be complicated to explain and controversial to talk about. For Ellen, telling her minutes-old babies was about normalising it.
“If you start telling them when they’re babies, it doesn’t matter what you say. It gets you used to saying it out loud. It helps you find what words sound best.”
Ellen — in her mid-40s when she gave birth — had miscarried in her late 30s.
At 43, she was given a 0.2% chance of conception using her own eggs. For her, egg donation represented “the most unbelievable ray of hope”. Waking up to the sounds of her now four-year-old twins is like Christmas every day.
Not telling the children the truth of their origins would have been unimaginable, she says.
“I couldn’t conceal such a vital piece of information from the two most important people in my life.” The family refer to the donor as the ‘the donor lady’.
“The children know when you want a baby that you need a cell from the lady and a seed from the man. I told them Mammy’s tummy wasn’t working properly, that I went to see a doctor who told me ‘not to worry’ and he found a kind lady who was able to give us a cell.”
Ellen believes in telling children a little at a time and in being consistent and age-appropriate.
“When they become aware of how babies are made, the information will be more scientific. We got a detailed medical profile [of donor] that will be relevant.”
The family don’t talk about it everyday.
“That would make it a big deal. We talk about it occasionally. If something about the Ukraine comes on TV, we say ‘that’s where the donor lady lives’. I’m doing a personal picture storybook for them. It will have photos of their father and me before we had them. The doctors at the clinic sent photos of themselves and there’ll be pictures of me pregnant, and of us in hospital when they were born,” Ellen says.
She knows there are hurdles ahead. She’s teaching her children to differentiate between secrets and private family matters.
“You don’t tell your family business to everybody — that’s what I’ll say to them.” This is to protect them from any shocked reactions.
“When they’re teens and angry with me because I won’t let them go to an all-night party, I don’t doubt they’ll say ‘you’re not my real mother anyway’. But I don’t think there’s anything they could ask that I wouldn’t expect to be able to answer,” Ellen says.
Róisín Venables, chairperson of the Irish Fertility Counsellors’ Association, says couples don’t always tell their children they were conceived via egg donation. “They may have endured years of fertility investigation and treatment. Their sexual life may be non-existent, because it was all timed. They may say ‘we’ve had enough, why would we tell and make it more complicated, when we could just carry on as if this was a ‘normal’ pregnancy’?”she says.
Once baby arrives, intentions to tell may change. “Sometimes, couples with no intention of telling begin questioning that. Or, those who definitely intended to tell now start getting cold feet,” Róisín says. Donor babies are “hard-earned babies”, she says — add on the difficulties of parenthood and telling may seem a step too far. “Couples have gone though so much to have their children. They want it all to be beautiful. Sometimes, reality’s a different picture — the baby’s colicky or they don’t bond immediately, as can happen with any parent.” Venables encourages couples towards openness and honesty with the child.
It’s easier for them if they’re strong in their desire and decision to have a baby via egg donation. “The ideal situation is that if you ask an 11-year-old when they were first told they were donor-conceived and their answer is ‘I’ve always known’. Because they don’t feel different — they just are who they are,” Róisín says.
She says couples who intend to tell their children about their origins should do it properly. She recommends telling gently and subtly. “Some of my clients keep a personalised diary [for the child].”
Helen Browne, NISIG (National Infertility Support and Information Group) co-founder, recalls one mother’s story of her six-year-old asking how she came to be. “Every spring, the child watched Mum plant daffodil bulbs, so Mum said: ‘for a baby, you need a mummy seed and a daddy seed. Mummy didn’t have any seeds, so she and Daddy went to hospital, where a lady gave her seed to a doctor and the doctor put this seed and Daddy’s seed into Mummy’s tummy and you grew inside me’.
Browne loves the simplicity of this explanation. She believes in not overloading a child’s mind with information and in letting him/her know that if they have any question they should ask their parents.
Venables says children are resilient and accepting, if given age-appropriate information, but parents should watch the language they use when talking about the donor. Terms like ‘genetic mother’ or ‘real mother’ are unhelpful. “The woman who donated her eggs is not the mother — she has donated a gamete to facilitate another woman to become a mother. She is the ‘donor’. If you use language like ‘real mother’, the child may ask ‘who am I — what’s my real mother like’?”
Declan Keane, director of ReproMed, a national network of fertility clinics (www.repromed.ie), sees 140 women annually opting for egg donation. Preparation and planning are keys to success in life, he says — equally so when telling a child they were donor-conceived. He agrees that children will ask questions — perhaps as teens — that will surprise parents. “How do parents handle questions they haven’t even thought of, like ‘did you buy me’?”
Venables concurs. “Children could ask [potentially] hurtful questions, like ‘why did you take that lady’s eggs?’ They may push parents to the pin of their collar to answer questions, without feeling they’re being personally attacked.” For parents, she says, it’s about being comfortable with the journey they took to become parents. “So they can meet head on any difficult questions they’re asked, without personalising it.”
‘500 Irishwomen a year’ opt for egg donation
There is no database of the numbers of Irishwomen who are opting for egg donation. Declan Keane, of ReproMed, estimates it’s 500 women annually. NISIG receives three to four calls per week inquiring about egg donation.
Sims IVF brings frozen sperm abroad, where it fertilises donor egg. Frozen embryo is returned and transferred to the recipient woman.
Other Irish fertility clinics link with clinics abroad. When couples travel abroad, the process happens there. with the donor undergoing IVF and the recipient taking medication to thicken uterus lining.
Who seeks egg donation? Women who’ve had early menopause; women in late 30s to mid-40s who have poor egg quality; women at risk of passing on a genetic disease; women whose fertility has been compromised by cancer treatment.
Anonymous donor: the child will never be able to contact/communicate with her. Non-anonymous donor: the child can make contact when they reach 18. Most Irish couples opt for anonymous egg donation (Spain, Czech Republic) over non-anonymous (UK). Waiting list for the former is six to eight weeks — for the latter it’s six to 12 months.