Father’s Day Denial- a Guest Blog by Tamsin
Posted on June 14, 2012
Our dad preferred we not acknowledge Father’s Day. As a Church of England minister he upheld the Anglican tradition of Mothering Sunday, which occurs on the 4th Sunday in Lent and in Britain is celebrated synonymously with the secular Mother’s Day. He viewed Father’s Day as a cynical Hallmark creation, born not from observance of the Christian calendar but from the crude growth of American-style capitalism.
It was just another of our dad’s endearingly eccentric quirks. Like the enormous bar of Cadbury’s chocolate he gave us on Easter Sunday in place of the customary hollow chocolate egg. A bar clearly yielded more chocolate for your money, and he would not be fooled by the commercial exploitation of religious holidays.
Thirty-five years later, as the mother of two small children conceived using donor sperm from a large U.S. sperm bank, I ponder the meaning of Father’s Day in a radically different way. I am fortunate to have a husband who is unencumbered by feelings of masculine inadequacy. He is their “real” father, and their mutual adoration lights up our home. He also supports open acknowledgement of the donor’s role in creating our family. We have begun to share the story with our emotionally astute three-year-old, both in honor of her genetic heritage, and in hopes that our children will never think we tried to sweep the significance of biology under the rug.
Our dad chose to demote Father’s Day to a trivial annoyance, but we knew he was our father, biologically, emotionally, and practically. He was simply defending the sanctity of Christian tradition, albeit with a healthy rejection of crass commercialism.
There is nothing endearing about the prevailing belief of many parents of donor-conceived children that they can and should ignore the role of donated sperm in their child’s conception. Genetic heritage is not insignificant, even that contributed by a donor. A refusal to openly acknowledge the truth creates, in the words of open adoption pioneers Reuben Pannor and the late, great Annette Baran, “lethal secrets”, which can manifest into profoundly destructive dynamics within donor-insemination families. Several studies on this topic have been conducted by the Donor Sibling Registry, in association with Cambridge University and other leading academic institutions. They have repeatedly demonstrated how donor-conceived children who are told early and often about their biological origins grow up far better emotionally adjusted than their peers from families where donor insemination is kept hidden for years.
For most of the 20th century, donor insemination was quietly practiced in small doctors offices, anonymously and frequently. Conventional wisdom, dictated by a patriarchal medical profession and societal attitudes that couldn’t yet stomach the idea of it, ensured that tens of thousands of children grew up simply not knowing they were the product of donated sperm. Toward the end of the century, cracks in this toxic tradition began to appear, in no small part thanks to the open adoption movement and the rise of alternative family building led by the single-mothers-by-choice and LGBT communities.
By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the cracks had become fault lines. On one side of this heaving tectonic shift are tens of thousands of donor-insemination families and the Donor Sibling Registry, fighting to end donor anonymity and urging parents not to make the tragic choice of secrecy. On the other side, powerful medical organizations and sperm banks are perpetuating the myth that anonymity is necessary and desirable. They’ve provided a lukewarm endorsement for “telling” donor-conceived children of their donor origins, but anonymity is the enabler of “not-telling”. They are cunningly trying to appear to swim with the tide of societal change, all the while poisoning the waters with a profit-driven insistence on the continuation of donor anonymity.
Times are changing quickly. Despite unrelenting attacks from the Christian Right and bioethicists, who abhor any form of assisted reproductive technology, building a family through the use of donor sperm is becoming an increasingly acceptable choice in broader society. We’re not there yet, but more and more parents of donor-conceived children are rejecting secrecy and silence in favor of openness. In many circles there is also a growing recognition of the changing technological times, and the role of DNA matching in accelerating the end of guaranteed anonymity. With a swab of the cheek, donor-conceived children can mail their cells to any one of several DNA databanks and potentially identify relatives. It’s just different now on so many levels.
This Father’s Day, let’s acknowledge the genetic heritage of donor-conceived children as well as their “real” dad. Many children who’ve discovered they were donor conceived will never know half their biological makeup, and that sad tradition will go on for decades. But as more of us choose openness, the perceived need for anonymity will wane. Telling from the start is better, but it’s never too late to drop the secret.