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Information for donor-conceived people: getting ready for contact

From ISOGG Wiki

We’ve used the terms ‘donor’, ‘donor-related siblings’ and ‘donor relatives’ here but realise that you may use different terms.

This article provides advice on some things to consider when getting ready for contact with donors, donor-related siblings or other donor relatives.

Who is this information for?

The information below has been written from a UK perspective for donor-conceived people who have found the whereabouts of their donor, donor-related sibling(s) or other donor relative(s) and want to make contact. This can prompt a range of feelings, some unexpectedly intense or confusing. It can be an exciting time but also an anxious and scary time. Making contact, whether direct or using a third party such as a friend, relative or professional intermediary, is a big step to take. No-one can ever fully prepare for such a step of course, but hopefully this information will help answer some common questions and set out some of the issues that may arise.

If you are not yet adult, we strongly recommend that you talk to your parents or a trusted adult before going any further.

I have found a donor relative and would like to make contact. What do I do next?

No-one has a legal right to have contact with their donor, donor-related siblings or other donor relatives; equally, anyone can ask for contact unless there is a specific legal prohibition in place (which would be very unusual indeed). That said, it’s important to make any approach sensitively and respectfully and to not rush into doing so. Talking it through with other donor-conceived people who’ve been down this road can be helpful as can talking with trusted family members or friends. There’s also a lot to be said for taking the time to speak to an experienced professional intermediary worker before doing anything so that you can talk things through and draw on their experience. They can also make the first approach on your behalf and perhaps even come to a first meeting with you, if that’s what you want. If you were conceived at a UK clinic, you may be able to access this service free .

Is it a good idea to review my expectations about having contact and my hopes and fears?

It is a very good idea to take the time to try to think about what you expect from making contact before actually making an approach. Think about, and make a list of, your hopes and fears and how you might manage your reactions; this may feel different depending on whether it’s your donor, donor-related siblings or other donor relatives. The contact may not live up to your expectations or it might exceed them. The other person may be very welcoming or want to keep you at arm’s length. They may even be infirm or may have developed a health condition that you yourself carry a risk of inheriting.

What are your best/worst case scenarios in the short and longer term? There are many possible outcomes and it is helpful to give some thought to different scenarios you may encounter.

Remember too that whatever you think at this stage may change in the event of actually having contact and it might continue to keep changing.

How much thought should I give to the other person’s expectations, hopes and fears?

It is possible that your approach comes as a complete shock, and they may anyway need some time to think about if and how they want to respond. This may be their first contact with someone to whom they’re genetically related through donor conception or they may already be in contact with others and that too is likely to influence their reaction.

Their expectations, hopes and concerns may be totally different from yours and may range from expecting to have just a one-off communication and/or photo, or they may be hoping for more. Their expectations, like yours, may also change over time.

What if they are totally different to me?

You need to consider how much, if at all, it will matter to you if their lifestyle and circumstances are totally different from yours – or if they have not anticipated yours. For example, you may be surprised by each other’s family set up or sexual orientation; you may not share the same social/educational/cultural background; you might have different political or religious views; you could have very different life experiences and lifestyles; and your first language may not be the same. All these factors can impact on the contact and the possible relationships that may or may not develop.

How significant will be ‘nature versus nurture’ issues in whether or not I get on with my donor relatives?

Getting on well with and potentially developing an ongoing relationship with your donor, donor-related siblings or other donor relatives (if that’s what you wish) will depend on a range of factors, so it’s difficult to estimate the influence of nature and nurture. For example, if you share the same values, interests and sense of humour then you’re likely to find it easier to get on regardless. It can be the case that some donor-conceived people welcome meeting someone who shares some of their physical and personality traits which can be empowering and validating although this can also feel unsettling at times. However, it may be that you have hardly any identifiable physical and personality traits with the other person or people and if you had been hoping otherwise then this can be disappointing.

At any stage during this process it’s likely that you will continue to experience a range of intense emotions. This is completely normal and don’t be afraid to seek support.

I would like to make direct contact and am wondering whether or not to use a third party

There are pros and cons. The first consideration is whether you know anyone to act as a third party. If it’s a friend or relative then you need to be sure that they will maintain your confidentiality and go at your pace and that your relationship will not be compromised. The same is true if you use a professional intermediary; their advantage is that your relationship is solely to do with managing the contact and they have lots of experience to draw on whereas the disadvantage is that you may have to pay for their service and there are not many available.

Whether or not you use a third party, then some decisions have to be made straight away, including whether to use your full name or a pseudonym. It is best to keep the first communication short and, probably, not refer directly to donor conception but simply to say that you believe you may be connected or related. However if you are very sure that they are aware of it: for example because you are contacting them through a register of people genetically related through donor conception, then it might be OK to be more explicit but still be cautious. Aim for language that is friendly and make clear that you don’t necessarily expect a speedy reply.

How should I make contact?

Often the best way of making contact is by writing a letter or sending an email but there are also situations where Facebook is the most appropriate route. There are some good examples here. It is rarely a good idea to use the phone to make contact in the first instance, not least as you don’t know who will answer when you ring or what’s happening in the other person’s life and whether the call is therefore highly intrusive or coming at the wrong time.

If using a letter, you need to decide whether to use your own address (in which case, you need to be prepared for the possibility that the other person may turn up announced on your doorstep, no matter how unlikely that might be). Alternatively you could use the address of a trusted friend or family member, making this clear in the letter. Whichever address you choose to use then also put this on the back of the envelope in case the person you have approached no longer lives at the address, so that it can be directed back to you. You might decide to send it by recorded or special delivery so that you know that it’s been received although this runs the danger that anyone else in the house is alerted to a potentially important letter having been received and this could be awkward for the recipient.

If using email, you need to decide whether to set up a separate email address in order to avoid anyone else who might look at your inbox from seeing a reply and/or to keep this contact separate from the rest of your emails so that you only look at it when you feel ready to do so. Given that some people feel that emails require a more instant response than a letter it’s important to make clear from the start that each of you may need time to reflect before responding.

If you are using the messaging system of a DNA testing company such as AncestryDNA, MyHeritage or 23andMe then again you need to decide what username to use and which email address to use for the company to contact you on. At Family Tree DNA you are given the e-mail addresses of your matches and you will need to provide an e-mail address for matches to contact you so might like to consider using a separate email account. If the exchange is to someone who has a known involvement in donor conception then it might be OK to be more explicit in your opening email. If your email is to someone who’s been ‘matched’ with you but it is not clear whether or not they are aware of the donor conception connection then it would be better to be more cautious.

If you have found a ‘relative’ on Facebook and have no other contact details you can try sending a message via Facebook. However, if you are not “friends” with a Facebook contact, the message is diverted into a message request folder and might not be seen for some time. There are also many people who set up a Facebook account but rarely log in so they might never see your message.

It’s not unusual for exchanges to go backwards and forwards for some time as you explore the way forward with each other. Sometimes people move from letters or emails to phone calls (or perhaps Skype or WhatsApp). Here again, you need to decide whether to use your usual Skype name or WhatsApp number or set up one specifically for this contact.

And at some stage, there may be a mutual decision to meet up face to face and we cover that below.

How much information should I reveal about myself?

It is usually a good idea to provide relatively little information in the early stages. This is even more important when you are not 100% sure that the other person is indeed genetically related to you. It’s also because you can’t be sure who else will see the initial email or letter that you have written and this could breach their privacy.

You will need to decide how much information to provide at each stage of your contact and not get tempted to provide information you later regret. If you have difficult information to share (for example that your childhood was unhappy or that you have a genetic health condition that may affect them too) then it’s usually better to only share this later. You also have to decide whether or not to ask any specific questions that you yourself have at each stage, for example about their medical history.

What happens if I don’t receive a response?

It is important to prepare yourself for the possibility that you hear nothing back. There may be a range of reasons for this. For example, the letter may have gone astray in the post, your email may have gone into spam, the person may be on holiday, they might be ill or they may still be thinking about how (or if) to respond. If you have made the contact on Facebook or through the messaging service of a personal genetics testing company, it may be that the person has not logged into their account for some time and has not seen your message.

If a period of four weeks or so has passed and you have still not heard then you could consider sending a letter by recorded or special delivery (i.e. one that has to be signed for and that you can track on line to see if it’s been delivered). Or you could send an email using the option to be notified when it has been received and read. If you have a contact phone number of the person, you could let them know in the second letter or email that you may call them to find out if they have received the letter and/or email and to give them more information if they would find that helpful, but be cautious.

I have discovered several people who are related to me, what should I do?

It is of course more complicated if you find several people at the same time who are related to you through donor conception. You then have to decide whether to start with just one or two or contact all simultaneously. Some donor-related sibling groups already have a mechanism for communicating with each other such as an email group, WhatsApp group or closed Facebook group. If you join an established group of donor-related people, then remember that each member has already been through what you are facing now but will have moved on from their early reactions to making contact. Some may be sensitive and understanding of your need for contact but others may feel drained at the prospect of including a new member. Remember too that they may have a range of ages (depending on how long the donations were held) and backgrounds. Some may have been raised in the same family but it’s likely that most will not, so you will be potentially getting to know about a lot of different networks at the same time or over time. There may also be others whose search ends after you and where you will be the one being approached. You need to bear all this in mind when thinking about how to approach this current contact.

What if I already know some of my donor relatives and now want to approach someone I’ve only just discovered – should I tell them?

If you are aware of the identity of the donor or any of your donor-related siblings or other donor relatives then it is important to consider if and how to share this with the person you are about to contact for the first time. It may be that you decide not to reveal this until you have some understanding about the information they have already and whether or not they are keen to know more. It is also important to be clear how those you already know feel about you sharing their information.

You also need to decide at which stage and how to share the identity of your ‘new’ donor relative (with their permission) with your existing ones.

I have siblings, so how much information should I share with them about the contact I make?

If you’ve been brought up in the same family with siblings who’ve been conceived with the same donor, then it’s usually important that they are aware of what’s happening at each step of the process (unless they specifically ask not to be kept informed) even if they themselves don’t want any contact. If you or they are not yet adults, then you should make sure that your parents are aware of what’s happening so that you can discuss together how to handle the sharing of information.

If your siblings have decided that they themselves don’t want any contact then they still have to adjust to the fact that you do. Any contact that you have and information that you gain can also carry implications for them too, for example medical information. It is also possible – though the risk is not high – that you unexpectedly find that you do not share a donor after all as not all clinics in the past were honest with those they were treating.

Even if you have siblings that do not share the same donor as you, including ones who are not donor-conceived, what you do may have an impact on them and on other family members.

On the whole, it’s better to be open about the fact that you are hoping to make contact as most siblings, regardless of age, prefer being kept in the loop so that they can then decide for themselves how much they want to be kept informed.

However you should also be aware of the possibility that making contact with newly-found donor-related siblings may affect your relationship with your siblings with whom you grew up, at least for a time. Some may find it difficult to accept the new contact, avoid any discussion of it and find it difficult to adjust to any ongoing relationship that you may develop with your newly-found donor-related siblings.

What is the best way to arrange a face-to-face meeting?

If at some stage you and the person/people you’ve contacted agree that you are ready for a face-to-face meeting then you will need to decide where would be the best place for that. Many people prefer to meet on neutral ground for the first meeting. If this feels right for you then you will need to decide what type of place you want to meet in. Some prefer a public space such as a café, hotel lobby, railway station or pub. Others prefer meeting in an outside area such as a park. In order to recognise one another, perhaps consider exchanging photographs beforehand or let each other know what you will be wearing or holding so that you can be recognised.

If you are meeting several donor relatives at once – for example donor-related siblings – then it will be different if you are all meeting for the first time or if some of them have already met before.

It’s important to have some open discussion with your donor relative(s) about any particular wishes and needs you each may have for your first meeting. For example, do you want to bring someone else along – maybe a family member, friend or professional intermediary – and do you want to have photographs or video recordings taken at the meeting? No one can predict the emotions and feelings you may experience when you first meet one another, but it’s still worth considering the range of reactions you may have, from elation, joy and fulfilment to sadness, anxiety and disappointment. Remember it will not only be your own reactions and emotions that you have to manage during the meeting but also those of your donor relative(s).

It’s completely normal that your feelings and reactions – and theirs – will continue to unfold long after that first contact.

What if something goes wrong with the arrangements?

Hopefully nothing will go wrong! But sometimes, through no fault of yours or your donor relative, something prevents you from meeting one another. For example, the train or car breaks down or a close family member is taken ill. Rarely, one of you may feel so nervous that you fail to turn up. It is important to consider and discuss these eventualities before the meeting takes place. You could think about how you can let the other person know if you have been held up or feel unable to meet face to face after all, for example sharing mobile phone numbers. If you don’t want your donor relative to have your personal mobile phone number then you will need to supply a different number or be prepared to take the risk of not being able to let each other know that the meeting is not going to take place.

Sometimes people find from the meeting that they have little in common or that they feel satisfied with a one-off contact and are therefore not sure if they want to take the relationship any further forward. This situation can be difficult, particularly if one person wants to continue contact and the other person does not.

Always seek support if you are feeling overwhelmed or distressed. There is no need to soldier on alone.

What happens if I find myself strongly attracted to someone I contact?

We have learnt from the adoption community that there is the potential for intense physical and emotional feelings on both sides from face-to-face contact with someone to whom you’re genetically related but haven’t been raised with. The other person could feel like ‘the parent or sibling that you never had’ or you may not feel any connection to them at all. Occasionally people experience sexual feelings or what is known as ‘genetic sexual attraction’. If you experience such feelings or think the person feels this way it’s important to remember the roles and boundaries of any relationship with them. It could also be useful for you to talk to a counsellor, either through your general practitioner or privately. If you are using a professional intermediary, for example through the HFEA or the Donor Conceived Register, then you could also talk with them about this.

What if the person/people I contact wants to meet my family (and my children) and vice-versa?

For some people, wanting to meet with each other’s family members will be a natural progression, particularly if the contact has gone well and you find you have a lot in common. Others may feel uncomfortable about doing this, particularly if they have kept the contact secret from their family or their family have reacted badly. Relationships within families have to adjust as you – and they - try to make sense of what is happening.

It is really important for both sides to take their time and not feel under pressure. If you are both ready then you need to agree on the terms that you will use to describe your relationship to each other to your families and on how you will explain the reason for you being genetically related. You always need to be ready for the possibility that some people in each of your families will opt out but also that this may change over time.

Of course you will have no control over whether your agreements about who is informed and what terms and explanations are used are respected, especially once the information starts being shared more widely, but it’s an important starting point.

How am I likely to feel after the first meeting?

Whether or not the first meeting has gone well, people quite often describe feeling deflated the following day or so. Such meetings are major events and the high emotions often felt in the lead up to the actual meeting can contribute to this anti-climatic feeling.

Both you and your donor relative may need time to digest all that went on during your meeting and all that you spoke about, so consider before you part what is likely to happen next and what is the likely time frame. If it is clear from your meeting that you both want to meet again then discuss how and when this is likely to happen. It may be that you would prefer to speak to each other on the phone a few days after the meeting or to keep in touch by email, letter or Facebook.

If your meeting did not go well and you found it difficult to converse comfortably, you may want to ask for time to think about how you want to go forward before committing to anything and suggest that it may be a few weeks before you are in touch again.

However the meeting has gone, it might be a good idea to take the time to make notes about what you have found out about, or from, the other person while it is still fresh in your mind. It is easy to forget details if you leave it.

What self-help and peer support groups are available?

The situation regarding self-help groups and forums is improving all the time. These are almost all online and might include donor-conceived people from all around the world. As well as contact with other donor-conceived people, they can provide links to resources such as podcasts, clinic groups, films about donor conception and academic papers. There is a face-to-face group in the UK: the Registrants Panel of the UK Donor Conceived Register meets from time to time and also has a closed Facebook page. Donor-conceived adults can also have free membership of the Donor Conception Network which offers occasional opportunities for contact and access to their helpline.

Although you all share an interest in making contact with your donor relatives, you will not all share the same views about donor conception and, of course, you will have a range of experiences of growing up, becoming aware of your origins and of what being donor conceived means to you today.

What professional and other support is available?

Unfortunately there are very few professional support services available to help with searching or with coping with any feelings that might be triggered.

For those using the UK’s Donor Conceived Register (for anyone conceived prior to August 1991), some time-limited professional help is available free of charge. Time limited, free professional support through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is available for anyone conceived in a UK clinic after August 1991. This includes support while you are searching, help with making contact with anyone that you find (known as professional intermediary services) and therapeutic counselling. But for anyone else – including anyone conceived overseas or outside of a clinic – there are no dedicated services in the UK.

Some people might be able to get some free professional counselling through their general practitioner but these counsellors are unlikely to be very familiar with the impact of donor conception and/or making contact with genetic relatives. There are also private, fee-charging counsellors but, again, not necessarily with knowledge of donor conception and/or making contact with genetic relatives.

Top tips

✓ Take your time! Don’t feel pressurised by others and only make contact when the time feels right for you

✓ Remember that your donor relative may need time too and may feel unable to have contact at this point in time in their lives

✓ Receiving negative responses from donor relatives can be very upsetting and unsettling. Make sure you have people around that you can talk to and who can understand why you feel hurt

✓ Talk to other donor-conceived people, trusted family and friends and don’t be afraid to seek professional support and/or use a professional intermediary service

✓ Be cautious in providing information about yourself in the early stages; retaining your privacy means you can better control the pace of what happens

✓ Be respectful towards and sensitive about the other parties involved and those closest to you; their reactions will affect you too

✓ Remember that all contact experiences are unique but it can be useful to consider some of the potential positive and negative experiences of others who’ve trodden this path before you

✓ Be realistic as well as flexible in your expectations of the contact

✓ Accept your changing emotions throughout; they are normal. It can take time to get contact right and comfortable for everyone so be patient and kind to yourself

✓ Look after yourself and don’t underestimate how physically as well as emotionally tiring this can be

See also