We noticed on social media that the language used when referring to a donor often resulted in a heated exchange - this is understandably emotive stuff. It appeared to us that the views were quite polarised between recipient parents and donor conceived people. We decided to investigate further.
We asked our friends on Instagram and Facebook to share their views on the language they use for their donor. Thank you to everyone that contributed - we are very grateful for the level of engagement from both recipient parents and donor conceived adults.
There was the expected range of terms, but the interesting questions are: can we see a pattern in the words chosen, and can we understand why this might be, and could any of us do anything differently so as not to offend anyone?
We think that we can safely assume that everyone involved has the same overall intent – we want the lives of donor conceived children, and later when they are adults, to be as positive as possible.
Below are some quotes from the people that responded to our survey. We have included them verbatim as people were so open and honest. Read them with an open mind, understanding that a wealth of personal experience led to their opinion. There were far too many responses to include them all, so we have picked a range that illustrates the diverse views. In this article, DCP means donor conceived person and RP mean recipient parent, i.e. the parents who received donor egg or sperm.
What donor conceived people told us
Shannon, who uses the Instagram name @DonorConceived101, is happy to share her voice as a DCP: “I question why our voice is not solely considered given that it matters most to the child what we call our biological parents? I notice that many recipient parents do not follow DCP on social media so I wonder if they have considered the DCP perspective.” There is great advice here – we all know the dangers of siloed thinking; people often join social media and other groups of like-minded people that share their views. In this, and in all things, we should aim to broaden our networks.
Shannon goes on to say: “As DCP we often have to fight to call our biological parent what we choose, and often our voices are overshadowed by parents calling their donor their children's donor. While some DCP may be fine with those terms, as DCP it's our choice and we believe that parents have an obligation to be accurate and truthful of who their donor is to their child.”
Tiffany (@tiff_dc_adult) echoes Shannon’s views and on a recent Instagram live with Jana Rupnow LPC she talks openly about the trauma she felt at finding out, aged 35 through a DNA test, about her biological father. She talks about the rejection she felt when his social family (the term many DCP use to refer to the family raised by their biological parent) didn’t want him to have any contact with her. She uses the term biological father because in her view this is scientifically accurate as half of her came from him. Even though he did no parenting he is nonetheless her genetic parent – she draws a distinction between the verb and the noun.
Lindsay Elise Blount gives us food for thought in this wonderfully worded quote: “My mom's donor is not my donor. He didn’t donate sperm to me. He is my biological father (I've confirmed that he identifies as a man, so I can say bio father). I am not half sperm donor, half my mom. I know this because I'm not walking around half human, half sperm. I am made up of my mom and my biological father. Therefore I don't have a donor. I call him by his first name to my friends and family and I call him my 'biological father' to those that don't know his identity.”
Sophie from @donorconceivedaotearoa adds: “I use biological father or his name. I used to call him 'the donor' when talking about him with people who didn’t know him, but now I'm leaning into biological father (as it correctly explains his relationship to me, whereas donor does not correctly explain that at all.) Note - I use biological father even though I have chosen to no longer have contact with him (and I didn’t meet him until I was 25, so he's never had any type of parental relationship). I'd suggest it's best if the DCP person decides what's best, not the recipient parent. I am very comfortable referring to him as my biological father, despite having no relationship with him. For clarity my social father is ‘dad’.”
Sophie later added: “PLOT TWIST - just got off a [Instagram] live from @lindsayeliseblount and @timjenkinsphd - FASCINATING. I'm now going to start including "genetic father" in my language. I’m not comfortable referring to my dad as my "biological dad", but I understand he had a massive impact on my biology (which I was reminded is the study of life, not just genetics). Wow! I'm always learning.”
We found it fascinating that, as is the way with language, the discussion developed in front of us. As Sophie highlights, Lindsay, subsequent to her own quote above, had a discussion with Dr Jenkins, Assistant Professor, Cell Biology and Physiology, BYU College of Life Sciences, where her thoughts on this also developed. They touched on epigenetics, the term ‘biology’ and discussed how widely the term biological father / mother could be applied. Because of the impact our environment and upbringing can have on us at a biological level, Dr Jenkins felt that “biological” is a very loaded word. [See this blog that explores this fascinating topic in greater detail.]
One of the things we took away from this discussion is that genetic parent is an unambiguous term for the donor.
That said, genetic parent is not everyone’s preference. Lindsay went on to tell us: “So I’ve actually stopped using genetic parent. I tried it out, but it just makes me feel different than every other human. I just use biological father. I would say that the majority of DCP don’t like the term genetic parent either. Most of use still use biological father/mother.”
She adds, “My take-away from the discussion with Dr Jenkins is that the heart of the matter isn’t the words used, but rather the meaning. That my Dad (and everyone else in my environment) had an influence on how some of my DNA traits may show up in the world. I learned because of epigenetics, both my Dad AND my bio father are so important to who I am – I am formed by DNA and my environment. My Dad wasn’t any less because he didn’t give me DNA and my bio father isn’t ‘just a donor’. Both contribute to who I am. At the end of the day, it’s up to each DCP what term they feel comfortable using to describe half of who they are. For me, I would like to be like every human in the world and have a biological father. Genetic father reduces him only to DNA, and he gave me so much more than that. He gave me the story of who I am, my ancestry, my siblings, my motivation and how I move through the world. When he rejected me, it broke my heart. If he was just ‘genetics’, it wouldn’t have affected me like that. It’s more than just genetics at play, I guess.”
Emma Gronbaek (@DonorChild) is very open about being donor conceived and considers herself fortunate in having known about the donor from a very early age. She tells us: “I'm not sure what I think is the right term to use. I don't have any issues with using donor - I call him my donor. The book my parents made said: ‘a kind man mom and dad did not know gave enough sperm to put on mommy's eggs’, explaining his role in our family, but without using any terms. I think this worked well for me when I was a kid. I feel like genetic/biological father is giving him too much credit.”
To conclude, for our donor conceived responders the terms biological father / mother / parent came up most. But donor, especially with the emphasis on ‘my parents’ donor’, is also widely used. Some people think that genetic parent / father / mother may be the most accurate descriptor. At least one responder felt that including the word parent / mother / father attributes too much to someone that has done no parenting. Equally though, many DCP are particularly keen to properly acknowledge the role of the person who is responsible for half their DNA.
As one would expect, there are a wide range of terms people choose to use; but they are unanimous on one thing – and this is the important take-away: the donor conceived person understandably wants to be the one to choose their words.
What the recipient parents had to say
We had lots of responses like @kimbobulate’s in response to ‘What do you call your donor?’: “Our egg donor. That's the language that was used at the clinic.” And for ‘What do you think your child will call your donor?’: “I don't know (he's only 6 weeks old), but this is something I think about a lot.”
Becky (@DefiningMum), a Mum by donor egg, has some great advice for us as publishers of children’s books: “I think it would be progressive to include a range of terms to select, even just to simply prompt RPs to consider the language they use. I don’t know any other books out there that offer these terms.”
Becky makes a great point: “I’d also consider what is age appropriate and the age the books are aimed at, currently for me, genetic mother wouldn’t feel right at the young ages our girls are at, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be explaining what it means to them as they grow, then introducing language options and giving them the choice.”
Hayley (@50cupsofcoffee) tells us: “Me and my partner are due a baby in the next couple of weeks. We used a fertility clinic in the UK to conceive. We call the donor, donor, and we will correct people to that terminology because this person is highly unlikely to play a part in our child's life (American donor used). To be honest I am pretty protective about the wording of it all. I don’t want 'father' being used in any sense right now – my partner is carrying our child with her eggs and donor sperm – it just makes me feel uncomfortable if I'm honest.”
In answer to how she thinks her child will refer to their donor, Hayley adds: “Later down the line obviously this will be up to our child. We won’t be hiding information when they ask and being honest, I feel if we were to dictate what they should call him it could be quite catastrophic in the long run. I would hope they would say donor! This was very thought provoking for me.”
@creating.crawfords gave us this concise answer: “We have a known donor, a friend, and we refer to her by first name and think our child will as well. When speaking to people outside of our circle we say, ‘genetic relative’ as we feel it is not our place to define the title our child may want to call her.”
@dcp_journey_2_rp is both a donor conceived and a recipient parent. “Before I met my parent's sperm donor (who was anon) I referred to him as 'the donor', but when I located him via DNA testing, I then referred to him by his first name - but also now prefer 'biological father' or my parent's donor when talking about him to someone else.”
“We have four-and-a-half-year-old DC twins using an open ID at 18 donor (we are in the UK). I'm in a gay relationship. We have begun to interchange terms like 'the donor', 'bio father' when reading DC related story books or when we talk about our children's biological father (our sperm donor). Our aim is to expose our children to lots of different terms so that as they get older and begin to understand more, they will be able to make a choice about which they prefer - and will know that as parents we won’t be offended by any they choose!”
Similarly to Becky, she goes on to say, “I've noticed that in a lot of current DC story books authors tend to stick to one term for 'the donor' – I think it would be quite a progressive thing to include a page that identifies a range of terms that some families may choose to use when referring to the person that makes up half of their child's DNA.”
To conclude, recipient parents predominantly use the word donor, especially when their child is little. Clinicians, counsellors and children’s books mostly refer to the donor. However there appears to be a pleasing awareness that as children develop things might well change. Conversations with donor conceived children about their origins are clearly not a ‘once and done’. Books are merely a helpful tool to start the conversations.
Listening to the recommendations, we have added a message on our product pages that encourages recipient parents to think about how they will refer to their donor now and how they will progress these conversations as their child develops. We will also recommend that on social media they follow DCP and hashtags like #donorconceived so they are attuned to the feelings their child is inevitably going to experience.
Our research raised the following interesting discussion . . .
@akua.ankrah: “Designing my daughter's book I was conflicted about using the words 'kind man' so I removed kind and then kept going, but it kept ringing in my head to think of other words for him and since I don’t know how else to describe him, I put the word 'kind' back. But I am still not sure what word to use . . . so I am also looking for words. For now we refer to him as a donor in our house.”
Freya (@unicorndcp) a DCP and RP added: “I like using the word ‘kind’ when referring to the donor, but not as his name if that makes sense? Yet there is the fact that they are paid, and it isn’t totally altruistic. But I am so grateful for my daughter's donor, so I often think that he is kind. And my own donor was kind even though he only donated to help pay rent.”
As is the way with social media, @Sterlingmoms joined the discussion with an incredibly useful response: “We have no idea if our donors are actually kind, so we do not use that language. We don’t want to set this belief in our children that their bio father is kind if he truly is not. So we just keep it simple and use the words that he described himself as.”
If you are uncertain about the word ‘kind’ pertaining to the donor, you might want to go back, if possible, to any adjectives they used and echo those.
The thoughtless things people say
We didn’t ask people to tell us about the unfortunate gaffs unthinking friends and family members come out with, but in this blog about language it seems important to share those that were mentioned. The world still has a lot to learn!
As @lauramlb89 shows, it’s not just friends and family . . . “People always say ‘who is the dad?’ Even health professionals. It is very upsetting.”
@never_a_good_time_to_tell_you shared this story about her biological father: “I call him my donor in DC groups just for the sake of clarity. In my personal interactions, he's my biological father, and I call him by his first name. He actually wrote me a letter once, after months of not contacting me, and signed it 'from Dad'. I just about came unhinged. The man who raised me, and who talked to me all the time, was my Dad!!! We became estranged after that so I never had to set a boundary, but yikes . . . this is fraught.”
So what do we think after all this discussion?
There is some tension between the views of donor conceived adults (many of whom found out late that they were donor conceived) and recipient parents, who are perhaps coping with their own issues and facing other prejudices and are protective of their status as parents. DCP rightly want to choose what to call their parents’ donor and want RPs to acknowledge that the donation is to the parents, not the child. Their preferred term is “biological mother or father”. DCP often object to the use of the word “kind” to describe a donor since the donor may not be a kind person.
RPs are protective of their new families and some balk at using the term “biological mother / father”. They struggle with knowing whether to use the word “kind” or not, but most do since this a concept easily understood by young children.
To use the term ‘mother / father / parent’ with a very young child (which is our preferred age to start the conversation) to refer to someone who is not parenting could be confusing and potentially upsetting for them. However the term ‘genetic parent’, which the scientific community appears to think is the most accurate, once the child is old enough to understand its meaning, seems reasonable and factually correct. Whether you opt for this, or biological mother / father /parent – the preferred term of many adult DCP, it’s clear that talking to children about donor conception is not a “one and done” approach – the conversation needs to be ongoing and language needs to be updated to be age appropriate. Moreover, parents need to accept that as their children grow and become independent, their children may want to use different language from what their parents have used.
What is clear from our impromptu poll is that we all want to put the interests of the child first, choosing what is right for now, which may be different from what’s right in the future. We need to listen, be open-minded, understanding and supportive – to our children and to each other.