Having a baby using a donor egg: Can you feel the same about a child to whom you have no genetic link?

Four years on, Alice Jolly has learnt the answer: it's complicated

Alice Jolly
Monday 06 July 2015 17:18 BST
Alice Jolly with her husband Stephen, son Thomas and daughter Hope
Alice Jolly with her husband Stephen, son Thomas and daughter Hope

When my husband and I discussed having a baby using a donor egg, I was frightened.

Lying awake in the lean hours, I would think, what if I never bond with the baby? When I asked parents of donor-conceived children about their experiences, they were relentlessly upbeat. But I just thought, of course, they have to be positive now because they're living with that choice.

Most people who try donor conception have suffered losses but, for my husband and me, the situation was particularly painful. After giving birth to my son, I had a daughter, Laura, who was stillborn. We then suffered four miscarriages, IVF, abandoned attempts to adopt.

It was clear that I would never carry another baby and that my eggs would never result in a sustainable pregnancy. So our only hope was to use a donor egg and a surrogate, creating a child who would have a genetic link to my husband but not to me. But could I really lay aside all those past losses and move forward? So many might-have-beens, so many shadow babies, so many alternative lives still lingered in my mind. How do you honour those who are lost and yet make space for someone new? Can you feel the same about a baby you didn't carry and to whom you have no genetic link?

As parents, we all repeat the same mantra: I love my children unconditionally and I love them all equally. But do we? Over the past 12 years, bringing up my (biological) son, I've learnt that ambivalent parenting is widespread and that it is better to embrace it rather than deny it. Having a baby, no matter how you do it, is a lucky dip. You make the best of whatever comes out of the tub.

That's what I told myself during those sleepless nights. But I wasn't just thinking of myself; I was concerned about our imagined child. If he or she worried about having been donor-conceived, then what exactly would that worry be? Our genetic inheritance is important to us because we believe it's what makes us who we are. But does it?

Science has waged the nature versus nurture war for decades, but it wasn't the science that interested me. What I wanted to know is how genetics plays out in everyday life. And so I began to read testimonies written by those whose genetic heritage is complex. As a writer, what struck me immediately is that genetics is a narrative. We use it selectively to bolster a story we have already decided to tell. We pick out the facts that fit and ignore those that don't.

But that doesn't mean those stories have no value. I know from friends who are adopted how deeply disturbing it can be if some of the pages in the book of your life are missing. And so my husband and I decided that we would use a donor only if that woman would be willing to meet our imagined child. Fortunately, we found someone who was willing to make that commitment.

Now, with my three-year-old daughter, Hope, playing around my feet, I wish I hadn't worried so much. She has brought so much joy to our family. Laura and those shadow babies have not been laid aside. They remain part of our lives but we live with them more easily now.

But is there really no difference between how I feel about my two children? If I am to embrace ambivalent parenting, then I'd have to admit that there is a difference. But how can I know whether that difference is due to the fact that Hope was donor-conceived? Wise friends tell me that motherhood is different each time. Our loves are varied, complex, shifting. They defy clear definition. You don't feel the same for the second child as for the first. And anyway, they remind me, you are 10 years older.

That's always the problem with real life, isn't it? There is never a sample control. What point is there in thinking, "If only"? I know plenty of people who have a child conceived in the natural way but struggle to feel any real connection. It pains me to think it, but if Laura had lived, she might have been a nightmare.

The nature versus nurture debate may be interesting to scientists, but it is not much help in the day-to-day business of parenting. Nature leads to a defeatist attitude; nurture may encourage needless self-criticism. My policy is to remind myself that anything that my daughter does has got little to do with her genes or the circumstances of her birth.

But that's where I am lucky. My son is not a sample control, but he is a useful point of comparison. Through my experiences with him, I know that when your child throws poster paints up the curtains and then screams for 20 minutes, it isn't your fault and it doesn't reveal anything fundamental about genes. He or she is just doing what they do.

But still, our family can't entirely ignore the fact that Hope clearly has characteristics we don't always recognise. She is a big character – fierce, opinionated and incredibly strong. She is a surprise, an adventure. Bringing her up is like unwrapping an interestingly shaped present contained in many layers of paper.

There are huge advantages in difference. Some of the most poisonous relationships within families arise when people are too similar. As I watch my son grow, I sometimes see him making exactly the same mistakes that I made. That can give rise to a vicious anger that I will never feel for my daughter. Her mistakes will at least have novelty value.

The genetic link, at its worst, can be about defeat, limitation, fatalism. When my son was small, I was annoyed by relatives saying, "Of course he's good at this because he takes after X and Y. Not surprising he can't do Z. No one in the family has ever been any good at Z." I wanted to shout – he is not an accumulation of the faults and talents of everyone else in the family, he is just who he is.

I also remind myself that science is only the current state of knowledge. Our understanding of genetics is, at best, partial. It cannot explain, for example, how I knew from the moment of conception that Hope would take after my mother. In reality, of course, Hope has no genetic link to my mother. But I knew. And, sure enough, they are amazingly similar.

So now I'm playing that pick-the-genetics-that-suit-you game. Nevertheless, this strange circumstance does lead me to think that the links that bind people are far more complicated than we can know. Just yesterday, I met a woman and she said those words that so many people do say: "Oh, doesn't Hope look just like you?"

We will always tell Hope everything there is to know about her birth, but I sometimes don't want to comment on that statement in front of her. For that reason, I used to find these conversations difficult, but now I've come up with the right words. I say, "Well, yes," because that's what love does, doesn't it? It makes people look similar. And that is my belief. Scientists will doubtless continue to discover more and more about genetics, but they'll never explain the transformative power of the passage of time and the presence of love.

For the moment, it is all bound to be relatively easy. Hope has a mean aim with the poster paints but she isn't yet able to ask the difficult questions that, as a teenager, she will doubtless raise, or yell. But it is no help to think about that now. Today is sometimes quite difficult enough. Being a menopausal 48-year-old in charge of a wilful three-year-old is no picnic. But even on the worst days, I still look at Hope – living, breathing, laughing, screaming – and hold on to the only knowledge that actually matters. That, if you are a parent, you are infinitely blessed.

'Dead Babies and Seaside Towns' by Alice Jolly (Unbound, £14.99) is out now

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