October 21, 2022

I’m Jana Rupnow, a licensed professional therapist in independent private practice and have worked with thousands of intended parents, screened donors and counseled adult donor conceived people and their families.  We’ve heard a lot from providers about access to care and marginalized voices in the fertility community, which is incredibly important. I want to remind you donor conceived people are also a marginalized voice. Access to care is important but we can’t forget about the continuum of care. Care doesn’t end when baby is born or even when the baby is grown. I want to remind us that the goal is to listen to each other and work together to contribute to the long term health of donor conceived families.

I want to specify that I will be referring to large sibling groups. Connecting with sibling groups can be a positive experience. One study found that 70% of DCP valued and found a meaningful connection in a sibling group (Indeku). But having positive aspects with sibling groups doesn’t mean it is not also challenging. Navigating large same-donor sibling relationships is complex and comes with a mixture of psychological and social challenges.

In my work with DCPs, I’ve observed that managing sibling groups impacts three main areas of their life: emotional, social and relational. This is similar to how infertility impacts a person’s quality of life. Many of you may be familiar with Fertiqol, an assessment tool that measures quality of life for individuals trying to conceive in social, emotional, relational, mind-body and treatment. The emotional challenges of large sibling groups include both negative and positive emotions. Early in my work with infertile patients, I used the “roller coaster” of emotions analogy because I personally felt that way when I experienced infertility. It’s commonly used now to describe emotions associated with infertility and I have found it’s also how DCP describe being in a large sibling group. Social highs and lows are common, and navigating the positive and negative is often challenging, tapping a person’s emotional reserve.

When donor conceived adults and recipient parents enter in this complex new model of kinship, they lack social scripts for how to interact with each other and have few to no resources to guide them.

New group membership comes with feelings about acceptance, rejection, alignment or misalignment, inclusion or exclusion. The highs of acceptance and novel interactions may be followed by feelings of ambivalence, or confusion resulting from challenges in regulating group dynamics.

A foundational building block for wellness includes having a sense of belonging to your “tribe” and feeling a sense of stability in these relationships.  Stable relationships are essential to identity development, but stable relationships are difficult to maintain in large sibling groups( Hertz ). According to a study led by Dunbar, the average human can maintain a mere five close friendships at a time with any stability  (Published: March 22, 2016).  So what happens when a sibling group surpasses, let’s call it,  “the number of stability”?

Emotionally, donor conceived individuals describe feeling overwhelmed, shocked and confused by the discovery of a large sibling group (Hertz). They may feel less unique, less individual like Tyler Sniff described “a widget from a factory.” Anxieties about the unknown emerge as an increasing number of siblings join the group. Research indicates new sibling membership sometimes comes in batches or continuously.

A DCP I spoke with this week describes it like this:

“Siblings don’t come on a predictable time schedule. It can be rather disruptive to your life to have siblings constantly popping up at all different stages of processing their own feelings about donor conception..”

Growing membership with large same-sibling groups influence the intimacy or closeness vs distance within the group (Indeku). Group dynamics remain influx rather than stable.

A DCP puts it this way:

“The volume of communication needed to cultivate and maintain that many relationships even on a fairly causal level is difficult. With this many siblings, if you aren’t very intentional about your communication it’s very easy to go extended periods of time without communicating which makes relationships hard to sustain.”

New genetic discoveries may be exciting and positive or surprising and unwelcome, but they commonly contribute to an individual needing to reformulate or in some cases re-build their identity. Identity is fundamentally influenced by parents and siblings. DCP may learn that certain traits came from the donor after meeting siblings, when they previously only identified these traits with known family.  Identity work takes time and while assimilating new pieces of information into your identity, the world can feel less stable.  Shouldering the load alone can feel heavy and burdensome.

Interpreting the significance of a genetic link as well as fitting new relationships into a person’s unique construct can become more complex when presented with divergent beliefs systems in a large sibling group. The social and relational challenges of navigating large sibling groups include role confusion as new siblings present themselves. Challenging roles are often place on older DCP in the group or siblings that have contacted the donor. Unclear responsibilities of information sharing or force secret keeping can play out in both new genetic relatives and the dcp family of origin. (Sawyer)

One researcher proposed this question: How do group conflicts, cohesion, and division impact identity processing?

We lack societal constructs to help people make meaning out of a diffuse, large and unknown and unidentifiable kinship group. The unknowns make it difficult for a person to control the stability of sibling group relationships, making it challenging to form meaningful relationships and leading to distress.

Some DCP retreat from their sibling group to cope with overwhelming feelings, but feel the loss of the group as well.  Feelings of loss and grief are possible in any stage of sibling group membership but unending new sibling discoveries, which are common in large sibling groups, prevent a person from ever having a firm grasp on their kinship. This lack of closure is a form of ambiguous loss; loss which has no known end and makes grief more difficult to resolve. Disenfranchised grief, which is grief not recognized by society, can leave DCP feeling alienation and unsupported.  And Grief as you know, is often accompanied with feelings of depression.

Fear of consanguinity, is a common concern of DCP, including how their own children and multiple generations will be impacted. Group dynamics are complex and can leave a person feeling alienation or helpless.

A DCP described it this way, “I want to get rid of this feeling of powerlessness. It makes me sad. I want to learn to deal with it. I don’t know how. (Indeku) 

How can we all come together to help DCP?

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