Walter ' Interview 39

Age at interview: 63
Age at diagnosis: 35
Brief Outline: Walter and his wife, Olivia (Interview 37) had two children conceived with donor sperm in the 1980s. Their children are now in their 20s.
Background: Walter works in financial services. He and his wife Olivia, (Interview 37) have three grown up children. Ethnic background' White British.

More about me...

Walter and his wife Olivia (Interview 37) had a son from her previous marriage. When they started to try and have a child together, nothing happened. They went for tests and doctors told them that they would need donor sperm to conceive. Walter and Olivia thought about it for almost a year, and were then ready to try for a donor conception. Although it was offered on the NHS at that time, there was a long waiting list and so they decided to find a private clinic. Walter’s wife conceived quickly and had a son, and subsequently a daughter. Both Walter and Olivia have been very open about their donor conception, and been involved in setting up a support group for other parents who have started families with donor conception.


Walter had a long series of tests (several decades ago) which concluded that he was not producing...

And the specialist said, examined me and looked at my sperm samples and said there did seem to be a problem there and it was actually extremely rapid for him to examine me and say, “Look, you know, you’ve got testicular atrophy, your testicles are much smaller than they should be and we don’t know why that happens to some people. It does seem to happen to some people, but the short answer is that’s why you’re not producing any sperm.” And you know, that’s the end of story.
I think probably, my recollection is that I probably had my trousers down at the time he told me all this. So it was a kind of a bit of a body blow to hear that. Although I suppose I had been wondering what was going on about the sperm, the poor sperm sample results. 

Walter was already a step-dad to his wife’s son. They decided to use donor sperm to complete...

And at that point we had to stop and think, well what do we do? Do we just make the decision not to have any more children? Do we think about adoption? Or, and it was a pretty obvious third choice was to think should we perhaps go for a family where [wife] could be inseminated by an anonymous donor, through a clinic, and we might have children that way.
And I suppose it made you stop and think a great deal about what was important. Important to yourself. Important to [wife]. What did we have to give as parents? As potential parents? I suppose we had already been in the parenting business. Found that not terrible [laughs]. And I suppose other the kind of recollections, the reflections I had were about the family that I’d come from, and I come from a family of farmers who, I can trace my father’s line back for, two or three hundred years, and just some feeling of wanting to continue not just the line, but I think the kind of values that I’ve inherited from my father and mother and the possibility of carrying those values on to another generation. And we were relatively well off, we were in a position to support a family, and all those things made me think, yes, I do want to go on. Childlessness or future childlessness, or just having [son], [wife]’s child. That wasn’t going to be fulfilling enough. 
So then there’s the question of well what does one feel about this idea of having a child to whom I’m not going to be genetically related. And that’s a much deeper question and it’s a much more penetrating question I think for a lot of men to say, well am I going to love this child? What if, what is, “Most people have children that they are genetically connected to. And that creates the family bond.” Well I suppose I was quite well prepared by being a step-Dad and knowing that you can love a child that you’re not genetically related to. And feel that that child is part of your own family. So I suppose I had an advance in thinking on all that sort of thing. 
But nevertheless, you still, I think, go through a period… of some bereavement, loss or grief over what is not to be. And that some period of thinking, is, can I cope with this? And…
Can I come to terms with this? And I think I probably resolved it in a rather simplistic sort of way, thinking well, if we go down this route at least we have a child whose, as opposed to adoption, this is a child who is going to be genetically connected to at least one of us, which seems sort of better than none. So a bit simple, kind of maths almost, and [wife] would go through the pregnancy, and we would go through that whole process together so I think I came to that conclusion relatively quickly, but not without some pain and grief and feeling that this was going to be rather significant in my life. Little did I know how significant it was going to be in my life at the time. 

Walter considers some of the big philosophical questions that donor conception raised for him...

What is a family? What are genetics? What is the nature, nurture issue here? And what does it really mean? One of the big questions that nobody knows the answer to. How much of our personality and style and success or failure in life, is attributable to the, genes we’ve inherited, and how much of it is attributable the upbringing that we’ve, that we’ve given our children or that we’ve received.
And nobody knows the answers to these questions. So almost every aspect of social science if you like that is engaged in the question of donor, donor conception. As I say, there’s genetics, there’s medicine if you like, there’s anthropology. What is a family? How does, what value’s placed on genetic relationships in this particular culture? At this particular time? In Western society, in UK society, in London society which is totally different I suspect from what it would have been two hundred years ago, in this particular country and probably very different from what it would be 6,000 miles away in Africa in some communities or in South America in some communities. So anthropologists will have a field day with all of this. It’s a subject of potential, enormous study I suspect. Sociology, how do we, how do families relate to each other, and what’s going on in the culture of societies, more generally, in the movement to accept this as a more natural thing. Or is it? Philosophy. What are we valuing here? Why are we valuing it? What engages us to value it? Law - what are the legal implications of non-genetic parenting? We have been so used to the inheritance of land, names, legal parenting, titles. That’s genetically in the law, in family law, in property law, and so almost every…Psychology what’s our understanding of ourself and our understanding of identity? What do we, how do we identify ourselves? What do we see as the key issues in our identity make up? Do we think of ourselves as, do you think of yourself as a researcher? Or do you think of yourself as the daughter of your parents? And how much of each? So that is only a glimpse of the profundity that there is that you’re led to think about in this area intellectually. So... But it’s not just of course an intellectual game, or an intellectual pursuit. It’s about real people. It’s about our family. And so I do find it , rightly absorbing of my, some of my energy, both intellectual and emotional. As one ought to have for one’s children. But I guess most people don’t have the necessity to think as deeply as we do and as I’ve had the opportunity to do, about these questions because parenthood just happens and it happens through sort of peer pressure. People live together, other people seem to be having kids, oh we better have kids. And that’s the way most people slip in, slide in to parenthood. We’ve had to think about parenthood and why we want children. Why do we want children? What is this driver that rather simplistically says that either if other people around are having children then we think we’ll look a bit odd if we don’t. Or, and/or a real urgent need to have children. Where does that come from? And yes, we must know that the human race wouldn’t continue if there wasn’t something of a [primal], primordial drive. And we know it’s not just sex, it is a need to have children. And how enormously painful and distressing it can be for people who have, who are unable to have children. Not everybody of course, but for some people who cannot have children of their own, or can’t have children at all, the immense grief and loss that they feel about being confronted with that situation. So there is something pretty deep, and yet none of us really know what it is or where it comes from. So I have had through the opportunity to talk to other people and hear from, other people’s storie

Walter reflected on the lasting impact of his infertility. Like “other life events” he carries it...


I think it didn’t, it did finish in the sense that it, I had come through the, whatever that bit of turmoil whatever it was, but I think it’s also something that never finishes. That one can continue to have reflections about the children that we didn’t have. And that we can carry those feelings of sadness and loss to this day, about the children we didn’t have and without feeling that that’s in any way a something that one should be ashamed of or embarrassed about. And can hold together with the feelings of enormous love and reward for the children we did have. And so, I think that for many times, yes, I’ve wondered, what the children would have been like if they had been my genetic children, mine and [wife]’s genetic children together. I’ve had some moments of wonder and imagination of trying to conceive, imagine that. But I don’t feel – not of continuous grief or agony but it, its, I suppose it’s akin to some sort of other life events, or courses down which, things didn’t happen. But this was I suppose, quite a big thing that didn’t happen. And so one does still carry that. And, you know, I think, as I say I carry it to this day.


Walter talked about the importance of telling children they are donor conceived from a young age.

But it is something that parents have to think about as their children grow up, and they can’t just say, “Oh well, it happened, and now we’re just sort of pretending it never happened.” No that’s one of the most important things is to just start telling the children at an early age with the aim that the children grow up with this piece of knowledge and really can’t ever remember when they were first told about it. And that’s the position with our children. If you ask our children when they were first told, they really cannot remember. Truthfully they just can’t, there was never a moment when they can remember being sat down and told, “Here’s an important piece of information.” So it’s not something that parents need to be frightened of, although many of them are. But then there are all these other areas of, you know, telling grandparents. And sometimes grandparents, or parents, and grandparents, and particularly grandparents can be people who it’s difficult to tell, or it may be even appropriate not to tell. If it’s really thought that they would find it so difficult to absorb this knowledge, they might discriminate against the child or something like that. Or it might be so upsetting for them from a religious or cultural background. So those are issues which many parents have to face and then there are issues about whether it’s sensible to tell teachers at schools, particularly primary schools. Your child, you have explained it to your child, then is it sensible, you see your child may start talking about this sort of thing? And is it sensible to prime other, to prime the teacher to say, you know, if my child does start talking about this, then don’t think he or she is off on a tangent and this is something he does know, but may not really quite be able to express very clearly, not really understanding that much himself or herself. So there’s telling other members of the family, and telling teachers and others in the educational system, telling doctors, telling you know, who else needs to know and how you release that information in a way you feel comfortable with.
And there’s always that other question about is this really the child’s knowledge the child’s information and should we wait until the child is capable of telling other people. And I’m fairly clear in my mind that actually you have to prime the way for this, you can’t leave it until the child is old enough to start telling other people, because I think by then it’s really too late. So I think we do have to set the scene. 
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