On several occasions recently I’ve seen single mothers refer to the absent father of their child as a donor and qualify this by saying that they use that term because ‘he might as well be just a donor’.
I have two children, the eldest has an absent father and the younger is donor conceived.
Donors are amazing people – our donor gave us Sylvie, my daughter’s much longed for little sister. Donors are generous and kind and go through tests and screening to create families. It makes me so sad to see donor being used as a derogatory term because donor conceived children have a right to feel proud of their origins. Donors are not ‘less than’ fathers. Conceiving a person through donation takes so much thought, planning, time, effort, and vast amounts of money. Suggesting a donor is less prestigious than a one night stand or a brief fling or a husband who has run off is utterly insulting to all involved. Donors should be honoured – they are amazing.
An absent father does not become ‘just a donor’ by abdicating parental responsibility. And absent father is a tragedy, which can become a disaster for the abandoned child.
Decades of research have shown us that children who grow up without a father in the home are at risk of a number of poor outcomes. There are physiological effects. Girls without a father tend to hit puberty earlier – which increases their risk of dropping out of school, promiscuity and emotional distress. Absent fathers leave their children with a hole, a gap in their lives, which the child will try and fill with some idea of who their other parent is. He is half their heritage and half their identity. By talking negatively about that absent parent you’re telling you child that they are half idiot, half good for nothing, half weak, or half coward. Whatever negative things you say rain down on your child; in their stroller as a baby, as they play on the floor as a toddler, as you complain when they are running around, it’s unpicking your child’s identity. You are giving them the words to explain themselves to their peers at school, and more – you are teaching them who they are.
It is not easy to think of ways to frame an absent parent in a positive way. Your child can see through you. They have a PhD in mummy; they are the world’s leading expert on you and you cannot hide your true feelings from them. Let any bitterness go, it’s a nasty acidic emotion that eats away at your joy. The first step is to work with your anger and disappointment and sadness. They will feel that too and you need to give them the words to express it if they are sad they don’t have a Daddy. The key is to try and understand his absence from a place of compassion. You may need professional help to do that; it’s not easy.
There are good reasons why he’s not being a parent to your child. He can’t. He’s not able to. It’s not something he’s capable of. He’s broken in some way. Most likely it’s his family; his own childhood was probably a mess. He didn’t learn the skills to be a warm and loving person because he was neglected or mistreated in some way. Lots of kids have bloody horrible childhoods and it’s his tragedy if it’s left him incapable of bonding with his child. It’s hard to take on the grown up role of a parent when your own role model was a poor one, and many men feel overwhelmed by the thought of it if the circumstances are challenging. Most regret their choice to leave and many try to reconcile with their child in later life. It’s sad for all of you. It’s sad for you, having to raise a child by yourself, sad for your child, growing up with a gap in their life and sad for him – who will never know how wonderful your child is and what they are missing out on. It is so sad that he is not capable of being a good father to your child – and believe me, he feels that. Some go on to have other families and try to prove to themselves that they aren’t broken, that it’s just this situation that was wrong, and that may be something you need to help your child understand in the future.
Growing up with one parent missing is hard, but there are ways to make it easier for your child. When we talk to our donor conceived children we talk about the good things they inherited – my daughter has her donor’s facial features and his sense of humour and his generosity. At first it will hurt when you do this for an absent parent, it reminds you of what your child is missing, but it’s important. My eldest daughter won the genetic lottery, her father is a very beautiful man; she has his gorgeous skin and his long legs and his charm. I’ll describe to her his favourite foods and the little things I know about him. Put the story together – emphasise your resilience, don’t gloss over what you’ve missed out on – that helps you see how strong and united your family is. The big rock our family sits on is our love; we are lucky to be so happy and so loved and we have so many friends and a wonderful life. It’s important to articulate the loss and grieve for it, but with the help of our amazing donor we have created the whole family that we are now. Having an absent parent is a potential disaster but you can safety proof your child and your family.
At the end of the day, the loss is his; acknowledge it, feel compassion for him, feel compassion for yourselves, but move forward knowing you can make a beautiful life regardless.