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When Natasha Fox was in primary school, she used to make a card for her granddad each Father’s Day. She remembers asking her mum why she didn’t have a daddy, and her mum’s explanation that they were “a mummy and daughter” family.
“I never felt that anything was missing,” Natasha, now 28, recalls. “When people asked what my dad did, I’d explain I didn’t have one. Sometimes I’d say a doctor helped to make me, and my mum had to clarify I wasn’t the outcome of an affair because assisted conception was so rare in those days.”
My daughter Astrid, age three, asks similar questions about where her daddy is. For now, there doesn’t seem to be an emotional load attached and she also frequently calls me Daddy Bear when I make her porridge.
I find my answer is an echo through time of the one given by Fox’s mother, Carol. “We’re a mummy, Astrid and Xavi family,” I explain, as I tell her about a donor who helped make her.
Carol Fox’s decision to become a solo mum after being diagnosed with ovarian cysts was so unusual in the 1990s that she appeared on the front page of the Daily Record.
The lawyer and author of Memoirs of a Feminist Mother, who lives in Edinburgh, had family support through 29 cycles of IVF. She made her daughter a storybook to explain her origins, something I too plan to do.
“When my daughter asked about her dad, I told her about her donor so I gave her the language to own her story,” Carol says. “I taught her that it was up to her what she wanted to share, and that she didn’t have to justify anything.”
Children’s curiosity about dads is as varied and personal as children themselves. Sarah*’s daughter Louise, age eight, is from a two mum family in Brighton. “When she was very small she thought all men were daddies and would say ‘hi daddy’,” Sarah remembers.
“We introduced the fact she had a donor early. She met him a couple of years ago. I felt threatened that she might feel abandoned, or become obsessed with him. But she’s been unfussed. Maybe it’s slightly easier with two of us: we’re very much her world and she’s focused on us.”
When Louise plays with her toys there will sometimes be a ‘daddy,’ but Sarah’s never seen her imagine two mums. “There’s usually no parents at all, though.”
“When my daughter asked about her dad, I gave her the language to own her story”
For Christelle Chamoutin, whose son Etienne is nine, the first question came one day during nursery pickup round the corner from their north London home.
“He asked if the ‘nice man’ loved him. I explained that he didn’t know him, so couldn’t love him,” she remembers. “Etienne is open to saying he doesn’t have a dad and answering questions. Once he told me that he wished he had a dad to talk to and do things together. We talked about it recently and I asked if he was sad not to have a dad. He told me he used to be but he’s okay now. Every time my heart breaks into little pieces but I hide it.”
Olivia Montuschi, co-founder of the Donor Conception Network charity, says questions about dads start at around two. “Questions should be answered honestly but simply, leaving space for a child to ask questions,” she suggests.
“Negative or sad responses need listening to rather than shutting down or being met with over-emphatic positive ones. Some mums have coached their children to say things like, ‘You don’t have to have a dad. My mum got some sperm from the hospital to make me.’ Others coach their children to refer any enquirer to them: ‘I don’t have a dad. You ask my mum.’”
Montuschi continues: “Early teenage years can be particularly difficult when many young people don’t want to stand out. By middle to older teenage years there is usually an acceptance of who they are.”
Carol Fox’s advice is to be “confident and happy with your circumstances”. She says that then, ultimately, your children will understand there’s no problem.
As Carol’s daughter Natasha grew up, she became more curious about her donor. “I never felt that I had an absent father, but I was frustrated at knowing so little,” she explains.
Until UK law changed in 2004, babies conceived using donor sperm, eggs or embryos did not have the right to contact their donors when they turned 18.
“There’s a huge gulf between being a donor and a dad... some people still don’t get that all you need in a family is love”
Natasha, who lives in north London, is now trying to trace her donor, though she believes the chances are low.
“There’s a huge gulf between being a donor and a dad and it’s shocking that some people still don’t get that all you need in a family is love. But I want to find out if we look alike and share similarities,” says Natasha who has met with a genetic half sister she found through a DNA website and found it striking how much they have in common.
Father’s Day can be difficult for children in families with no visible dad, says Montuschi. “One teenager told me it always feels weird. Not traumatic, just strange. Another said he was encouraged by his mum and teacher to make a card for his male cat!”
Now, on Father’s Day, Natasha says she finds herself wondering what her donor thinks. “I don’t expect him to consider himself a father of me, but a man who gave my mum a chance to have a family and live the life she wanted.”
*Name changed on request of anonymity
5 Books For Children About Families
Families come in all shapes and sizes. These books – suitable for a range of different age-groups – are great at communicating that.
The Family Book by Todd Parr (under fives).
The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith (4—11 year-olds).
What Makes A Baby by Cory Silverberg (2-6 year-olds)
Just The Baby For Me by Barbara Levin (2-7 year-olds)
Genevieve Roberts is the author of Going Solo: My choice to become a mother using a donor (Little, Brown).