Is an Egg Donor a Mother? A Sperm Donor a Father?

Dawn Davenport


Creating a Family provides a lot of resources on how to tell kids their conception story, especially when it involves donor egg, sperm, or

Is an Egg Donor a Mother? A Sperm Donor a Father?

What should you call the person who donated their egg (or sperm) to allow you to become a parent. One of our community thinks she should be called “mother”.

embryo. On a recent blog on how to tell older kids, tweens, and teens when you haven’t told them before (It’s Complicated; It’s Uncomfortable; It’s Doable; It’s Important—Talking With Older Kids About Donor Egg, Sperm, Or Embryo), in my tips for telling I said:

  • Language matters. The generous person who gave their egg, sperm, or embryo is the donor, not the mom or dad.

Marilynn, one of our community, took me to task:

Dawn, you do good work here encouraging people to “tell” but your answer about not referring to their bio parents as bio parents is not a smart way to go. Terminology does not change physical reality. The rest of the world and every medical text book will tell them that you are uncomfortable with the truth and that they need to be uncomfortable with the truth around you as well.

In what other area of life do we get to say that we did not do something because we never intended for it to happen. When a woman reproduces and has offspring, as much as she may never have intended for that to happen, as much as she may never want to meet the people she reproduced to create, she is for all eternity their biological mother.

Calling her a donor describes

1) Who she is in relation to you maybe, but certainly not who she is in relation to them.

2) It describes something she was at a particular point in time prior to the birth of her offspring. When she was not a mother. She became a mother when her children were born just like any other woman with offspring. Her actions after they were born are the ones that prevented the bonding experience that we all think of when we think of the mother child relationship. Their social mother/ birth mother of record is the one they bond socially with.

I’d encourage those telling to remember to personalize it for themselves before talking to the kid. Genes come from people flesh and blood unique individuals. When you want to say “I understand that you’d be interested in your genetic history” the words genetic history are actually human beings their immediate fore bearers, (wince) their parents, their parent’s relatives, their maternal and paternal relatives. They did not raise them but they are their family as well. If you don’t think of them as their family and you diminish them by not referring to them in human familial terms, the kid is going to feel like this part of them is insignificant to you. Like your family is more important than theirs and theirs takes a back seat and you want to prevent them from ever bonding with them or thinking of them as ‘real family’.

If you are going to tell and you want the kid to have an open relationship with you don’t play with words too much. It does not matter if “you don’t think of them as family” they are in reality exactly that and saying that they are not just makes it look like you’re lying because you are embarrassed of who they are. Do you wish they were related to you? Do you wish they were your biological children? Do you not want others to know that they are someone else’s biological children? Are you more comfortable if people that don’t need to know don’t know? That is huge pressure on a kid that their truth who they actually are is a source of stress and embarrassment to the people raising them. So loud applause for telling the truth Dawn but think about using the commonly understood definitions of words when telling them and think about how comfortable you are with the truth as you tell them.

Hummm, food for thought.  Some of what Marilynn says rings true to me, but I still stumble when thinking of an egg or sperm donor as a mother or father.

What do you think? Am I obscuring reality with carefully chosen words? Should we refer to the egg donor as a mother?

Image credit: boughtbooks

15/10/2013 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 56 Comments

56 Responses to Is an Egg Donor a Mother? A Sperm Donor a Father?

  1. Avatar marilynn says:

    A promise to abandon a kid at birth should not be a crime, going through with that promise should be a crime and encouraging someone to go through with that promise once their offspring is born should be a crime as well. Doctors who aid and abet gamete donors in avoiding assumption of parental responsibility for their own offspring should loose their licenses. Relinquishment of parental responsibilities should be handled in court so that all minors get their due process before winding up in a position where someone other than a bio parent has authority over them. There should be no short cuts to adoption in court – if a person is not your own offspring they deserve state protection from trafficking and deserve to have the people they are placed with background checked. Most women who pay a fee to gestate an egg donor’s offspring would probably pass home study with flying colors but there might be a few who would not and they should not be able to skip that protective step by paying to carry the pregnancy so that they won’t have to document the identity of the child’s biological mother.

    ASRM and ASRE and the Merck manual and Web MD are all very clear about the fact that a woman whose egg is fertilized is the bio mother whether she gives birth or not. I understand she did not gestate and develop her offspring but it won’t change the fact that biologically she’s related to her own offspring as their mother. Not all mothers raise their children it does not alter their children’s biology. Biologically interacting with a fetus is a world of different from being someone’s biological mother the female source of half their biology. Influencing genes aside, gestation develops it does not create.

    I spend a bunch of time talking on the topic of what a bio mother is hoping to finally get to the point where we can at least talk about the violations of donor offspring rights. But people won’t admit that they are not biologically related to the egg donor’s kid. It’s like if they stonewall saying they are the bio mother then it’s like they are not violating the kid’s rights. Like if they are the bio mother then the kid has not been separated from their maternal relatives and no harm no foul.
    Medical facts about egg donors being bio mothers from people who love egg donation – still medically they are bio mothers.

    I really enjoyed this woman’s frank discussion of how she finally had to cop to the fact that she knows that a biological mother is the same thing as a genetic mother. She’s very rare in admitting that OK she’s not the bio mother but says it does give her the ability to focus on the fact that she believes that raising the child, not pregnancy is what makes her the mother.

  2. Avatar Shannon LC Cate says:

    I think you need to honor those people as relatives because your child is flesh of their flesh.
    It is highly disrespectful to your child to dismiss them.
    Consider this: are your great-great grandparents “really” your family, even though you have no relationship with them? Do they matter?
    And even if you personally have decided they don’t matter, plenty of people build much of their identity based on the history of ancestors who share their genes but have no social connections at all, because they are long dead.
    Always err on the side of too much respect. And when your children are older they will decide what matters to them and why.

  3. Avatar marilynn says:

    From Marna Gaitlan’s own website they explain that egg donors give up their eggs and they also give up their children. So why is it such a leap to recognize that her offspring would feel given up since she signed a contract to give them up when they are born? “To date there has not be a case where a donor is later granted parental status following formally giving up rights to both the eggs and to the children resulting from the egg donation.”

    Might not be upset about it but there is no way around them feeling like they were given up by their bio mom because she did.

  4. Avatar marilynn says:

    sorry this is the article I enjoyed by chick and eggs

  5. Avatar B says:

    My Mom and Dad are not wild about me referring to my mother and father as my mother and father.
    All of my mother’s and father’s are real to me.
    If one is deemed not so real, or not so important – then part of me is be deemed not so real or not so important too.
    All of me is important to me.

    My parents? All of them are important to me too, and they are all equally real. Not one of them is fake or unimportant to my existence or to who I have become.

    I was never a blank slate, only in some peoples fantasies, people who love me dearly, was I blob of blank flesh in the beginning.
    That fantasy changed with time and the eventual acceptance of reality.

    Nothing has changed in me, I still know all of my parents are real, as I always did. The difference for me is – now I can live it openly without the anxiety of having to dismiss one or more of my parents as being not-very-real or unimportant to me – to make others feel secure and happy in our relationships.

  6. Avatar Elizabeth says:

    In New York State we now have a bill that’s pending before the Legislature that would spell out the rights of what the bill calls the “intended mother” and “intended father” in cases of donor egg or donor sperm conception, or surrogacy. The laws are apparently, in this state anyway, very unclear about what the rights of the “intended mother” versus the “donor” are.

    For instance, what if a child wanted to go meet the donor at age 10? What if that donor then wanted to sue for custody (unlikely perhaps, but possible)? The law here is unclear about this point right now. What about divorce, I wonder? If a husband and donor-egg-recipient-mother divorce, does that meant the mother has no standing to assert custody? This is all very scary stuff not just emotionally but legally, and so the words do need to be clarified.

    I am in the process of telling my daughter (age 6) all about her DE roots, and I would like to be able to show her the donor’s photo, which I have, although I don’t know the donor’s name. I am confused about what to do if my daughter should want to look for her, and it turns out that I have good reason (legally) to be confused. I know it’s probably very rare for a donor to suddenly want to become a “mother” of the donor-conceived child, but I would feel more confident if my legal standing was assured, which apparently it is not. This differs a lot state to state.

  7. Avatar KarenSweet says:

    Marilynn, you are ranting all over the internet about how mothers of donor egg children are not “real” mothers, and you are even making comparisons to things like manslaughter and adultery. Isn’t that kind of wacko? You will never be able to stop people from using donors to have children, you will never be able to stop assisted reproductive technologies, and you will never succeed in convincing anyone that egg donors are actually the real mothers of these children. A donor is a donor, period. She has a genetic connection and that is all. The donor of my child has no desire at all to be a mom to my kid. She knows my child, has met my child, but doesn’t have much interest in her. You see, she has her own children.
    Also, a woman who gets pregnant and gives birth is defined as the BIOLOGICAL MOTHER (yes, in medical terms), she’s just not the genetic mother. Get your facts straight. Even with complications and issues of being donor-conceived, life is not perfect for ANYONE. It NOT horrible to be conceived by a donor, and it is NOT horrible to be raised by people who are not genetically related. There are far worse things going on in the world, why don’t you rant about something else? You are all over the internet spewing out your hatred for women who use egg donors. Why not rant about crack-addicted women who abuse drugs while they are pregnant, raise children and abuse and neglect them? That is a far more common scenario than egg donation.

  8. Avatar Greg says:

    I did a fair amount of research on DI as it is an option for us that we’ve decided not to pursue. To answer your question Marilynn, it depends upon the age of the child. At a young age they are not able to process fully what role the donor played in their being. So parents need to make it age appropriate. They make children’s books that help parents tell the story to their children.

  9. Avatar marilynn says:

    Jill and all others – There is much talk of having the person who is the child of a donor choose what to call their biological parent and how to describe the relationship to their paternal or maternal relatives. Can anyone think of other instances where people allow minors that they are raising to determine who a person is or what the proper way to refer to them is? I mean would we not tell them that someone is a police officer or teacher and advise them that the appropriate way to address them is officer so and so or Ms. Smith? Are they deciding how to refer to the people raising them or are they being instructed as to what to call them and what their roll is?

    With no guidance, minors are likely to simply follow suit and refer to people as the folks raising them refer to them. For those who have decided on telling, do you plan to explain who your donor is in relation to the child your raising on a technical level? I mean do you plan to say that you refer to this person as their donor but in fact they are their biological parent and their relatives are their maternal or paternal relatives? Do you plan to say technically the donor’s other children are your siblings, but we are going to be referring to them as distant cousins or maybe just the donor’s children? If you do decide to give a technically accurate explanation of the relationship will you give an explaination of why you are not comfortable actually using the technical terms in conversation and prefer words that provide social distance? Lastly what reason will you give if they ask why the donor did not intend to raise them why they would raise some offspring but not others. That is a big thing that I hear everyone on the receiving end would like to have explained.

  10. Avatar Jill Methvin says:

    Thanks Dawn. I guess I would only feel that the word donor was disrespectful if that name were chosen by the parents/donor recipients and the child had no choice in it. As the parents, always take the high road when discussing families of origin no matter what your kids call them you will never be your child’s equal. Children have great expectations of their parents, don’t diminish yourself by undermining the genetic family. I guarantee, it will come back to bite you.

  11. Avatar marilynn says:

    Jenny said “Our donor’s child is our children’s biological half-sibling, but we don’t call him their brother right now. ” And I say, Dawn, this is the type of situation that I’m hearing complaints about from donor offspring. “Telling”and then dismissing their relatives as not really real and not even deserving of their own technical kinship titles like brother or sister because they are not being raised together when you are the one preventing them from being raised together has a logical trajectory. Leap to your own conclusions there. Jenny said

    “He does have a special relationship to our kids, genetically closer than most cousins” Yes their sibling would have a special type of relationship that is genetically closer than cousins because when you share the same parent and originate from the same source the technical term for that is sibling. In this case the special relationship would be paternal brothers, which is again she’s correct closer than most cousins genetically.

    Jenny said “and if our kids decide they want to rewrite that terminology, they’re absolutely welcome to do so.” Them re-write what terminology? Telling them that their siblings are their cousins? At some point they are going to know that they are technically their siblings and that brother is the accurate commonly understood medically and scientific fact of the matter title and that cousin does not describe their relationship at all. Brothers who are raised separately would be the accurate way to describe it. This is what my comment was about, putting their relatives on a back burner and diminishing their importance by playing with words. Calling their parent their donor starts this chain reaction of making brothers into cousins and aunts into distant aunts – why do their relatives need to be downgraded? Monumental here was Jenny’s description of what a great job her “donor” does of raising “his own” kids. Can everyone see that the logical question to ask why a person would care enough to raise some of their offspring themselves but feel so distant towards the others that he would give them as gifts to other people saying he never intended to be their parent when they in fact went out of their way to create a them not on accident? Can everyone see how a illogical it will seem to a person that their biological parent is taking care of their sibling but not them? Can everyone see how illogical it will seem that one bio parent cares so much about them they want to raise them but the other one does not? I worked real hard there not to project any emotions or feelings into how they will or won’t feel, but rather that they will simply be faced with these seemingly illogical opposing behaviors and it does not seem like people are really prepared to delve into those issues with them other than to diminish the importance of their relatives by assigning them fictive kinship. Clearly there is some discomfort about admiting who they are and who their relatives are.

    The idea that they can make up their own definitions and descriptions for things different than commonly understood fact likely won’t fly in any other area. If they break a window and lie and tell you one of their friends did it to get out of having to deal with it, clean it up pay to fix it, because it was an accident and they did not mean to do it – how will that fly? What if they intended to break the window they just did not intend on getting caught or getting in trouble for it? Can they redefine themselves as catcher rather than pitcher?

  12. Avatar marilynn says:

    Hi. They’ll understand that they have a biological mother and maternal relatives though. And they’ll understand that she chose not to play the roll of mother in their lives. I’m not talking about a gestational carrier here I’m talking about their Mother that made them with you the one who’ll be biologically related to them as a living breathing separate human.

    You can refer to her using whatever terms you like it just won’t alter their understanding of who she actually is and who her relatives are in relation to them physically because they’ll go to school and they’ll just understand that they likely have siblings and cousins and whatnot.

    If you act like they are unimportant to you, your child will act like they are unimportant to them as well. Just be aware that you are telling them to dismiss anything/one that does not relate to you.

  13. Avatar marilynn says:

    Renee Lynne Davies
    I reunite separated families (fer free) and after 200+ of them I’m not qualified for anything but will still grant myself the authority to to make you the poster-parent model of perfect attitude for all people raising kids with estranged parents. If I could bottle everything every person with an estranged parent ever told me they wished they’d had from whoever raised them it would exactly be what you wrote. You’re so respectful of who your kid is.

    If a person is raising a child in that sad position of having an absentee bio parent there is of course something to “tell”. What you said is kind of the gold standard for what it really means to “tell” with respect and courage and compassion and the person receiving the message would not walk away feeling like the person telling them wishes that half their family did not exist.

    I’m going to forward it to Olivia who runs Donor Conception network in Europe so she can finally see why I’m always asking her to write something to help people tackle the next part of the conversation after they tell. If they don’t they’ll just have the conversation with people outside the home.

    That was bad grammar on my part but I hope I conveyed a complement to you.

  14. Avatar marilynn says:

    Melanie said
    “Yes they were important in creating the life but if someone needs a kidney to stay alive and someone donates a kidney are they now considered parents (they in a way have given a new life to someone who wouldn’t have it otherwise) No we call them organ donors. It’s a wonderful thing and should not be frowned upon. But a mother and father are the ones that raise the child. This is just my opinion.”

    A donated kidney operates to support the healthy renal function of the body it’s transplanted into. A donated egg, sperm or embryo on the other hand never stops operating in support of the healthy reproductive function of the body it came from; it is the donor that will reproduce and any offspring created will belong to the donor and the person they reproduced with.

    I’m not challenging your assertions about the emotional aspects of what creates a psychological parent because no-doubt raising a child will do that. I do however challenge the logic of the analogy. Allowing someone to use your kidney would at best be a life sustaining act, similar in fact to child rearing which is to sustain an existing life. Being the source or origin of another living thing technically, just as one organism to another makes the source the parent and the offspring the child. It’s just a flow chart not an emotional road map.

  15. Avatar Melissa says:

    I was not trying to say that I didn’t think children should know how they were created (although I would say that depends on the case and whether it could cause more harm to the child than good) but I was simply saying to me that is not a mom/dad. My mom never kept any secrets about the man she married who helped create me but, to me, he was not my dad. He was simply a sperm donor. My father was the man most would consider a “step”. Whenever my aunt or uncles would talk about “my father” it was always the donor. It used to anger me and my sister. We hated the reminder that our “step” dad was not biologically tied to us. We hated being told that the man who slept with out mother and whose sperm happened to meet the egg in creating us was supposed to be considered out “father”. Tommy, my donor. Always lived fairly close but we never called him, or met up with him or thought or cared about him. He isn’t important to us. I met him last year for the first time since is as 6 due to a family tragedy and he was nice, apologetic, looked like me, we sat the same way and are both introverts but he is not nor will ever be my father. My father took me to school everyday, my father walked me down the aisle on my wedding day and my father will be my children’s grandfather.

    Now I know everryone is different and that’s ok but I just wanted to share the other side. Not all children care to know. I guess you could say that was my choice and everyone deserves that but there are cases where it might be best they don’t know and sometimes what you don’t know won’t hurt you. If you were pregnant due to a rape and married would it be best for your child to know that their “father” was a rapist. Instead of believing their father was the wonderful man that raised them. There is good and bad to all sides and its a personal choice for all parents as well as children. I like to listen to a well know doctor on the radio during my lunch breaks and she says donor conceived children have no need to know and part of me agrees. As someone who has been trying to conceived with donor sperm I do struggle with this issue so please don’t think I’m completely one sided. I think its great that people can choose their sides and go with known or unknown donors and would gin kit a shame if unknown were banned because as much as it is about the children it’s also about each individual couple/person. Not one of us is RIGHT because there is no right or wrong here. There’s just personal choice and personal belief.

  16. Avatar Greg says:


    The part of your piece I found interesting was the story of your son because that situation is probably the closest to what donor children grow up in (though not exactly the same). You did exactly what every parent should do in supporting his search. I admire that and hope if I am lucky enough to become a parent someday that I can provide that support for the child.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  17. Avatar Renee Lynne Davies says:

    When I had my DNA genotyped, I received back a number of reports. Not just on ancestry composition. I got reports on health risks, inherited conditions, drug responses, predicted surgical complications. I got a report detailing what foods I should avoid in order to stay at peak health.

    One of the reports covered nothing but inherited traits. Blood glucose, tooth development, nearsightedness, pain sensitivity, photic sneeze reflex, alcohol flush reflex. Birth weight, weight distribution, height, eye color, hair color, hair curl, freckling, iris patterns. Etc. All accurate. In fact, if I didn’t know me, I could draw my portrait from just the physical traits reported. (And that’s actually a creative project on which I’ve embarked.)

    Other traits were less about appearance and health. Memory, measures of intelligence, risk acceptance/avoidance of errors, eating behaviors and food preferences, addictive behaviors.

    DNA influences–at least to an extent–everything we are. EVERYTHING.

    Part of me is down to nurture, of course. But part of me is down to nature. That’s just reality. Denying it doesn’t actually make it untrue.

    The people who contributed the genetic material that created me are my parents. Their parents are my grandparents. Their extended families are my extended families. Their ancestors are my ancestors. Their heritage is my heritage.

    They may not be my ONLY parents, but they are TWO of my parents. The family in which I grew up refused to pay them that consideration, that respect. In my opinion, that was a reflection of THEIR insecurities, flaws, and shortcomings.

    My son’s father (my first husband, Ron) and I split during my pregnancy. He’s never paid child support, he’s never been an active parent in any way. When my son hit his mid-20s, he decided he wanted to find and meet him and his half-siblings. I helped him. I support those relationships.

    Ron is my son’s father. He’s not his only father, but he’s his father. My son is half him. He looks like him, laughs like him. He has his temper, his red beard, his innate musical talent. If my son wants to call him, “dad,” I’m 100% behind him.

    Why? Because it’s not about me. It’s about my son and what he needs to feel whole.

    I don’t own their relationship. Period.

  18. Avatar c says:

    “After I posted my first comment I realized I wanted to also note that – it really boils down to what the child in the center of it all wants and needs most – not the adults.”


    As for what one tells donor conceived children about their conception? I don’t know exactly what to say, except that one must tell their children – it is not fair to keep that information from another human being. Unfortunately, a lot of studies show that quite a high number of people who use egg and sperm donation never tell their children (something like 40% was given in a Swedish study). Maybe the kid/adult couldn’t care less but it should be their call to make about whether they care.

    “To me a mother/father is the person who is there to kiss your boo-boos, wipe away your tears, care for you when your sick, tuck you in at night and love you on your best as well as your worst days. (Among many other things mommies and daddies do to take care of their children, protect their children and see they grow up right.) none of this involves the donors. Not to say the donors don’t matter but I personally do not see them as the mom and dads. Yes they were important in creating the life but if someone needs a kidney to stay alive and someone donates a kidney are they now considered parents (they in a way have given a new life to someone who wouldn’t have it otherwise) No we call them organ donors. It’s a wonderful thing and should not be frowned upon. But a mother and father are the ones that raise the child. This is just my opinion.”

    In the end, it is up to the individual person (adopted or non-adopted) to decide who their parents are. My aparents are “mum” and “dad” – I call them that just because I love them not because anything in particular they did. I don’t call my bmom “mum” because I don’t know her (she died quite young) – having said that, if I had reunited with her and I’d had an ongoing relationship with her, I can’t say for absolutely certain that I wouldn’t have also called her “mum”, I don’t really know. If I had, it would have just meant I called 2 people *mum” – so what? My younger brother calls both his mothers “mum”. He has no confusion and if he wants to call them both mum then that’s his call. Btw I don’t think people give adopted people enough credit – we are capable of loving different people – it isn’t a competition.

    Personally, even though I personally do only consider one set of parents to be mum and dad, I do consider both my aparents and my bparents to be my mothers and fathers – the dictionary has various definitions for “mother” and “father'”. Also, like TAO, my own parents talked about our bmothers as “your mother” (as that was practice back then) and none of us had any confusion – I understood what they were talking about. In fact, I suspect that by not using prefixes, it helped me to think of her as a human being. I think I would have been more confused if my aparents had put a prefix in front because I suspect I probably would have though she was some sort of “surrogate” of some kind like in “The Boys of Brazil”.

    As for the list of all the things “mothers and fathers” do, I don’t personally think that my own bmom relinquished me just so she could avoid all the things listed above. In fact, I know of some online bmoms who would have loved nothing more to have been able to do those things for their children.

  19. Avatar c says:

    I think that one does have to think about the adult one’s child will become.

    I think anonymous donations should be banned. If that stops some people from donating their sperm or eggs then too bad. Some countries have actually banned anonymous donation.

    I do realise that not every DC person wants to know anything about their background but there is plenty of research to show that many do and even if they don’t want to know, they do have the right to know.

  20. Avatar Jenny says:

    Anon at 5:01, I’d argue for a revisiting of the terminology for one-night stand “fathering” where the only contribution is a genetic one, rather than changing the terms on the other end.

    I think it’s a disservice to all the really awesome fathers I know to use the same term for someone whose sole act is to have a failure of contraception, if their involvement ends there.

  21. I notice that sometimes we are talking about how the grown-ups consider themselves and each other, and sometimes we are talking about how the donor-conceived child may consider her/himself.

  22. Avatar Melissa says:

    To me a mother/father is the person who is there to kiss your boo-boos, wipe away your tears, care for you when your sick, tuck you in at night and love you on your best as well as your worst days. (Among many other things mommies and daddies do to take care of their children, protect their children and see they grow up right.) none of this involves the donors. Not to say the donors don’t matter but I personally do not see them as the mom and dads. Yes they were important in creating the life but if someone needs a kidney to stay alive and someone donates a kidney are they now considered parents (they in a way have given a new life to someone who wouldn’t have it otherwise) No we call them organ donors. It’s a wonderful thing and should not be frowned upon. But a mother and father are the ones that raise the child. This is just my opinion.

  23. Avatar anon says:

    I’m stuck on what Amber says. If we socially still refer to a man who “fathered” via one night stand (no intent to have a long term parenting relationship) as a father, why not also a woman who also transferred her gametes to another woman/couple with no intent to parent? Seems like a bit of a double standard here.

  24. Avatar Jenny says:

    I am very pleased that we have a relationship with our donor and his family, and I really treasure that deeply. Genetics does matter a great deal, and I am very pleased that our kids will have their questions answered as they come up, not when they’re 18 or later.

    If our children decide that using “biodad” or some other word than his name makes more sense to them, we will absolutely honor and support it – even if they wanted to use “father”, we’ll be on board with what feels right to them. However, I think that calling him straight up “father” doesn’t acknowledge that the parenting he is doing is within his own family unit, not in ours… and in our case, we don’t have to guess at what his motivations/intent/feelings about it are, we can ask, and my guess is he’d prefer to continue to avoid being called “father” to/by our kids.

  25. Avatar Jenny says:

    Our sperm donor IS definitely a part of our family, and his whole family is very important to us. However, he and his spouse are more like a special uncle and aunt in terms of the relationship they have with our kids, and their child is more like close cousin to our kids.

    Using the word father (especially without any qualifiers, like “biological”) would not make any of us comfortable – he IS someone’s father, his own child’s father. Calling him our kids’ father is sort of undermining the absolutely terrific job he does parenting his own kid… and I think that would be confusing to our kids because I want them (ESPECIALLY my sons!) to know that being a father is about more than masturbating into a cup.

    I would be okay with “biological father” in particular contexts (medical records, for example), but day in day out in our family we call our donor by his name, and when we’re talking about him to someone who does not know him, we say “donor”.

    Our donor’s child is our children’s biological half-sibling, but we don’t call him their brother right now. He does have a special relationship to our kids, genetically closer than most cousins, and if our kids decide they want to rewrite that terminology, they’re absolutely welcome to do so.

    Given that our donor was not compensated at all (except we covered travel and shipping expenses) and that it was a gift that he and his spouse offered to us on their own accord, donation seems like absolutely the appropriate term. Making our kids was not at all a financial transaction; it was a gift in every sense of the word.

  26. Avatar TAO says:

    Dawn said: “To me, the intent of the person giving the egg or sperm or the person carrying the child for 9 months of gestation is to not in any way take on a mothering or fathering role.”

    And neither is a mother who goes through with an adoption plan – but she is still a mother.

    To me the easiest way to separate the differences between the parenting parents, and, the non-parenting parents is what they are called on a day to day basis. As you know I don’t use qualifiers but if you listen to what I write you can hear who is the parenting parents and the non parenting parents. My mom and dad and my mother and father – identifying who is who is done through the terms of endearment mom and dad vs mother and father.

    Perhaps what the hang-up really is – taking away something the parenting parent wants exclusive claim to?

    After I posted my first comment I realized I wanted to also note that – it really boils down to what the child in the center of it all wants and needs most – not the adults.

  27. Avatar Greg says:

    Piggy backing off Lori, the question I have is what define’s being a parent? Is the the creation and/or raising a child? When you go onto free the definition of the word doesn’t clear things up:

    1. One who begets, gives birth to, or nurtures and raises a child; a father or mother.
    2. An ancestor; a progenitor.
    3. An organism that produces or generates offspring.
    4. A guardian; a protector.

    On one hand the child wouldn’t exist if not for the biological component but if not for the people who raise the child they wouldn’t survive. In the case of social dad/mom’s, adoptive parents and step parents are they more so guardians than parents? Or are biological components more so life creators than parents? I think depending upon which side of the fence you fall on being someone who has a biological connection to your children or you don’t could be what you believe is a parent.

    Regardless I think both sides play an important role in that child’s life and it should be recognized and never discounted.

  28. Avatar Christina says:

    I think using donor, surrogate, dad, and dad is perfect. It’s simple and honest. I do think it’s important to have identifying info on the genetic parties and maybe even on the surrogate so as your child grows and has questions or the desire to know the others that made their life possible it will be an option. I know is some cases that’s not possible or may not even be wanted by the child. Just some food for thought.

  29. Avatar David says:

    Hmmm…I have been thinking about this topic a lot as we are 2 men going through surrogacy process now and obviously using an egg donor and surrogate. After listening to your show we will probably also save umbilical cord tissue for a generic link in case of future issues. .. I am having a hard time with what I would tell the child… we have absolutely no connection with either woman. I understand the woman in the blog saying these are people and they have families…but we will have zero contact with them and they live half way around the world. I think maybe we are living in a new modern world and what we think of as mom and dad is just changing… my thoughts are that donor and surrogate should be used and dad and dad… in this new world maybe not everyone has a mom or a dad? Thoughts?

    • David, I struggle with the idea that a donor takes on the title of a mother or father. I am still processing what the commenter said, and some part of it has sparked my thoughts. To me, the intent of the person giving the egg or sperm or the person carrying the child for 9 months of gestation is to not in any way take on a mothering or fathering role.

  30. Avatar Christina says:

    Dawn, I do believe intent does control in some ways, at least for me it does. I have been doing alot of thinking about egg donation lately and am considering being an egg donor in the future if possible. I haven’t learned much on it yet like can I do it since I have gotten a tubal done now. I know I cannot emotionally go through another placement nor be a surrogate, but I love the idea of helping others become parents. With egg donation I feel I can accomplish both helping others and staying emotionally healthy myself. I do believe everyone should have access to their genetic or birth family, but do not belive genetics is what makes a parent. I am mommy to the 3 kids I parent and I will always be my youngest sons birthmother, but his amom will always be his mommy no matter how much contact I ever have with him. Parenting is not an entitlement it is a blessing.

  31. Avatar AnonAP says:

    Oh, I think I’m going to have to makes sure I can duck under the desk after this one.

    The way I see it (and this is my personal position not a stand I’m taking), there are two contexts running up against each other here, the biological and the social. Biologically, it takes an egg and a sperm to create a zygote. The egg provides maternal DNA and the sperm paternal DNA. Often these pieces of genetic material have then been linked to the social piece, which is the relationship between parents and child. Today, I think the fact that we have medical and legal tools to modify the link between the biology and the resulting relationship is getting us tied up in knots. How do we honor the biology and still feel we have acknowledged the social/relationship component of the titles mother and father?

    One way to deal with this is to add modifiers. I am my daughter’s adoptive mother, but I am in no way her biological mother. I had no connection to her until after she was born. Her birthmother is both the source of her maternal DNA and the person who cared for her for almost nine months, thought of her future, considered her options and made entirely parental decisions about her daughter’s future and family. We are hopeful that she’ll continue to have a role in our daughter’s life. Both biologically and socially she has an absolute right to be called her “mother”. Our family members who also struggled with infertility ultimately became parents with the help of a woman who acted as a surrogate. She provided the nine months of care and safety but provided no maternal DNA. So, she’s their daughter’s surrogate mother, and she continues to play a role in her life. There is a relationship, but one that is ultimately limited in scope. Both of those things are captured in her “title”. When we get to egg and sperm donors, I lean towards terms that recognize that the social/relationship piece is missing. With all that, I feel like using the names “mother” or “father” in that context is giving weight to the biology over the relationship. Unless there’s some continuation of contact, where does that piece fit in?

    All that being said, if someone feels strongly that the biological piece should be weighted more heavily (and I know that truly matters to some and will not stand in criticism of them), then I see no harm in calling that person biological mother/biological father or egg mother/sperm father or haploid parent or whatever term feels most appropriate. Words describe relationships, they don’t define them. Words are the tools we use to express our feelings and beliefs, and especially with something as emotionally sensitive as parenthood and biological origins, flexibility and respect for differing opinions and approaches are going to be critical for getting it right.

    • AnonAP, you’ve made great sense and have helped to clarify my thinking (as you so often do :-)) Thank you. I like the analysis of separating the social from the biological. Titles, especially the title of mother or father, carry such important weight.

  32. Avatar Amber says:

    Back to the egg donor, I have asked her if she feels any connection to the offspring from her donations and she has said no, but would not turn those kids away from her door if they came looking for her.

  33. Avatar Lori Lavender Luz says:

    Technology enables us to separate the genetic and the gestational contributions of a woman. The questions here, Dawn, have to do with the genetic component, but it also begs the question about how we would consider the gestational component regarding the word “parent.”

    Beyond the scope of this discussion but perhaps the next question to ponder is this: “Is a gestational carrier a parent?” My friend, Carolyn Savage (of the book “Inconceivable”) has experienced both sides of this — accidentally carrying a boy to whom she was not genetically connected, and then receiving twin girls from a gestational carrier.

    You ask the best questions 🙂

    • Lori, you’re right, the next logical question is what role/title/relationship does a surrogate have and how does that alter our consideration on importance of genetic contribution over physical contribution. Oy vey!!

  34. Avatar Greg says:

    Great question and I’m not sure if there is a right or wrong answer. Even on the child’s side I’ve seen varying answers. On one hand there is that forever biological connection forever but on the other hand the donor is playing no role in raising the child. I think even in the cases of adoption birth/first mothers make the decision to place the child which does have an active role in their lives. You could argue that the donor does make the decision to have a life created from their gametes.

    I guess another way to look at it is children of divorced parents do they call their Step Mother/Father mom or dad even in cases where that person plays a major role in their lives. Interesting topic that is hard to figure out.

  35. Avatar TAO says:


    I have cringed over the use of the term “donor” for two reasons – one is to me they aren’t a “donor” if they are compensated over and above their time/costs, and, two they are the child’s biological parents. Without them that child would never have existed so to fluff them off as merely “donors” brings back to mind the mentality of some in my era – with the blank slate concept of babies – because that is what is being done here if you think about it.

    Ultimately how the person created choses to define them is up to them – but as the parent of a child created from “donor” sperm and/or egg – what are you telling the child if you can’t even acknowledge they came from real human beings rather than an egg or sperm provider? One is that you are not comfortable acknowledging that they come from someone else. That you place little to no value on their familial line. That you prefer they never ever think of them other than simply the “donors” that gifted you with your child.

    Other countries have recognised that people conceived in this manner do have similar wishes to adopted people in knowing where they come from and have changed the laws appropriately…

    Final thought – for those who are thinking what does it matter – remember the cases made public when the lab by accident used someone’s sperm or egg or embryo by mistake and another couple was pregnant and had their child? Talk about what was the right thing to happen, the laws, legal recourse, etc. If that mistake had happened to you, and you would be outraged, hurt, upset – then genetics matter when it is you – so why not when it comes to what your child may feel?

  36. Christina, I am more comfortable with the term “genetic mother/father” if we have to use the word “mother/father”. I keep coming back to the idea that the person who donates has no intent of forming a parenting relationship. Do you think intent controls?

  37. Avatar Christina C. says:

    I carried my son and gave birth to him, so I am his bmom-fmom-nmom. However, with egg donation I don’t see a bond even tho there is biological link, so I think genetic mom when thinking of a donor.

  38. Avatar Amber says:

    A friend of mine is a 4x egg donor and a 2x surrogate. In the 1st case, she is both the biological and genetic mother and in the 2nd case, she is “just” the oven. She has told me that she cares for the babies, but has to separate herself from that emotional tie to the children. But she is play a “mother-type” role even tho she will not be present in the raising of the children–beyond gift giving on special days. It helps I’m sure that she is a surrogate to international parents who happen to be gay men.

  39. Avatar Amber says:

    Women are hard wired differently than men since men don’t carry a baby. In a lot of ways, men are probably more likely to think of donor offspring as their children than a woman who donates. Since epigenetics plays a role in which genes gets turned on or turned off during gestation, it isn’t all about the donor egg.

  40. Avatar Mary says:

    I feel like a “Mother” to my embryos I placed for adoption. They began with me and my Husband after all. They are full biological siblings to my children. I didn’t give birth to the adoptive couple’s child, but I don’t feel any less like a “Mother.” Although, they choose not to see me or my husband that way. They like to refer to us as their child’s “roots.” And I don’t mean that in a threatening way, but just what feels normal and natural in my being. It just “is” even if everyone else feels the need to pretend I’m not. I know who I am. I think it would be psychologically healthy to embrace ALL that their child is and talk open and honestly. I feel sad for the children that are never told. “Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.”

  41. Avatar Deb says:

    Biologically yes.

  42. Avatar c says:

    “I was not trying to say that I didn’t think children should know how they were created (although I would say that depends on the case and whether it could cause more harm to the child than good) but I was simply saying to me that is not a mom/dad. My mom never kept any secrets about the man she married who helped create me but, to me, he was not my dad”

    In the end, it is up to the individual to decide what to call family and who to call family. So, the above is your reality and your decision and that is your right. I would never tell you what to call the man who begat you and the man who raised you. However, some of us are just explaining why we call those various people in our own lives what we do.

    For some of us, the terms “mum” and “dad” are the emotional terms and “mother” and “father” are more “technical terms”. Thus, in my mind, I have two mothers and two fathers. However, only one set of mother and father are my “mum” and “dad”. Though my bmother never will be in my life due to her having been long gone, it is not like she threw me in a dumpster because she just couldn’t be stuffed. From what little I know, she does seem to have cared to some degree. So even though she will never be “mum”, I don’t mind consering her one of my mothers – it is no skin off my mum’s nose.

    I certainly don’t expect others to think the same about their bparents. However, on a forum once a while ago, I did say that I did consider myself to have “two mothers and two fathers” even though I only personally consider myself to have one mum and dad, yet person after person told me and others who said the same that we had no right to call our bparents “mother and father” and that we should call them such and such. I didn’t think it was personally their right to tell me what to call anyone. I couldn’t have cared less whom those people called their mothers/fathers/mums/dads etc – for some people, it is neither the people who begat them or who raised them – each to their own.

  43. Avatar Jill Methvin says:

    First off, you have a lot of good things going on here. Thank you. I like that you broached a tough subject. I have to agree with those who said its best to error on the side of respect when it comes to your children’s donors: mother and father.

    I was adopted in the 50s and I was shown very little respect towards my first family; of course, in those days records were closed. The disrespect had far more to do with the insecurities of my adoptive parents and their relatives. I would have liked to feel open to talk about my adoption, but that never happened.

    Donor egg and sperm have the same realities as adoption. Your children have different genetics than yours. It’s important for your children to know that. When they become an adult and go to the doctor, the questions on the doctors forms ask about your genetic history. Has anyone in your family….. Prior to meeting my birth family, those forms took two minutes for me to do, I drew a line through it and wrote adopted across the paper. It was very frustrating.

    I agree that children need to be told their birth history even if its uncomfortable for the adult. If the parent doesn’t tell them, someone out there probably already knows and might let it ‘slip.’ Whether you like it or not, you now have lied. You’ve lied by omission. Telling them they are not who they think they are will be unsettling for them especially if you’ve waited until they are older, but they will get over it. Plus, you’ve been honest.

    I met my birth family about 10 years ago, and its a subject I will NEVER broach with my adoptive mother(father passed away). She knows I met with them, and I stay in touch with them, but I won’t discuss it with her; she made her feelings very clear years ago whether she meant to or not. I also might add that she’s 89 and now lives with us. She IS my mother and can’t live alone.

    What I’ve found with my own adoptive children is that mother and father are very confusing words. First they called someone mother, and they were removed from her, some of my children had foster parents, and now they call me mother. My children are already very confused about their life’s issues, I don’t want to add to it. Parenting has everything to do with relationships and absolutely nothing to do with ego. If the terms mother and father are that important to you, it’s ego. Believe me for my kids, mother and father are only words. What’s important is whose there after they total the car.

    My oldest bio daughter sometimes refers to her father as a sperm donor, but usually that’s because she’s mad at him. We divorced when she was 3 and he didn’t see her much (she’s 41). Her step-father raised her (my husband) and there have been times she’s been mad at him and sperm donor would be a kind name calling experience. But, whenever she needs something she calls my husband not her first father.

    If you falter on the side of respect, first mother and first father, etc. your children will learn to also falter on the side of respect when dealing with others. What goes around comes around. You sound kind hearted; be generous with name calling. Remember mother and father are just words/names. When your child’s at school or in the world and they tell a friend, “I have to ask my mother.” They’re talking about you.

  44. Avatar marilynn says:

    Dawn you said
    ” I keep coming back to the idea that the person who donates has no intent of forming a parenting relationship. ”

    If you hit and killed someone with your car, took a life as opposed to creating one, you would be held accountable even if you did not intend to hit them. It is the difference between manslaughter and murder for sure but you don’t get to run from the scene of the accident and hide and pretend it was not you that cost someone their life. The law won’t allow for some other person to stand in your place and take your punishment for you even if they really want to serve the time for you in return for some big favor you did them in the past. Justice would not be done by having someone else take responsibility for your actions. You may not have ever intended to hurt the person but you did and at the very least you need to stand up and be named and identified and take responsibility for your own actions. This accountability for causing life whether intended or not is sorely lacking.

    • Marilyn, I totally hear your point, but what I stumble on is the specific word we use. Jill emphasized respect, which I think is a good point. Why is it important to use the term “mother” and “father” which are such emotionally loaded words?

  45. Avatar c says:

    Also, back to Melissa – I am assuming that your mother talked to you about your “male progenitor” without undue bias and allowed you to come to your own decisions about what to call him. I feel one should talk about any human contributors to one child’s identity in such a way that that child can come to their own conclusions without being unduly influenced in any way.

  46. Avatar Greg says:

    The more I think about this topic the more I believe that all “mother” and “father” are names. They don’t define who a person is to another person. I mean I have different sets of Aunts and Uncles. Even though I refer to each as my Aunt or Uncle how I feel about each and the relationship I have with each is very different despite me having biological connections with some and no biological connection with others. I know people whose parents are divorced who are closer with their step mother than they are with their mothers but call their step mothers by their first name.

    I think a lot of the names and titles have to do with adult insecurities about their place in a child’s life. Does calling a sperm donor dad diminish the role the man who raised that child in the child’s life, I don’t believe it does. But given infertility issues that lead to a sperm donor being necessary, I can understand why the man who raised the child feeling insecure about that. Not that it justifies the man for taking that insecurity out on the child but it explains what causes that behavior,

    Again great topic Dawn, it’s really made me think.

    • Greg, the discussion in the comments to this blog have given me much to think about too. And I think you are right that “a lot of the names and titles have to do with adult insecurities about their place in a child’s life.”

  47. Avatar marilynn says:

    Dawn in response to your question about why use the emotionally charged word…like you were saying language is critical when telling someone the truth. But your not telling the truth if your making up your own definitions to commonly understood words. The whole point of language is that everyone agrees on what a word means. If everyone gets to decide what the word mother means for themselves we are not speaking the same language and we fail to reach an understanding. In law words are meant by their commonly understood meanings. Not everyone has a boo boo kissing gestational carrier that they think of as their mother and so that won’t be the kind of mother that they would have in common with you the speaker. Not everyone has an “egg donor” Everyone has a mother in the maternal sense the woman who reproduced to create them. If you say “my mother died” your audience will assume that you are the offspring of the woman who died and would not think you a liar if they later found out that you also have a woman that you refer to as your mother who raised you.

    That is what the ‘telling’ conversation with kids is about right? You are telling them because otherwise they might understand the mother raising them was mother in the commonly understood meaning of the word mother. Right? Everyone here knows that if they don’t tell, that the child will reach the conclusion that they are being raised by parents who meet that commonly understood meaning of the word mother/father. So you can see where the head games begin when you might then take the person who does meet the commonly understood meaning of the word mother and call her a donor instead. Trying to tell the truth with the wrong words is still lying only I bet it actually meets meets the psychological criteria of crazy-making.

    It’s a lot like the wife who catches her husband and his lover together and he says “It’s not what it looks like I swear! I’m just her friend! We’re just co-workers!” and the wife says “Maybe you WERE just friends yesterday but that was BEFORE I found her face down on your lap in the front seat of our mini van! What she is now is a slut and what you are now is divorced!” But if he never gives in and never admits she saw what she saw and he keeps saying they’re just friends and she’s just paranoid she’s got a choice to walk away with him telling everyone she threw their relationship away she was paranoid or she can stay feeling she has not quite proven that he cheated so she can’t walk away and he does love her and she’s got so much invested in their family but she’ll know the truth but just live in that sickened state where he knows she knows and she can’t say anything about it. Now imagine you are a minor and you have no place else to go and you know what the word mother and father means in the commonly understood meaning of the word but nobody at home is going to admit it and life will just be easier to go along with it and they do love you so you just work the program they give you because there is not much alternative.

    Dawn I don’t know what to say about the fact that the words mother and father are emotionally charged. They are medically charged and that is a lot less contentious I think. I think mother and father can mean emotionally whatever we want them to mean but on a societal level, public health and operational level that commonly understood meaning of parenthood is the basis for national birth statistics and vital records and tax funded medical research on heritable disease and for paternity suits and child support orders, US citizenship and bone marrow transplants, family medical leave act, social security death benefits, relative dependency, legacy. Those things don’t have emotion attached to them but they are rights that are difficult if not impossible to exercise for adopted people donor offspring and others whose birth records are incomplete not to mention those rights are compromised for all those people’s relatives as well. Quite a lot rides on having the people that reproduced be named as parents on our birth records. They may not be the best people to raise us but it is their obligation to, they do owe it to us in a way that nobody else ever can cause they’re our parents.

    I know its a lot to take in for anyone on the fence about having the conversation and maybe the simplest and most respectful thing to say is that they have their own separate biological family that makes them a special and unique person and that they belong to their own special separate family besides the family that they are being raised part of daily of and that they will probably have many questions and feelings about their biological family that will be a challenge to answer but please come to them for help and that everyone’s relatives are equally important because the kids relatives became their relatives too the day they brought that kid into their lives by adoption foster donor offspring whatever. They chose to expand their family to include everyone that is going to matter to that kid it was part of the deal whole unconditional love. How’s that for compromise? They’ll get married one day too and you’ll have to invite them to Thanksgiving dinner even if you are not crazy about them. Also maybe saying biological family in a broad generic way could feel easier than mother and father specifically? You have to capture the whole family in the acceptance anyway its truthful in a less charged way? Maybe? Donor ain’t true though its the same as calling a lover just a friend. It’s what they were before the bomb dropped.

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