So you are the parent of a terrific, wonderful, practically perfect in every way child brought to you by the wonders of third party reproduction. You had planned on telling your child about how she came to be, really you did, but somehow it just never happened. Or maybe you never planned on telling your child, but have now changed your mind. The problem is that your child is 8, or 12, or 16 and how in the world do you drop that bomb after having been silent for so long. Is it too late?
Nope, it’s not too late. Not sure this gives you much comfort, but you’re not alone. I thought it was interesting that all the questions we received for the Creating a Family show this week on telling children about their conception from donor egg, sperm, or embryo came from parents of tweens and teens who had not told when their children were younger, and now were wondering how to start the conversation.
Some parents simply don’t think this information is relevant and never intend to tell. However, most folks don’t make the conscious decision to absolutely never tell their child that they were conceived with donor gametes or embryo. It just kind of happens. Maybe they told their child about the medical part (Mommy had something that wasn’t working right, and went to a wonderful doctor, who fixed it, and then we got you), but somehow never get around to the donor part. Or perhaps they want to wait until the right time—and by “right” they mean the time that they can sit down, tell it all with perfect clarity on their part and perfect understanding on their child’s part, and be done with it once and for all. I get it. (If I had my druthers that’s how all conversations that are remotely connected to sex would happen with my kids.) But then all of a sudden they notice that their precious innocent toddler is now sprouting facial hair and slamming doors. “Hummm, maybe I should have said something sooner.”
When our kids are young, this omission doesn’t feel like a lie, but that often changes as our kids get older. One person on yesterday’s show squirmed when her 13 year old learned about genetic traits in school and wondered why she couldn’t roll her tongue when both her parents could. Others start to get uncomfortable when they have to fill out a medical history form, and know full well that it isn’t the truth. Or maybe your sister asks about the donor after all these years, when you felt sure she had forgotten. Or you and your husband have a near miss car wreck, and after the initial wave of relief passes, you realize that the donor information in the lock box would be discovered by your family and child. Oh dear.
It’s never too late. Yes, it may be more complicated and uncomfortable, but it is most assuredly never too late, regardless if your little darling is neither little nor darling any more. Here are some suggestions for initiating “the talk” with older kids and adolescents.
- Telling at any age is a process, not a one (or even two) time event. Don’t dump everything you know in the first conversation. Add some detail and see if you get any questions.
- If you’ve told your child about the medical part (IVF) of his conception story, use that as a jumping off place. Add more detail of the type of help you needed. (Ex. We tried getting the typical help from the specialized doctors, but even that didn’t work for us. We really really wanted you, so we had to get even more help. Fortunately, we were able to find someone….)
- Don’t make this a “come into the den and sit down for this all important conversation” type of talk. Try to find an opportunity to fit it naturally into the conversation. If you still read to your child at night, check out some of the books we list on our Suggested Books for Talking With Children about Third Party Reproduction page. There are not many books geared for the older ages, so you may have to read a book written for a younger child. Acknowledge this by saying, “This seemed kind of babyish, but I still liked it and thought you might kind of enjoy it too.” Then leave the book in the child’s room for him to read on his own if he is curious.
- Language matters. The generous person who gave their egg, sperm, or embryo is the donor, not the mom or dad.
- Don’t overplay or underplay the importance of this information. Genes matter even if you wish they didn’t. Some traits and medical conditions are hereditary, true enough. However, many traits and medical conditions are also influenced by the environment. I can’t recommend enough two great Creating a Family shows we’ve done on Nature vs. Nurture. (Nature vs. Nurture/ Genetics vs. Environment and Is Genetics or the Environment Most Important in Determining Who Our Kids Will Be?) Genetics and environment are so beautifully intertwined that I am left in awe each time I listen to these shows.
- Look for opportunities to bring up this subject again. Yes, I said “again”, as in you will need to do this often enough to share all that you know and to give your child a chance to ask questions after she’s had time to process and mature into a greater understanding. If your eyes are open there are lots of possibilities. For example:
- You are so good at sports. I wonder if your donor was too and maybe that’s where you get that talent from.
- That TV show was about two half siblings through donor sperm meeting and dating. Is this something you’ve ever worry about?
- If your child is a teen or older tween, you may need to explain why you waited to share this information with them. It’s OK to say you wanted to wait until they were old enough to understand. If you regret having waited, share that as well.
- You can’t control the way your child will react. Part of not telling almost always involves lying—ether explicitly or by omission. Depending on your child’s temperament and developmental stage, they may be angry or hurt. You have to allow space for these emotions.
- You can’t control who your child tells. This is ultimately your child’s story. Yes, you played a starring role, but they are center stage. Be very careful when trying to strike the privacy vs. secrecy balance. It’s OK to encourage discussion of this topic inside the family, but if you over emphasize this point, you leave the impression that there is something wrong or shameful about how this precious being came to be. That is NOT what you want.
- Make sure you explicitly leave the door open for them to ask more questions. You may think it’s implied, but your kid has likely picked up on the fact that you are uncomfortable with this topic, so she needs to know that you expect more questions, and you can and will man-up (or woman-up) to the occasion.
I was so impressed with Patricia Mendell’s advice on the Creating a Family show this past week. She’s one wise lady. I also found out after the show that she has the most extensive book lists for children and adults that I have seen. She is going to share them with us, and we’ll incorporate them into our Suggested Children’s Books for Explaining Third Party Reproduction page. In the meantime, I recommend these articles she’s written.
You might enjoy our Top Ten Tips for Telling Children About Donor Egg, Sperm, and Embryo.
Add Your Comment
Yes, I think ALL kids who are born from sperm/egg donors or adopted should know the truth someday. Parents shouldn’t hide these things.
Thanks Dawn. Great suggestions and advice!
Didn’t she? You cannot ignore the fact that having offspring makes a person a biological mother. Even the ASRM that LOVES egg donation says very clearly that egg donors are the bio mothers of their own genetic offspring. So she intended to become a mother she just did not intend to raise her children. That is all that is the truth. She’s their mother she just never wanted to raise them for most donors, are not concerned with who does raise them.
Lots of people are parents who never intended to be parents.
Dawn you do good work here encouraging people to “tell” but your answer to Susan above, 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 parents relatives, their maternal and paternal relatives. They did not raise them but they are their family too, I mean 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 opeIn 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.
Marilynn, for me, a donor is not a mother because she never went into the situation with any intent on becoming a mother. “Mom” is the one who intended to be the mother. Thanks for your insight.
Reading this post made me think of my friend who had an unplanned pregnancy at 19, then got back together with another guy before marrying and divorcing him. Her daughter doesn’t know that her dad is not her biological dad and my friend has no intention of telling her. It bothers me because everyone else knows. Of course it’s my friend’s decision, but it bothers me. The man her daughter knows as dad has major mental health issues and I wonder if her daughter worries about inheriting problems she has no biological risk of. And vice versa.
Definitely food for thought.
Visiting from ICLW.
Definitely food for thought. The man who raised her is her read dad and biology doesn’t change that, but I absolutely agree with you that she should be told the truth. I feel certain the girl will find out and when she does she may well feel betrayed by both her mom and dad because they were not the ones to tell her.
I work in adoption so third party reproduction is an area I am not as familiar with. It seems there there are things to ‘borrow’ from the adoption world on how to talk to children about their origins. Can you help me understand why you suggest using donor vs bio father/mother language? “Donor” is not likely the way the child/teen is going to experience it, and the reality is there is a different biological parent involved in these situations.
Susan, your question is a good one. You’re right that there are some similarities and some differences between the donor conception world and adoption world. One of the differences is that the person who donates either egg or sperm does not intend to be a parent in any way. They intend to donate part of what will eventually become a person. The term “mother” or “father” means something different.
The resources you have listed is very helpful. When we first decided to pursue egg donation, I couldn’t find very much on the subject. It is nice that I am now finding more and more information available.
Amber, check back. We will be adding more resources soon.