Most parents know that they should tell their children about conception through donor sperm, egg, or embryo, but often tell us that they don’t know where to begin. We share our top ten tips for telling children about third-party reproduction.
Children conceived by third-party reproduction (donor sperm, donor egg, or donor embryo) deserve to know. Secrets are destructive in families, plus, kids will likely find out anyway. Someone in the family will accidentally tell, the child will become suspicious in high school genetics studies, or the child will join the millions of other who runs a genetic screening.
Parents know they should tell their donor-conceived child, but have no idea how to tell. Here are some practical tips to get you started.
- Telling is a process, not a one- or even two-time event. You start simple laying the groundwork and add detail as your child ages. Don’t over tell. The temptation is to put it all out there, tell everything you know, and be done with the darn thing. That is not how it works. No matter what the age, start off with the basics and add detail in subsequent conversations.
- Don’t wait. It is simply easier to start the process when your child is young and predisposed to believe everything about themselves is magical, and usually not inclined to ask detailed or tough questions. As an added bonus, more resources are available to help parents of younger kids. Yes, it’s easier to cut your parental telling chops on the 6 and under set, but…
- It’s never too late. Even if your child is now sprouting facial hair and slamming doors, it is not too late. Read Talking with Older Kids about Conception via Donor Sperm, Egg , or Embryo for ideas on telling older kids and adolescents for the first time.
- The basic ingredients of the story are “simple”.
- We wanted you very, very much.
- We had trouble getting pregnant.
- We got help from a doctor, and when that didn’t work we got more help because when you have trouble you get help and sometimes you have to try a lot of different things before it gets better.
- We were so so happy when you finally came.
- Language matters. It is important to use the word “donor” rather than “mother” or “father” to describe the person or people who donated gametes or embryos. This is the case even if you are a single mom or same-sex couple (unless, of course, the donor has embraced a parental role).
- Leave the door open to further questions. When the conversation is over, make sure that your child knows that they can always come back to you with more questions and that you expect that they will have more questions.
- It’s the child’s story. Even if you do not want the world to know, there is a mighty fine line between privacy and secrecy. It is fine to encourage your child to only talk about their conception within the family, but if you go overboard you risk making it a secret, and secret implies there is something wrong or shameful about their conception.
- All information belongs to the child. Not immediately, but ultimately, any info that you have should be given to the child. Yes, that includes identifying information if you have it.
- Don’t get thrown by the “Can we meet” question. Many kids will ask at some point if they can meet the donor(s). This does not mean they are looking to replace you in their heart as their mom or dad; it likely means they are curious. Answer the question honestly. If you have identifying information, the answer is likely yes, when all parties are ready, and you as the parent will decide, with their input, when that time will be. If you do not have identifying information, the answer is maybe, but complicated with a lot of considerations, such as no identifying information and the donor’s wish for anonymity. Assure the child that if it is still very important to them in the future, you will help them in any way you can.
- Check back in. After you’ve told your child, you need to periodically bring the subject up again to see if they have additional questions. Many parents want to assume that if the child does not talk about it or ask questions that the child is not thinking about it. This might be true, but just as likely it might be that the child senses that the topic is uncomfortable for the parent, so they keep their thoughts and questions to themselves. It is the parent’s job to raise the subject and ask for questions.
You might also enjoy:
- Best of the Best Books for Talking with Children About Donor Conception
- Blogs by Parents That Used Donor Sperm, Eggs & Embryos and by Donor Conceived People
- Teens Born Via Sperm/Egg Donation or Surrogacy Are Doing Fine
- Donor Conceived Adults Speak Out
Originally published in 2015; updated in 2018.
Add Your Comment
I’ve spent 20 plus years reuniting adults and teens with parents who were gamete donors and their relatives. The list above is good. Over the years I’ve listened to pet peeves from donor offspring about how they were told that’s worth thinking about. “Telling” “we’re told” are shorthand for telling the truth but about what? It’s not their conception or beginnings that they need to be told the truth about it’s who they are and are not related to that is the real point of the conversation. You don’t want them to believe they are related to the people raising them if it’s not true. And some times they are related but not as parent and child, sometimes they are the son or daughter of a brother of whoever is raising them when family members donate gametes. Make that clear. Calling their parent their donor ensures that they will figure out the truth on their own with friends and will learn that nobody at home wants to speak truthfully about them or their family. So I disagree with the language part of this post. Are you actually trying to tell the truth or give a child a riddle to solve all by themselves? Don’t make it about you your fertility journey or your want for a child. Make it about them their family and their deserving all information always. Being told how much they were wanted by the family raising them does not seem to garner the desired response it highlights how much their absent parent who donated did not want them. There is no fixing this but be aware that being wanted by one does not make up for being rejected by the other. Telling them that if they still want to search in the future they will help is not reasonable do it immediately. Every moment they grow up without their family is time stolen from them. They deserve to form bonds when they are as young as possible. Families grow up separated when there is dysfunction and disharmony in the family. Don’t encourage dysfunction. Go above and beyond to make it work. You can’t create your own child with another persons gametes make sure they have as little dysfunction as possible and are raised around their relatives. Other than that great article
Thanks for reaching out and reading. Your points about language are welcome for thought, given that the nature of language changes over time and through increased understanding. So we appreciate you highlighting the perspective that puts the donor offspring in the story’s center. Thanks again!
Looking at the technology of nowadays, i think children conceived from in vitro fertilization should be told their background before they discover the truth on their own which may ruin the trust with the parents.
NO secret can be kept forever especially for the whole lifetime of the child.
Creating a Family believes that the children born of third party reproduction assistance deserve to know their story – and to be told in age-appropriate and truthful ways. And yes, with social media and dna testing advancing daily, you are right – secrets don’t stay secret if one looks hard enough.
“The basic ingredients of the story are “simple”.
We wanted you very, very much.
We had trouble getting pregnant.
We got help from a doctor, and when that didn’t work we got more help because when you have trouble you get help and sometimes you have to try a lot of different things before it gets better.
We were so so happy when you finally came.
The noble goal of telling someone ‘they’re conceived with donated eggs sperm or embryo’ is so they don’t assume themselves to be the offspring of someone raising them if that is not in fact the case. I think the saying the facts in commonly understood terms is the easiest way to do that but I understand that people often take the more circuitious route of talking about eggs and sperm rather than people. The example given does not even talk about eggs and sperm or conception. At least when people use eggs and sperm the goal is that the kid will themselves arrive at the truth of whose offspring they actually are once they come to understand human reproduction with eggs and sperm works. It’s going to be a bit of an easter egg hunt for them if the talk is about eggs and sperm rather than mothers and fathers but they’ll figure it all out once they go to school.
But the example above does not even mention eggs or sperm. All that was told to them was that they are wanted by the people raising them and ‘they’ got help getting pregnant. Since pregnancy is a singular body experience it would be good to make it clear who it was that was pregnant. Two men don’t have trouble getting pregnant. A woman who had trouble getting pregnant who hired a surrogate to carry her pregnancy is pretty much the only situation that the example speaks to as far as disclosing the truth about something because she did not have trouble with conception but pregnancy only.
I know you get tired of the politically correct language police but some of the content of this post is beyond being incorrect according to a particular special interest group, its wrong according to the English language. In the tip you give about language:
There is no dictionary that says the common definition of the word donor a human with offspring. There are lots of words that mean a human with offspring to choose from but donor is not one of them. The most common word meaning a person with offspring is parent, mother or father; other lesser used words that also mean a person with offspring are progenitor, ancestor, antecedent, originator, source and creator. The most common way to refer to someone’s offspring is to call them their children, their kids, or their sons/daughters. Less common terms that are equally accurate for referring to a person’s offspring would be to call them their descendants or young, or brood, or spawn or progeny. The common term for the relationship between a person’s offspring is brothers and sisters or secondarily, siblings, maternal or paternal siblings or half siblings. The term cousins or diblings or ‘People who share the same donor’ or ‘like distant relatives’ is not the common term for the relationship between two first generation descendants of the same individual. So what you are playing off as being a matter of personal preference is in fact just plain wrong if your speaking English and expect to be understood. If your speaking English and you are hoping not to be understood or rather to leave the wrong impression in someone’s mind because you prefer your version of reality to the truth, then your lying and know that everyone who speaks English and is told your qualifiers will know your lying even if they say nothing about it.
Plenty of people refuse to use the term father to describe a man whose not raising his offspring because they believe that the title should only be used to refer to good fathers that take care of children (their own or someone else’s). My mom went around telling people I was 5 until I was 10 so that I could ride the bus for free and get into movies for half price and when she was busted she’d say that she did not think of me as being 10 because I was not as tall as other 10 year olds. In her mind it was not really a lie be because I took up about the same amount of space a five year old would. This small white lie had no traumatic impact on me like it would have had I been told to refer to my father as a donor, she was lying and I knew it. She was expecting me to lie and I knew it. I like to think of myself as a size three but my dress says size 5. My drivers license says 110 when I really weigh 120. That guy over there tells his wife his mistress is just a friend and Thursdays are my Saturdays because I’m off that day. We are not really allowed to make up our own definitions and still have people think we are telling the truth anymore than we can expect that our teacher would mark our spelling test correct if we were making up our own way to spell those words.
I understand that people who are raising a donor’s children are doing all the work and really wanted to become parents and they resent the implication that the donor would be referred to as anything other than a donor when he had no intention of taking care of his kids. But remember they gave up a cell and then they gave up a kid when they became a biological parent. They became a parent when their offspring was born and everyone in their family gained a kin relationship of their own to that kid whether they raise them or had a relationship with the other parent does not alter their kinship. This may offend people it may upset them and they can say that this is biological essentialism until the cows come home but that won’t alter the language that other people and the kid are speaking and won’t change the common understanding of the words being used incorrectly. If you don’t use the common terms and common meanings to describe the kid in relation to their relatives regardless of them being absent from their lives you will be lying and it’s a bad way to try and tell them the truth.
If you are too uncomfortable to really tell the truth with the correct words and be straightforward about it then why say anything at all? The results if you tell them early and often using the wrong words are kids that will think the people raising them are too insecure to admit the truth. They will think that the people raising them are ashamed of the truth and are embarassed of their lack of relatedness to them and are jelous of the fact that despite not raising them their father or mother will always be their father or mother and their relatives will always be their maternal or paternal relatives. If they are told the truth using the wrong words they will learn that the people raising them believe that parenthood and children can be earned with effort and we all know what can be earned can be bought – this line of effort based thinking about parenthood objectifies children and makes their identities and relatives disposable at the whim of whoever thinks they ‘earned’ the title by raising the kid even if they bought their way into that roll.
I’ve been going round with Olivia at DCN about this lately and she literally wrote the book on telling. Her views mirrored in this post are not popular with donor offspring because its all still a lie when you don’t use the correct words. She use to think her daughter was perfectly OK with the scripted way Olivia has tought others to tell, but it turns out now she says her feelings about it are a bit more complicated than she’d let on previously. (See her current post)
Either tell the truth or don’t tell the truth but don’t go around aspousing how important honesty is when you can’t even articulate what it is that your trying to be honest about. Stop referring to what needs to be told as their conception or their begining or their biological origins because it is not in their past like you wish it was. The absense of their parent and relatives occurrs for them every day of their life over and over again until at some point, hopefully, with luck the absense will end and they’ll be acknowledged as a member of their own family outside the family that raised them. It is not the past but the current that you need to talk to them about and be compassionate about and empathetic about. It’s true there is no way of knowing how a person will feel about the absense of one of their parents but one need only compare it to the presence of the other parent to have it be evident that they are getting less than they are supposed to from them. Don’t think anyone can ever replace a person in any kind of relationship. You can’t just pick someone else and say that they are the father now and expect the kid not to be aware that they should not have needed someone else if their father had done what he was supposed to. Please do contemplate what your telling and try hard to really be honest if that is your goal. If the goal is simply to not have any secrets and make this absence of one parent “no big deal” your motivations are not honesty out of concern but normalizing and brain washing into conformance for purposes of control.
Are you a donor child? Did your birth mother not show you love? I don’t understand why you sound so angry with people who have difficulty getting pregnant and decide to use technology to have a family. People who sell their egg and sperm are not parents. They are biologically tied to you. But they don’t define you. You are so much more. Situations and circumstances also create who you are. If your genetic father is a rapist or a murderer that doesn’t mean you are designated to be a criminal. Look in the mirror. You can forge your own path in life.
You want honesty from your parents. Sometimes people think they are doing their best and make wrong decisions. Don’t hold it against them. This will destroy you inside.
By a miracle we are born, and we should be happy to be experiencing this wonderful world. So many of us have ‘bad’ childhoods and we learn to love and share that love. If you don’t you will waste your life blaming others for you not having a ‘perfect’ life. Celebrate being different.
Be happy you are here in this moment. It doesn’t matter if you are adopted, donor or genetically linked to your parents – Children always have image problems. I grew up wishing I was adopted so I could get away from my parents. We all have childhood issues. Learn to love yourself.
But don’t be so judgemental and instead embrace the knowledge that you are special. And I am not dismissing your feelings. I’m trying to tell you that you must find peace within yourself. Everybody does.
i believe we must also address/explain the perception of a “normal family”. children tend to compare themselves to their friends’ parents/setup. We started to explain that not all children have both parents or both parents do not live in the same house. Also show adults who were adopted and show them they are like any of us (not necessarily normal). Thus she can understand that she is just different not that something is wrong, but lucky
Louise, I agree that one of the best things parents can do is broaden the idea of family for our children. Creating a Family has a list of terrific kids’s books that do just that. https://creatingafamily.org/adoption/adoptionsuggestedbooks/
Telling children they should feel “lucky” or “grateful” imposes that belief on them. It invalidates their actual feelings.