How to Talk with Your Child About Their Donor Assisted Conception

Written by Teresa Villegas and Bernard Villegas MD

Some of you may know someone, or perhaps you yourself, have gone through the emotional journey of infertility and taken the steps to conceive a family through assisted reproduction. And, some of you may know someone or yourself, who had to go a step further, and use the help of a third-party donor such as a sperm donor or an egg donor, an embryo donor or a surrogate gestational carrier to conceive and build the family you have today.

For families who chose the path of assisted reproduction with donor conception, eventually come to the second biggest decision they will have to make. The decision to tell or not to tell your family and your child about their donor origins. Our family is one example of a family who used the help of a donor to build our family. Telling and talking about it was something we knew we had to acknowledge and share with our family – but how, and when?

The thought of explaining to others your personal and private experiences of how you built your family can leave one feeling fearful, defensive and vulnerable. Very few parents have no anxieties at all about telling. Even those most committed to openness like we are, experienced nervousness and uneasy feelings before starting to talk about it with close family and friends.

It’s especially enhanced if you have multiples, as many curious outsiders will comment and ask questions like “Do twins run in your family?” Contrary to many mothers of multiples that I know, I actually liked it when people asked me this. I saw it as an opportunity and an invitation to tell the truth and to inform them how infertility is more common than people realize. “No, they don’t run in my family. We had infertility issues and had to get help. Multiple births are common in assisted reproduction, do you know anyone who has been through this too?”

Infertility awareness is growing. Resolve.org states that infertility affects 7.3 million people in the U.S. This gure represents 12% of women of childbearing age, or 1 in 8 couples. (2002 National Survey of Family Growth). People take it for granted that being able to conceive as a young adult is a given, and putting o having children until later in your life is easily achievable. However, A couple of ages 29-33 with a normal functioning reproductive system has only a 20-25% chance of conceiving in any given month (National Women’s Health Resource Center). After six months of trying, 60% of couples will conceive without medical assistance. (Infertility As A Covered Benet, William M. Mercer, 1997) That means that 40% of these couples will be trying longer to conceive, and may eventually need assistance.

With very few exceptions, it has been repeatedly stated by professionals and families that in the interests of children and their families, are best served by children growing up with the knowledge that they are not genetically related to one of (or both if an embryo donor was used) of their parents. Some of the reasons include:

• Secrets in families are damaging.
• Adoption has taught us a great deal about how children feel in families where there are genetic secrets.
• Children often sense there is a secret; and sense there is “something wrong.”
• Children who sense there is something wrong in their family usually assume it is about them and assume the worst, causing them feel bad about themselves.
• Secrets almost never stay secrets forever.
• When secret information finally comes out, the feeling of betrayal can be overwhelming.
• Feelings of betrayal in families often lead to issues of trust.

If you decide to start a family dialogue, one option is to begin to tell your immediate family first, and then your child… practice, practice, practice while your infant is growing for the first two years. Your thoughts, words and feelings will build confidence and your level of comfort with the ideas of telling will also be growing.

How much do you want to tell, and who you want to tell will be determined by your comfort level. Secrecy was once a standard practice in adoption and donor insemination, and has shifted toward an attitude of openness. Feelings of shame and humiliation associated with the inability to have a genetically related child often emerge. If fear and shame is at the root of keeping the truth from your child about his/her origins, there is much emotional work to do before telling. When I was going through this, I remembered a quote I once read before I was a parent, that helped to strengthen my courage in life: “I fill myself up with love, and go out into the world. If others judge me poorly, that’s their path. If I choose to accept their judgement, that’s my path.”

Putting aside deeply held fears and anxieties for the sake of your child will be rewarded with feelings of relief once you have started telling your story. More often than not, children pay very little attention to what is being said and move onto something else more interesting to them. Our children have no assumptions about what being donor conceived might mean. They are starting out in life and deserve the opportunity to be proud of who they are knowing they are loved and wanted. When children reach the age of middle school and their science and biology class presents them with genetic factual information such as their familys’ blood types and how is it possible that their blood type doesn’t match with one or both parents, you’ll be happy that they heard the truth from you rst. Your forward thinking and preparedness in talking with them early on, building a foundation of trust and honesty with you wont be undermined by a science biology class.

In researching and working with psychologists, counselors, endocrinologists, embryologists, a donor agency and infertility professionals, along with parents like us, we have learned a lot. And there is an overwhelming consensus that early disclosure to your child is the best advise. We especially like what Dr. Madeline Licker Feingold, a psychotherapist and reproductive councilor, who says “Speaking about third-party reproduction casually, early and often normalizes it. It makes the information simply a part of the family story.”

Five Steps to Talking to Your Child About Their Donor Conceived Birth

1.) Let Go of Your Genetic Dream Family ~ You must first let go of any dreams you have had or may still be holding onto about conceiving a child with yours and your partners’ genes combined. This is heartbreaking for most couples, and it’s normal to experience this grief. Ideally, before a couple decides to move forward with making any decisions about having a child with an egg donor or sperm donor, or an embryo donor, they must grieve the loss of the child they were not able to conceive together. If you have already brought your child into your family, and have not told them yet, this subtle, yet necessary step may be part of what might be holding you back from comfortably telling.

2.) Evaluate Your Beliefs About Family ~ People have different beliefs about what it means to be a family. What does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to be a father? Evaluating or re-evaluating your beliefs of what family means to you can be an evolving, insightful and meaningful way to come to understand yourself and your decisions. Although you may have experienced a loss of having a genetic link to your child, doesn’t mean that you define parenthood or family based on the genetic makeup of your child. Maybe you discover a belief that you had taken on earlier in your life that wasn’t really yours, but was someone else’s, or a belief you once held that doesn’t serve you now. Perhaps you discover that love, commitment and shared values are the foundation of a family.

3.) Affirm The Donor ~ Regardless of whether you chose to have an open relationship with the donor or have an anonymous relationship with the donor, they will forever remain a presence in yours and your child’s life. Something that intended parents know about the donor for sure, and something that will play a part in your child’s development are: your feelings about the donor. Your donor will not disappear from your thoughts or feelings. How could they not? Their DNA is part of the physiology of your child, and In the course of parenting, thinking about them is unavoidable. Because the donor will remain in your awareness, and because how you think and feel about the donor will affect your child, it would be a good idea to embrace them wholly. Based on their profile when you selected them, there must have been traits that you liked in them and some that you can personally identify with. Think about this person, and imagine how you would be able to answer questions such as “mommy, why did you choose her?” or “Daddy why did you choose him?” . The donor is part of your child’s identity and having positive feelings about them will support healthy identity development.

4.) Tell Your Child ~ Parents who choose to disclose want to avoid secrets and to be sure their children
find out accurate information from them and not others. Generally, it is not conception the parents are communicating about as much as the unique path by which their child has entered their lives. Thus, the intent is for parents to begin to practice talking about the presence of the other people in that child’s life to whom they may be genetically related, normalize it as it is, a basic fact about their life, before the child is old enough to ask questions. Infancy to age seven is a huge developmental stage for children. According to experts, the ideal time to start the process is before the age of five. However, if because of circumstances or by choice, that have led parents to tell their child later in life, can still be done well with the right guidance.

5.) Embrace Your Child’s Curiosity ~ When your child learns about their donor origins, they may be curious about the donor and wonder and ask questions such as “What are they like?” What do they look like?” As your child grows, they may ask more mature questions regarding things like “Why did they donate?” “Do they have children?” Research shows that donor conceived people are inquisitive about their donor origins even when they experience positive parent-child relationships. Curiosity will continue and evolve and they will look to you to help them make sense of it all.

Many families use children’s picture books to begin the conversation. One of our favorite children’s books about how all families are different is “The Family Book” by Todd Parr. When we first looked for a children’s book about third-party donor conception we didn’t find any existing that had what we were looking for: science and the possibility of a multiple birth. So we decided to write and illustrate our own children’s book titled “How We Became a Family”.

Throughout the 3 year process of writing this book, we have gathered valuable professional and personal information and resources we’d like to offer and share with other parents about how to talk with your child on our blog www.HowWeBecameaFamily.com. We give examples of the language we’ve used, and what others have shared. Please join us on this journey. We are all in this world together to learn how to communicate better with ourselves and with our children. Sharing our experiences and learning from others helps to bring more understanding, acceptance, and empathy toward each other, and builds on a vision for a more compassionate world for us and for our children.

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