Four fair-minded reasons to tell your child about donor conception from the start

Recently, the news has brought us two surprising stories about how DNA companies are connecting people in unexpected ways. “From Strangers to Family” in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (4/8/2018) tells the story of four people who are connected by genetics due to affairs and the secrecy surrounding them. Imagine how you would feel if your parent told you on their deathbed that they were not “really” your mother or father. The information itself can be tolerated. The secrecy about it can be very destructive to people and lead to unresolved feelings of betrayal and curiosity.

The second story is about how a young woman found out that she is genetically related to her parents’ fertility doctor. Closely. Like, he donated his own sperm and never told the parents, lying to them that they had worked with a young anonymous sperm donor. Holy crap! This is a double whammy. Neither parents nor the child knew the truth.

Both of these stories demonstrate that telling your child about being born from donor conception is becoming more of an urgent reality. DNA testing and the unexpected results make telling children about donor conception crucial. This relates to the use of donor eggs, donor sperm, or donor embryos. Whose information is it, anyway? Before a child is born, the information belongs to intended parents. After that child is born, though, it becomes the information of the child and the parents. Here are four fair-minded reasons to tell your child about donor-conception:

  • It’s about fairness and what a child has a right to know about their own life.

It is an interesting moment when you realize that it is no longer just about you. This one is about you AND your child. One of the first acts of parenting is anticipating what will be best for your child. This covers the waterfront from diapers, to clothing, to schooling, to their experiences. It is a moment of awe, sweetness, and responsibility. Talking about donor conception begins now, in your mind and heart. Trade places with your child for a moment. If you were your child, what would you want to know? How would you want to be told about the remarkable way in which you came into the world? Transparency and honesty are always better than secrecy. I understand that you may be concerned about others’ opinions about donor conception and how that will affect you and your child.  Put your energy into your child’s needs first. You can decide the level of transparency and boundaries with others later. What we absolutely do NOT want is for your uncle or your neighbor to tell your child about their special story.

  • You get to craft the narrative in the way that is best for your child. Ultimately, this is a story of sorrow turned into opportunity, love, and the kindness of others. It is common for children to ask about the day that they were born. This is an opportunity to talk about the moment they were loved in mind and heart. Children like to help others and they love stories about helping. I and other members of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine Mental Health Professional Group suggest that you start telling the story very early in a child’s life and keep telling. Let the story breathe and grow. As Marna Gatlin, founder of Parents Via Egg Donation, says, “Our goal in telling children early and often is that this is something we don’t want them to look back on and remember that ‘Mommy and Daddy told me at our Fourth of July barbecue about an egg donor.’ We just want this to be something they always know about themselves. “

There are wonderful talking and telling books for donor-conceived children. This is a slow reveal. Your first telling is one of many. As your child grows and understands more things about the world, you can add more information. It may be you adding the information, and it may be your child asking for more information. This is an open invitation to talk and discover things together.  You will cover the same ground many times. That’s okay. Marna Gatlin adds, “The more normal you make it, the more normal it is.”

  • Children are smart and they figure things out on their own. Children tune into things in ways that adults may be blind to. They are curious. They ask a lot of questions. Repeat, A LOT of questions. They keep asking questions until they get answers. What might a donor-conceived child want to know? Who do I look like? Why am I so good on the guitar or so athletic, but my parents don’t do either? There are specific situations that happen later, like finding out about genetics and blood types, that cannot be fudged. It is better to lead the conversation, to be the open, smart, loving parent, than to have to play catch-up and apologize later for an unnecessary sin of omission.
  • It doesn’t feel good to keep a secret from someone you love. This seems self-evident. Secrecy comes from fear and maybe shame about the need to use donor conception in the first place. Secrecy breeds guilt, shame, and apologies that may never quite cut it. As a rule, children have an innate belief that their parents are trustworthy and honest. Children don’t like to be like to be lied to any more than adults do. Give your child the gift of a shame-free family. (Here’s a hint: adults like that, too!)

If you are struggling with how to tell the story, I understand.  This is a new activity. We are all learning about what it means to be donor-conceived, as openness is the way forward.  Do your reading online, on Facebook, or in books about donor-conception.  Check in with your partner and with your own mind and heart as you craft a story you can feel good about sharing.  You can also come see me or other mental health professionals who specialize in family-building using donor conception. Think about this as an opportunity to help your child.  Remember, it’s also about fairness, love, and helping.

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